Mary Russell’s War, week three

On the centenary of the Great War, a journal has come to light of weekly entries from a very young Mary Russell. It begins, appropriately enough, on August 4, 1914, when Russell is living with her parents and brother in San Francisco. This is week three. (To read from the beginning, click here.)

SMS Nurnberg, Sunk by the British off the Falklands Islands, Dec 1914.

SMS Nurnberg, Sunk by the British off the Falklands Islands, Dec 1914.

18 August 1914

I was at the Greenfield house last night—the daughter, Florence, was more or less assigned me as a “friend” when we moved back to San Francisco two years ago, since our mothers share many interests and organisations, although I find more to talk about with Flo’s brother Frank—and found the family almost completely detached from the War. Mrs Greenfield seems more concerned at the potential disruption of their travel plans for next summer than any political turmoil or loss of life: she is quite convinced that fighting will be over by Christmas, but worries over damage to monuments and shortages of wine and fois gras. When I told her that in Father’s opinion, the War would be a long one, she merely gave one of her rather ear-splitting laughs and told me not to worry my pretty head. I left before I could say anything rude (which would invariably subject me to one of Mother’s lectures) and collected Frankie for a rather violent game of kick-the-can.

The Parents’ ongoing argument, I have determined, concerns the War. Mother wants to go home, to England. Father absolutely refuses to permit it. Or rather (I’ve located an attic corner with a thin section of plaster through which sound travels from Mother’s dressing room) he refuses to permit her to take Levi and me with her. And although the two of them have spent long periods separated by the Atlantic, with Mother and us on one side and Father coming and going from his business concerns in America, she has never been separated from Levi and me for more than a few days at a time. And as their overheard conversations have made clear, she does not intend to be now.

So it looks as if we are going to be stuck in neutral territory—America—until the War is over. (On one point they agree: this will not be a matter of weeks, despite Mrs Greenfield.) When I told all this to Levi (who although only nine, is nonetheless more intelligent than most of the adults I know) he very rightly pointed out that, as half-English citizens, we had a responsibility to serve the King in any way we could. And (as an article in the Chronicle described last week) if a woman on the train from Antwerp could discover a German spy on the point of releasing carrier pigeons hidden in a bag, surely we could do no less.

So two nights ago, when we heard four brief blasts of a ship’s horn, we both knew it had to be the German cruiser that has been lurking out at sea, waiting to fill its coal stores. A newspaper article five days ago reported that the Leipsic had wirelessed for permission to enter the harbour, and had also sent ashore two of its sailors for medical attention, so we knew it would slip in sooner or later, and we were ready. I met Levi at the front door, and we made it almost all the way down Gough Street before a patrol spotted the pale coat Levi had insisted on wearing, and took us home again. Mother was not happy. Father pretended to be angry, but I could see that he was also amused. It will be difficult to slip away for the next couple of days, to keep an eye on the Leipsic, although it is reported to be lying between Fort Mason and Alcatras Island, so I may be able to see it from the rooftop with Father’s field glasses, once Mother goes to her meeting this afternoon.

I am cross with Levi. I fear that my brother, bright though he may be, lacks the instincts of a criminal—or of a good detective.

(Which reminds me—The Strand has reached us, only a day or two late, and there is to be a new Sherlock Holmes story beginning next month! A serial novel that begins, “The Tragedy of Birlstone”…!  Oh, how is it possible to simultaneously loathe and adore a thing—a long story, but one that demands months of waiting?  It is petty of me, I know, but I do hope the magazine continues to cross the Atlantic without delay during the hostilities. At least during the period that The Valley of Fear is being published.)

As if to confirm the need for citizen spies, this morning’s Chronicle brought the War’s proximity into focus. I shall copy the article:


MONTEREY, August 17—Firing at sea was heard this evening by J. Lewis, superintendent of instruction at the Y.W.C.A. camp at Asilmar. It was in the direction of the heads, near Santa Cruz, northwest of here. A heavy fog has obscured the view.

Lewis says that the firing started at 7:20 and lasted until after 8 o’clock. It is believed the French cruiser Montelam, which left San Diego Saturday, has engaged with the German cruiser Nurnberg.

Several others at Asilmar, Pacific Grove and New Monterey have reported hearing heavy firing at sea.

I believe that the War will require service from us all before the end, even fourteen year-old girls.

How about a Throwback Thursday?

Going through some files the other day, I came across a few unexpected voices from the past—so I thought, hey kids, let’s have a couple of Throwback Thursdays here on Mutterings!  So, how about some old covers that didn’t quite make it into the real world?

I’ve talked before about the original proposed cover of Beekeeper–Beekeeper original

and you may remember the first hardback cover of A Grave Talent–Unknownbut before Bantam did their first paperback–


they tried this:GT scan

How would that cover work for you?

About Miss Russell’s War

Yes, Mary Russell’s War is officially a Thing.

Every week from now until, well, until I run dry, we will read an excerpt from Miss Russell’s childhood diary, gathered together under the title of “Mary Russell’s War”. This week, the Germans are battering at the gates of Liege, a part of the Schlieffen Plan (which Mary’s father explains to her) to push rapidly west across Europe, taking Paris and securing the western flank before their enemy to the east, Russia, could mobilize their forces. Only Belgium stood in the way.


