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Nurse Colhoun & The Bombing of Vertekop, 1917

Steff Nurse Annie Colhoun, Q.A.I., N.S., Reserve, receives the Military Medal from the king, 25 July 1917.

Vertekop, Macedonia, 1917. It was not the first time the German bombers had struck. The previous summer, when the nurses first arrived, there had been three separate air raids. But this was one was so much worse. Seventeen bombs fell on the Red Cross hospital that horrible morning and when the dust settled two nurses and four orderlies lay dead.

For Nurse Annie Rebecca Colhoun, Macedonia must have made an extraordinary contrast to her Irish childhood. Born in Londonderry in 1876, she was the third daughter of Robert Colhoun, a building contractor, and his wife Anne Walker, the daughter of a leather dealer from the Diamond on the west bank of the Foyle.

According to family tradition the Colhouns were Presbyterians who settled on Doagh Island off the Inishowen Peninsula of County Donegal in the late 17th century. In the 1860s, Robert and his brother Joseph moved to the townland of Elagh More which formed part of Derry’s county border with Donegal to its west. As Colhoun Bros., they became one of the biggest contractors in the north-west building Londonderry’s Guildhall, completed in 1890, as well as the Methodist Church on Carlisle Road and a good deal of Bogside. They also built the barracks and the Roman Catholic Church in Omagh, and added a new wing to the Lough Swilly Hotel in Buncrana.[1]

Nurse Colhoun at Lady Minto’s Hospital, circa 1914

Annie was sixteen when her father and uncle dissolved their partnership in 1892. Joseph subsequently took over the Londonderry Sawmills on Strand Road while Annie’s brother Robert took on the building firm. The Colhouns were to remain active in the construction business until at least 1961.[2]

One of seven children, Annie grew up on Derry’s Strand Road and was educated at the nearby Strand House School. Her sister Ida married William Jack, a timber merchant who had come to work for the Colhoun business. He was in his forties when he was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the 12th Battalion of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers in June 1915. Later transferred to the Royal; Irish Regiment, he was in Egypt when Allenby’s troops defeated the Turks in Palestine but appears to have been stricken with malaria and confined to the British military hospital in Cairo for most of this time.  William and Ida’s daughter Ivy Jack married Billy Trimble and was mother to the Nobel Peace Prize winner David Trimble, the first First Minister of Northern Ireland from 1998 to 2002.[3]

From school Annie went to train as a Nurse in the Tyrone County Hospital in Omagh when it opened in 1899. She was living in Omagh with twelve other nurses at the time of the 1901 Census.[4] She then went to work at the Rotunda Hospital in Dublin before taking the massive decision to emigrate to Western Canada in about 1911.

In 1913, Annie Colhoun became first matron of a small hospital established earlier that year on Salt Spring Island, one of the Gulf Islands in the Georgia Strait between Vancouver Island and the mainland coast of British Columbia. It was one of 43 hospitals, mostly rural, built in Canada at this time and funded by Lady Minto, wife of Canada’s Governor General. Annie was not only the matron, but she was also, for some time, practically the only nurse and consequently spent many long hours nursing and caring for the patients on her own. As well as her medical duties, she was constantly to be found washing dishes, cooking meals for the patients, scrubbing the floor, keeping both the kitchen stove and the hospital furnace lit, trimming wicks and cleaning chimneys on the hospital oil lamps.

A view of No.37 General Hospital in Vertekop (now Skydra), looking east, with No.36 in distance. No. 37 remained at Vertekop until it was demobilised in April 1919.

Upon the outbreak of the war, Annie returned to Europe. By June 1916, she had joined Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service. She was then sent to Macedonia to serve as a Staff Nurse to the 37th General Hospital in Vertekop (now Skydra) on the Monastir Road, about 40 miles west of Salonika.

The hospital, a tented village with approximately 1600 beds, was one of the five British hospitals on the Salonika Front assigned to Britain’s Serbian allies. The 36th General Hospital stood nearby.[5]

Many of its patients were wounded men who arrived in by railway to the train station which stood just over a mile away. The ground outside the hospital was distinctively marked with large red crosses in order to alert any passing enemy aircraft that the 37th was a hospital and that it was therefore off-limits.

On the morning of Monday 12 March 1917, a squadron of German aeroplanes bombarded the railway station at Vertekop. Three aeroplanes then broke away from the main body and flew towards the 37th General Hospital. [6] Annie Colhoun was at work in the hospital when the planes appeared overhead. She must have felt a degree of security on account of the Red Crosses so prominently displayed. And then the horror began, and the first bombs fell on the tented commune.

