The WW1 nurse who died in the line of duty on British soil
Published on 9 November 2023
A Scottish nurse who died just weeks before Armistice Day would have likely survived if she was deployed to France, it is claimed.
Helena Stewart Bennet was posted to a German Prisoner of War camp hospital at Oswestry in Shropshire on 30 September, 1918.
There was an outbreak of influenza and pneumonia and tragically the 30-year-old fell ill and died on 18 October – 24 days before an agreement to end the fighting was signed.
Miss Bennet served with Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service as a staff nurse - part of the British Army - and trained at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary.
Described as an "unsung heroine", she worshipped at the Parish Church of St Cuthbert in Princes Street Gardens and she is the only woman to be commemorated on the wall of the Memorial Chapel.
Parish minister Rev Peter Sutton will honour her memory, along with the other men named on the walls – 156 of them – who died during the First World War during a special service to mark Remembrance Sunday.
He said he found Miss Bennet's story poignant and compelling because her parents begged her not to go to the Western Front, which was one of the main theatres of war.
Mr Sutton, a former soldier, said: "Her death is one of the saddest of all because she never served overseas, never witnessed the horrors of the trenches first-hand yet saw the consequences and died in the UK just weeks after enlisting.
"She was a young woman originally from Arbroath in Angus who qualified as a nurse and wanted to do her bit.
"It was coming to the end of the war and her parents said ‘whatever you do, please don't go out to France because we will never see you again'.
"Their wish came true because she was posted to a camp in Shropshire to care for German prisoners of war.
"Tragically, influenza struck the camp, literally a few weeks before Armistice Day, and she, along with many German soldiers, died.
"The irony is she probably would have been safer had she gone to France.
"I think the beautiful thing about her story is that she is an individual, despite the concerns of her parents, which are fully understandable, who decided that she had to go and do her duty.
"As a nurse, she had already decided what sort of person she wanted to be and like modern day healthcare workers, particularly during the pandemic, is a unsung heroine."
Mr Sutton said the story reminded him of Ruth from the Bible who said "where you go, I will go, your God will be my God and wherever you die, I will die".
"It is one of unstinting service and I think in these really uncertain times as war rages around the world, it gives us fresh appreciation and hope that we must reach out to our fellow human beings and support one another, whoever we are," he said.
"She was someone who wanted to serve and look after people in their time of greatest need and we try to mirror her example at St Cuthbert's today with our mission outreach work to vulnerable people in the west end of Edinburgh."
Mr Sutton, a former captain with the Black Watch, said the conversation Miss Bennet likely had with her parents before she enlisted resonated powerfully with him.
"I find her story so poignant because one of my five daughters is currently serving with a NGO in Kyiv, Ukraine which is still in the grip of war due to Russian aggression.
"Like Helena's parents, I had that conversation with my daughter - ‘you must do what you think is right for you but stay safe, stay well'.
The Memorial Chapel is the oldest part of the existing church building and crime writer Agatha Christie married her second husband, Max Mallowan, there in a low-key ceremony in 1930.
Mr Sutton said: "None of the names etched on the walls have ranks or status attached to them because they're all of equal importance in terms of their sacrifice.
"It is rather special to have a female name there because there are very few World War One memorials in Scotland that include the names of women.
"Given the tumultuous state of the world, Remembrance Day is as important as ever as we pray that people learn the lessons of the past.
"Lest we forget for with war all is lost."
Miss Bennet is remembered with honour at Arbroath Western Cemetery, a Commonwealth War Graves site.