A British Army nurse described as an “unsung hero” who died in the UK weeks before Armistice Day would likely have survived had she been deployed to France, a former Black Watch captain has said.
Helena Stewart Bennet died on October 18, 1918 aged 30, after being posted to a German prisoner of war camp hospital in Oswestry, Shropshire.
Her death came after a flu and pneumonia outbreak swept the hospital, where she had been posted since September 30, 1918.
She died just 24 days before the agreement to end the war was signed.
Ms Bennet, of Arbroath, Angus, trained in nursing at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary before serving at Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service.
Often referred to as an “unsung hero”, Ms Bennet was a parishioner at the Parish Church of St Cuthbert on Princes Street Gardens, Edinburgh, and is the only woman commemorated on the wall of the church’s memorial chapel.
Parish minister Rev Peter Sutton will honour Ms Bennet, as well as 156 men on the walls of the chapel, all of whom died during the First World War, during a special service to mark Remembrance Sunday.
Rev Sutton said he finds Ms Bennet’s story compelling as her parents pleaded for her not to go to the Western Front, one of the main theatres of war.
Rev Sutton, a former captain with the Black Watch, 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 bit.
“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 hero.”
The minister said her story reminds 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.”
Rev Sutton said: “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.
“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.
“I find her story so poignant because one of my five daughters is currently serving with the mine clearing organisation, Halo Trust, 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’.
“Fortunately, she is not clearing mines, she is compiling stories from people in local communities who have to put in for grants from the Halo Trust.”
The memorial chapel in Rev Sutton’s parish is the oldest existing part of the church building.
Crime writer Agatha Christie famously married her second husband, Max Mallowan, at the parish in a low-key ceremony in 1930.
Rev 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 First World War 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.”
Ms Bennet is remembered with honour at Arbroath Western Cemetery, a Commonwealth War Graves site.