Mary Russell’s War Journal (thirty-five): The march of women


30 March 1915

In the past week, the Times has continued to shrink in pages, and expand in its messages of desperation. Letters from the Front speak of A DOCTOR IN THE BATTLE LINE and his AMBULANCE WORK UNDER FIRE, from Neuve Chapelle:

“It has been quite impossible to write lately, as there has been a tremendous battle going on, the earlier part of which was a great success… Life has been absolute Hell; there is no other word for it…..Getting the wounded away was the worse. I had only four stretcher-bearers out of 16, and only two stretchers; and the shell fire was so great that it was impossible to carry them to the ambulance a mile and a half away.”

Boys at home are being encouraged to respond to the thrill of War, that they might be encouraged to volunteer for service in the Red Cross, to raise war funds, and to dig potatoes for desperate farmers. In the meantime, THE CALL TO WOMEN includes TO WORK IN ARMAMENT FACTORIES doing SHELL-MAKING, and to FARMING.

Under this relentless barrage of War news, the headline BRIDES DROWNED IN BATHS, concerning one George Smith of Shepherd’s-bush who stands accused of killing a series of three wives by drowning each of them in a bath, seems positively droll and homely by comparison. As does the description of NEW PROFESSIONS FOR WOMEN that includes POSSIBILITIES OF MUSIC ENGRAVING and WOMEN TRAM CONDUCTORS. I do not know that music engraving fills a tremendous wartime need, although I suppose even the boys on the Front need to sing. Driving a tram would at least free a man to carry a gun—as my own driving frees the doctor to concentrate on his work, allowing him to doze the roads instead of hunching bleary-eyed over them.   It may be a sign of his cumulative fatigue (the district’s other practitioners are all in France) but either my driving has improved, or he is too tired to notice. The other night, the sound of a fence-post scraping against the side of the motor only caused his snores to briefly pause, and fortunately it missed the head-lamp.

I fear, however, that the good doctor will have to make use of another chauffeur before too long. I am determined to make a more active service to this, my mother’s homeland: I shall drive an ambulance at the Front. Last December, I learned the skills of looking older than my years. In the past weeks, I have perfected the art of driving over uneven ground at all hours of the day and night. I can even perform basic repairs to the machine. My nerves are steady, my stamina considerable, and my wits sharp: England needs such as me. I know my vision of coming to the rescue of Thomas Saunders is but a figment of imagination, but surely any number of other young men could stand in his stead.

I have heard of a local widow-woman who is not only well skilled behind a wheel, but whose sons are now out of her house, leaving her at loose ends for employment. To make matters even more interesting, the lady is of an age appropriate to my Doctor, whose own wife died three years ago. I have arranged the use of the motor this afternoon, while the Doctor holds surgery hours, and will go and see if she might be willing to step into my place, freeing me to forge identity papers and leave for the Front. If a schoolboy child with ten shillings of choir money can work his way to France, I shall have no trouble at all slipping into a driver’s position amidst the chaos of a field hospital. By the time I am discovered, I will have made myself indispensible.


  1. Merrily Taylor on March 30, 2015 at 6:10 am

    I have absolutely no doubt that Russell can pull this off if she puts her mind to it – so have to assume that something is going to intervene. Now what might that be?

  2. Nora on March 30, 2015 at 12:53 pm

    Elementary, my dear Merrily!

  3. The Bold Flying Officer on March 30, 2015 at 3:12 pm

    Homework for tonight – draft a short story on the romance twixt the doctor and the widow-woman with MR acting as cupid …
    It’s thought …

    Mike aka TBFO

  4. Pamela Gibson on March 31, 2015 at 9:08 am

    Had to check, but the ‘William Saunders’ nom de guerre (undercover) identity created by Michael Kingston, the main character in Manning Coles ‘Drink to Yesterday’, was a private. Thomas Saunders and his family had been neighbors of Mary’s family, so it’s only a coincidence of names. Perhaps Kingston had cousins named Saunders, and that’s where the invention came from. It has caused me to reread DTY, the life Mary would have tried to live if she could have managed the details.

  5. Lisa Conner on April 3, 2015 at 4:13 pm

    Russell is so determined, I can’t believe just meeting Holmes would turn her from her plans. It would be a wonderful thing, but she really wants to do her part as an ambulance driver! He is going to have to figure out a way of changing her mind. That should be interesting.

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