Daisy Kathleen Mary Coles was born, not in Edinburgh, but in Wandsworth, London on 27 May 1893. Daisy’s parents, Walter and Edith, came from the south of England: Walter was born in Hampshire and Edith was a clergyman’s daughter from London.
With her parents and her elder brother Lionel, Daisy moved to Scotland, because Walter was a civil servant with the Scottish Office. By 1903, the family were living at 204 Bruntsfield Place when Daisy was enrolled at George Watson’s Ladies College, just before her 10th birthday.
Daisy played hockey and golf and went on from GWLC to Canaan Park College (now part of the Astley Ainslie Hospital complex.) By the time she was 17, the Coles family were living at 18 St Ninian’s Terrace, the same road as a number of other civil servants and their families.
Daisy’s older brother, Lionel also attended Watson’s. He went on to become a professional soldier, before taking up a post in the rubber industry in the Malay States. However, on the outbreak of war, he returned to a commission in the 16th Royal Scots, soon becoming a captain. Lionel was killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme on 1 July 1916, leading his company over the parapet near Contalmaison.
In 1914 at the outbreak of war, 21-year-old Daisy joined the local Voluntary Aid Detachment becoming a VAD Nurse. Daisy would have been trained in basic first aid and simple nursing.
VAD nurses were there to support the professional nurses. As such, Daisy would have spent her days cleaning and scrubbing, setting trays, lighting fires and boiling up coppers full of washing. She would also have helped to dress, undress and wash the men. This would have been a big step for middle-class young women like Daisy, who would never have been alone and unchaperoned with a member of the opposite sex before.
She completed her training at Leith Infirmary and the Royal Victoria Hospital. She was working at Craigleith Military Hospital (now the Western) when she volunteered to go to France.
Her parents tried to dissuade her from going to France, due to the risk of danger and hardship. But apparently, she simply answered, ‘You would have me refuse my duty?’
Daisy arrived at the 58th General Hospital in St Omer in the middle of June 1917.
The 58th General (Scottish) Hospital, was a base hospital mainly housed in marquees, bell tents and a few wooden and corrugated iron huts. The Matron-in-Chief of the British Expeditionary Force, Maud McCarthy, visiting in August 1917 and noted that ‘It is not yet properly established; they have no doubt had tremendous difficulties in consequence of bad weather and shortage of labour… Miss Humphreys, the Matron, seems an extremely nice Scotch woman but she appears to be surrounded with many difficulties in consequence of her Staff having been drafted from different parts of Scotland; some of them are very elderly women, and many of them not inclined to make an effort to fit in with the others.'
Daisy and her colleagues at the 58th Hospital were kept busy as large numbers of serious poison gas cases arrived, requiring around the clock nursing. There does however seem to have been time for some fun. In his diary, Alfred Barton, the young pharmacist at the hospital, noted trips into the town to hear bands playing in the public park, walks along the river and long chats with the VAD nurses after they had come off duty. However, he also noted that there was always the constant threat of an air raid.
On the night of the 30 of September 1917, ‘During a hostile air raid, three bombs were dropped [on the hospital] at 10.40pm. One struck a marquee occupied by patients and two nurses, who were on duty.’
Three nurses, Staff Nurse Agnes Climie, And VADs Elizabeth Thomson and Daisy Coles died, together with 16 patients. Another nurse, Mabel Milne was severely wounded and died two days later. There were 67 wounded.
The next day, as soon as she heard of the disastrous air raid on the 58th Hospital, Matron-in-Chief, Maud McCarthy, rushed to St Omer. She arrived to find the whole unit shocked and dazed. She later wrote, ‘everyone spoke of the wonderful courage of the women. The raid had lasted for some hours and the casualties occurred in the hospital where everyone was on duty. A tremendous lot of damage had been done; several marquees being blown to atoms.’
Alfred Barton, the young pharmacist who had so enjoyed chatting to the VAD nurses sketched what the marquees that made up much of the hospital had looked like before the air raid (Middle) and afterwards (Middle, to the left)
At the bottom, Daisy’s, Agnes’ and Elizabeth’s funeral procession.
Daisy is buried, along with the other nurses, at Longuenesse Souvenir Cemetery at St Omer. She was 24 years old when she died. Maud McCathy, the Matron-in-Chief attended the funeral.
‘It was an enormous gathering which lasted over two hours. The walks up to the graveside from the gate were lined with walking patients from the 58th General Hospital. Overhead aeroplanes were hovering all through the service.’
In a report after her death, Daisy was described as ‘a most efficient and cheery nurse, greatly beloved alike by the Staff Nurses and soldier patients’ Another wrote, ‘Little Coles’ was the soul of brightness, fun and cheer.’
In a letter written to the father of one of the other nurses who had died with Daisy, the Chief Nurse wrote, ‘I have heard from France of the wonderful bravery of the nurses. They gave their lives for their patients, whom they were dressing at the time.’
We do not know whether the loss of her only brother influenced Daisy’s decision to volunteer to go to work in France. However, within 15 months, Walter and Edith Coles had lost both their children. By 1920 when Daisy’s and Lionel’s names appeared on the War Memorial in Christ Church Morningside, their parents had moved to another rented house in Peebles. They were to buy a house overlooking the sea at North Berwick, but long before their own deaths, Walter in 1940 and Edith in 1945, they had returned to the south of England, far from Edinburgh where they had raised their two children but far closer to where both had died, nearly 30 years earlier.
On the centenary of her death, Daisy’s name joined that of her brother Lionel’s on our School War Memorial.
As part of our GWLC150 events, we are planning a ‘Remembering Daisy’ event. Our plan is to visit her grave in the Longuenesse (St Omer) Souvenir Cemetery in northern France. We will hold a simple ceremony there. There are four other Watsonians buried in the same cemetery.
Our 'Remembering Daisy' event will take place 29-30 September 2022, the 105th anniversary of her death.
If any member of the Watsonian community would be interested in attending this special event, please contact Margaret Peat in the Development Office (firstname.lastname@example.org) for further details.