Le chemin des dames, the path of souls
A tribute to a couple of remarkable women in the great war 1914-1918: Lili Boulanger and Nelly Martyl.
A nurse runs.
A cellist plays a music
that no one can hear.
An unknown armed soldier
wanders in the loneliness
of a plowed land.
Two crossed destinies
Nurse-singer Nelly Martyl boosted the morale of the troops – a curious expression – by singing opera arias behind the battlefields. As to Lili Boulanger, who was she singing for in 1918, on her deathbed, when she whispered the last bars of her Pie Jesu as she no longer had the strength to go to her piano or even to hold a pencil?
Buried in the cemetery of Montmartre, Lili Boulanger has been resting in the silent world of the deceased for a century, alongside her sister Nadia. Back in 1953, just a few dozen meters from Lili’s grave, Nelly, the fairy of Verdun, had joined her, after a life devoted to helping the needy in her eponymous foundation, built in 1929 at 129 rue de Belleville in Paris. The building eventually succumbed to the wounds of time, the developers’ bulldozers having sadly erased its last traces in 2017.
While Lili Boulanger’s grave is still in bloom, Nelly’s burial site has been abandoned. However, scratching the foam lets her name reappear: Nelly Martyl née Martin, 1884-1953, widow of famed illustrator and painter Georges Scott. These women’s involvement in the Great War inspired my work. I set out on the scarred battlefields, with both a light and heavy heart, to meet these two ladies, these two souls
Some female stars of the period shared the patriotic craze by participating in the effort to entertain the soldiers within the framework of the Théâtre aux armées, founded by the painter Georges Scott.
Among these artists, opera singer Nelly Martyl, wife of Georges Scott. Far from the gilding and velvet of the Opéra-Comique, she began working as a volunteer nurse early on, at the Gare de l’Est hospital in Paris and in Artois, caring for injured « Poilus » returning from the front lines. In the summer of 1916, she joined the Verdun battlefield. Her courage and commitment commanded the admiration of the fighting troops. She gained the nickname of “The fairy of Verdun”. She was active on the Chemin des Dames in 1917 as well as in the Somme. Wounded and gassed, she was promoted to the rank of sergeant and decorated with the Croix de Guerre and the Légion d’Honneur.