Saturday, March 16, 2019

Where do we go from here?

Women war workers, Lorraine Ohio (May 1917)

“What a good time the women are having in the war! And, in a way, they really are. For into that somewhat drab thing called every-day life has come the call of duty that makes every one, man, woman, and child, who has red blood, get up and do whatever duty bids.”
                        Cleveland Plain Dealer, Oct. 28, 1917*

In 1919, the Souvenir Publishing Company printed two books within one binding: Nice Poems by Nice War Workers and Naughty Poems by Naughty War Workers, compiled by Jean of the A.G.O. Each half of the book had its own title page and thirty-two pages of poetry, with titles such as “Buy a Bond” (from Nice Poems) and “Me for the Cave-Man Stuff” (from Naughty Poems). The Nice Poems section of the book also included a poem that parodied a popular song of the day:

Where Do We Go from Here

Where do we go from here, girls?
Where do we go from here?
The war is won,
Our work is done,
And we’ve not shed a tear.
We’ll pack our trunks
And say good-bye
And leave by the first of the year,
But Oh, girls, Oh, girls,
Where do we go from here?
            —Composed Friday, December 13, 1918
                 by Ollie Parnell

The poem would have been immediately familiar to most as a variation on the popular tune “Where Do We Go from Here [Boys],” published in 1917.  That song follows the adventures of Paddy Mack, a cab driver from New York who joins the American Expeditionary Force (you can listen to it here):

First of all, at the call
When the war began
Pat enlisted in the army
As a fighting man
When the drills began,
They’d walk a hundred miles a day
Tho’ the rest got tired,
Paddy always used to say:
Where do we go from here, boys,
Where do we go from here?
Slip a pill to Kaiser Bill
And make him shed a tear;
And when we see the enemy
We’ll shoot them in the rear,
Oh joy, Oh boy,
Where do we go from here?**

Ollie Parnell’s variation on the tune reminds readers of women’s contributions to the war and the uncertainty they faced in the post-war world.  Historian Lynn Dumenil notes,
During World War I, observers routinely described women workers, especially those who were breaking down barriers that had limited their work opportunities, as the second line of defense," whose service in the nation’s interest paralleled that of male soldiers.***
During the war, women workers were needed to fill jobs that had previously been open only to men. They completed the work professionally and competently, whether working in munitions factories, on subways and tram cars, or at agricultural and forestry positions.  After the war, these women “presented themselves as competent individuals who contributed significantly to the winning of the war. They insisted that they had thus earned equal citizenship, a claim that became an important part of the final drive for woman suffrage and the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920.****
Women picket White House, 1917

* Cited in Lynn Dumenil’s The Second Line of Defense: American Woman and World War I, University of North Carolina Press, 2017, p. 1.
** Song by Howard Johnson and Percy Wenrich, Leo Feist, Inc., 1917.
*** Dumenil, The Second Line of Defense, pp. 1-2.
**** Dumenil, The Second Line of Defense, p. 2.

Saturday, February 23, 2019


David Erskine Boyle, from Bond of Sacrifice

The First World War began on July 28, 1914, lasted 1,568 days, and ended on November 11, 1918. But while international conflicts and combat can be marked on timelines, the human experience of war is not as neatly circumscribed.  Well before the war was over, in 1916 Scottish writer Mary Elizabeth Boyle published a collection of thirty sonnets, dedicated “To David, my brother, killed at Le Cateau, August 26th, 1914.”  Her book of poems was titled Aftermath.

Do you remember one September night
We watched the summer lightning scar the sky,
The while Aurora flickered? You asked “Why?”
Is this the world’s end, this unearthly light,
Shall we go home?” “No, stay and see the sight,
Better to die outside,” was my reply.
And as we watched an owl gave one long cry,
A shriek, as of a soul gone mad with fright.
“End of the world,” to us meant nursery tales,
Dramatic, fearsome, so our old Nurse said,
An overwhelming sea in which souls toss.
A soldier’s death, Fate weighed you in her scales,
Then growing weary, on my shoulders laid
The paralysing sense of daily loss.

Sometimes I hear your footstep on the stair,
A curious way you scuffled slippered feet,
And am inclined to run halfway and meet
You on my threshold. Waiting in my chair,
Grow cold, whilst thinking you were really there,
There were no pause before you came to greet.
A laugh, an extra scuffle, movement fleet
To silence protest, light pull of my hair
To tilt my face, so eyes could laugh at eyes,
The mirror would reflect two faces gay.
Instead it shows a woman staring, blank,
Whose ears are traitors, telling wished for lies,
Whose eyes are blinded, looking far away
Unto last August, when her youth’s sun sank.
            —Mary Elizabeth Boyle

La Ferte sous Joarre Memorial
Bond of Sacrifice, a book commemorating British officers who fell early in the war, reports that Mary’s brother David Erskine Boyle had attended Malvern College “where he was a school prefect, head of his house, in the cricket XXII, the football XI, and in the Officers’ Training Corps....When he was killed, he was in the act of summoning aid for a fellow officer who had just been wounded. He was buried by his own men close to where he fell.” By the war’s end, Lt. David Boyle’s body could not be located; he is commemorated on the memorial to the missing at La Ferte-sous-Jouarre. 

Mary Elizabeth Boyle spent the war in Glasgow, and for a time, managed a home for fifty Belgian refugees.  After the war, she became the life-long assistant to French archaeologist Abbé Henri Breuil, and together they pioneered the discovery and interpretation of prehistoric cave paintings.

