The Globe and Mail (BC Edition) - - FOLIO -

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.”


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