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Open History - Excerpt from Firing Lines: Three Canadian Women Write the First World War

This Open History post is an excerpt from Firing Lines: Three Canadian Women Write the First World War by Debbie Marshall. Published by Dundurn Press

From Dundurn Press:

"Read between the front lines: The stories of three Canadian female journalists stationed in England and France during the First World War.

"Europe: 1914–18. Mary MacLeod Moore, a writer for Saturday Night Magazine, covered the war’s impact on women, from the munitions factories to the kitchens of London’s tenements. Beatrice Nasmyth, a writer for the Vancouver Province, managed the successful wartime political campaign of Canadian Roberta MacAdams and attended the Versailles Peace Conference as Premier Arthur Sifton’s press secretary. Elizabeth Montizambert was in France during the war and witnessed the suffering of its people first-hand. She was often near the fighting, serving as a canteen worker and writing about her experiences for the Montreal Gazette.

"The reportage from these three women presents an insightful, moving, funny, and compelling body of observations of a devastating conflict, from underrepresented points of view. Firing Lines is based on the letters, articles, and books they wrote, as well as the records of those who knew them. The book offers a fresh perspective on a war that touched nearly every Canadian family and changed our sense of ourselves as a nation."

Excerpted from Firing Lines: Three Canadian Women Write the First World War by Debbie Marshall © 2017 by Debbie Marshall. All rights reserved. Published throughout North America by Dundurn Press.

 

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Prologue: Reclamation

 

A group of women wrapped in furs and warm winter cloaks stands on the quay at Boulogne. Around them surges a blue, red, and khaki sea of French, British, and Belgian soldiers. White-veiled nurses run alongside patients being carried on stretchers onto waiting ships. There are shouts, marching orders, and whistles as the women stand silently watching, absorbing the details of what they are seeing, overcome by the reality that they are on the doorstep of the Great War.

They are the first party of female Canadian journalists allowed into France to visit the lines of communication. Only a small group of accredited male journalists is now based in France, watched over carefully by the British army and stationed a comfortable distance from the front. Women journalists are frowned upon by military leaders, and only one other such party has been allowed into the country before — a group of British women led by the famous anti-suffragette, writer Mary Augusta Ward.

At last, with the support of military authorities and prominent politicians, female writers from Canada are to be allowed to view life behind the veil that separates the home front from the war front. The party includes Beatrice Nasmyth, Mary MacLeod Moore, and Elizabeth Montizambert. They are “special correspondents,” posted overseas to provide a female perspective on the conflict. At a time when fewer than two hundred Canadian women are working as journalists, compared to about 1,500 men,[1] they are members of a small and elite group. The three are also friends and colleagues, whose paths have crossed many times in women’s press clubs in Canada and Britain. And unlike Ward, they are thoroughly modern feminists, ardently championing the vote for women at home and abroad.

At thirty-two, Nasmyth is the baby of the party. The tall, slender, square-shouldered woman with the mischievous glint in her bright blue eyes is the assistant editor of the Vancouver Province’s women’s page. Her colleague, Mary MacLeod Moore, is forty-six and the most experienced writer of the group, having made her living as a journalist for the previous twenty years. She pens a weekly column for the London Sunday Times and Saturday Night Magazine. Curly-haired, forty-two-year old Elizabeth Montizambert, dressed in exquisite furs and one of the new military-style hats, is fashion editor turned war correspondent for the Montreal Gazette.

The descendant of a wealthy, aristocratic Quebec family, she writes — not surprisingly — under the nom de plume Antoinette. She is stationed in

Paris, while the others make London their home base.

A car with a bright red cross on its side pulls up to the quay, and a young officer steps out and hails the women. They bundle inside; as it draws away, its headlamps gleam off the helmets of soldiers marching into the darkness. They are singing, and the echo of “Take Me Back to

Dear Old Blighty” drifts into the women’s car and then fades away as they pass through cobbled streets lined with shuttered houses. A cloth-sided ambulance moves slowly past them in the opposite direction, a lantern casting shadows on the four men lying within.

