Mary Russell’s War, week three

On the centenary of the Great War, a journal has come to light of weekly entries from a very young Mary Russell. It begins, appropriately enough, on August 4, 1914, when Russell is living with her parents and brother in San Francisco. This is week three. (To read from the beginning, click here.)

SMS Nurnberg, Sunk by the British off the Falklands Islands, Dec 1914.

SMS Nurnberg, Sunk by the British off the Falklands Islands, Dec 1914.

18 August 1914

I was at the Greenfield house last night—the daughter, Florence, was more or less assigned me as a “friend” when we moved back to San Francisco two years ago, since our mothers share many interests and organisations, although I find more to talk about with Flo’s brother Frank—and found the family almost completely detached from the War. Mrs Greenfield seems more concerned at the potential disruption of their travel plans for next summer than any political turmoil or loss of life: she is quite convinced that fighting will be over by Christmas, but worries over damage to monuments and shortages of wine and fois gras. When I told her that in Father’s opinion, the War would be a long one, she merely gave one of her rather ear-splitting laughs and told me not to worry my pretty head. I left before I could say anything rude (which would invariably subject me to one of Mother’s lectures) and collected Frankie for a rather violent game of kick-the-can.

The Parents’ ongoing argument, I have determined, concerns the War. Mother wants to go home, to England. Father absolutely refuses to permit it. Or rather (I’ve located an attic corner with a thin section of plaster through which sound travels from Mother’s dressing room) he refuses to permit her to take Levi and me with her. And although the two of them have spent long periods separated by the Atlantic, with Mother and us on one side and Father coming and going from his business concerns in America, she has never been separated from Levi and me for more than a few days at a time. And as their overheard conversations have made clear, she does not intend to be now.

So it looks as if we are going to be stuck in neutral territory—America—until the War is over. (On one point they agree: this will not be a matter of weeks, despite Mrs Greenfield.) When I told all this to Levi (who although only nine, is nonetheless more intelligent than most of the adults I know) he very rightly pointed out that, as half-English citizens, we had a responsibility to serve the King in any way we could. And (as an article in the Chronicle described last week) if a woman on the train from Antwerp could discover a German spy on the point of releasing carrier pigeons hidden in a bag, surely we could do no less.

So two nights ago, when we heard four brief blasts of a ship’s horn, we both knew it had to be the German cruiser that has been lurking out at sea, waiting to fill its coal stores. A newspaper article five days ago reported that the Leipsic had wirelessed for permission to enter the harbour, and had also sent ashore two of its sailors for medical attention, so we knew it would slip in sooner or later, and we were ready. I met Levi at the front door, and we made it almost all the way down Gough Street before a patrol spotted the pale coat Levi had insisted on wearing, and took us home again. Mother was not happy. Father pretended to be angry, but I could see that he was also amused. It will be difficult to slip away for the next couple of days, to keep an eye on the Leipsic, although it is reported to be lying between Fort Mason and Alcatras Island, so I may be able to see it from the rooftop with Father’s field glasses, once Mother goes to her meeting this afternoon.

I am cross with Levi. I fear that my brother, bright though he may be, lacks the instincts of a criminal—or of a good detective.

(Which reminds me—The Strand has reached us, only a day or two late, and there is to be a new Sherlock Holmes story beginning next month! A serial novel that begins, “The Tragedy of Birlstone”…!  Oh, how is it possible to simultaneously loathe and adore a thing—a long story, but one that demands months of waiting?  It is petty of me, I know, but I do hope the magazine continues to cross the Atlantic without delay during the hostilities. At least during the period that The Valley of Fear is being published.)

As if to confirm the need for citizen spies, this morning’s Chronicle brought the War’s proximity into focus. I shall copy the article:


MONTEREY, August 17—Firing at sea was heard this evening by J. Lewis, superintendent of instruction at the Y.W.C.A. camp at Asilmar. It was in the direction of the heads, near Santa Cruz, northwest of here. A heavy fog has obscured the view.

Lewis says that the firing started at 7:20 and lasted until after 8 o’clock. It is believed the French cruiser Montelam, which left San Diego Saturday, has engaged with the German cruiser Nurnberg.

Several others at Asilmar, Pacific Grove and New Monterey have reported hearing heavy firing at sea.

I believe that the War will require service from us all before the end, even fourteen year-old girls.


  1. Merrily Taylor on August 18, 2014 at 7:04 am

    Well of course, young Russell would try to play a part in the War and lead her young brother into the escapade – not to mention find Flo a bore. A harbinger of things to come! Who knew that there was battleship action in WWI off the coast of California?
    I am finding Miss Russell’s diary fascinating, but then I always do!

  2. Skip Collinge on August 18, 2014 at 7:32 am

    Thanks so much Laurie for bringing Mary Russell more alive though her personal diary. Between this and “Locked Rooms”, Mary’s San Francisco comes alive to the reader. Skip

  3. Margaret Wood on August 18, 2014 at 9:27 am

    Interesting. Except for one year during WWII my home was in Los Angeles. I remember clearly the worries about Japanese subs near the coast and one feared but not real (I think) light shelling. That morning I rose as 5:30 to shower and dress to go to UCLA Only to have a “warden” pounding on the front door and screaming at me for not maintaining blackout. I don’t remember hearing or reading more than casual mention of the nearness of foreign naval ships during WWI.

  4. John Sims on August 18, 2014 at 3:05 pm

    These are simply delightful! In addition, they remind me that it’s been a whole year since I reread “Locked Rooms” so I’m due for another trip through one of my favorites of Ms King’s books, Thanks for the war diary entries!

  5. robin on August 18, 2014 at 4:17 pm

    Was it really called Asilmar then? What led to the name change to Asilomar?

    • Laurie King on August 23, 2014 at 9:22 am

      Robin, that’s just how the Chronicle–there were a lot of typos in these articles, not mine!

  6. Bea on August 19, 2014 at 5:25 pm

    14-year-old Mary Russell’s journal during WWI is fascinating and vivid; I am especially drawn to it given my family’s history.
    My mother was French, born toward the beginning of the Great War, and her father was an army Lt. Colonel. When my newborn mother became seriously ill, there were no doctors – they were all at the front tending to the wounded. My grandmother had to seek medical attention by writing letters to a doctor and then waiting for his reply to come by uncertain mail delivery. Thanks to [my mother’s] fairly amazing survival, several generations of family now exist.
    Looking forward to Russell’s next entry!

    • Laurie King on August 20, 2014 at 7:15 am

      Bea, what a harrowing experience for your poor grandmother!

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