New opera tells little-known story of Canadian nurses killed in WWI boat sinking

In June, 1918, 14 Canadian nursing sisters were killed when their hospital ship, the Llandovery Castle, was torpedoed. Now, a new Canadian opera commemorates these 14 women who comforted the wounded and the dying in the midst of unimaginable horror.

Hospital ship Llandovery Castle was torpedoed by a German U-boat, killing 234

Rena 'Bird' McLean, of Souris, P.E.I., was one of the 14 nurses killed in the sinking of the Llandovery Castle. (© IWM [WWC H22-22])
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A new opera tells the story of the Llandovery Castle, a Canadian hospital ship that was torpedoed by a German U-boat during the First World War, taking hundreds of lives — including those of 14 nurses.

It was the deadliest Canadian naval disaster of the Great War, but the story has been largely forgotten. Now composer Stephanie Martin and playwright Paul Ciufo want to tell the story to a new audience, 100 years later.

[ WWI ] was brutal ... Here's something that speaks to the ability of people to choose the light instead of the darkness.- Paul Ciufo

These nurses were some of Canada's earliest career women.

They tended to soldiers blown apart by shells and ravaged by chlorine gas. Traumatized by the horrors they had seen, the nurses were serving on the hospital ship before returning to the front.

It was supposed to be a reprieve. It ended in tragedy.

Serving by healing, not killing

Composer Stephanie Martin carried the story of the Llandovery Castle around inside her for years, after reading a plaque commemorating one of the nurses at her local church.

"I was almost obsessively drawn to the story, and continued to research it," she told The Sunday Edition's Alisa Siegel. "I was having nightmares that I was on a hospital ship and and being torpedoed."

The sinking of the Llandovery Castle became a rallying cry in the final months of First World War. (NS Archives)

Martin was looking for a librettist to write the text for the opera when she met playwright Ciufo at a Canada 150 concert. 

Ciufo had never written an opera before either. But he was moved by the story of the nurses who chose to serve their country in wartime by healing, rather than killing.

"[The First World War] was brutal. It was cruel. It was horrific," he said. "Here's something that speaks to the ability of people to choose the light instead of the darkness."

Martin and Ciufo wanted the opera to premiere on the centenary of the sinking, so they had only 11 months to write the libretto and the music, find musicians, rehearse and produce the opera. They pored over historical records and documents from the nurses' relatives, including letters and diaries.

For Martin, one of the joys of the project has been rediscovering the lives of women forgotten by history.

"It's like [the women have] been sort of covered in clay, and now they're emerging. Every time I get a letter from someone who is a relative, or read an excerpt from a diary, or look at an enlistment paper, just a little bit more of that figure is being shaped and comes to life," she said.

Librettist Paul Ciufo and composer Stephanie Martin are the co-creators of a new Canadian opera about the sinking of the hospital ship Llandovery Castle during the First World War. (Christine Reynier Photography)

Pearl and Bird

Two nurses who feature as leading characters in the opera are Matron Margaret Marjory 'Pearl' Fraser, from New Glasgow, N.S., and Nursing Sister Rena 'Bird' McLean, from Souris, P.E.I.

McLean was still coping with the trauma of serving at a field hospital in Salonika, Greece. But she hoped to convince Fraser to send her back to the front, where she could be most helpful.

She had 100 opportunities to come back to Canada.- Jillian Townshend, Rena McLean's great-great-niece

Jillian Townshend is the great-great-niece of nursing sister Rena McLean, one of the central characters in the opera. (Submitted by Jillian Townshend/IWM)

In one scene, McLean has a nightmare about receiving a sudden wave of wounded men at the hospital. The matron comforts her, describing her own calling as a nurse.

Martin wanted the matron's reassuring song to be a "luminous, religious allegory."

"Matron's music is bathed in mystical, Wagnerian light ... in the fashion of Henry Purcell," she wrote on her blog.

In this scene from the opera Llandovery Castle, Pearl (performed by mezzo-soprano Catherine Daniel) tries to help Bird (performed by soprano Larissa Koniuk) deal with her trauma from seeing the horrors of war. 1:16

In another scene, McLean tries to convince one of the other nursing sisters, who is exhausted and disillusioned by the war, that what they do has real purpose. The matron overhears her and decides she is ready to return to the front.

McLean's great-niece, Jillian Townshend, was moved by McLean's commitment to her work. 

