MEMOIRS: HOME FRONT

On the 80th anniversary of the Armistice, a new collection of diaries and letters shows the Great War through women's eyes
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The Independent Culture
1914

The head waiter moved about, speaking in a low voice, and, when he reached our table, it was to tell us that the Archduke Franz-Ferdinand (nephew of the Emperor Franz-Joseph) and his wife had been assassinated at Sarajevo - within an hour or two of the tragedy becoming known Budapest had changed to a city of mourning. The few people in the streets moved quietly and spoke in hushed voices. Budapest

Beatrice Kelsey, English governess, 1887-1975

For me the beginning of the war was a torchlit tattoo on Salis- bury plain. The Last Post followed, and then I think somehow we all knew.

Violet Thurston, served in Belgium with the St John Ambulance Brigade

The Town became a boiling cauldron. Stones were thrown at the English Embassy and the glass splinters tinkled down on to the raging, screaming crowd below. Mounted police drove the masses down the Linden. People screamed because everyone else was screaming. Berlin

Asta Nielson, German film star, 1881-1972

We walk back through the Jardin des Plantes, how peaceful it is, how lovely! It's a sacrilege to unleash war, murder, as Prussia has done, when nature is so beautiful! Paris

Louise Deletang, seamstress

Although [I was] 16 years of age at the time, England had been at war three months before I knew. I was in domestic service on a farm near the River Humber and one day as I was attending to ducklings a shell whizzed over my head from the direction of the river.

Olive May Taylor, later served with WAAC, 1898-1988

During the terrible days of September I knew my husband was involved in the Battle of the Marne and became very concerned about him. Then I thought to myself: the Marne isn't far from Paris, is it? So I donned my smartest hat and dress and highest-heeled shoes, climbed in the van and drove northwards. The nearer I got, the worse the destruction and desolation became. Alas, poor France!

Eventually I reached an HQ. When I espied a good-looking young captain I climbed from the van, making sure he more than glimpsed my ankles and legs as I did so. I sashayed over to him, gave my husband's name, serial number and regiment and said: "I want to see him please."

I have never seen anybody so amazed as that young captain. He said he couldn't understand how on earth I'd managed to get there and my request was an impossible one. I just stood there and said: "I want to see my husband."

Persistence - and maybe my legs - paid off. Eventually the captain located his whereabouts and sent a soldier to fetch him. When my husband arrived he told the officer he'd long since given up being astonished by anything I did and he wasn't in the least surprised to see me. During the wait for his arrival, I had a most enjoyable dinner with the young captain. Paris

Blanche Thirieau, factory manager, 1880-1956

1915

On 1 April 1915 I stood with my sister at half past five in the morning in front of the gates of the Spandau Munitions Works. Soon a sergeant came with the friendly words: "Right, women, it's down to work!" He shouted at a colleague who had rather a large behind: "You'll soon get rid of your fat arse!"

He was right. Women and girls were worked like animals. Steam, dirt, unspeakable vulgarity and barbaric slave driving ruled. In the first week alone three women lost fingers of their right hands in the casing of the engines - but the pace of work was not slowed, nor was a guard attached. Germany

Anonymous

I was born in a Suffolk village and my father was employed by a Duke of a large estate. War seemed far away from our village, but almost overnight the Mansion was turned into a Red Cross Hospital and the wounded began to arrive. We got to know them - Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, Scottish, Irish and, of course, English. In my autograph book, one of the Scotsmen wrote:

"If I ever join in wedlock,

And the chances are but few,

I will wed you Edith Airey,

Or a girl the same as you.

And when the war is over,

And vanquished are our foes,

I will come back to Easton

And wed my English rose.

Then through life's dark journey,

We everything will share.

The thistle and the English rose

Will make a happy pair."

Edith Airey, land girl who later served in WRAF, 1898-1972

The last movements of the Mendelssohn Concerto and the Intermezzo of the Cavalleria Rusticana, Handel's "Largo", were always much loved in hospital. Literally, music is what the men crave, even when they are dying.

Lena Ashwell, who inaugurated London troop concerts, 1872-1957

Out of the queer green haze that hung over everything came an unending stream of Tommies, stumbling, staggering, gasping, all a livid green colour. We prepared quantities of salt and water to help them vomit.

A heavy green liquid resulted, and we thanked God that they seemed relieved. We noticed that those wearing the South African medal had clung to their rifles and equipment, but the young boys had left the trenches without theirs.

IM Lewis, nurse in France during the first gas attack

There were six Germans at the station today, two wounded and four prisoners. Individually I always like them, and it is useless to say I don't. After all, one can't expect a whole nation of mad dogs. A Scotchman said, "The ones opposite us [in the trenches] were a very respectable lot of men."

Sarah MacNaughtan, novelist who served in Belgium, died 1916

I've been given a couple of Russian prisoners to help me, but I can't talk to them, and they're useless. The kitchen is nothing to write home about either: the soup is stirred with a tennis racket.

Anonymous

Nurse Cavell's funeral. It passed up Victoria Street in the still misty sunlight, and we got out onto our balcony to watch. On a level with our window, two white butterflies were fluttering just above it. Queer.

Viscountess Rhondda, publisher, died 1958

I heard afterwards that I had been picked up at dusk by a row- ing boat. The little boat had transferred me to The Bluebell. I was handed up to it along with a lot of dead bodies, but the midshipman who handed me on board said, "I rather think there's some life in this woman; you'd better try and see." So they did.

Viscountess Rhondda. 1,198 men, women and children died in the sinking of the Lusitania, May 8

An awful blizzard began to blow. All day we laboured on and on, slipping and slithering on the icy paths. When night came, only half way up the mountain, and the wet and the misery was awful, too awful to explain. This terrible suffering made children of us all again. We cowered together, holding each other's hands through the long dark bitter night.

Gertrude Holland, retreat from Serbia.

1916

British losses during the Somme offensive on 1 July - 20,000 died - remain a world record for a single day.

Dear Mr Eckhard

I am very, very grateful to you for your letter of the 25th received this morning, and for the sympathy from you and "those who are left". I can quite understand the reason of the delay in getting any information. I wrote to the Chaplain attached to the 12th Manchesters and I am hoping I may hear through him, that my dear Boy's body was buried, and where. He meant so much to my sisters and me, for whether at home or outside his home, he was, from a little boy, always the same cheery, unselfish nature. Again thanking you for taking so much trouble.

Yours very truly,

Mary F Alderton

One woman with a very bad husband owned frankly that she would not be sorry if he were killed. "But I 'spose he'll be spared, and others as'd be missed'll be taken, for that's the way of things," said she. "It's the only time as I and the children 'ad peace. The war's been a 'appy time for us."

Mrs CS Peel, journalist who served at the Ministry of Food, 1872-1934

You know, they won't let wives come to the Front. Women can come into the War Zone, on various pretexts, but wives cannot. So wives are forbidden, because lowering to the morale, but women are winked at, because they cheer and refresh the troops.

Ellen N LaMotte, American who served in French hospitals

My Own dear Hubby,

Oh darling it seems so terrible if only it would end and send you back to me. I should know you were safe, it seems ages and ages since your dear face was before me and when one hears bad news it makes you feel so downhearted - excuse this scrawl as I've got Baby in my arms asleep and it's rather difficult.

Your everloving everlonging and devoted to you wife and Babs.

Anonymous

1917

The Zeppelin dived slowly at first as only the foremost ballonet was on fire. Those deaths must be the most dramatic in the world's history. They fell - a cone of blazing wreckage thousands of feet - watched by millions of their enemies.

This afternoon I went out to Barnet. The wreck covers only 30ft of ground and the dead are under a tarpaulin.

I hope they will be buried with full military honours. They were brave men. RIP!

Muriel Dayrell-Browning, intelligence operative, 1879-1933

When the great moment came and the abdication of the Czar was announced it was a complete anti-climax. Nothing happened at all. No one appeared to care in the least.

Katherine Hodges, awarded Russian medal of St George, 1888-1982

Dr Le B's hands, encased in rubber gloves, were swift and sure. He always worked with a cigarette hanging limply from the corner of his mouth. It was part of my job to keep lighting him fresh ones. At first when the ashes fell into an open wound over which he was working, I asked him frantically what I should do about it. He went on calmly, muttering, "N'importe ca. C'est sterile."

Shirley Millard, American who served in France with the Red Cross

August 1. Yesterday morning Capt C was brought in - badly hit in the tummy and arm. Half the Regiment have been to see him - he is loved by everybody. He is just on the borderline still. He tries hard to live; he was going to be married.

August 5. Capt C died yesterday. After the blessing one piper came to the graveside and played a lament. Then his Colonel, who particularly loved him, stood and saluted him in his grave. It was fine, but horribly choky.

KE Luard, nurse at Passchendaele

1918

I made my way across the canteen floor to the piano and struck up a few chords until the hands of the clock reminded us that Roll Call was at nine. There was a general move, and they filed out, sometimes with the shyness of a schoolboy, into the darkness, and the horrors that waited them. One lingered.

"Thank you, Miss, especially for the bit I asked for myself - it was a touch of Heaven after Hell."

A look of inexpressible weariness came over his face.

Maude Onions, WAAC signaller, served in France

At eight o'clock in the morning of November 11th, 1918, I tapped out the official message to the armies in the field, which helped to bring peace to a war-weary world: "Hostilities will cease at 11.00 November 11th aaa. Troops will stand fast at the line reached at the hour which will be reported to Army Headquarters aaa. There will be no intercourse of any description with the enemy aaa. Further instructions follow."

Maude Onions

Peace celebrations now seem to me a silly farce. To say Germany has deserved all her trouble etc is nothing to do with it. I cannot feel we should rejoice. At dusk yesterday the fireworks started. I stood and watched them all round the horizon and at first felt only like crying.

All the frivolity and silliness is probably only reaction, but what a nobler, finer England it seemed while the war was on. Do we really need another big trial to call out the good in us, or will it gradually assert itself as the world settles down a bit? And why does no one ever sympathise with Germany? Bad look out for us all if God were so unsympathetic.

Viola Bawtree, Sutton, 1883-1973

Edited extracts from 'The Virago Book of Women and The Great War', edited by Joyce Marlow, price pounds 17.99

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