Tuesday, January 15, 2019

The Extra

Gladys and Dorothea Cromwell
One of the most sensational news stories of January 1919 was the double suicide of twin sisters who had volunteered with the Red Cross as nurses and canteen workers. The women were the wealthy daughters of a New York City businessman, and one of the sisters was a published poet. Following the tragedy, Harriet Monroe of Poetry magazine wrote,
New York Times, Jan 25, 1919
The toll of our heroic soldier dead does not complete the list of those who have given their lives in the cause of liberty…. The self-drowning of the twin sisters Gladys and Dorothea Cromwell should not be called suicide, but the tragic result of over-strain due to months of contact with the dark realities of war…. Thus her fellow-poets of America are entitled to inscribe the name of Gladys Cromwell on their honor-roll, just under those of Alan Seeger, Joyce Kilmer and the other poet-heroes who died in battle.*

The biographical note that appears at the conclusion of Gladys Cromwell’s posthumously published poems relates her story:

“Gladys and Dorothea Cromwell were so essentially one that any account of either must include the other…. They were born in November, 1885, and inherited possessions, talents, and an exquisite beauty strangely poignant because in the twin sisters the charm seemed more than doubled…. They found their home in the unseen. In the outer, material world, they existed only by an effort that cost them much, for they moved as spirits, untouched by crude desires; bending with a shy longing to meet human needs; searching for some solution that should justify their personal immunities, their money, and the grace and luxury to which they had been born.  A delicate humility made them feel debtors to life….
            In January, 1918, the two sisters, having enrolled in the Canteen Service of the Red Cross, sailed for France and were stationed at Chalons. For eight months they worked under fire on long day or night shifts; their free time was filled with volunteer outside service; they slept in ‘caves’ or under trees in a field; they suffered from the exhaustion that is so acute to those who have never known physical labour; yet no one suspected until the end came that for many months they had believed their work a failure, and their efforts futile.  The Chalonais called them “The Saints”; during dull evenings, the poilus, who adored the “Twin Angels,” found amusement in effort, always unsuccessful, to distinguish them apart. The workers in the Canteen loved and admired them for their courage—that finest bravery which leads fear to intrepid action; they loved them for their rare charm, but they gave them whole-souled appreciation for the tireless, efficient labor which made them invaluable as practical canteeners.
Gladys and Dorothea Cromwell, Julia Fairfax
Interior of Red Cross Canteen, Souilly France
Library of Congress
            In September, at their own request, they were transferred to an Evacuation Hospital, for after the rest of a ‘permission,’ they longed to work with ‘our own boys.’ Eight months overwhelming strain and fatigue had made them more weary than they realized, and the horrors of conditions near the Front broke their already overtaxed endurance. In the diaries they left, signs of mental breakdown begin to show as early as October…. but years of self-control and consideration for others made them conceal the black horror in which they lived—the agony through which they saw a world which they felt contained no refuge for beauty and quiet thought.  In such a world they conceived they had no place, and when on their way home, they jumped from the deck of the Lorraine, it was in response to a vision that promised them fulfilment and peace…. ”**

Gladys Cromwell’s poem “The Extra” describes the burden of living in a world wrecked by war. The poem’s title is ambiguous; it may refer to the outsider status of women in war zones, to the ever-present reality of war, or perhaps to a woman estranged from herself after witnessing the horrors of war.

The Extra

Sheltered and safe we sit.
Our chairs are opposite;
We watch the warm fire burn
In the dark. A log I turn.
Across the covered floor
I hear the quiet hush
Memorial Tablet for Cromwell Sisters
by Malvina Hoffman
Of muffled steps; the brush
Of skirts; — then a closing door.
Close to you and me
The clock ticks quietly.

I know that we exist
Two entities in Time.
Our vital wills resist
Enclosing night; our thoughts
Command a Truth above
All fear, in knowing Love.

But a voice in the street draws near;
A wordless blur of sound
Breaks like a flood around;
“Trust not your hopes, for all are vain,
Trust not your happiness and pain,
Trust not your storehouses of grain,
Trust not your strength on land or sea,
Trust not your loves that come and go,
Trust only the hate of the unknown foe,—
War is the one reality.”

Gladys Cromwell (in back, second from left)
and Dorothea (far right)
Library of Congress
Are we awake or dreaming?
On the hearth, the ashes are gleaming.

