A century ago, a Yorkshire nurse became the only woman buried with full military honours at Passchendaele. Andrew Vine reports from Belgium. Picture by Mike Cowling.
NELLIE Spindler’s final letter home arrived in early August 1917, and contained a present for her sister, Lily.It was a small silver pendant, embossed with the figure of a weeping angel, a gift from a deeply religious young woman of 26 who spent what little free time she had visiting churches.
The address Nellie gave on the letter was 42 Stationary Hoop, a casualty clearing station at Abbeville, on the Belgium-French border, and the date on which she wrote in her meticulous copperplate hand was July 28. Nellie Spindler had a little more than three weeks to live before she became a unique casualty in one of history’s most grisly battles.
She is the only woman buried with full military honours alongside soldiers who died fighting for the ruined village that was to give the Third Battle of Ypres its enduring name and become a byword for the horror of the Great War – Passchendaele.
Nellie, from Wakefield, died as she had lived – tending the wounded, when shellfire hit the casualty clearing station where she had been posted. She did not have to go to war, to put herself in the extreme danger of ravaged, shell-torn Flanders, but answered the Government’s call for volunteer nurses, driven by the conviction that she should use her skills to help those who were suffering.
She had completed her training at the Leeds Township Infirmary in 1915, and it is possible that her devout Roman Catholic faith may have been a factor in her volunteering. Another factor may have been the example of public service set by her father, George Spindler, an inspector in the Wakefield City Police who had a reputation for excellent first aid skills.
And so she volunteered for Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service, spending two years as a staff nurse at the Whittington Military Hospital at Lichfield, Staffordshire, before being posted to France in May 1917.
Nellie’s grave is in Lijssenthoek Cemetery, near the town of Poperinge, along with the graves of 10,700 soldiers, both Allied and German. White flowers bloom at the foot of her headstone, and there is a picture of her, posed in the fashion of the period formally and seriously in her uniform.
The cemetery is in the most peaceful of settings, surrounded by hop fields, but in that summer of 1917 was at the heart of the Allied war effort. This was Remy Sidings, a major railhead bringing fresh troops up to the front and evacuating more than 4,000 wounded from the biggest casualty clearing station in the Ypres battlefield.
Nellie had been stationed there in readiness for a major Allied offensive as her last letter made its way through the forces’ postal system to Stanley Road, Eastmoor, Wakefield.
An intensive build-up of men and equipment was under way around her. The intention of the operation was to punch through to the coast and capture German submarine pens from where attacks were being launched on British shipping.
Three days after she wrote home, on July 31, the battle began. The following day, the heavens opened and there were four continuous days of torrential rain, turning the low-lying marshland over which the fighting raged into a vast swamp where men who were not killed by shot or shell drowned in the mud.
The hospital was overwhelmed and Nellie, a specialist in abdominal wounds, must have been stretched to the limit, even on the morning that she was killed by shellfire. Remy Sidings was about eight miles from the front line – yet still within the range of German heavy artillery, which shelled the railhead constantly and also targeted a nearby ammunition dump.
On the morning of August 21, shellfire hit the hospital. A dispatch from the British Journal of Nursing of September 8 1917 tells what happened.
“Private communications from Abbeville state that the hospital was shelled all day, that Miss Spindler was struck at 11am, became unconscious immediately and died twenty minutes later in the arms of Nurse Wood of Wakefield, which is also Miss Spindler’s native city, her father being inspector of police.
“She was given a full military funeral and the Last Post was sounded over her grave, which is quite near the hospital and will be well looked after.
“She was right in the danger zone, but while recognising it her letters were hopeful and cheery. Miss Spindler was very popular during her training, and her loss is deplored by the many friends she made who deeply sympathise with her family in their sorrow.”
A plaque commemorating Nellie was placed in the chapel of St James Hospital, in Leeds, by the city’s Board of Guardians, and her name is also carved on a nursing roll of honour in York Minster.
She is also remembered in Ypres’ In Flanders Fields Museum, where visitors can follow her story in an interactive computer presentation.
Nurses of succeeding generations, both military and civilian, have left tributes at Nellie’s grave, for although a century separates them, they are kindred spirits with a woman driven to help those in need.
And this weekend, the quiet corner of the cemetery will be the focus of attention as the battle of 100 years is remembered. As is tradition, the Last Post will signal the start of the commemorations on Sunday and will be followed by a live reading by War Horse author Michael Morpurgo at the Menin Gate of a new short story specially written for the anniversary.
The commemorations will also feature extracts from The Wipers Times, the play by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman based on the satirical trench newspaper published by British soldiers fighting on the Ypres Salient.
Images from the war will be projected onto the town’s Cloth Hall, which was famously destroyed and later rebuilt. Recordings of interviews with First World War veterans and first-hand accounts from soldiers, nurses and loved ones will also be read out and projected onto the Cloth Hall.
On Monday, thousands of descendants of the men who fought, and those with a connection to the battle, will attend a ceremony at the Tyne Cot Cemetery. Serving military personnel and descendants will read out letters and diaries from their ancestors as part of a service of remembrance.
Karen Bradley, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, said: “A century on from the horror of Passchendaele, the nation will come together to remember the sacrifice of those who were there. This battle has become synonymous with the horrific conditions of the trenches, and the futility of the war.
“It is important for us on the centenary of the battle to commemorate and remember not only those who never returned home from the Western Front, but the families and the communities they left behind.”