By Debbie Marshall
Beatrice Nasmyth, Mary MacLeod Moore and Elizabeth Montizambert provided their readers with an insightful, moving, funny and compelling body of observations on the devastating First World War.
LONDON, England, August 1914. A crowd gathered in the shadow of the giant sculpted lions of Trafalgar Square to watch an anti-war demonstration led by labour activist and member of Parliament Keir Hardie. Mary MacLeod Moore was in the crowd, struggling to see above the sea of caps and wide-brimmed ladies’ hats. Despite the humid weather, the elderly Hardie strode across the platform, his white moustache and beard bristling. He begged the crowd to prevent England from going to war with Germany. “Down with the rule of brute force! Down with war! Up with the peaceful rule of the people!” he shouted.
To Mary, it was almost incomprehensible that the murder of Archduke Francis Ferdinand, only a footnote in most newspapers a month ago, had led England to this point. Yet the facts were clear. The murder of the Austrian Archduke had started a chain reaction that had led Germany to declare war on Serbia, France, and Russia. Some years before, Britain — concerned about the growth of the German empire — had made a complicated set of treaties, including a promise to protect Belgium’s neutrality. Now German troops were in Belgium, en route to France. Britain demanded that Germany withdraw from the tiny country. Germany refused to respond. All eyes were now on Parliament. Would the government lead the country into war?
Keir Hardie was adamant that it should not. He believed that the impact of a European conflict would fall hardest on the poorest of the poor. The illegitimate son of a servant from Lanarkshire, Hardie had helped support his family when he was only eight years old, working as a delivery boy. He never attended school, but was taught to read by his mother. By seventeen, he was working twelve-hour days in the mines. Later, he established a union at the colliery and in 1880 led the first strike of Lanarkshire miners. Dismissed after the strike, Hardie became a journalist and fought for miners’ rights. In 1892, he was elected to Parliament as the country’s first socialist MP. The saint of unpopular causes, he promoted self-rule in India and women’s and workers’ rights.
Mary MacLeod Moore agreed with Hardie’s support for women’s suffrage and his compassion for the poor. However, as a soldier’s daughter and avid imperialist, she parted ways with pacifists. “All parties have forgotten their differences, if one accepts the Socialists of the Labour party who are ready to beg for peace with dishonour rather than war,” she would later write. “They speak with the only alien voice, and fortunately, the unity existing in the House of Commons makes their illogical and un-patriotic demands of none effect.” (August 22, 1914) As far as Mary was concerned, Hardie was a traitor and “had no business to be an M.P.” (December 12, 1914)
Most of the crowd at Trafalgar Square shared her distrust of the labour leader. “[E]ven those in the gathering who were opposed to the speakers gave them fair play and listened to their speeches until patience could stand no more, when there was a counter-demonstration,” she observed (MacLeod Moore August 22, 1914). As punches flew, the police moved in. At that moment, a thunderstorm broke. The rain bucketed down, dispersing the crowd and leaving the pro- and anti-war forces to fight another time.
The next day was a bank holiday, that strange British tradition in which banks are closed and a public holiday declared. Bank holidays usually provided working-class people with a rare opportunity to relax with their families — but not this time. “As a rule, the people are merry-making. On Monday they walked the streets in quiet anxiety. Outside the House of Commons where Sir Edward Grey was making his wonderful speech, the crowd gathered and peered through the iron railings watching with painful interest as the Members and the journalists and District Messengers came and went through Palace Yard. When [Prime Minister] Asquith drove through the gates at six o’clock there was a rush to cheer him,” wrote Mary. “It was a glorious day of sunshine and warmth, and it was strange to see the people who are usually away enjoying the country or the sea, strolling up and down, reading the ‘extras,’ as they appeared, and waiting, waiting, waiting, for news of what was to happen next.” Crowds had also gathered outside the German embassy, where only a few weeks before, the King and Queen of England had been guests of honour. Now the embassy was empty, the ambassador and his wife recalled to Germany.
At midnight, the waiting was over. The British government announced that it had declared war on Germany. Mary’s friend, the poet Alfred Noyes, described the strange, pervasive calm with which the news was received, not “in a riot of flags and bands,” but “in silence with a mustering of men” (MacLeod Moore August 29, 1914). The silence didn’t last long — by evening, crowds of men and women were gathered on street corners, singing patriotic songs and waving flags as if cheering on invisible troops.
“In all the rush and clamor of this crowded week, the terrible tension, and the dark shadow of coming mourning and privation, two facts stand out, so clearly and brilliantly that they should illumine the pages of the history that is to be written,” wrote Mary. “They are the magnificent unity of the whole British race in the face of adversity, and the calm and freedom from hysteria of people and Press alike.” (August 29, 1914)
Unfortunately, the “calm and freedom from hysteria” Mary described was more bravado than bravery. Few Britons had ever directly experienced war. The only conflict in recent memory had been the Boer War, which had been fought successfully by a force of approximately four hundred and fifty thousand (of whom twenty-two thousand died, mostly of disease). Many still remembered the triumphal parades and celebrations that accompanied the relief of Mafeking, a minor battle but one that had instilled national confidence in British military superiority. Britain was destined for victory, at least according to the tens of thousands of young men who were already overwhelming recruiting stations across the country. They would quickly teach the Germans a lesson and be home for Christmas.
According to Dick Barron, an early recruit: “We were all patriotic in those days. I mean, most of the colonial wars had been very successful, a third of the whole landmass of the earth belonged to the British Empire. We knew nothing about wars of course, not the sordid side. I’d seen pictures of the Zulu War where we just captured them — after all they were natives and they were fighting with spears. We didn’t see the poor buggers that were wounded and lying there, or bodies stripped of anything worthwhile. No, soldiers were glamorous.” (van Emden and Humphries 1998)
Mary echoed Dick Barron’s early sentiments. As she would write to her friend Calvin, “My brother is in the Army, the last of 260 years of soldiers, of which we are proud, and his sister would like to go too if they took women!” (MacLeod Moore 1916). A combination of war fever and intense patriotism gripped Mary. It would take a long time before she would see the war as anything less than a heroic venture in which British knights in khaki were fighting valiantly for King and Empire.
PARIS, France, August 1914. To Elizabeth, the three days following Germany’s declaration of war against France had completely transformed Paris. “Events have moved so rapidly that it is difficult to realize that this time last week the autobuses were still running, the boulevards were still blazing with electric lights every evening, while the cafes were black with people eagerly discussing the news of the war declared by Austria against Serbia,” she wrote.
On Saturday came the announcement that France would mobilize at once. Instantly the aspect of the city changed. The private motors disappeared off the streets like magic, every vehicle being requisitioned by the government for transport purposes. Those still seen flew about at lightning speed conveying soldiers, officers and officials of all sorts to the different stations. Deep and prolonged cheering greeted the appearance of four Red Cross nurses en route to the front. Apart from the enthusiasm displayed by bands of youths under the enlistment age of nineteen, who paraded the streets waving flags and singing the Marseillaise, the quiet orderly demeanor of the crowds was remarkable. It is difficult to find words in which to do justice to the extraordinary courage and devotion shown by the women of France in this terrible crisis.… They are quiet, composed, sometimes even submitting a brave smile to the children, and if there were no heavy eyelids telling of sleepless, anxious nights, one could hardly realize that practically nearly every household has lost the husband, father or brothers.” (Montizambert August 25, 1914)
Three hundred thousand soldiers had responded to the compulsory military draft and left Paris for the front. Soon, there would be an exodus of another kind. As German forces marched towards the capital, the French government would move to Bordeaux, and over three hundred thousand women, two hundred thousand children, and two hundred thousand men would desert Paris (Gilbert 2001). Those flooding out of the city came from the ranks of the middle and upper classes and could afford to move to safer lodgings on the coast. The people who remained behind were openly contemptuous of those who had left. Yet it was perfectly understandable that any who could escape would choose to do so. Many could still remember the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, in which the city was encircled by invading forces and the citizens had been forced to eat rats in order to survive (Winter and Roberts 1997). It would be hard to begrudge anyone who was attempting to avoid a similar fate.
Parisians weren’t the only ones leaving the capital. Paris was the centre of fashion, art, and culture, and wealthy North Americans almost always included the city on their European jaunts. Now those with foreign passports surged out of the capital as quickly as their first-class train tickets could take them. Some were fleeing the German invasion, while others were returning home to enlist. Elizabeth’s lanky blond cousin Harold Gibb had been visiting her when war was declared. A chaplain with the Royal Irish Dragoon Guards, he was en route home to England to rejoin his regiment (Montizambert September 1, 1914).