Belgian lancers sounding the call to arms in the streets of Liege, from the excellent Great War Photo Archive:

Any researcher can tell you how much life is to be found in contemporary records. For example, did you know that Coastal California literally heard the guns of that war? (see next week’s post!)

The Great War was a century ago, but it is also today, in every corner of Britain and the Continent. Each week into the foreseeable future, Mutterings will follow the War through the eyes of one young, far-away, and extraordinary girl.

Mary Russell’s War, here on Mutterings every Monday.

Mary Russell’s War, week two

On the centenary of the Great War, a journal has come to light, containing weekly entries from a very young Mary Russell. It begins, appropriately enough, on August 4, 1914, when Russell is living with her parents and brother in San Francisco. This is her second journal entry. (To read from the beginning, click here.)

11 August 1914

I have decided to write in this journal, not daily (as the name might be seen to require) but once a week. There is so much turmoil, so rapid a shift of events, that thoughtful reflection requires a week’s span.

It is appalling to think what is happening in Europe. Every morning’s paper shouts the headlines: BRITISH AND GERMAN FLEETS IN BATTLE. GERMANS OVERCOME BELGIANS’ DEFENSES AT CITY OF LIEGE. Even AEROPLANES PLAY BIG PART IN LIEGE ATTACK. “The fighting in midair was desultory, but deadly. A huge Zeppelin sailed over Liege during the early fighting, but was pursued by a Belgian aeroplanist who risked and lost his life in destroying it. GERMANS BAD SHOTS, SAY PILOTS.”

Noble little Belgium. Father put up a map of Europe in the library, and places pins at each new report. He tells me the Germans are following a war plan that depends on rapidly overrunning the countryside between them and Paris, and in the past week, Belgium’s grim defence has slowed the Kaiser. May God grant that this has given France time to prepare for the invasion.

And America remains neutral, offering negotiation between the parties: TENDER OF GOOD OFFICES BRINGS NO RESPONSE.

This despite atrocity: in one conquered town, the Germans took fourteen residents, shooting eight, hanging two—and letting the Mayor go, since the Germans had been his guests the previous day. I do not understand military thinking, and I suppose that when many of those fighting one’s soldiers are in fact civilians, there is no division between uniforms and not.

There are some portions of the world not in flames: “PEACE IS NEAR IN WAR-TORN MEXICO.” And the newspaper corner advertisements that in the early days were for maps of Europe and a rather tasteless advert for spectacles (Will War Advance Price of Glasses?) have returned to weather reports and units for lease on Nob Hill.

But the world appears to be in flames.

And not only in Europe.

My parents are arguing. At night, and behind closed doors, but they are arguing, long and hard. Even Levi has heard them, although he has been as unable to hear what they are saying as I.

My parents never argue.



Mary Russell’s War, week one

On the centenary of the Great War, a journal has come to light, containing weekly entries from a very young Mary Russell. It begins, appropriately enough, on August 4, 1914, when Russell is living with her parents and brother in San Francisco.


4 August 1914.

I was fourteen when I first heard about the War. Fourteen years and 214 days, with my nose (as usual) in a book as I walked down the stairs.

At least, that’s how Mother says I shall remember it. And Father agrees, that War will be both long and hard, for all the European countries and the British Empire. Flo’s parents—Flo is my best friend, so of course I telephoned to her about Britain’s declaration of War immediately after I had finished my meal, although it was a brief conversation since Mother and Father both wished to use the instrument, yet they would not allow me to go to Flo’s house, oh, when will I be permitted to take a simple walk without a chaperone?—at any rate, Flo’s parents say that’s silly, that England will sweep up the German army in no time. However, since Mother has a dreary way of being right about everything, I thought I might mark the occasion by taking out the Journal she gave me for my birthday 214 days ago, and begin writing in it. If she’s wrong, I shall show her this, as a demonstration of her fallibility.

They’ve all been talking about war for what seems like forever, even before the Archduke and his wife were shot in Sarajevo at the end of June. I have to admit that I have yet to understand precisely what the heir to a Bohemian throne (will I ever be able to hear that name without envisioning Irene Adler?) has to do with an invasion of Belgium. Judging by the conversation of many adults and the cross-purposes of the newspaper editorials, I am not the only one to whom the sequence is unclear.

Still, one thing is clear: the fuse of the powder-keg that is Europe has been set alight.

Looking at what I have written here, I realise that I have yet to introduce myself, the author. My name is Mary Judith Emily Russell, daughter of Charles Russell (of Boston, Massachusetts) and Judith Rebecca Russell (née Klein, of London, England.) In addition to being fourteen years and 214 days old, I am tall for a girl, nearsighted, with blonde hair the same shade as my father’s (although considerably longer) and the blue eyes that so often go with that colour. I have a brother, Levi, who is nine years old and resembles our mother, being dark of hair and eye, and irritatingly right about things. Especially mathematics. He’s something of a genius. I’m merely very smart.

I probably shouldn’t have written that, since if he finds this he’ll take it as an admission that he has the superior mind. If you are reading this, Levi, remember that even Sherlock Holmes, the world’s smartest man, wasn’t as bright as a woman.