The heroine in my current novel is a would-be World War I foreign correspondent, but I had no idea how rare a bird she was until I went looking for a real one on which to pattern her.
Only one woman got to the trenches and interviewed the famous.
Perhaps because she was famous herself?
I recognized her name, as would mystery lovers: Mary Roberts Rinehart.
A novelist and journalist, as well as a mother and wife to a noted physician, Rinehart was sent to the Belgium front in early 1915–three months after World War I began–by The Saturday Evening Post.
Even in her book written about that time, Kings, Queens and Pawns, An American Woman at the Front, Rinehart couldn’t explain how she got the access to travel and meet some of the notables of the time–though with propaganda raging on both sides of No-Man’s Land, she acknowledged she might have been used for propaganda purposes.
A former nurse, she traveled under the auspices of the Red Cross and as such, had letters of transit, visas, letters from people like Lord Admiral Churchill and Field Marshall Sir John French, which enabled her to travel all the way up to the trenches.
The only woman.
From Rinehart’s journal, January 25, 1915, as she visits a Belgium hospital in LaPanne–where the King and Queen of Belgium were temporarily housed:
“11 pm: The Night Superintendent has just been in to see me. She says there is a baby here from Furnes with both legs off, and a nun who lost an arm as she was praying in the garden of her convent. The baby will live, but the nun is dying.
Midnight: A man in th enext room has started to moan. Good God, what a place! He has shell in both lungs, and because of weakness had to be operated on without an anaesthetic.
2 am I cannot sleep. He is trying to sing “Tipperary.”
English Battleships are bombarding the German batteries at Nieuport from the sea. The windows rattle all the time.
6 am A new day now. A grey and forbidding dawn. Sentries every hundred yards along the beach under my window. The gunboats are moving out to sea. A number of French aeroplanes are scouting overhead.”
Grim though this is, the Allies wanted her to report what she saw–as long as it favored their narrative. Click to Tweet
To that end, they made arrangements for her to meet the Queen Elizabeth of Belgium, as well as King Albert I (of note, the royal children spent the war in England with Lord and Lady Curzon to ensure safety.)
Both Rinehart and the Belgium king and queen knew she was there to hear their plea for help. Rinehart wrote a story that was passed through Belgium and British censors for the American public. Written early in the war, not long after Belgium opened the flood gates and sluices that had kept back the English Channel, and allowed their low-lying land to be flooded to try to slow down the German advance.
They flooded their fertile land to try to slow the German advance. Click to Tweet
As Rinehart wrote in admiration:
“As I write this one corner of her territory remains to her [Belgium] . . . a wedge shape, ten miles or so in width at the coast, narrowing to nothing at a point less than thirty miles inland. And in that tragic fragment there remains hardly any undestroyed towns. Her revenues are gone, being collected as an indemnity . . . by the Germans. King Albert himself has been injured. The Queen of the Belgians has pawned her jewels. The royal children are refugees in England. Two-thirds of the army is gone. And, of even that tiny remaining corner, much is covered by the salt floods of the sea.”
Lots of great reporting was done out of WWI. Much of it was censored, but the journalists worked hard to get around those military red-pencils. Rinehart had the ear of the powerful and a major magazine to back up her work.
Do women war correspondents see the story differently than men? Click to Tweet
But I think a woman correspondent looked at things from a slightly different angle–recognizing, perhaps, the humanity that quickly could become a soul-numbing blur of horrible statistics. Using her experience as a mother, nurse, socialite, novelist, playwright, Mary Roberts Rinehart brought a different, and necessary, sensibility to telling the story of the early war.
And she earned a place in my novel:
“I want to be the first women correspondent.”
“You’re too late, honey, Mary Rinehart is already there. She got into Belgium with the Red Cross.”
“Before she started writing mysteries, she was a nurse. They let her in to visit hospitals and she got as far as the trenches before someone realized she was a woman and sent her back. Still, maybe you can be the second.”
Mary Roberts Rinehart set an example worth emulating and told the necessary harrowing stories that needed to be exposed at the time they happened.
(See my next post: Mary Rinehart visits the trenches).
What’s the benefit of a female war correspondent? Click to Tweet