Nurse Mary Marshall was the first to die, pulverised when a bomb landed in the operating theatre where she was based. Chaos reigned for the next thirty minutes during which the medical officers pleaded with the nurses to take cover. However, the nurses were not willing to leave their bedridden patients unattended during such an appalling time. One of Nurse Margaret Dewar’s patients was in particular agony, so she ran to adjust his pillow and bring him some relief. It did the trick for him but as she bent over him, another explosion rocked the hospital and a fragment of the bombs casing smashed into her chest.

Nurse Colhoun

Somebody – probably Annie and Ethel Garrett – managed to carry Nurse Dewar to a bed but moments later the Glaswegian succumbed to the pain of her wound. Annie Colhoun cradled the woman in her arms and offered the ‘last gentle ministrations’ as she slipped away.[7]

During a subsequent blast, a splinter from a bomb hit Annie Colhoun. Despite the immense shock, she and Nurse Garrett remained at their posts, looking after their helpless patients while fresh bombs continued to fall. The tent where they were based was by now full of smoke and acrid fumes. When a bomb blast fractured the skull of a nearby soldier, Nurse Garrett sprang to his aid and successfully administered lifesaving first aid while fourteen more bombs fell within 60 to 80 yards of her.[8]

The consequent fire raged for several hours before they brought it under control. Despite their intense exhaustion, Nurses Colhoun and Garrett insisted upon carrying out heavy duties in what remained of the operating theatre. Four orderlies from the Royal Army Medical Corps were also killed during the Vertekop bombing but owing to the quick action of the nurses, no patients appear to have died – or did they?

On 12 May 1917, Annie and Ethel were summoned before the Crown Prince of Serbia who awarded them the Serbian Gold Medal ‘for conspicuous bravery in a most trying situation.’ They were the first women to win the award.[9]

Two weeks later, the London Gazette announced that the two nurses had been awarded the Military Medal.[10] Approximately 91 of the 128 Military Medals awarded to women went to nurses. As women could not have official status as officers, it was the only bravery award open to them. Maud McCarthy, Matron-in-Chief to the Army in France, later remarked, ‘The Nursing Service, as a whole, have considered it a great honour to be given a medal which is awarded solely for bravery in the field.’

Annie and Ethel were also awarded the French Croix de Guerre (bronze star) and Annie fetched up with nine blue Service Chevrons.

In July 1917, one year after she first went to Macedonia, Annie sailed for England where she went to work in the Military Hospital at Husley Camp near Winchester.  On 24 July, she was married in Wimbledon to 34-year-old Private Frank Lowther Crofton of the Canadian Army Service Corps. He was the fourth and youngest son of Captain the Hon. F. G. Crofton, a Royal Navy officer. He also had strong Irish roots through his grandfather, Edward Crofton, 2nd Baron Crofton of Mote, County Roscommon, who was one of Ireland’s Representative Peers. [check] The following day, Annie attended the Investiture at Aldershot where she was presented to the Queen and decorated with her Military Medal by King George V.[11]

Annie retired from the service following her marriage. Shortly after the birth of her only son Francis David Crofton on 26 January 1919, she and Frank moved back to Canada and once again settled on Salt Spring Island. They later moved to Ganges Hill from where Frank operated a taxi service, before relocating to the island of Victoria in 1940. Annie Crofton died in about 1954.[12] Her son passed away in 2002.

 

For more stories of World War One from Turtle’s acclaimed book, ‘The Glorious Madness’ click here.

Acknowledgments

 

With thanks to Anne Maclellan and Yvonne McEwen.

 

 

‘I Know You By Your Name’ by Gillian Colhoun

 

Nurse Colhoun’s story inspired a rather beautiful poem by Gillian Colhoun for a Centenary Armistice in 2018 with the Imperial War Museum. 100 writers were invited to dedicate 100 words to a person involved in the First World War. Here’s her poem:

Inspired by Nurse Annie Rebecca Colhoun

Black 
ink stains 
fracture dove-grey 
clouds.

The savage sky leans over and spits out seventeen bombs
Crazed with the bloodlust of a shark’s sixth sense
They blindly crash into quiet; rupturing taut canvas and human flesh. 

Annie, a Derry girl, builds a wall around her hoping heart
Holds her nerve, holds her friend, holds her patients’ lives 
Nurses them in threads of white cotton and crimson cross. 

Fibres re-woven into love and something more than love
A blanket, softly shielding, calling surrender to suffering
Soaking up enough tears to wash clean every one of those
Black ink stains.