Listen, dear;
The clock ticks on in the quiet room,
It’s all a joke, a poor one, too.
Or else I’m mad! This can’t be true?
I light the lamp to lift the gloom.
My world’s too good for such a doom.
One fact, if nothing else, I know,
I’ll die sooner than have it so!
            —Gladys Cromwell

On the night of January 19, 1919, a sentry on the deck of the Lorraine was the only one who saw the women calmly walk to the ship’s rail, before quickly climbing over and plunging into the water. By the time the Captain of the Lorraine could be notified, the ship had traveled five miles beyond the place the Cromwell sisters were last seen.  Their double suicide provoked widespread public debate concerning the mental effects of war work on women volunteers.  In a New York Times front-page article, Mrs. Edward Shearson, a passenger on the ship from which the sisters jumped, was quoted as saying, “It is my belief that all American women should come home as soon as possible.  Conditions are such that they can be released and all, especially young women, should be brought back.  Their work is finished. They are tired and nervous.”

After Gladys’ and Dorothea’s bodies were recovered, they were buried in France with military honors, the French Government awarding them the Croix de Guerre and the Médaille de Reconnaissance française. Gladys Cromwell’s posthumously published Poems won the Poetry Society of America prize in 1920.††
* Harriet Monroe, “A Gold Star for Gladys Cromwell,” Poetry, vol. 13, no. 6, Mar. 1919, pp. 326-327. 
** Anne Dunn, “Biographical Note” from Gladys Cromwell’s Poems, Macmillan, 1919, pp. 113-118.
“Brings Story of Cromwell Tragedy,” New York Times, 29 Jan. 1919, p. 1.
†† For further information on the Cromwell sisters, see Jeff Richman’s blog post “A Twin Tragedy,” 23 Jan. 2017, https://www.green-wood.com/2017/a-twin-tragedy/

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Joyless Victory

Ivar Campbell
In his anthology For Remembrance: Soldier Poets Who Have Fallen in the War (1918), editor Arthur St. John Adcock writes, “Not a hint of the war enters into the poems of Ivar Campbell.”* Campbell, grandson of the 8th Duke of Argyll, was a published writer in the years before the war, his poems appearing in the Westminster Gazette and Country Life.  He loved exploring the Scottish countryside, writing, “Walking is a brave thing… a large thing, a dusty thing, an you will.  But like the sea it touches Heaven.”** Campbell also served as an honorary attaché to the British Embassy in America, living in the United States from late 1912 until March of 1914.  

When war broke out in August of 1914, he sought an army commission, but was rejected due to poor eyesight.  Wanting to join the war effort, Campbell learned to drive and volunteered with the Red Cross Ambulance in France for a time, while persistently reapplying to the military. He was finally accepted on his third try and commissioned in early February of 1915 in the regiment of his clan, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. He served on the Western Front until late November of 1915, and was then posted to Mesopotamia, arriving at Basra on Christmas Eve.  Two weeks later, the 25-year-old second lieutenant was fatally wounded leading his men in a charge against the Turks at Sheikh Sa’ad.  Ivar Campbell died the next day, January 8, 1916, and “was buried that evening by the banks of the Tigris.”***  The location of his grave was lost, and his name appears on the memorial to the missing at Basra.

“A Meditation upon the Return of the Greeks,” included in his posthumously published Poems (1917), never directly mentions the First World War, but instead, its questions examine the costs and moral consequences of all wars. 

A Meditation upon the Return of the Greeks

Trojan War, 5th c. BC terracotta cup
When in their long lean ships the Greek host weighted
Their splashing anchors, then they had much joy
For lovely Helen’s sake to humble Troy…
Their first deed was the murder of a maid.

Ten years from their pleasant land they stayed,
And after ten years, had they any joy?
They had old Helen, and they humbled Troy:
Were they at her lost loveliness dismayed?

Thinking of their lost Youth were they afraid?
Was Youth worth more than Helen—Helen of Troy?
Was it for this tired face they had spent joy?
"For What," Frederick H. Varley
Canadian War Museum
For this tall, weary woman burnt a maid?

