She was a selfless nurse who risked her life to help wounded soldiers on the frontline during the Battle of Passchendaele.
And on Monday, military personnel, hospital staff and the niece of Wakefield’s courageous Nellie Spindler will take part in a poignant ceremony at St James’ Hospital’s chapel in Leeds, to mark 100 years to the day since her death in Belgium.
Wakefield-born Nellie, who worked at St James’ in Leeds before the war, was the only woman to be buried with full military honours at Passchendaele after her field hospital was shelled relentlessly during the fighting. Her commemoration comes just weeks after mourners across the world huddled together to remember the hundreds of thousands of men killed in the Third Battle of Ypres.
Nellie’s niece Vera Sheard said that Monday will also be a chance to remember the role played by brave women in the First World War, who made the ultimate sacrifice.
“It is important we never forget that in the world of brave men, a number of very brave women helped bring many of the men home again,” she told the Yorkshire Evening Post.
“In the years before equality for women many were already giving knowledge, service and their lives for the good of others.
“Nellie Spindler was one such woman who made the ultimate sacrifice.”
In a poignant tribute to Nellie’s courage, the service at the Beckett Street hospital’s chapel will conclude with a bugler sounding the Last Post at the exact time Nellie was killed one century ago. Her niece will also lay a wreath on Monday at Nellie’s memorial plaque, which serves as a lasting memory of the nurse’s bravery.
Hospital staff take part in a special service every year at the chapel to remember lost colleagues, including Nellie.
“This is a wonderful day of remembrance for my aunt,” Vera added.
“Here at St James’ they have always remembered Nellie and on behalf of all my family I would like to thank them most sincerely for the wonderful work they do and for keeping Nellie’s name alive for the future generations.”
Nellie qualified as a nurse in 1915 at St James’s - then known as Leeds Township Infirmary. As the fighting intensified, she volunteered to serve her country and joined Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service as a staff nurse.
The brave 26-year-old medic arrived in France on May 23, 1917 before being deployed to Belgium where soldiers would face horrific conditions in one of the bloodiest battles of the war. The field hospital where Nellie was stationed, serving as a specialist in abdominal wounds, lay close to the field of battle at Flanders.
On the morning of August 21, Nellie was critically wounded by shrapnel after the hospital was shelled. At 11am, she fell unconscious and, according to records, died around 20 minutes later in the arms of the sister-in-charge.
The Rev Christopher van D’Arque, deputy head of chaplaincy at Leeds Teaching Hospitals, will deliver the commemoration service on Monday in honour of Nellie.
“Standing shoulder-to- shoulder with those in harm’s way, in her life and vocation Nellie Spindler embodies the values that are an abiding constant of nursing,” he said. “Serving those who suffer with compassionate skill and courageous dedication where the need is most urgent.”
He said that “vision” for nursing is still central to the hospital trust’s values.
Nellie is the only woman to be laid to rest alongside more than 10,000 casualties of the conflict at Lijssenhoek cemetery in Belgium. Inscribed on her headstone is her serving rank: ‘Staff Nurse’.
How a song inspired by youngsters was written for a home-town heroine
The sacrifice made by Nellie, and scores of courageous nurses in the First World War, is being remembered as part of a new song.
Folk and storytelling trio Harp and a Monkey have now released a new video inspired by the work of schoolchildren in Wakefield, to mark the anniversary of Nellie’s death.
Clean White Sheets - The Nellie Spindler Song video includes music and graphics depicting the sacrifices made by nurses during the war.
Martin Purdy, the band’s frontman and a WW1 historian, said: “Recent events to mark the centenary of the opening of the Third Battle of Ypres, or Passchendaele, have focused on the soldiers, but it would seem fitting today to spare a thought for the nursing staff, many of whom – like Nellie Spindler - were never too far from danger.”
The song was inspired by the work of secondary school children from Wakefield.
Youngsters worked with Professor Christine Hallett, from Manchester University, to remember the sacrifices of their local heroine.
Mr Purdy added: “The idea of Clean White Sheets is based around the memoirs of the wounded, who would often judge how close they were to home – and safety - by how clean the sheets were. It seemed like a simple but evocative and powerful image.”