"She had 100 opportunities to come back to Canada," she said. "She would have still been viewed as having served and been brave."

Nursing sisters who lost their lives in the Llandovery Castle disaster. Top row from the left: Margaret Jane Fortescue, Rena 'Bird' McLean, Jessie Mabel McDiarmid. Second row: Minnie Asenath Follette, Carola Josephine Douglas, Margaret Katherine Gallaher. Third: Alexina Dussault, Christina Campbell, Anna Irene Stamers. Fourth: Mae Belle Sampson, Matron Marjorie 'Pearl' Fraser, Mary Agnes McKenzie. Not pictured: Jean Templeman and Gladys Irene Sare.

The attack

As the Llandovery Castle steamed across the Atlantic on its return voyage to Liverpool, it was painted white, festooned with bright lights and large red crosses.

"Hospital ships were supposed to be protected by the Geneva Convention. At night they sailed under full light. You couldn't miss them," said historian Katherine Dewar, author of Those Splendid Girls: The Heroic Service of Prince Edward Island Nurses During the Great War.

Katherine Dewar dressed in replica of the dress uniform of First World War Canadian nurses at the book signing for Those Splendid Girls. (Provided by Katherine Dewar)

After the torpedo hit, the nurses tried to escape the sinking ship in a lifeboat, but it wouldn't detach. They were among the 234 people who died in the attack. Only 24 people survived.

The deaths of the nurses became a rallying cry in the final months of the First World War, and the sinking of the Llandovery Castle was the subject of one of the first war crimes trials in history.

One of the survivors was Sergeant Arthur Knight, who was in the same lifeboat as the nurses.

Sergeant Knight later testified about the ordeal: "Unflinchingly and calmly, as steady and collected as if on parade, without a complaint or a single sign of emotion, our 14 devoted nursing sisters faced the terrible ordeal of certain death … In the entire time I overheard only one remark, when the Matron Margaret Marjory Fraser turned to me as we drifted helplessly towards the stern of the ship, and asked, "Sergeant, do you think there is any hope for us?" And I replied, "No." A few seconds later we were drawn into the whirlpool of the submerged afterdeck. And the last I saw of the nursing sisters were as they were thrown over the side of the boat."

"I myself sank and came up three times, finally clinging to a piece of wreckage, and [was] eventually picked up by the captain's boat."

Sgt. A. Knight, Canadian Army Medical Corps, was one of the only survivors of the disaster. He later gave testimony at a war crimes trial in Germany about the nurses' final comments. "When he went to this trial, he was their voice," says his grandson David Sales, who reads the testimony in Alisa Siegel's documentary. (Library and Archives Canada/Submitted by David Sales)

'See that this war wins a world victory for women'

Poster depicting the aftermath of the torpedoing of the Llandovery Castle. A man wearing a Canadian service uniform struggles to hold onto a nursing sister as he shakes his fist at a German U-boat. (Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. R1300-60)

In the early 20th century, women's place in Canadian society was still severely curtailed, but nursing was seen as an acceptable profession for women because it involved caregiving. It also offered a path to autonomy.

"Life was very different for women a hundred years ago," said Martin. "You either chose a career, or you chose to get married and have a family, and there wasn't really any compromise. So these nurses were career women."

During the war, nurses in the Canadian Army Medical Corps were assigned the rank of lieutenant, and as military officers, they were eligible to vote. In 1917, nurses serving at a military hospital in England made history as the first women to vote in a Canadian federal election.

Nurses' accomplishments during the war helped the fledgling women's rights movement in Canada gain momentum.

At a memorial service for the nurses held in Toronto in July 1918, Reverend J.W. MacMillan said, "It is commonly stated that this war is going to give woman her true position in this world … Be careful that you aren't just given a banner and kept within the gates as before. See that this war wins a world victory for women."

Historian Katherine Dewar is glad to see the nurses' story finally reach a wider audience.

"One hundred years later, we're starting to recognize some of these WWI women," she said. "It's time."

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Martin and her team are preparing for the opera's premiere. It will take place on June 26 and 27 at Calvin Presbyterian Church in Toronto. The production is by The Bicycle Opera Project.

"For this opera performance on the 100th anniversary, relatives of the nurses from all across Canada are coming together," Martin said.

"[It's] going to be an amazing reunion."

Click "listen" above to hear Alisa Siegel's documentary, "To Prepare a Place For You."