ALISTAIR, PEARL AND LAURIER FRASER
On Aug. 5, 1914, the day after Canada, along with the rest of the British Empire, went to war against Germany, Alistair Fraser, a 28-year-old barrister, volunteered to serve. Just weeks later, his 29-year-old sister Pearl signed up to be a military nurse. They were two of the five children of the late Duncan Cameron Fraser, a former lieutenant-governor of Nova Scotia. Reporting as Lieutenant Alistair Fraser and Sister Pearl Fraser, the brother and sister joined the first Canadian contingent that set sail for Europe from Gaspé, Que., on Oct. 3.
Also on board Sister Fraser’s ship were Minnie Follette, 29, from Port Greville, N.S., and Alexina Dussault, a 39year-old Montrealer who had lied about her birth date because nursing sisters could not enlist after age 38.
Sister Fraser was under no illusion about what lay ahead. “General impression seemed to be that war will be long and hard,” she wrote in her diary, two days after shipping out.
While Alistair Fraser and his fellow troops trained in Britain, Sisters Fraser and Dussault joined No. 2 Stationary Hospital, the first Canadian unit on French soil. As fall turned into a wet, grey winter, they treated shrapnel wounds, bullet wounds, chest wounds, frozen feet. “The men who have come in during Jan say the ground is covered with the dead and that during December and this month very few have been buried,” Sister Fraser wrote in her diary in early 1915. “Some are swollen as big as horses.”
Though the sisters were not on the front line, their work exacted a brutal toll. Sister Follette had to be ad- mitted to hospital for what her personnel file described as “nervous exhaustion” – what today might be deemed post-traumatic stress disorder. “This nursing sister is suffering from the strain of constant duty,” a medical board concluded.
For Sister Fraser, anguish came from worrying about Alastair, at the front with the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. “All day it is OK but at night I can’t sleep,” she wrote in her diary in June. “My mind is on him all the time. If the night is wet I wonder if he is under cover … if his life is spared … nothing else will matter.”
Alistair Fraser would indeed be wounded, slightly, the following month. Promoted to captain by the end of the year, then to acting major, he was put in command of a company of the 48th Highlanders, and was twice wounded leading his troops in battle at Vimy Ridge in April, 1917. Struck by bullets through an upper arm and a thigh, he was put on sick leave after a medical board found that he was “much debilitated.”
He returned to France in the spring of 1918, with a prestigious appointment as aide-de-camp to Arthur Currie, the commander of the Canadian Corps. The post started on March 3. At dawn the next day, Alistair and Pearl’s younger brother, Lieutenant Laurier Fraser, 22, was killed when the Germans shelled his unit, the 16th Battalion. Alistair relinquished his post and went on leave.
By June, Pearl Fraser and sisters Dussault and Follette were among the nurses on HMHS Llandovery Castle. Carrying wounded soldiers back to Canada, the hospital ship was southwest of Ireland when a German submarine torpedoed it on the night of June 27, killing 234. One survivor, Sergeant Arthur Knight, recounted that he had made it onto a lifeboat with the nursing sisters but it was then sucked under by the sinking ship. “I saw some of the sisters pitched out and that was the last of the boat as far as I am aware,” he told reporters afterward.
A British navy officer, Kenneth Cummins, was on a troopship that sailed by, days later. In a 2004 interview with historian Max Arthur, he recalled seeing “bodies of women and nurses, floating in the ocean, having been there some time. Huge aprons and skirts in billows, which looked almost like sails because they’d dried in the hot sun.”