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Casualties of Passchendaele: Staff Nurse Nellie Spindler

Monday 21 August marks 100 years since Staff Nurse Nellie Spindler died during the Third Battle of Ypres. Here is more about the heroic nurse who is the only woman among more than 10,000 men in the CWGC’s second largest cemetery in Belgium.

Staff Nurse Nellie Spindler

Died: 21 August 1917

Age: 26

One of only two female casualties of the Great War buried in Belgium.

Nellie Spindler was born in Wakefield, Yorkshire, in September 1891, to George and Elizabeth. George was a Sergeant, and later Inspector in the local police force. Nellie was the oldest of two daughters born to the Spindlers.

Nellie entered the nursing profession before the war. In 1911, she was a hospital nurse at the City Fever Hospital, Wakefield, and later transferred to the Township Infantry in Leeds and then Whittington Military Hospital in Litchfield.

Nellie joined the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service and in May 1917, travelled to France. Here Nellie was initially stationed at the Stationary Hospital in Abbeville, before being transferred to No. 44 Casualty Clearing Station (CCS) which in July 1917 moved to Brandhoek, Belgium.

No.44 CCS specialised in abdominal, chest and thigh wounds which needed urgent treatment and so was stationed relatively close to the frontlines. Though around five miles from the frontlines, Brandhoek was within range of the larger German guns, and with its railway sidings and munitions dumps was the target of frequent German shelling.

On 21 August 1917, the hospital was shelled all day and at 11am Nellie was hit along with four other nurses by an exploding shell. Struck in the back or chest (the accounts differ), Nellie soon became unconscious as the hospital staff desperately tried to stanch her wounds but to no avail. Nellie died just 20 minutes later in the arms of a fellow nurse.

One of Nellie’s colleagues, Sister Kate Luard, gave an account of the incident in a letter home.

Thursday, August 23rd. No. 10 Sta. St. Omer

"I’m afraid you’ll be very disappointed, but we are to re-open on the same spot so Leave is off.

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.”

Orders came that the CCS at Brandhoek was to be evacuated, 321 patients, the staff and Nellie Spindler’s body were taken to Lijssenthoek. Nellie was buried, with full military honours the next day. The ‘Last Post’ was sounded and it is thought that more than 100 officers, four generals and the Surgeon-General attended the funeral. She is buried at CWGC Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery – the only woman among more than 10,000 men. Her headstone bears the inscription: