Chris Latham’s chamber opera about the women who served as nurses in WWI was inspired by his suffragette grandmother.

Every artist owes someone a debt for recognising their talent when it was only a seed within them, the encouragement often coming at a crucial moment; changing the direction of their life. For me, it came from my English grandmother, Beryl Churchill. In the 16 years our lives overlapped, we spent surprisingly little time together. In the days when international phone calls were impossibly expensive, I was given a minute to talk to her in England each Christmas. The remainder of the time was an exchange of letters and cassette tapes of my boyhood singing. When on an orchestra tour of the UK after my voice broke, I went to see her, distraught, not knowing what to do with my life. She answered without hesitation, “you will become a conductor”.

Her confidence in me propelled me forward as a violinist, an editor for composers, through a decade of directing festivals and now as a cultural diplomat creating work to mark the centenary of WWI. This project, entitled The Flowers of War, is designed to empower diplomatic and cultural links between previous adversaries. It now gives me the chance to repay my debt and tell her story of service as a nurse on the Western Front.

Dr Frances Ivens inspecting a French patient at Royaumont. Painting by Norah Neilson Gray.

Before the war, “B” (as we called her) had been a suffragette, campaigning for the women’s vote. She then studied economics at Cambridge, at Newnham College (Germaine Greer’s alma mater). At the outbreak of war, the male students signed up to fight, and were replaced by the wounded as the colleges were transformed into hospitals. Newnham had its own hospital next door in Wordsworth Grove. Studying in this sea of patients, she and her fellow suffragettes volunteered en masse to become members of the Red Cross’ Voluntary Aid Detachment, or VADs. The most famous, Vera Brittain, documented their experiences in her book Testament of Youth.

They were first trained as orderlies, to clean, deal with bedpans, wash patients. However, given the scale of the carnage, they quickly learnt on the job. They took on such roles as ambulance driving and in my grandmother’s case, working alongside nurses on the night shift. She described her experiences to me, working in the all-female Scottish Women’s Hospital, staffed by the first female medical graduates from Edinburgh – even the surgeons were women. The French Army, desperate for additional medical resources, deployed them in the Abbaye de Royaumont, south of the Somme where, between 1915 and 1919, they treated over 10,000 patients. Although they pioneered the early detection of gangrene through x-rays, they were not allowed to publish their work and were not credited when their research was finally accepted.

My grandmother spoke of doing her rounds there. Changing the bandages when the sheets were moist with blood, and when finished, she would kneel beside the worst cases, grasping their hands and praying with all her will that they would somehow survive the night. This experience stayed with her all her life, returning as nightmares, where she would be back in the ward again helplessly watching men die.

We don’t acknowledge post-traumatic stress in women during WW1, yet I know she suffered from it, as most of them must have. Stoically, they had to face that butchery daily, treating the wounded without flinching. Most would never have even seen a naked man, prior to washing clean all those smashed up boys.

From reading the letters my grandmother received from her patients (addressed to Little Miss Suffragette), it was clear that they loved her, and she them. Her love, and the love of so many young nurses, helped the wounded to recover. The able bodied were then sent back to the front, the soldiers often returning more than once. There was a clear transference where the nurses’ care and affection restored the wounded, but in turn they absorbed and internalised the violence visited on the men.

I decided to make a chamber opera about this. It has been created substantially from music by women such as the sisters Lili and Nadia Boulanger and Cécile Chaminade. I have also included music from male serving composers who were wounded or killed, such as EJ Moeran, Georges Antoine, André Devaere, Fernand Halphen and Arthur Bliss.

Lili Boulanger, whose music is heavily featured, died at age 24 in 1918 from overwork. She had suffered from Crohn’s disease, which was then called “intestinal tuberculosis”. If she had lived, she would have become the first internationally famous female composer, having already won the prestigious Prix de Rome. Her death in 1918 was as great a loss to French music as Claude Debussy’s death, ten days later. The opera combines Lili’s sublime cycle, Clairières dans le Ciel (Clearings in the Sky) with some early gems by her sister Nadia (who taught Copland, Bernstein, Piazzolla etc). It also features songs by serving composers Reynaldo Hahn, Ivor Gurney and Australia’s Frederick Septimus Kelly. The opera will clearly portray the act of healing, showing how these young women brought their patients back from the brink.

During those agonisingly long nights for the wounded, a woman’s touch and gentleness was often the most potent of medicines. On one hand the nurse represented a sister figure who loved platonically. The title of “Sister” also recalled the previous sisters of religious orders who had historically cared for the sick. In this way, nurses represented home and normality. However, these young women had delayed marrying in order to serve, and from their letters and diaries comes a constant theme of “longing”. In such a hothouse of intense emotion, love often bloomed in unexpected ways. In my grandmother’s case, she had a brief battlefield affair with a doctor, the painter Sir George Clausen’s son Raymond, which seemed to end in sadness.

Marriage, when possible, legitimised sexual union, and also provided an escape route when the stresses of service became intolerable, as nurses could only serve if single. Conversely those who could somehow endure, found themselves at the end of the war, searching for a partner in a world where the male population was greatly reduced and damaged. Returning from the war to complete her degree, most wrote off my grandmother as doomed to become an old maid.

The main challenge while making this opera, was to create a work with sufficient emotional gravitas to equate the Third Battle of Ypres, whose centenary falls during the performances, including the battle of Passchendaele, the worst of all those muddy bloodbaths. We will tell the story of a Flemish nurse and a Wallonian soldier (a French speaker) representing the two sides of Belgium. Additionally there are two historical French figures. Maurice Jaspart, a young clarinettist who lost his arm serving at Verdun, and the composer, Joseph Boulnois, who served as an orderly, dying from the Spanish Flu, three weeks shy of the Armistice.

We will perform it in Canberra at the High Court of Australia on October 10; in Poperinge, the hospital town next to Ypres on October 19; at the Australian Embassy in Paris on October 20; and finally in Hirson, France, on the border of Wallonian Belgium and the site of a WW1 German hospital, on October 21.

The Healers is a thank-you to my grandmother, whose early prediction was correct. I have a strong sense she will be watching over me as I conduct the Orchestre de Picardie in the concerts in France and Belgium, wearing her Red Cross armband.

The Healers is at the High Court of Australia, Canberra, October 10 as part of The Flowers of War.