Just five months before the end of the first World War, the hospital ship Llandovery Castle steamed out of Halifax harbour. It had just brought 644 wounded soldiers home to Canada from the battlefields of Europe. Now on its return voyage, it carried the ship’s crew and members of the Canadian Army Medical Corps, including 14 nurses. These women, known as “nursing sisters”, had been commissioned as lieutenants in the Canadian army.  


As the Llandovery Castle churned across the North Atlantic, it was lit up by regulation Red Cross lights and markings, identifying it as a hospital ship. According to international law, those markings should have offered it protection from patrolling German U-boats. They did not.

The ship was about 185 kilometres off the coast of Ireland when it was hit by a torpedo fired by German U-boat U86.

The commander of the U-boat, 1st Lieutenant Helmut Patzig, interrogated some of the survivors in lifeboats, believing the Llandovery Castle was carrying American airmen and ammunition. The speculation is that when he realized that he had committed what amounted to a war crime, he ordered his men to destroy the evidence by ramming the remaining lifeboats and shooting the survivors.

234 lives — including those of the 14 Canadian nurses — were lost. Only 24 men survived to tell the story. After the war, the German crew’s actions were the subject of a war crimes trial in Leipzig. Two of Patzig’s subordinates were found guilty of murder. Patzig himself had disappeared. 

The sinking of the Llandovery Castle was the deadliest Canadian naval disaster of WWI. The manner in which the nursing sisters had lost their lives became quite well known, and was used as a rallying cry for Canadian troops during the battle of Amiens, one of the last great battles of the war.

There is a shameful footnote to the story of the Llandovery Castle. Archival documents show that Canadian soldiers at Amiens were explicitly told that they would not be reprimanded if they killed German soldiers who had surrendered. It was tacit consent to enact a violent revenge for the deaths of the 14 nursing sisters.



The efforts of women during the war helped pave the way for rights for all women. When women's suffrage was achieved in Canada in the spring of 1918, the major argument advance to support the change was women's contributions to the war effort.

Nursing sisters were deployed very near the front lines at casualty clearing stations, where ambulances delivered the wounded to be assessed, treated or evacuated to a hospital. They worked under threat of air raids and shell fire. The workload was exhausting, and the conditions extremely primitive. In this pre-antibiotics age, infections were common.

“Duty so close to the firing line demanded the utmost efficiency — the best of the best — and nurses considered it a personal honour to be assigned to this work.”  - Shawna Quinn, author of Agnes Warner and the Nursing Sisters of the Great War.

"The Nursing Sisters represent the beginning of a profound change for women in Canada because of the gains they made within the hierarchical world of men. They received pay equal to their male counterparts. They were the only women in the war to have military rank as officers, and, consequently, could vote in federal elections. No other Canadian women had these privileges at the time,” - composer Stephanie Martin.

There is no doubt that the challenges of military nursing shaped a generation of nurses who were independent and less submissive to authority. After the war, reports of the brave professionalism of the nursing sisters overseas were used to support calls for the increased participation of women in Canadian society.

In 2016, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2286, condemning attacks against medical facilities, personnel and patients in conflict situations. In the two years since the resolution was passed little has changed. Military attacks on hospitals, doctors and patients have continued unabated, including deadly airstrikes on Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)’s own facilities in Yemen, Syria, South Sudan and Afghanistan.

These horrific attacks contravene international humanitarian law and have a catastrophic impact on people already made vulnerable by war and violence. Sadly, the story of the Llandovery Castle still resonates today. This important new operatic work reminds us that then, as now, hospitals, health workers, patients and civilians are Not A Target.

“As medical humanitarians working in contemporary conflict settings, the story of the Llandlovery Castle strongly resonates with our cause. It was then (in 1918), as it is now, outrageous and profoundly wrong that men and women healing the war-wounded should themselves be shot at.”   - Joe Belliveau, MSF Canada's Executive Director:




The Llandovery Castle’s 14 nursing sisters and others who served on the ship hailed from across the country, and are remembered in several public spaces.

Matron Margaret Marjory ‘Pearl’ Fraser, New Glasgow, NS / Moose Jaw SK
Carola Josephine Douglas, Toronto, ON
Alexina Dussault, St. Hyacinthe, QB
Minnie Aenath Follette, Port Greville, NS
Margaret Jane Fortescue, York Factory, MN
Minnie Katherine Gallaher, Kingston, ON
Jessie Mabel McDiarmid, Ashton, ON
Mary Agnes McKenzie, Toronto, ON (Plaque in Calvin Presbyterian Church, Toronto)
Christina Campbell, Victoria, BC (Plaque in Royal Jubliee Hospital)
Rena ‘Bird’ McLean, Souris, P.E.I. (Exhibit and memorial in Souris)
Mary Belle Sampson, Simcoe, ON (Plaque in Hamilton, ON)
Gladys Irene Sare, Montreal QB (Plaque in Montreal General Hospital)
Anna Irene Stamers, St. John, NB
Jean Templeman, Ottawa, ON

Robert Alexander Steen, Calgary AB (Plaque in Mamdani Opera Centre / former Wesley United Church which houses the administrative offices for Calgary Opera. The former sanctuary is used for rehearsals and concert productions)