Charlotte Lillie Davis, Nurse, H.S. ‘Brittanic’

Is most reliable in her work and an extremely kind and capable nurse.

The U.K. National Archives has opened up some of its digital content for free while we are all at home. I decided to do a little searching and hit pay dirt with a full military file for my 3rd great aunt, Charlotte Lillie Davis, a nurse with the Queen Alexandra Imperial Military Nursing Service Reserve. I’ve written about her before here, how she never married and what may have led to that decision. I knew Charlotte Lillie Davis served as a nurse in various military hospitals during World War One, but I had no idea of exactly where she served or that she may have served on the ill fated H.S. Brittanic.

Locating her complete military nursing file was a bonus which filled in a lot of missing facts. The file is 63 pages long and full of official documents, including telegrams written back and forth from Charlotte to the War Office.

Post Office Telegraph addressed to the Matron in Chief, War Office, from Davis, of Wathondearne, Yorkshire.

It’s always wonderful to learn about the character of our ancestors and I loved reading that Charlotte was consistently referred to as a kind, compassionate, trustworthy, thoughtful and conscientious person. She trained at Beckett Hospital in Barnsley, Yorkshire, England and this recommendation from the Matron was written in 1901 and is part of Charlotte’s military file.

Recommendation letter from the Matron at Beckett Hospital.

Serving aboard the H.S. “Brittanic”

In August 1916, Charlotte was working as a district colliery nurse in Yorkshire when she noticed an article in the Nursing Mirror desperately seeking nurses to help take care of the wounded soldiers being evacuated from parts of Europe. Charlotte applied and received a telegram asking her to report to Southampton, London, on 23 September 1916 to the hospital ship Brittanic.

Hospital Ship Brittanic, 1916. Photo from Wikipedia. Public domain.

Two months later, on 21 November 1916, the Brittanic was on route to pick up wounded soldiers near the Gulf of Athens, when a large explosion was felt. Despite the Captain and crews’ attempt to mitigate the damage, too much of the ship flooded and it began to sink. The Captain, in an attempt to run the ship aground on a nearby island, kept the ship moving forward as fast as possible. Some of the crew attempted to launch life boats only to have those sucked into the ships’ propellers, killing all on board. [1]

The 500 strong medical crew either climbed into the life boats launched once the ship had stopped moving or swam for their lives as the ship began to sink. 30 people died, most of whom were on the life boats sucked into the propellers. Over 1100 were rescued, Charlotte among them. At the time it was unknown what had caused the explosion. Most thought it likely to have been a torpedo launched from a German submarine. The wreck of the Brittanic was discovered in 1975, and recent diving expeditions have located what appear to be thick chains which may have tethered mines to the bed of the sea, which may have caused the explosion.

Another nurse, Violet Jessop, who incredibly also survived the sinking of the Titanic (Brittanic’s sister ship) four years earlier, shared her experience of the sinking:

“She dipped her head a little, then a little lower and still lower. All the deck machinery fell into the sea like a child’s toys. Then she took a fearful plunge, her stern rearing hundreds of feet into the air until with a final roar, she disappeared into the depths, the noise of her going resounding through the water with undreamt-of violence….” [2]

The Western Front Association has some interesting historical photographs of the ship and the survivors, and also a list of all those who perished.

Charlotte continued to nurse throughout 1917 and 1918, serving in both France and Italy.

Have you had a chance to explore the free digital records available at the National Archives? I also located the World War One war diary for my grandfather’s unit, the 2nd Tyneside Scottish, attached to the 21st Northumberland Fusiliers. A whopping file of over 200 pages!

[1] Britannic, sister ship to the Titanic, sinks in Aegean Sea, History.com https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/britannic-sinks-in-aegean-sea

[2] The Loss of the Brittanic, 21 November 1916, The Western Front Association, https://www.westernfrontassociation.com/world-war-i-articles/the-loss-of-the-britannic-21-november-1916/

9 thoughts on “Charlotte Lillie Davis, Nurse, H.S. ‘Brittanic’

  1. Very interesting to see details of women’s war service. And I liked that you were able to find more about the sinking in another woman’s records. This is sometimes how we must piece together their experiences.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow, you hit pay dirt with that find! It’s so wonderful to find information that fills in the gaps “between dashes,” and lets us see what an ancestor’s life was truly like. Thanks for sharing a great story, kindredpast!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Congratulations! These are wonderful finds — and so generous of the UK National Archives to make these records available during C19 quarantine.

    Liked by 1 person

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