When on that quiet night the Greek host laid
Down their dinted armour, had they any joy?
            —Ivar Campbell

Both the Great War and the Trojan War began with joyful enthusiasm.  Soldiers were certain that they were fighting for a noble cause and would easily humble their enemies. Yet both wars dragged on for years, while young men and their dreams died by the thousands—and the millions—sacrificed for reasons that no longer seemed clear.  Innocents were killed, among them women and children, so that by the time the war had ended and the weary fighters returned home, they were forced to confront questions that echoed in the silence of peace: was it worth it? Where was the joy that had accompanied the men into battle?
* Arthur St. John Adcock, editor of For Remembrance: Soldier Poets Who Have Fallen in the War, Hodder and Stoughton, 1918, p. 56.
** Ivar Campbell, Poems, A.L. Humphreys, 1917, p. 11.
*** Guy Ridley’s memoir in Poems by Ivar Campbell, p. 27.
Iphigenia, daughter of Agamemnon, was sacrificed to appease the goddess Artemis. 

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Christmas 1918

The Peace Christmas: that’s what many called the holiday season of the winter of 1918.  Just weeks earlier, the Armistice ended the world war that had lasted for over four years, involved thirty-two nations, and killed an estimated 16 million.  Yet though the war was over, most of the fighting men and women volunteers had not yet returned home, but instead continued to serve overseas. 

Carola Oman, daughter of an Oxford military historian, enlisted as a V.A.D. nurse on July 1, 1916.  In December of 1918, she was working at the British rest station in Boulogne, France.

New York Tribune Review, 22 Dec 1918
Christmas 1918

Opposite us across the cobbled square
The trees stand black against the Christmas rain.
The clerk looks up a moment from his pen
In the kit-office, with a vacant stare,
And sees the flags drip grey upon the pain—
Chattering women, shawled and clutching toys,
A few civilians, porters, slouching men,
And shambling smoking youths, and shrieking boys,
Wandering on platforms.  It is noon;
But blue as dusk, and dark as melted snow
Can fill the flooded gutters.  Very soon
The garish lamps will flicker out.  And so
Comes the Peace Christmas to us. Is this all,
To stare and scribble while the shadows fall?

The light burns low. I see the canvas shake
Upon the walls. Now it has passed.  In dark
I rise alone, and my tired footsteps make
Slow progress over a black landscape.  Blank
28 Dec 1918
The sightless sky—a mighty wind—the bark
Of a far-distant dog—the smell of rank
Forgotten country roads.  By my side now
There moves another traveler.  As we walk
Down to the hurried village a high star
Burns with heroic light, and so we talk
Of recent wonders, for if men speak true
Three days the dawning sky has been inflamed.
There have been angels seen above the hills.
Of her eternal loneliness ashamed
The old year withers silently, but still
Listens, though not with hope. Now very wide
The ceaseless wind slashes the clouds apart.
And unprotected lies the countryside
Deserted, feeling for her frozen heart.
But in the village, as we pass near by,
The inn is overcrowded.  We pass on.
The star is stayed above the inn—or gone.
We only hear a new-born infant cry.
            —Carola Oman

This Christmas scene is grey and bleak. Rain-sodden flags drip upon the pain of widows, fatherless children, refugees, and the myriads of others who must now bear the aftereffects of the war. The pervasive mood is one of desolation: now that peace has returned, is this shadowed world the best that can be hoped for?

As dusk falls, the poem’s narrator leaves the shelter of her canvas tent and wanders alone into the night. She makes her exhausted way through the blackness, hearing the distant sounds of village life, until she finds herself in the company of a stranger. They walk together under a star that blazes with “heroic light,” discussing recent rumors of signs and wonders: angels have been seen in the hills. 

The crowded French town, besieged by the burdens of war, blurs and recedes until its skies and inns recall another village in a far-off land, where refugees sought shelter, peasants set out in search of the miraculous, and distant foreigners journeyed to find a new king.

No. 3 Canadian Hospital, Dec 1918
The correspondences between the past and present may hint at a brighter future, but no angel of Bethlehem— nor of Mons—appears with clear reassurance.  Perhaps the strange traveler is an angel; perhaps not.  The inn may shelter a miraculous birth, but the walkers do not stop.  The infant’s cry may be that of a transcendent God who loves beyond reason, or only the wail of another undernourished, impoverished child in a war-torn country.

Four years of brutal war have left the heart of the countryside unprotected and frozen; the mystery is whether the hearts of the men and women who survived can be thawed and healed, can learn again to feel and to believe.