This month marks the 105th anniversary of the tragic and untimely death of Nurse Caroline Maud Edwards during the First World War.

Caroline was born in Llanharry in 1887 to a family with strong connections to Newport and the County of Monmouth. In fact, by 1901 she was living with her parents and siblings in Rockfield and attended Haberdashers Monmouth School for Girls. She went to Bedford College, London and became a nurse in The London Hospital in Whitechapel by 1911.

When the First World War began in 1914, Caroline joined the Queen Alexandra's Royal Naval Nursing Service (QARNNS) as a Nursing Sister. We know she was posted to His Majesty's Hospital Ship (HMHS) Drina, which was built as a passenger liner by Harland and Wolf in Belfast in 1913 for the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company sailing to Argentina and Brazil. The vessel was requisitioned by the Admiralty on 4 August 1914 for conversion to a hospital ship, and one year later was based at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands.

In autumn 1915, the ship moved from Scapa Flow to anchor in Cromarty Firth on the East Coast of Scotland. The fleet included HMS Natal, a Warrior Class armoured cruiser built in 1905 that had been used mainly for ceremonial duties prior to a refit in 1915. During the war she was deployed on patrol in the North Sea as part of the Royal Navy's Second Cruiser squadron.

On the afternoon of 30 December 1915, Captain Eric Back of HMS Natal arranged a Christmas film show on board and invited some local civilians, their children and three nurses from HMHS Drina. Fatefully, Caroline was amongst the guests.

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Portrait photograph of Caroline Maud Edwards. © IWM WWC H21-32
Portrait photograph of Caroline Maud Edwards. © IWM WWC H21-32

During the party at around 3.30 pm, the ammunition exploded without warning and a series of violent explosions tore through the ship, sinking it within five minutes. The icy cold water and midwinter afternoon darkness hampered the rescuers. By 5.03pm it was reported that the three nurses were missing.

Although 170 survivors were dragged from the freezing water, 421 sailors, civilians and children perished in the disaster. Most of the bodies of the casualties were never recovered, including that of Caroline Maud Edwards. Two other nurses from Drina also died: Eliza Millicent Elvens and Olive Kathleen Rowlett. All their names are on the Chatham Naval Memorial.

The remains of the wreck of the Natal, marked by a buoy, are designated as a protected place under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986 as a war grave. In July 2020, a memorial garden, Natal Gardens, was opened in Invergordon by the famous gardener Charlie Dimmock.

Closer to home, there is a plaque at Monmouth Haberdashers' School and the commemorative mosaic displayed at St Paul's Walk in Newport City Centre .This was inspired by the “ Every Woman Remembered: Daughters of Newport in the Great War” written by local author Sylvia Mason. The Heritage Lottery Fund project marks the heroism and sacrifice of eight Newport women  who lost their lives whilst contributing to the war effort and whose names were not always remembered. Stephanie Roberts, a local artist worked with Newport youth groups to create mosaics as tribute to those who died. including Caroline Maud Edwards of Queen Alexandra's Royal Naval Nursing Service.

Discover the stories of other men, women and children who lost their lives in this tragic incident, on IWMs' Lives of the First World War.