Mary Russell’s War, part four

On the centenary of the Great War, a journal has come to light with 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 four. (The journal illuminates that portion of Miss Russell’s memoirs called Locked Rooms. To read “Mary Russell’s War” from the beginning, click here.)

A Maxwell

A Maxwell

25 August 1914

Reading the headlines, a rational person must wonder precisely what it means to be a “neutral” country. We in California are not at war, but at the same time, even a casual observer (Is there such a thing, in this age?) can see that the United States are merely undeclared allies of England. It is the unspoken truth behind the wording of such newspaper articles as this:


Fear of Seizure by the German May Halt Departure of the Royal Mail Liner Moana.

The German cruiser Leipzig, which left port early yesterday morning after taking on coal and stores, ostensibly bound for the German port of Apia, via Honolulu, was still off port at 9 o’clock when spoken by the incoming liner Wilhemina.…

Laden with a million-dollar cargo, the Moana would make a rich prize for the German and, it is said in shipping circles, would be just the seizure that would aid the Leipzig, both as a shield and a coal supply ship if the foreigner intends to proceed to Apia. The Leipzig has only coal enough to steam 3500 miles, and it is more than 4000 miles to the German port.

In the event that it is the intention of the Leipzig to continue her cruise on the Pacific coast she would need plenty of fuel, and to this end might lie in wait for coal-laden windjammers and steamers which at frequent intervals come here from Australia.

That was Wednesday. Thursday’s paper all but accused the German-registered steamer Mazatlan of plotting to transfer much of the coal and provisions it had taken on board into the Nurnberg. Now, I am no friend of the Kaiser, but regarding America’s so-called neutrality: were the country of registry to be Great Britain, would this question even arise?

Levi and I asked Papa to take us down to Pier 17 so we could look at the Mazatlan, but Papa refused. Had he suggested a jolly ride in Papa’s new Maxwell, it would have been an easy matter to steer the outing towards the waterfront, but overt reconnaissance of a possible War Ship was unacceptable. Levi will never learn, that with Mama it is possible to be direct, but when it comes to Papa, particularly when he is in a temper as he has been this week, the oblique approach is better.

Matters appeared to have reached a head on Saturday, all of which Papa spent behind the closed door of his library, typing furiously without so much as a break for luncheon. When he came out, late in the afternoon, I contrived to glance within, but saw no sign of his long labours. This can only mean that he had locked his manuscript away in the safe.

Note: locate a safe-cracker willing to teach the trade to a young girl.

When he came out, he went upstairs for a bath and to shave his beard (both of which he normally does in the morning). When he came down, he poured himself a drink half again as generous as his usual serving, and he gave Mama a kiss on the back of her neck. I note this, because the past two weeks have seen the two of them decidedly cool, and although I have no wish to encounter the sloppy emotions parents occasionally reveal, I admit that it is more desirable to have parents in accord than parents at odds. My own are, in general, of an amiable and co-operative disposition, although there have been times, particularly before we moved back here from England in 1912, when walking around them was like sailing into port through a field of mines.

Sunday Levi and I took breakfast on our own, with Mah (our cook) in the kitchen. Sunday afternoon, Papa took us down to Golden Gate Park, where he produced a quite marvellous Chinese kite, which rode the stiff breeze like some magical creature.

Monday seemed almost ordinary, by comparison with the last two weeks.

The war news seems to be either triumphant or disastrous, depending on which headline one reads. Last night, I made the mistake of asking Papa how long it might be before we had a chance to travel through the new canal in Panama, since the Germans seemed to be determined to lock us behind a fence of warships. My innocent question led to an hour spent with the new War Map (19¢ from the San Francisco Chronicle: is this not war profiteering?) spread out over the table in his library. This question, it seems, is why Japan’s entry into the War yesterday was such a blessing, particularly for those of us on the Pacific Coast. The Japanese navy is keeping the German Pacific fleet bottled up in their port on the southern peninsula of China, leaving only two ships—the Nurnberg and the Leipzig—to threaten coastal cities and make raids on Allied shipping.

That is something of a relief, although even the presence of two ships will prevent the Russell family from sailing for the Panama Canal any time soon.

However, the week’s news has also provided me with a weapon against the parents. The next time a lecture looms on the horizon, I shall be ready with a very different article with which to distract an uncomfortable parent:


Youth Steals the Object of His Affections, but Is Captured in San Jose.

