Mary Russell’s War (thirty): to the service of the King


23 February 1915

Each day, the young son of the village postmistress comes cycling up the lane to bring us, among the various requests from cook and aunt, my day’s copy of The Times. My aunt seems to think this inappropriate reading material, given my sex and age, but it is the newspaper my parents used to read, and the font is familiar to me (although the quality of the paper itself seems to have slipped somewhat, under the pressures of Wartime shortages.)

It is, I admit, a more difficult means of following the world’s events than the San Francisco Chronicle used to be. That paper’s preference for the more sensational headlines made for a more entertaining experience, one being certain to find out about daring criminal exploits, smuggling, and the abduction of young girls than about the War dead and the dry decisions of Crown Courts.

Still, even the Times acknowledges the need for the softer interests among the hard edges of international affairs. The Queen, it seems, has been visiting her “Work for Women Fund” workrooms, a training college where unemployed girls are taught the skills of dressmaking, ironing, and kitchen. Only some of them, it seems, are deemed capable of learning the demanding skills of the clerk.

A schoolboy of 13 years has taken ten shillings of his choir money and set off for the Front, sleeping rough and carrying luggage for tips. When retrieved, he was disappointed to hear that he cannot enlist as a drummer boy for another year.

In the meantime, the King has been inspecting a collection of motor ambulances at the Palace. They, too, are on their way to the Front, under the auspices of the Red Cross. Posters urge enlistment, shops arrange goods on sparse shelves, there is talk of gathering scrap metal and iron fences to be melted down into armament. And half the population of Britain sits at home and feeds the children.

Why are women permitted the needle, even the type-writing machine, but not the rifle? Surely chivalry is a dangerous luxury when the enemy is a short distance of water away? Perhaps, in the end, some leeway may open up, that the “gentler sex” may be granted the right, if not to fire a rifle across no-man’s land, then at least to drive to the aid of wounded riflemen, perhaps in those very Red Cross ambulances?

My farm’s motorcar—my motorcar, strictly speaking—currently sits upon blocks of wood at the back of the stables. However, even if I were to take it down, fill the tyres, and get it running, I would only then come up against the shortages of gasoline. Why did I not insist that Father teach me to drive, once my feet would reach the controls? Still, there are motors occasionally to be seen in the village. One of them belongs to the local doctor, who is to be seen, pressed up against the windscreen with a worried look on his face. This has given me a plan: I shall invent an ailment, to get me in to see him, and tell him he needs a chauffeur. (Chauffeuse?)

The actual skills of driving will no doubt be quickly learned—Patrick will have to teach me, once confronted with the fait accomplis of my new position.  And when I am expert enough, I can put my name forward for the Front.

All sorts of men drive. How hard could it be?

*  *

Previous entries of Mary Russell’s War diary are here.


  1. Stephanie Hobson on February 24, 2015 at 2:27 pm

    “How hard could it be?” Exactly…

    • Barb on February 24, 2015 at 5:14 pm

      Yes, Stephanie, I chuckled at that, too.

  2. KT on February 24, 2015 at 2:36 pm

    ha! surely only good things could come from tricking a doctor into teaching her to drive so she can sneak off to the front. Oh Mary.

  3. Merrily Taylor on February 24, 2015 at 3:05 pm

    Somehow I just can’t believe that dear Patrick taught Russell to drive in the manner that she later adopts and that terrifies Holmes. We know that she didn’t drive an ambulance during the War, doubtless because she met Holmes in time to keep her from sneaking off, but perhaps she continues to drive with the Soul of an ambulance driver! Dear Russell, always coming up with a scheme…

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