Opera to focus on Great War nurses 100 years after hospital ship sinking

By Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press

TORONTO – The creators of a planned opera about the tragic sinking of a Canadian hospital ship during the First World War say it’s time to resurrect the stories of nurses who died in heroic service.

The sinking of the HMHS Llandovery Castle was considered one of the worst atrocities committed against Canada during the Great War and yet it is little known today, says librettist Paul Ciufo.

He and Toronto composer Stephanie Martin are working on an opera they hope will be ready for public performances by June 27, 2018 — the 100th anniversary of the sinking.

“I don’t think it’s well-known outside of historians. I like to think that I’ve taken an interest in my life in wartime history and done a lot of reading and it was unknown to me,” says Ciufo, whose Second World War radio drama “On Convoy” was produced and broadcast by CBC Radio in 2002.

“Everybody I tell seems to be hearing it for the first time.”

While recent centennials — which have included Vimy, Passchendaele and the beginning of the First World War — have shed light on the war’s many triumphs and heart-shattering moments, Martin says there’s been precious little on the role women played.

“It’s really important to tell this story because it is a woman’s story,” says Martin, who found collaborators in Toronto’s Bicycle Opera Project, a company that focuses on contemporary Canadian works.

“The Vimy celebration was all about the people in combat and it wasn’t about those behind the scenes who were just desperately trying to keep people alive.”

The story begins aboard the Llandovery Castle as it brings 600 wounded men to Halifax from Liverpool. Also aboard are nearly 260 crew members, among them doctors, nurses and other members of the Canadian Army Medical Corps.

As they return to Liverpool, they are intercepted by a German U-boat that torpedoes the ship under the mistaken belief it is secretly harbouring fighting men and munitions. What happens next is even more horrifying, says Ciufo.

“The (German commander) realized that he had just sunk a hospital ship, broken the laws of war, and that this would reflect terribly on Germany, so he decided to kill everyone in the lifeboats,” says Ciufo, who relied on a nurse’s diary, articles and transcripts from a subsequent war crimes trial to build his dramatization.

In the end, 234 people lost their lives, including all 14 nurses.

Ciufo’s tale centres on real-life nursing sister Rena McLean from Prince Edward Island, whose nickname was Bird. Other characters based on actual figures include matron Margaret Marjory Fraser, who went by Pearl; survivor Sgt. Arthur Knight, who was on one of the lifeboats with the doomed nurses; and the commander of the German U-boat, Helmut Patzig.

Ciufo says there will also be a chorus made up of nurses who died in wartime service — characters that have the ability to see the past, the present and the future.

Martin says she’s trying to collect financial backing for a 10-person orchestra with strings, flute, clarinet and a French horn to evoke bugle calls. The music will incorporate material from the time period, such as the actual tune played when they disembarked.

The dramatic story seems tailor-made for opera, with Ciufo highlighting the very extremes of humanity in a case that outraged Canadians at the time and fuelled intense anger towards Germany.

“(Patzig) is going to show the darkest impulses of war and then the nurses are going to show the grace that can exist even in the darkest circumstances,” he says.

The forgotten resilience of these nurses is slowly returning to the spotlight, say Ottawa-based historians Dianne Dodd, who examined their deaths in a recent paper for the Canadian Bulletin of Medical History, and Cynthia Toman, author of the book “Sister Soldiers of the Great War: The Nurses of the Canadian Army Medical Corps.”

Sixty-one Canadian nurses are believed to have died during the Great War. There were 2,845 nurses that served, says Toman.

Rather than conform to gendered notions of frailty and illness under duress, these women responded to their duties as soldiers, says Dodd.

She writes of an ailing nurse named Agnes Forneri who faints while on day duty in early 1918, but continues to work. On night duty she vomits “a quart of blood” but still reports for duty the next day, finally collapsing and dying soon afterwards.

Toman also recounts a relentless work ethic, especially among the dozens stationed on the Greek island of Lemnos where two nurses died.

“It was considered one of the most horrible conditions of the whole war,” she says, noting there were scant food supplies and unsanitary conditions.

In many ways, they were treated as equals — Toman notes that Canadian nurses were the only enlisted women of any Allied military service. They started as first lieutenants and would progress through the ranks to major, the rank held by matron Margaret Clothilde MacDonald. In the Second World War, there were many more captains and majors, with the highest ranking woman being Col. Elizabeth Lawrie Smellie.

Still, Toman says their accomplishments are little recognized today.

“It’s like a losing battle to try and raise visibility to these women.”

Granted, they represent just one half of one per cent of the Canadian force, but Toman says their significance far outweighs their numbers.

“Every one of those 761,635 wounded or sick soldiers, plus thousands of Allied soldiers and untold numbers of prisoners of war and civilians that they cared for — everyone — passed through the hands of a CAMC nursing sister,” she says.

Ciufo hopes the opera will pay tribute to those women, especially nurses aboard the Llandovery Castle who were especially battered by their service.

“Being a nurse on a hospital ship was considered an easy assignment…. and the nurses who ended up there were often broken,” he says.

“They’d have breakdowns while serving closer to the action, ending their shifts with tears streaming down their faces, terrible insomnia, obviously what we now would call post-traumatic stress. It was supposed to be a light assignment and was not supposed to be dangerous.

“But for those aboard the Llandovery Castle it was fatal.”

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