Nellie Spindler

A lot of people have visited the grave of Nellie Spindler who died in Belgium in 1917, but how many really understand what happened on the day she died? 

Nellie Spindler was born in Wakefield, Yorkshire, on the 10th August 1889. She was the eldest daughter of George and Elizabeth, had two younger sisters, Lillie and Mary, and a brother, Edward. Her father was in the police force1.  She was educated at Eastmoor Council School in Wakefield and then trained as a nurse in the Township Infirmary, Leeds, 1912-1915. She joined the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (Reserve) in November 1915 and was posted the the military hospital in Lichfield1. In May 1917 she was posted to join the British Expeditionary Force in France with No. 42 Stationary Hospital1, then building up at Amiens.

She became a staff nurse in No.44 Casualty Clearing Station (CCS), at that time located in Brandhoek, a township near Poperinge, beside the road to Ypres. There were a number of Casualty Clearing Stations grouped together. There were strong objections to Brandhoek as a location for the Clearing Stations. It was too close to the front line and was surrounded by ammunition and supply depots. What happened on the 21st August 1917 was described by Kate Luard who was the sister in charge of 32 CCS, which was alongside 44 CCS at the time of the attack, and gives this account in 'Unknown Warriors'2.

I’m afraid you’ll be very disappointed, but we are to re-open on the same spot so Leave is off. The Australians are not to go back, but we are to carry on the abdominal work alone as we did before they came up. I imagine that this week’s Push has gone well and that we’ve shoved their line back a bit, or they wouldn’t start the Hospital there again. Westhoek Ridge is ours. I don’t know about St. Julien, but we’ve done well. The ground has been hard and Tanks have been able to get going, flattening out these Pill-boxes which held us up before.

I expected [for one rash day] to be telling you all about Tuesday at home tomorrow, but must write it now. The business began about 10 a.m. Two came pretty close after each other and both just cleared us and No. 44. The third crashed between Sister E’s ward in our lines and the Sisters’ Quarters of No. 44. Bits came over everywhere, pitching at one’s feet as we rushed to the scene of the action, and one just missed one of my Night Sisters getting into bed in our Compound. I knew by the crash where it must have gone and found Sister E. as white as paper but smiling happily and comforting the terrified patients. Bits tore through her Ward but hurt no one. Having to be thoroughly jovial to the patients on these occasions helps us considerably ourselves. 

Then I came on to the shell-hole and the wrecked tents in the Sister’s Quarters at 44. A group of stricken M.O.’s were standing about and in one tent the Sister was dying. The piece went through her from back to front near her heart. She was only conscious a few minutes and only lived 20 minutes. She was in bed asleep. The Sister who shared her tent had been sent down the day before because she couldn’t stand the noise and the day and night conditions. The Sister who should have been in the tent which was nearest was out for a walk or she would have been blown to bits; everything in her tent was; so it was in my empty Ward next to Sister E. It all made one feel sick.

The episode was also captured in the War Diary of Maud McCarthy, Matron-in-Chief BEF France3, who wrote these passages:

21.08.17

Staff Nurse N. Spindler, QAIMNSR: Received telegram from OC 44 Casualty Clearing Station that this lady had been killed that morning, when the Clearing Station had been shelled by the enemy. Repeated telegram to the Matron-in-Chief, War Office, and also informed the DGMS.

24.08.17

Staff Nurse Spindler, QAIMNSR: Received letter from the Sister-in-Charge, 44 CCS, Miss Wood, QAIMNS, giving details of Miss Spindler’s death when that Clearing Station was shelled on 21st instant; this Sister was in bed when she was hit and became unconscious almost immediately, dying about 15 minutes later. Owing to the continued shelling of the Station it had to be evacuated at once, and Miss Spindler’s body was taken to the Mortuary of No.10 CCS from where the funeral took place next day, with full military honours. The Army Commander, DMS of the Army and 4 other Generals attended and as many Sisters as could be spared were also present.

25.08.17

St. Omer: Went to 10 Stationary Hospital, St. Omer, where I saw the Sister-in-Charge of 32 Casualty Clearing Station, Miss Luard, and the remainder of her Staff who had been resting for two or three days at the Mess of 10 Stationary Hospital after the recent shelling of Clearing Stations when Miss Spindler was killed. They had all rested and everyone was willing and anxious to return to the work, and the DMS of the Army had informed them that the Quarters had been made Bomb-proof – and that it was perfectly safe for them to return. The Staffs of No.44 CCS and No.3 Australian CCS were still to remain in St. Omer, having been distributed amongst the various units for accommodation for the time being; arrangements were being made for those due for leave to have it and for the remainder to go to the Convalescent Homes for rest until their units were re-established.

References

  1. The National Archives WO 399/ 7850
  2. Luanda, K., Stevens, J., & Stevens, C. (2014). Unknown warriors: the letters of Kate Luard, RRC and Bar, nursing sister in France 1914-1918. Stroud, Gloucestershire : The History Press
  3. The National Archives WO 95/ 3988-91

 


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