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/


  1. Thanks for reading, Ian. I'd like to ask you a few questions about sources you've posted to Lives of the First World War (IWM) -- can you message me either on email listed at the blog or on twitter (@wherrypilgrim)?

  2. The following excerpt from, 1918—Amiens to the Hindenburg Line, by Peter Burness is a wounded man’s witness to the excruciating strain on nurses…

    “Lieutenant Harold Williams was badly wounded in the final stage of the battle and was roughly evacuated for treatment at a casualty clearing station at Daours, a village from where a month earlier he had joined the battle of Amiens. His account of this time recalls another consequence of battle. It also shows his admiration for the nurses attending the wounded and provides a brief insight into their conditions:

    “That these women worked their long hours among such surroundings without collapsing spoke volumes for their will-power and sense of duty. The place reeked with the odors of blood, antiseptic dressings, and unwashed bodies. The nurses saw the war stripped of even the excitement of an attack. They saw soldiers in their most pitiful state—wounded, blood-stained, dirty, reeking of blood and filth. [T]he strain was such that it was almost incredible that a woman could stand it and retain her sanity.”
    Sincerely, David T.