BALLYMENA 1914-1918

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The Drowning of Nurse Dawson

Evelina Maud Dawson, Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (Reserve). 

Photograph courtesy of Imperial War Museum - IWM (WWC H21-15) .

Evelina Maud Dawson, Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (Reserve), died in the sinking of HMHS (Hospital Ship) Salta on the 10th April 1917.  She was the daughter of the late Albert Dawson of Ballymena; in 1917 her sister resided at 27 Queen's Road, Bromley, Kent.  The Ballymena Observer (June 13th, 1917) records that E M Dawson, referred to as Evelyn rather than Evelina, was a missionary, a nurse at St Catherine’s Hospital, Cawnpore (now Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh), India for eight years before she returned to the UK on furlough.  The outbreak of WW1 saw her ‘called up’ for service in the QAIMNS (Reserve), and she served in that role at Aldershot, England and later on hospital ships, mainly in the Mediterranean area. Dawson, however, remained on the list of missionaries of the SPG and it was clearly her intention to return to India at the war’s end. However, it was not to be. 

(The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG) was a Church of England missionary organization active from the 18th century. It sent Anglican missionaries to Britain’s colonies and lobbied for a more expansive place for the Church of England in Britain’s burgeoning empire.)

HM Hospital Ship Salta, here seen in Egypt during the Great War

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The UC26, then under the command of Matthias Graf von Schmettow, was a mine laying submarine which had recently joined the Flanders Flotilla (German Imperial Navy). During its short life it made just nine patrols but was responsible for the sinking of 31 merchant ships (She damaged 5 more) and 8 warships.  It was this vessel that laid the mines that sank Salta and drowned Dawson.

UC26 had laid the fatal mines on the 9th April in the approaches to Le Havre, one of the principal harbours through which the British transported troops and supplies; it was also a key evacuation port for the wounded. The mines were spotted on the morning of the 10th April by a French patrol boat and all approaching vessels were warned of the threat.

HM Hospital Ship Salta was empty apart from a cargo of medical supplies and her crew, and she was in a convoy with Lanfranc and Western Australia. Together with an escort of destroyers, the flotilla left Southampton for Le Havre.  Salta reached the danger zone and, forewarned, stopped her engines at about 11.20 am to await clearance from Diamond, a British vessel that would clear craft for entry, open the barrage at the entrance to the harbour, and help ships to reach the port. Salta was cleared for entry and instructed to make her way along the buoy-marked corridor to her destination.  What happened next is not clear.

Captain Eastaway of HMHS Salta entered the marked channel but then unexpectedly ordered his ship to take a course further north; there is a suggestion he wanted to let other ships pass before attempting to proceed in the heavy weather. Diamond saw what was happening, warned Salta she was heading into the minefield, and Eastaway tried to retrace his course. In the rough seas, however, Salta appears to have drifted into the danger area and struck a mine. The explosion tore a hole near the Engine Room and Hold No. 3, ‘near the well deck portside aft’, as surviving Steward Frederick Ralph Richardson said. Thereafter the disaster unfolded rapidly.

Reports state that the ship listed to the starboard and sank in less than ten minutes, ½ mile north of Whistle Buoy; Richardson said it was ‘under in seven minutes’. He also gave details that make clear the nature of the passengers’ horrible fate.  He said the weather was ‘extremely bad’ and referred to ‘heavy seas’. He believed ‘only three boats got away’ and said that they were ‘swamped at once’.  Most who were on the ship and in a position to escape had to jump overboard and into the churning, freezing waters. Richardson spoke briefly to a stewardess in the water, a Miss England, but was ‘quite unable to assist her, owing to such heavy seas running at the time, that it was impossible to do anything.’ He, clinging to some flotsam for 1 ½ hours, was eventually plucked to safety by the crew of a minesweeper. Aboard, despite excellent care, he watched several men die from the effects of exposure. 

(Quotations extracted from the account of the sinking given by Steward Frederick Ralph Richardson. A full version is available at

Most bodies were not recovered, initially certainly not that of Matron Dawson.  One report states, ‘The following Casualties in the Nursing Service were reported on Monday, all those mentioned being members of Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve. MISSING, BELIEVED DROWNED: Sister T. Cruikshank, Matron E. M. Dawson, Sister E. L. Foyster, Sister G. Jones, Staff Nurse C. McAlister, Staff Nurse A. G. Mann, Staff Nurse F. Mason, Staff Nurse J. Roberts. We offer our deep sympathy to the relatives of these nurses

(Extracted from The British Journal of Nursing, 21st April 1917)  

The body of Matron Dawson was found later, as is made clear in this memo of the 28/7/17: ‘Miss Hartigan, A/Principal Matron, Etaples, reported that the body of a Nursing Sister ANSR had been washed up at Merlimont Plage (Merlimont Beach). The number on badge was 844 – name E. M. Dawson. The funeral had been arranged for the 29th – 9.30 a.m. Miss Hartigan reported that she was sending flowers for the Matron-in-Chief and Nursing Staff, and would write an account of the funeral to forward to the War Office.’ 

(Extracted from 

Matron E M Dawson's grave is in Ste Marie Cemetery, Le Havre.

The UC26 was soon to follow Salta to a watery grave.  She was an ‘unlucky’ vessel, if such a thing exists. She apparently ‘suffered from continuous defects’.  Just as her latest repairs were being completed ‘a fire broke out in a steamer in the basin at Ostend and further damaged the submarine.’ On her last voyage she, despite ‘trouble with the motors’, succeeded in ‘mining Le Havre, Ouistreham and Cherbourg; during such operations she was attacked by aircraft’. The UC26 then ‘cruised along the Southampton-Cherbourg-Havre route’, but it was a fruitless exercise.  The submarine turned towards Zeebrugge on the 8th May 1917 and hoped for more success.

She was spotted by HMS Milne on the 9th May and the UC26, ordered to dive too late by her Captain, had still her deck awash when the warship rammed her and ‘sheared through the inner pressure-hull’; the submarine ‘sank like a stone and crashed heavily on the bottom’. Mentor and Miranda joined the attack and depth charges were used to finish her off. Only two of the crew survived.  

(Quotes from The German Submarine War, 1914-18 by R H Gibson & M Prendergast, 1931, Constable & Co. Ltd, reprinted 2002 by Periscope Publishing Ltd.)

Australian Medics on HMHS Salta in Mediterranean

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The sinking of Salta was a tragedy made worse by events during the rescue of the drowning. The British patrol boat HMS P-26 also struck a mine and sank. The mine explosion left her broken into two pieces and 19 of the crew lost their lives. 

Staff on the Salta (Mediterranean Area)

Staff Salta Photograph - Staff on the deck of HMHS Salta. Nevill, G T (Mrs), fl 1976 :Photographs collected by Sister Edith Jane Austen during World War I. Ref: PA1-o-026-03-3. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

The Salta was by no means the only hospital ship sunk by mines and torpedoes but the sinking had a profound shock effect. The NZ Army Council decreed that ‘sisters’ were to be taken off hospital ships; Salta had, of course, been one of the hospital ships on which NZ and Australian nurses had served extensively, especially during the Gallipoli Campaign.