Somewhere in France

Somewhere in France

Monday, April 5, 2010

Nursing Sister Mary Agnes McKenzie

I apologize for being a day late with my blog--the holiday and family demands threw me off my blogging schedule. Today I am writing about NS Mary Agnes McKenzie. McKenzie died on June 27, 1918, in a particularly infamous chapter in the history of the First World War.

McKenzie was born on April 28, 1880 (sometimes listed as 1878) in Toronto, Ontario. Her parent's were Mary and Thomas McKenzie, Scottish immigrants to Canada. She had two brothers (Donald and Walter)and one sister (Christina). She took her nursing studies at the Rochester General Hospital and graduated in 1903. McKenzie was Presbyterian, and at the time of her enlistment on January 31, 1916, she was living at 290 McPherson Avenue in Toronto. She had experience as a military nurse, having served with the Canadian Army Medical Corps in 1911.

Mary's first posting overseas was to the Ontario Military Hospital at Orpington, Kent. However, she must have wanted to return home for a visit in 1918 or simply wanted a change. For whatever reason, she was serving on the British hospital ship the Llandovery Castle in June 1918. That month, the Castle was returning to England after bringing convalescent soldiers back to Canada. Mary was on that return voyage along with 164 officers and men and 80 Canadian army medical staff and 13 other Canadian nurses.

At 10:00 pm, the German submarine U-86 got the ship within its sights. The Castle was plainly marked as a Red Cross ship, with special lights beaming. Despite this, the captain of the U-86 chose to torpedo the unarmed ship. All of the nurses were killed; only 24 people survived the sinking (only one lifeboat got away; the rest were pursued and rammed by the sub). Survivors spent 36 hours at sea before they were rescued. One witness recounted that "I saw some of the sisters pitched out (of the lifeboat), and that was the last of the boat as far as I am aware unless what I caught a glimpse of later was the same boat bottom upward. I went down and on coming up was struck on the head and dazed by a heavy bit of wreckage." (Globe, July 5, 1918). The ship went down 116 miles from Fastnet Rock.

Mary is remembered at the Halifax Memorial, Nova Scotia. I'll have more on the Llandovery Castle in future blogs as I remember the other 13 nurses who died when it was sunk. If you know anything about any of the nurses who died on the Castle, please don't hesitate to share it with me and I'll post it on my blog.


  1. Hi Debbie,

    I am preparing to write an article about Mary Agnes McKenzie for the Rochester Medical Museum & Archive, so I was thrilled to find your recent blog post about her.

    I'd love to exchange notes about Mary with you. Please feel free to leave a message on my Illuminated History blog ( or email me directly at

    Thanks! I look forward to hearing from you.

    Vicki Profitt

  2. I just chanced upon your blog during a search for 'Gladys Wake'. The blog is excellent and very commendable. I've just posted an advisory for my fellow members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force Study Group to pay attention:

    I have two Flickr sets devoted to Nursing Sister Catherine MacLean of Cape Breton that you might have some interest in:

    Thank you for your first-rate work.

    Alan MacLeod
    Victoria BC

  3. I am indexing war memorials in Toronto schools. Currently working on Rosé Avenue School, 675 Ontario Street, Toronto, M4X 1N4. The WWI memorial lists under the heading: In Grateful Memory of Those WhomDied: "Nan" M.A. McKenzie Nurse. This is likely your person listed at her public (elementary) school. All names, some photos, a brief school history, etc. will eventually appear on our website: Martha Jackson, Project Coordinator