In her Introduction to Aftermath, Mary Boyle wrote,
My brother gave his life. I have so little to offer, my thirty tiny songs. I give them to those who need them.  Let the stones of literary criticism fall from your hands, or use them to build a cairn, as we do in the north, to the memory of a very gallant young soldier, and a great mutual love.
David and Mary Boyle (center, locking arms)

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Football with the lads

Soldiers' football match Salonika Dec 1915 ©IWM Q31576
Perhaps the best-known football story of the First World War is that of the men of the London Irish Rifles who dribbled the ball across No Man’s Land under heavy machine gun and artillery fire as they attacked the German lines at Loos in 1915.*

What is less well-known is the plight of soldiers who returned from the war, unable to ever again join in a game of football. An estimated 8 million veterans returned home permanently disabled, 750,000 men in Britain and 1.5 million in Germany.  As historian Deborah Cohen explains,
More than any other group, disabled veterans symbolized the First World War’s burdens. Long after the Armistice, the sight of empty sleeves tucked into pockets recalled “sad memories of the war and its longdrawn suffering.” For the disabled themselves, as one veteran explained, the Great War “could never be over.”**
In January of 1920, Punch published a poem by E.W. Pigott that tells of the costs born and the courage displayed by disabled veterans.


Now has the soljer handed in his pack,
      And “Peace on earth, goodwill to all” been sung;
I’ve got a pension and my ole job back—
      Me, with my right leg gawn and half a lung;
But, Lord! I’d give my bit o’ buckshee° pay
      And my gratuity in honest Brads°
To go down to the field nex’ Saturday
      And have a game o’ football with the lads.

It’s Saturdays as does it. In the week
      It’s not too bad; there’s cinemas and things;
But I gets up against it, so to speak,
      When half-day-off comes round again and brings
The smell o’ mud an’ grass an’ sweating men
      Back to my mind—there’s no denying it;
There ain’t much comfort tellin’ myself then,
      “Thank Gawd, I went toot sweet° an’ did my bit!”

Oh, yes, I knows I’m lucky, more or less;
      There’s some pore blokes back there who played the game
Until they heard the whistle go, I guess,
      For Time an’ Time eternal. All the same
It makes me proper down at heart and sick
WW1 Veterans, Princess Louise Hospital
      To see the lads go laughing off to play;
I’d sell my bloomin’ soul to have a kick—
      But what’s the good of talkin,’ anyway?
            —E.W. Pigott***
Over 40,000 British veterans of the First World War suffered the amputation of one or more limbs, while the number of war amputees in Germany totaled over 67,000.  In the aftermath of the Great War,  the economic plight of disabled veterans was particularly acute as widespread social unrest spread and unemployment rose.

In Britain, pensions for the disabled were limited to no more than 40 shillings per week, a sum far below what was needed to support a man, much less a family (unskilled builders earned 84 shillings/week, coal miners between 99 – 135 shillings/week††). Disability review boards assessed the extent to which men were disabled and awarded the full 40 shillings only to those who were determined to experience 100% disability, defined as follows:
Loss of two or more limbs, loss of an arm and an eye, loss of a leg and an eye, loss of both hands or all fingers and thumbs, loss of both feet, loss of a hand or a foot, total loss of sight, total paralysis, lunacy, wounds or disease resulting in a man being permanently bedridden, wounds to internal organs or head involving total permanent disability, very severe facial disfigurement.
Those with legs amputated at the hip or with a stump of “not more than five inches” were assessed as 80% disabled and received 32 shillings/week, while a veteran with a leg amputated “more than 4 inches below the knee” was determined to be only 50% disabled and entitled to receive a mere 20 shillings per week.†††

As former Sergeant Thomas Kelly of Dumbartsonshire wrote to his government,
There was not so much red-tape to go through in August, 1914, when the country was crying for men and I left a good job to join the soldiers, but now when I am a maimed and not fit for manual labour, this country has no further use for me. Yet it was to be a country fit for heroes to live in.††††
*Read more about the footballers at Loos on the website of the London Irish Rifles Association.
** Deborah Cohen, The War Come Home, Univ. of California Press, 2001,  pp. 4, 2.
° buckshee = something extra obtained for free (first known use 1919); Brads = “Between 1914 and 1928 £1 notes were issued that came to be called brads after Sir John Bradbury, Secretary to the Treasury” (David Crystal, Words in Time and Place); toot sweet = French phrase tout suite (immediately, with haste).
***While it is nearly impossible to determine the author’s identity with certainty, the Imperial War Museum's Lives of the First World War lists a Lieutenant Edward William Pigott, who served with the London and East Lancashire Regiments.
 For Britain, Joanna Bourke’s Dismembering the Male, Univ. of Chicago, 1996, p. 33; for Germany, Robert Weldon Whalen’s Bitter Wounds, Cornell UP, 1984, p. 40. 
†† “War and Impairment: The Social Consequences of Disablement,” UNITE and UK Disability History Month, Nov/Dec 2014,, Accessed 20 Jan. 2019.
††† Thanks to Dr. Jessica Meyer who shared these statistics from Joanna Bourne’s Dismembering the Male in a presentation at Voices from the Home Fronts, The National Archives at Kew, 20 Oct. 2018.
†††† Thanks to researcher Louise Bell who shared this letter from The National Archives (LAB 2/1195/TDS2884/1919) in a presentation at Voices from the Home Fronts, The National Archives at Kew, 19 Oct. 2018.