Mary Russell’s War Journal (thirty-three): Keeping one’s head down


16 March 1915

The juxtaposition of War with an attempt at maintaining the bastions of normal life is at times painful. For example, last Tuesday’s Times (which I did not receive until late on Wednesday) contained the following:


That section of the field of labour hitherto regarded as the exclusive property of men is being rapidly invaded by women. These include: Medicine, railway clerical work, carriage cleaning, grocery, engineering, toy-making, architectural drawing, debt collecting, motor driving, banking, and accountancy

While nearby was printed excerpts of a diary from the Front:


It was quiet when we were in the line. To the right there was the “devil driving in nails” with a machine-gun, and along the line the isolated reports of rifle fire—for firing at night keeps your own sentries awake and worries the enemy. The Germans are blazing away with pistol flare lights, the brilliant pallid flame of which hangs in the sky and then slowly nears the earth, throwing everything within its radius into sharp relief. Their searchlight flashes across every now and again, lighting up the low rain-laden clouds and playing like phenomenal summer lightning along our trench line. When we leave the trenches the night has grown black.   We plod heavily up the communication trench, which seems to thirst after our boots, bending low so as to avoid the prying finger of the searchlight.

*  *

Thomas—Lieutenant Saunders—is there in the midst of it, his letters giving a picture of truly appalling conditions: freezing mud, swarming lice, and the pervasive stink of unburied bodies. I encourage him to write me these distasteful details of life, since I am quite certain he cannot send them to his mother and I feel that it must only do a sufferer good to unload some small part of his burden onto a sympathetic friend. At the same time, I try not to read the lists from the Front, lest it remind me how many junior officers lose their lives in their first weeks of duty in the trenches. Thomas tells me that he has a sergeant of the classically grizzled type who has taken him under his gruff and no doubt malodorous wing, going so far as to deliver a slap to his head (assaulting an officer is a court martial charge) to knock it below the sandbags, lest the sniper’s crosshairs find a focus.

Would that Lieutenant Thomas Saunders learns his lessons well, and keeps his head well down in the future.

I have finally worn down the patience of the village doctor, who has come to accept my offer and agreed to teach me the basic skills of starter engine and gear lever. In fact, these lessons amounted to a demonstration of a) starting and b) how to change gears, after which he got out of the motor and left me to explore the machine’s workings on my own while he (having been up for 36 hours attending first a birth and then an emergency surgery) stumbled off to his bed.

I will admit that I was a bit concerned with the effects of my initial trials on the workings of the motorcar, but it would appear that the machine is designed to permit much grinding of gears and choking to a halt. By midday, I was able to drive to the outskirts of Eastbourne and back without killing the engine more than three or four times.

I then presented myself to the good doctor, and told him that I would be available at any time, day or night, and that he had only to telephone me or drive past and sound the horn. I assured him that it would be quite convenient for me to be given some hours of enforced reading in the car’s shelter while he attended to patients. I am not sure he was convinced (he did, to the contrary, look a bit stunned—perhaps he had merely forgot that he’d handed me his keys?) However, once I have taken up a position outside of his surgery for a few days, springing to his service whenever he makes in the direction of his motor, he will understand that Mary Russell is not to be put aside.

The next thing will be to find someone to teach me the basic workings of the engine itself, since I imagine that the ability to render basic repairs would be a necessity when driving ambulances on the Front.


  1. Merrily Taylor on March 16, 2015 at 7:42 am

    Oh dear – I confess a certain comfort in knowing that Mary is NOT going to make it to the trenches, but even so, I find myself a little nervous about how much mischief she is going to get into between now and when she meets Holmes!

  2. ann on March 16, 2015 at 11:00 am

    I guess what many of us like about Mary is that part of her that is so determined that the obstacles before her are just another fallen tree in the woods or along the walking/hiking path, merely something to be gotten over or walked around… I too am comforted by thinking that I know she will not get to the front. Ever before me as I read of Mary’s desire to go there is the experience of Maise Dobbs (another determined young woman) whose life was so long pained/shaped by her experiences/losses in this war…

    These of course are fictional characters who I and others including their creators have brought to life, but I know enough of my history and have read enough of the literature of WWI to know I don’t want anyone to be there, even in my imagination.

    Thank you for sharing with us this part of her story.

  3. Catherine on March 16, 2015 at 3:07 pm

    I am so glad to read that another reader sees Maisie Dobbs in this context¡ I am waiting for my copy of A Dangerous Place. Question: what are the ethical/copyright or other concerns about using or referencing a character in someone else’s novel in your own writing? I can see clear, though veiled, references to Lord Peter Wimsey in one of the Mary Russel stories, I believe it is The Story of Mary? anyway, the one with the woman archaeologist.
    And Elizabeth Peters names Frau Von Einem in A River in the Sky. Is that ok because Green Mantle is so old?

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