There follows the tale of a 17 year old nurse-girl kidnapped at point of revolver (from Baker Street, not all that far from here) and driven to San Jose, where the man planned to force a county clerk to issue a marriage license, and a minister to perform a marriage. “Throughout the seizure of Miss Broadhurst was of the most exciting nature. Screams and shots aroused the entire neighborhood…”

This young man does not sound like a Walter Scott hero to me—“Faithful in love and dauntless in war.” However, he does seem potentially useful, as a means of loosing me rapidly from the parental presence—certainly when it comes to Papa, who turns quite endearingly pink when certain topics come before us.


  1. Carol Rogers on August 25, 2014 at 7:19 am

    Love it all. My favorite characters in my favorite books since the first. Thank you for a glimpse into Mary’s early life. It makes me sad to know she will lose her family, but I love the glimpse anyway.

  2. Merrily Taylor on August 25, 2014 at 7:30 am

    Wonderful story and I’m continuing to learn things about WWI that were unknown to me. I’ve lived all my life in the east and had no idea that there was all this activity in the Pacific during that period. And love the glimpses of Mary’s family life during a period that was gradually unveiled in LOCK!
    I am wondering why she thinks does the kidnapping of the young girl is going to mean more freedom for her – does she think her Papa is going to let her have a gun?

  3. Laurie King on August 25, 2014 at 8:58 am

    Merrily, I think she’s merely glad to have a potential red cape with which to distract the parental units, if necessary.

    • Merrily Taylor on August 25, 2014 at 10:20 am

      Laurie, ah, I see! My parents would have read about another teenage girl in the neighborhood being kidnapped and locked me up until I went to college. But then, I was an only child….(-:

      • KT on August 27, 2014 at 11:26 am

        I had similar thoughts to Merrily. Those were the kinds of articles I would have tried to hide from my dad, lest he lock me up to keep me safe.

        Love these journal entries. Fascinating stuff.

  4. Sandy Brewster on August 25, 2014 at 9:54 am

    That tactic may backfire on her…although it will work as a temporary distraction, it may curtail freedom when she finds she wants it…no telling how many evil young men lurk in their very own neighborhood.

    • Laurie King on August 25, 2014 at 10:08 am

      What fascinated me about that Chronicle article was the light-hearted approach to this kidnaped girl. Can you imagine a newspaper 100 years later using that Lochinvar headline and blithely remarking on the excitement?

      • Merrily Taylor on August 25, 2014 at 10:24 am

        Laurie, no, I can’t – in fact today he’d be locked up for assault and kidnapping!

  5. Chuck Haberlein on November 21, 2014 at 11:24 am

    This is a wonderful series … very nice to have a contemporary, and distant feel of the tragic events then unfolding in Europe … and their more local ripples.
    The American steamship Wilhelmina, which Mary mentions early in this entry, went on to have a busy wartime career once the U.S. got into the Great War. There’s a bit of detail, and photos, here:

    • Laurie King on November 21, 2014 at 5:04 pm

      Thanks for the link–you have to wonder how any of these ships survived a war!

      • Chuck Haberlein on November 21, 2014 at 6:53 pm

        For all the ships sunk more were built, as the ship construction programs in both World Wars were immense (a lot of that work was done in the San Francisco Bay area). Of the ships that survived World War I, and the following two decades, many were lost during World War II. Those were very tough times for sailors, as well as for soldiers!

        • Merrily Taylor on November 21, 2014 at 7:22 pm

          They were indeed brave men. The idea of being out there in the open sea with hostile submarines lurking somewhere below is terrifying. The only thing equally terrifying is the idea of being IN one of the submarines, that wouldn’t have been my scene, either!

    • Merrily Taylor on November 21, 2014 at 5:19 pm

      Imagine surviving all those voyages and then being torpedoed in the SECOND World War. Seems unfair, somehow!

  6. Tracy Freeman on November 24, 2014 at 10:50 am

    Catching up on the series during the slow Thanksgiving week. Will need to reread Locked Rooms, I’ve only read it once.
    My grandfather was a Marine on the troop ships that crossed the Atlantic. I know little of him as he was gone before I was even born, and even less about the Great War. Seems so distant, like my grandfather. I’m enjoying the series and learning more about the time and the thoughts of a brilliant family as they work their way through what will turn out to be a long, terrible war.

    • Chuck Haberlein on November 25, 2014 at 5:11 pm


      If you are seeking information on your grandfather’s WWI service you might want to contact the National Personnel Records Center (see this internet page: If he was a member of the U.S. Marine Corps, his service record will be among the Center’s holdings on Naval personnel (the Marine Corps is part of the Navy). If you know which troop ship(s) he was involved with, feel free to contact me ( I worked for the U.S. Navy’s historical office for more than four decades, and have done lot of work on photographs of its World War I troop ships.

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