Mary Russell’s War (five): a letter from the War Office

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 five. (To read from the beginning, click here.)

1 September 1914

The Germans continue their advance on Paris, despite the valiant efforts of Belgium. LOSSES ARE HEAVY ON BOTH SIDES, say the headlines. The French and English are lined up against the Kaiser along a vast line, digging in their toes against the push. CASUALTIES ON BOTH SIDES ARE APPALLING. Areoplanes, meanwhile, pass over their heads to bombs over Paris, hitting near the Gare de l’Est.

Meanwhile, here in the Pacific, British ships have taken the port of Apia from the Germans, which will give those two cruisers one fewer source of provisioning.   Without guns out to see, however, the papers are growing bored with War news, finding space instead for articles about the arrest of incompetent burglars: one who was caught when his snores woke the woman in the bed under which he had crawled to hide, and the other, arrested after he got stuck in the transom he was trying to climb through.

The residents of San Francisco do not seem much concerned with the War in Europe. Flo and her mother talk of nothing but Flo’s upcoming birthday party. Mother, being English, has other ideas, but the success of her chosen War Work (one can hear the capital letters when she says it)–raising money to buy aeroplanes for the English air defence–will rest more on the romance of flying than any desire of San Franciscans to wage war against the Hun.

On the other hand, Father has had a letter from the War Office (the American one.) It must have been sent to his office—had it been laid on the stand near the front door, I would now know what it said. Instead, all I saw was the insignia on the envelope as he removed it from his brief-case. He and Mother were closeted in the library for a good forty minutes—curse the builder of this house, who failed to leave a thin wall or piece of duct-work through which I could hear their conversation! When she emerged, she looked troubled, and moreover went directly into the garden with her secateurs to behead some roses, a sure sign of distress. Papa, meanwhile, remained behind closed doors. There was no pounding of the type-writer this time, merely silence and the odour of his pipe, then polite conversation over the dinner table.

Oh, why do parents persist in keeping things from their children? It is a very foolish way to run a family, based on the assumption that minors lack either intelligence or common sense. Until recently, I would have thought this a mistake they would not make. It is disappointing to discover otherwise.

Until I can uncover the source of all these familial mysteries, I amuse myself by collecting examples of War-time absurdities. Such as the following article:

Rudyard Kipling Is Arrested on Suspicion.

LONDON—Rudyard Kipling, who lives near Brighton, on the south coast, was arrested as a suspicious person while taking one of his regular constitutionals along the sea front.

He entered into the fun of the thing: in fact he was delighted at being mistaken for a possible German spy, inasmuch as it proved to him in a most convincing manner that a vigilant watch is being kept.

Kipling was detained for some time, during which he was searched, but eventually his identity was established, and he was set free with apologies.

I admit, the article made me feel more sympathetic towards Mr Kipling: I had not thought him a man with much sense of humour.


  1. Merrily Taylor on September 1, 2014 at 7:51 am

    I’m enjoying these excerpts from Mary Russell’s diary very much, except for the fact that I know what lies before her. A curious feeling, in that one wants to spare her the suffering she will endure – and yet, without that, she would not have met Sherlock Holmes and where would we all be, then?
    Just before I read this, I saw a note to the effect that it was on this day in 1939 that Hitler’s troops invaded Poland, starting WWII. So much for “the War to end wars.”

  2. Mary Lou Lawson on September 1, 2014 at 8:39 am

    I remember Col. Potter on MASH toasting something like:
    “Here’s to my friends who died in The War To End All Wars, and here’s to my friends who died in the next one…”

    • Merrily Taylor on September 1, 2014 at 10:03 am

      Mary Lou, so sad – the Colonel might have gone on “and the one after that, and the one after that…” We never seem to learn.

  3. Sue Thompson on September 1, 2014 at 11:16 am

    Reading these I am, of course, reminded of the events as described in those well-loved books (naturally one shrinks from using the word novels). It is wonderful, though, to have such an insight into Miss Russell’s home life at this young age, before the tragedy that shattered her childhood.

  4. Laraine on September 1, 2014 at 2:29 pm

    Superlative stuff, Laurie. In every respect and detail. Thank you.

  5. Kath Case on September 1, 2014 at 8:44 pm

    Dear Laurie,

    Thank you so much for giving us more insight into this beloved person. I too feel the sorrow of foresight and the devistation of what is quickly coming to this dear girl. You are so kind and generous to involve us in these diaries of Mary Russell. Her innocence is evident and refreshing. Something she doesn’t have when we first meet her in The Beekeepers Apprentice.

    Thanks again.

    Kath Case

  6. Carol on September 4, 2014 at 6:16 pm

    Is that true about Rudyard Kipling? Hilarious! I miss Russell and Holmes so much. I dare say I will have to start reading the books again from the beginning while I wait for the next adventure.

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