Nasmyth, Moore, and Montizambert were part of a small contingent of female writers and journalists covering the Great War — both on the front lines and on the home front. Each had tens of thousands of readers, yet today few people know these women’s names. The cause of their anonymity may lie in the pervasiveness of Great War histories that focus on the literary output of male luminaries such as Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, and Wilfred Owen while overlooking female literary figures, such as Edith Wharton and Helena Swanwick. Women like Wharton and Swanwick were immersed in the war from its outset and recorded their experiences in popular magazines, newspapers, and books. Their writing was accessible, and their work often focused on women’s experience of the conflict — topics that until lately have not been deemed serious enough for consideration by historians and literary scholars. Fortunately, in recent years, writers such as Margaret Higonnet and Joyce Marlow have begun to examine and publish women’s wartime writings, and in the process are slowly beginning to expand our understanding of the impact of the Great War.

One area, however, that has received scant attention from scholars of every stripe is the wartime writing and journalism of Canadian women.[2] Between 1914 and 1919, Beatrice Nasmyth, Mary MacLeod Moore, and Elizabeth Montizambert wrote thousands of accounts describing the war and its impact on those who fought it and on those who never carried a gun.

Like their male colleagues, these three women wanted to get as close to the front as they could. They faced formidable obstacles. From the outset of the conflict, Britain’s secretary of war, Lord Kitchener, had made it clear that journalists — male or female — were a security risk.

Correspondents were banned from entering a military zone around the British Expeditionary Force, and any dispatches from France had to be submitted to the War Office before publication. The War Office established its own Press Bureau; this bureau censored news and reports sent from the British army and then chose what to release to the waiting press in London and around the world.[3]

The home front wasn’t exempt from Kitchener’s attentions, either. The government passed the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA), making it illegal to publish anything that directly or indirectly aided the enemy. As historian Martin Farrar points out, this included “information on any troop or naval movement, any description of war and any news that was likely to cause a rift between the public and military authorities.”[4]

Canada quickly established its own complementary system of press censorship. Historian Jeffrey Keshen says that at the front, “military escorts guided the movement of journalists, photographers, and filmmakers, while specially assigned officers checked everything they produced. If a reporter was cunning enough to avoid submitting copy to military authorities, his ability to promptly transmit the account still depended upon one rigorously monitored undersea cable linking Canada and Britain…. Meanwhile, for the Canadian based correspondent submitting a disheartening story, not only did there exist the potential obstacle of a patriotic editor, but more important, the presence of Lieutenant-Colonel Ernest J. Chambers, the country’s Chief Censor.”[5] Chambers even went as far as banning material in Canada that had been passed by censors in Britain, “reasoning that the mother country’s proximity to the war zone had partially accustomed its citizens to the grittiness of war — at least more so than geographically-sheltered Canadians who, he suggested, were tied to combat more by idealistic sentiment than any imminent concern about national survival.”[6]

As the war progressed, however, access to the battlefront began to loosen. Governments began to face the fact that those at home wanted to know more about what was happening to their relatives, lovers, and friends serving overseas. Besides, war news was already leaking home in the form of poetry, essays, and letters from soldiers and nurses. In order to keep public opinion on their side, politicians and military leaders allowed a small group of male journalists into France, provided they agreed to wear military uniforms and submit to military authority in exchange for limited access to the battlefront. Many would spend much of the war behind the lines in the cozy French village of St. Omer.

The same cushy offer wasn’t extended to female journalists. Popular opinion and government policy officially excluded them from the terrors of the conflict simply because they were considered too emotionally and physically fragile to withstand its effects. This masked the reality that women were already on the front lines. French and Belgian women, medical staff, the new women’s military auxiliaries, women whose soldier relatives were seriously wounded in hospital, female writers from other countries who were living in France, influential upper-class women with military connections, and even female soldiers (such as Irish sergeant-major Flora Sandes) were facing the bullets and bombs of total war.

Despite the obstacles placed in their paths, many female journalists from Canada did manage to cover the war in Britain, and in France as well. Moore, Montizambert, and Nasmyth were among their number. The stories they sent home were a far cry from those of their male colleagues. Instead of heroic (sometimes fabricated) tales of battles won, their stories were intimate, compelling views of a devastating war and the human wreckage it left behind.

