Looking at these faded photographs, I remind myself that there was a real woman and a caring family behind each of these dim portraits. Our opera ‘Landovery Castle’ attempts to bring to life a handful of the extraordinary women who died on the night of June 27, 1918 when their hospital ship was torpedoed crossing the Atlantic. Our three main characters are Pearl, Bird and Kate.
Margaret Marjory ‘Pearl’ Fraser was the 33-year-old Matron in charge of the 13 other nursing sisters on the Llandovery Castle hospital ship.
She was born in Nova Scotia, moved to Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan and signed up in 1914 aged 30. Pearl’s Father had been the Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia, but more importantly, her Dad sang bass in his Presbyterian church choir.
Pearl kept a diary in 1914 which her family has treasured for 100 years. Paul Ciufo (our librettist) and I have been privileged to read her lively account of the early days of the Great War. She speaks fondly of her brothers who went over seas with her and seemed always concerned for their whereabouts. Sadly her brother Laurier, aged 22, was killed in action in March 1918, only three months before Pearl herself drowned in the Celtic Sea. Thankfully her brother Alistair survived the war to become Lieutenant Governor of NS from 1952-1958.
Here is a short video about Pearl Fraser and the Llandovery Castle. The footage is imaginatively re-constructed, but it gives a good overview of the testimony given by Sergeant Knight and Major Lyon at the Leipzig Trials held after the War.
Pearl served on the Llandovery Castle with her close friend Minnie Katherine ‘Kate’ Gallaher.
Kate was born near Kingston ON, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister.
She did her nursing training in Ottawa, and became assisting superintendent of the Protestant Hospital in Ottawa. She was well known in Toronto nursing circles since she had been in charge of a model hospital camp on the Exhibition Grounds.
In our opera Kate expresses her frustration that her work seems in vain – she only stitches up young men in order to send them back to the Front. Her colleague Bird consoles her that their work is not futile.
Rena Maude ‘Bird’ McLean was from Souris PEI. She studied at the Mount Allison ladies’ college in Sackville NB, and graduated from the Halifax Ladies’ College in 1896 and completed her nurses training in Rhode Island. She had been head nurse in the operating room in an American hospital before enlisting for the Canadian Army Medical Corps in 1914. She served under dreadful conditions in the field hospital in Salonika, Greece.
Here is a moving excerpt from the excellent article on Bird by Adele Townshend, from the Dictionary of Canadian biography, which describes her last letter home.
Rena McLean had been an attractive, fun-loving woman, kind and caring. As her last letter, written on board the Llandovery Castle on 16 June, illustrates, she had kept her morale high in spite of the years spent in some of the worst areas of the war. “Here we are once more approaching Halifax, but still as far from home as ever. . . . This trip more than half our patients are amputation cases and would make you heartsick only they are so cheerful and happy themselves. . . . This may be my last trip over and, if it is, that means that I don’t get home until dear knows when, for as soon as I get to England I am going to put in for France and once there it will be hard enough to get away.”
The entire article can be found here:
Rena Maude McLean
Three other nursing sisters are featured in our opera:
Alexina Dussault from St. Hyacinthe Quebec had served with Pearl Fraser in each of her assignments overseas. A plaque to Mary Agnes ‘Nan’ McKenzie hangs in Calvin Presbyterian Church in Toronto. Christina Campbell’s name is the first on a plaque in the Jubilee hospital in Victoria BC.
The three men in our opera are:
Major Thomas Lyon and Sergeant Arthur Knight who survived the sinking to give testimony at the Leipzig trials. Also the commander of the German U-boat Helmut Patzig has a role.
Stay tuned for more details of the performances on June 26 and 27, 2018 by visiting our opera website at llandoverycastle.ca