“Paris is like a house where the casual guests have gone and left the home to its real owners,” wrote Elizabeth. “One hears French spoken in the streets — a thing to be remarked in the month of August in ordinary years — and Paris is ‘chez elle.’ And as soon as the foreigners had fled, all those places of entertainment which exist solely for their benefit, and are usually run with foreign capital, were obliged to close. In the shock of very real events the city shook off the pose of showing her worst side to the world as if there were no other. There is no posing now. Parisians are showing what they are and what they always have been underneath a mask of more or less flippant indifference as to what is thought of them.” (Montizambert September 18, 1914)
The disappearance of tourists and well-to-do Parisians had a tsunami-like effect on the local economy. Before they left the city, many business owners closed their companies and dismissed their employees. The ones that remained open suddenly had no customers. The result was mass unemployment. Within a few weeks of the outbreak of war, six-hundred thousand Parisians were out of work, approximately one-third of the city’s remaining population. The fashion industry was one of the hardest-hit sectors. “It is a difficult enough task to write about fashions when everyone’s mind is filled with sterner realities than chiffons,” observed Elizabeth (Montizambert September 28, 1914). “Yet it has been pointed out that unless some of the big industrial centres, where work is given to thousands of people in the fabrication of feminine garments can be kept open, the misery of the working classes will be even greater than it is at present. Many of the big dressmakers are keeping open at a loss and [have] given their employees half pay to keep them from starving, so the woman who economizes by not ordering her Paris frocks this year in order to have more money to give to charity may really be defeating her own ends.” As German troops drew ever-nearer to the city, however, even the few women who could afford them were losing their taste for evening dresses of “gauze exquisitely decorated with colored silk butterflies” or bridal gowns covered in “tiny circles of deftly embroidered swallows.” For many, black was the colour of the day, and dressing extravagantly was in poor taste while French soldiers were risking their lives.
Now thousands of female clothing workers — from well-paid Parisian seamstresses and furriers to sweat-shop workers — were out of work. To make matters worse, in the absence of male breadwinners, many women had suddenly become the main providers for their families. French soldiers could contribute little to their families’ budgets. They were paid only one franc a day, at a time when a pack of cigarettes cost nearly half a franc (Summer 2009). New solutions had to be found to meet the problem of female unemployment, if families were not to starve.
In late August, Elizabeth interviewed a woman who had some answers to that problem. Dr. Madeleine Pelletier was a well-known physician, psychiatrist and social activist. In the open society of France, she was one of many avant-garde lesbian intellectuals who freely explored new ideas in the bohemian cafes of Montparnasse. The two women were a study in contrasts — slender, sophisticated Elizabeth in her short-waisted ankle-length afternoon dress and the round, short-haired Pelletier in her man’s suit and bowler hat. Yet despite outward appearances, they were remarkably similar — both were single, independent, passionately curious individuals who were unafraid of exploring new ideas. Madeleine was also the type of woman to whom Elizabeth was often attracted. Like her other unorthodox friend Cicely Hamilton, Pelletier was a radical thinker who campaigned for women’s rights. “Dr. Pelletier is an ardent feministe and she points out to the authorities the many ways in which women may be used to fill the posts left vacant,” wrote Elizabeth. “Among the occupations quoted by this valiant lady are bread making, cooking, the transport of food and its distribution, laundry work, the cleaning and repairing of military uniforms, so important for the health of the troops, and the transport of ammunition which was partly confided to women during the Balkan war. Dr. Pelletier also thinks that women could be employed in the auxiliary army so as to allow of the men now used for this purpose being sent to the front. She estimates that it would not be difficult to recruit 200,000 women for this purpose.” (Montizambert September 8, 1914)
What women like Pelletier proposed was called “dilution,” a system in which women took jobs formerly held by men, freeing those men for military service. During the early days of the war, this idea was rejected by governments and military leaders in all the warring nations. But when the first wave of casualties began to appear, dilution would be taken much more seriously, and journalists such as Elizabeth would eagerly promote it.
The above is an excerpt from Firing Lines: Three Canadian Women Write the First World War, by Debbie Marshall with a foreword by Anna Maria Tremonti, was published by Dundurn in 2017. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.