Women’s wartime lives are recounted in detail, from homemakers to ambulance drivers, nurses to factory workers. Not only did Moore, Montizambert, and Nasmyth write about the war’s impact on combatants and non-combatants alike, they also participated in the war effort as hospital visitors and canteen operators (sometimes near the front lines). One even played a small role in the making of history — Nasmyth engineered the election campaign of one of the first women elected to a Canadian legislature. In reviewing the phenomenal wartime output of these three women, it becomes clear that for them, war was women’s work as well as men’s. If we want to know more about how both sexes experienced the war, then we need only turn to the reports and surviving letters of these journalists to expand our understanding.

The “Great War,” as it was known, would be the pivotal experience in all three women’s lives. Although Moore, Montizambert, and Nasmyth were established writers by 1914, covering the conflict gave them a much bigger stage on which to perform and would lay the groundwork for the work they would do after the war. And it would — as war often does — help them clarify their priorities. Later in life, they would look back on their careers and see their early years in journalism as preparation for covering the conflict, and their later years as filled with work that was never as thrilling or fulfilling as their wartime experience. Their Great War writing reveals journalists who were deeply engaged with the subjects of the stories they were writing. They weren’t just witnesses — they were participants in a cataclysmic drama.

In December 1917, Nasmyth, Moore, and Montizambert visited the ten-thousand-bed hospital base at Étaples and interviewed the women who were working there. As Moore would later tell her readers, “I wish you could see with me the Motor Ambulance Convoy, where girls, some of them Canadians, are driving the wounded men, day and night, to great hospitals. I wish you could walk with me among the ambulances and see upon them the names of Canadian towns and counties and societies.…Would you could be with us as we visit in the moonlight on a crisp, frosty evening — so many of my memories are of moonlight and ice and the sun on the snow — a famous Canadian base and see the crowds of Canadian boys sauntering about and laughing and calling to one another….”

Today, by exploring their early lives and excavating their wartime experience, we can accept Mary’s invitation and walk with these three Canadian women as they wrote the First World War.

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[1] This is a rough calculation based on a comparison of the Canadian

censuses of 1911 and 1921.

[2] An exception is historian Marjory Lang’s excellent history of female

Canadian journalists entitled Women Who Made the News (Kingston:

McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1999). However, there is only a very

brief section on female war correspondents.

[3] Martin Farrar, News from the Front: War Correspondents on the

Western Front, 1914–18 (Phoenix Mill: Sutton Publishing, 1998), 5.

[4] Ibid., xiii.

[5] Jeffrey Keshen, Propaganda and Censorship During Canada’s Great

War (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1996), xiii.

[6] Ibid., xiv.

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Open History is an initiative to explore Ontario's past, one book at a time, sponsored by the Ontario Book Publishers Organization, Canada Council for the Arts, and The Ontario Arts Council. For previous Open History posts, catalogued on our Open Book Explorer site, please click this link.


Debbie Marshall is a writer, editor, and playwright with a special interest in women and the First World War. Her work has appeared in anthologies such as Dropped Threads II and in magazines such as The Beaver, as well as other publications. She is the author of Give Your Other Vote to the Sister: A Woman’s Journey into the Great War. She lives in Gabriola Island, British Columbia.

Related reading

Firing Lines: Three Canadian Women Write the First World War

Read between the front lines: The stories of three Canadian female journalists stationed in England and France during the First World War.

Europe: 1914–18. Mary MacLeod Moore, a writer for Saturday Night Magazine, covered the war’s impact on women, from the munitions factories to the kitchens of London’s tenements. Beatrice Nasmyth, a writer for the Vancouver Province, managed the successful wartime political campaign of Canadian Roberta MacAdams and attended the Versailles Peace Conference as Premier Arthur Sifton’s press secretary. Elizabeth Montizambert was in France during the war and witnessed the suffering of its people first-hand. She was often near the fighting, serving as a canteen worker and writing about her experiences for the Montreal Gazette.

The reportage from these three women presents an insightful, moving, funny, and compelling body of observations of a devastating conflict, from underrepresented points of view. Firing Lines is based on the letters, articles, and books they wrote, as well as the records of those who knew them. The book offers a fresh perspective on a war that touched nearly every Canadian family and changed our sense of ourselves as a nation.

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