 

Further Reading

 

  • Hay, Ian, ‘The Story of the British Army Nursing Services from the time of Florence Nightingale to the present day’ (Cassell & Co. Ltd., 1953) via here.
  • Kahn, Charles, and Sue Mouat, ‘Lady Minto Gulf Islands Hospital – A Salt Spring Island History.’
  • McEwen, Yvonne, ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary: British and Irish Nurses in the Great War (Cualann Press, 2006) via here.
  • Reiss, R. A., ‘The Kingdom Of Serbia – Infringements of the Rules and Laws of War  Committed by The Austro- Bulgaro-Germans: Letters of a Criminologist on the Serbian Macedonian Front’ (London: George Allen, 1919) here.
  • ‘Amazing Women of Salt Spring Island’ by Salt Spring Island Historical Society, p. 38.
  • Military Medal Awards To QA Nurses’.
  • The British Journal of Nursing, 28th April, 1917.

 

Footnotes

 

[1] For details, see PRONI.  Photos of the ill-fated Lough Swilly Hotel here.

[2] From ‘The Dictionary of Irish Architects 1720-1940’, Irish Architectural Archive here.

[3] Dean Godson, Himself Alone: David Trimble and the Ordeal Of Unionism (HarperCollins UK, 2014)

[4] 1901 Census, here.

[5] The other three were Nos. 38 and 41 General and No. 33 Stationary.

[6] The German official statement of March 13 merely reported on an attack by a German squadron on “the railroad station at Vertekop.” ‘Aviators Kill Two Nurses’, The New York Times, March 15, 1917.

[7] The ladies were at work in the hospital near Monastir, “when enemy aeroplanes came over, and, utterly regardless of the Red Cross prominently displayed, began to drop bombs upon it.” Miss M. Marshal was in the operating theatre when the bombs dropped. She was killed outright, and the danger was so great for half-an-hour that the medical officers urged the nurses to take cover. With splendid recklessness of themselves, they refused to leave the bedsides of their patients, and Miss Dewar was struck and mortally wounded as she was bending over a man, suffering acute pain, in order to move his pillow to afford him some slight relief. Happily, he suffered no further injury, but the brave nurse herself was picked up and placed on a bed for the short space that elapsed before she succumbed to the terrible hurt she had sustained. “In the last gentle ministrations to her, Miss Annie Colhoun assisted, though she had herself ‘also been seriously wounded by a fragment of the bomb. In spite of the shock which she had experienced, she refused to leave her post, and Sister Garratt also continued to attend to her patients while the deadly bombs were falling thick and fast, and claiming a toll of the stricken men. All these ladies belonged to Queen Alexandra’s Reserve. (via The British Journal of Nursing, April 28th 1917, p. 291).

[8] Details via ‘Military Medal Awards To QA Nurses’ c/o www.qaranc.co.uk

[9] The British Journal of Nursing (p. 323) noted that ‘Nurse Colhoun [sic], who has received a gold medal from the Crown Prince of Serbia “for conspicuous bravery in a most trying situation,” and has been nursing at at Salonica for some time, is an Irish nurse.’

[10] The London Gazette, No 30095, page 5190, of 26 May, 1917) … Annie’s was awarded to her:-

“For conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty during an enemy air raid. She attended to, and provided for the safety of, helpless patients. She was assisting Staff Nurse Dewar when the latter was fatally wounded, and although the tent was full of smoke and acrid fumes, and she had been struck by a fragment of bomb, she attended to Staff Nurse Dewar and also to the case of a helpless patient.”

[11] As the British Journal of Nursing reported on 11th August 1917, p. 91.
WEDDING BELLS.

The wedding has taken place at Wimbledon of Mr. Francis Lowther Crofton, Canadians, son of the late Captain the Hon. Francis Crofton, R.N., and Staff Nurse Annie R. Colhoun, third daughter of the late Mr. Robert Colboun, Derry and Buncrana. Mrs. Crofton is the holder of the Military Medal for bravery during the bombing of a tent hospital at Salonika, and was the subject of special reports to the War Office for her pluck and endurance. On the day following the wedding she was decorated by the King at the Investiture at Aldershot and was presented to the Queen.

[12] See ‘Salt Spring Archives, 14th May 1964’ here.

Frank married secondly Nancy Ester Nash, daughter of Harry Holdsworth Nash, on 25 May 1957. He married, thirdly, Joan Anthea Crofton, daughter of John Ernest Crofton, on 17 January 1966. He died in 1971.

Ethel Garrett died in February 1972. She was 89 years old.