Category: WWrite articles main
Letters That You Will Not Get: Women’s Voices from the Great War
By Susan Werbe
Letters That You Will Not Get: Women’s Voices from the Great War performance. Photo by Susan Werbe.
November 11, 2018. The centenary of the Armistice found me attending a concert of commemoration at Harvard University. Held in the university’s Memorial Church, which was “dedicated on Armistice Day 1932 in memory of those [from Harvard] who died in World War I,” the university’s concert choir of Harvard undergraduates – men and women – performed songs written both 100 years ago and in the recent past. As I watched the sky slowly darken through the church windows, I was moved by the young voices that soared to the high ceiling, honoring the Harvard alumni and faculty, and Radcliffe alumnae whose lives were lost in The Great War.
December 1, 2018. Three years after I first envisioned a song cycle based on women’s writings from both sides of the conflict and set to contemporary music, Letters That You Will Not Get: Women’s Voices from The Great War had its premiere performance in New York at The Crypt, Church of the Intercession on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The libretto that I co-created with Kate Holland, who also directed the performance, was created from women’s writings – American, British, Irish, French, and German. A British prime minister’s daughter, an American poet, a Parisian factory worker, a German artist, among others. Women who set down their experiences – both on the front lines and the home front. Daughters, mothers, wives, lovers who lost loved ones, experienced a shattered world, called upon both physical and emotional reserves previously unused.
Jessica Sandidge, soprano. Photo by Susan Werbe.
The First World War is considered to be the most literate of all wars. Until relatively recently, writings from that war have been examined and studied as a male experience. However, my interest in creating performance pieces – a short dance work, set to commissioned contemporary music, The Great War Theatre Project: Messengers of a Bitter Truth, a multi-media theatre piece, and now music – has been to include women’s writings in order to give each performance piece a balanced and nuanced lens through which to examine this history. Women’s experience and their expressions of those experiences were as forceful, powerful, and authentic as men’s, even as their roles differed.
The Great War Theatre Project: Messengers of a Bitter Truth performance. Photo by Susan Werbe.
After the dance and theatre pieces ended, I found there remained a wealth of women’s writings that had not been used – poetry, letters, journals, memoirs, diaries – responses to the war written during the conflict as well as reflections on their war experiences in the decades that followed. I felt strongly that a song cycle based solely on women’s writings would bring these missing voices into the war’s narrative. These voices include a range of responses from women of varied nationalities and backgrounds.
Upper-class English women who embraced the war, even as they sent their sons to the Western Front to fight and to die:
Violet passed on news from George: He said that up to date it had all been the most glorious fun.
Snatches of letters from a French country woman:
My beloved Paul,
Take care of yourself so that nothing will happen to you…
The anguish of a bereaved German mother:
Where are my children now?
What is left to their mother?
One boy to the right and one to the left,
My right son and my left son,
As they called themselves.
Where are my children now?
One dead and one so far away –
Poets of verse considered jingoistic and doggerel:
Shining pins that dart and click
In the fireside’s sheltered peace
Check the thoughts that cluster thick -
20 plain and then decrease.
He was brave – well, so was I –
Keen and merry, but his lip
Quivered when he said good-bye –
Purl the seam-stitch, purl and slip.
Never used to living rough,
Lots of things he’d got to learn;
Wonder if he’s warm enough –
Knit 2, catch 2, knit 1, turn.
Wonder if he’s fighting now,
What he’s done an’ where he’s been;
He’ll come out on top somehow –
Slip 1, knit 2, purl 14.
The doggerel written by British poet Jessie Pope so infuriated Wilfred Owen, states Owen scholar Dr. Jane Potter, that he felt “compelled … to dedicate ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ in his original manuscript ‘To Jessie Pope, etc’, then in a subsequent version ‘To a Certain Poetess’ before deleting the ‘dedication’ altogether in favour of the more cryptic reference to ‘my friend’ in the final lines that precede ‘the Old Lie’. “ Dr. Potter, in the paper she presented at the Glasgow conference, “Wait, Weep and Be Worthy?
Women and the First World War,” posits the idea that Pope’s poetry today can be read in irony. And indeed that is how we used it in Letters’ libretto.
Caitlin McKechney, mezzo-soprano. Photo by Susan Werbe.
Another acclaimed British war poet, Siegfried Sassoon, expressed in a poem his bitterness towards women who could not begin to understand what soldiers experience in the frontlines in The Glory of Women:
You love us when we're heroes, home on leave,
Or wounded in a mentionable place.
You worship decorations; you believe
That chivalry redeems the war's disgrace.
You make us shells. You listen with delight,
By tales of dirt and danger fondly thrilled.
You crown our distant ardours while we fight,
And mourn our laurelled memories when we're killed.
You can't believe that British troops “retire”
When hell's last horror breaks them, and they run,
Trampling the terrible corpses—blind with blood.
O German mother dreaming by the fire,
While you are knitting socks to send your son
His face is trodden deeper in the mud.
The Glory of Women worked wonderfully well in the theatre piece, Messengers of a Bitter Truth, as part of the narrative that formed the script, but Letters illustrates women’s experiences. Women did “make shells” but were also blown up in industrial accidents in the munitions factories. German mothers did indeed “knit socks” but so many also mourned. Visual artist Käthe Kollwitz, whose younger son Peter was killed in the first months of the war, created powerful art that mourned the war dead, and represented through her art the women who suffered loss.
From the outset I felt strongly that these women’s words had to be set to music by a woman composer. Rhode Island-based composer Kirsten Volness engaged deeply with the libretto and created extraordinary music that was both lyrical and discordant, both modern and reminiscent of the early 20th C, and finally elegiac as the singers performed the last song, adapted from the poem There Will Come Soft Rains by American poet Sara Teasdale:
There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;
And frogs in the pools singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white,
Robins will wear their feathery fire
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;
And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.
Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree
If mankind perished utterly;
And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn,
Would scarcely know that we were gone.
The night of Letters’ premiere, we gathered in the Crypt, the perfect venue – both acoustically and atmospherically. Three sopranos, a mezzo soprano, a cellist and a violinist (both women) brought the work beautifully to life. “We didn’t even need to say it, but the fact that this piece was start to finish created by and performed by women, some of who have been gone for many years, is just so important…,“ reflected mezzo soprano Caitlin McKechney.
The audience and the performers were on a journey together, engaging with women who 100 years ago experienced and were profoundly affected by the 20th Century’s first global conflict.
Maria Stacey Lindsey, soprano. Photo by Susan Werbe.
For information about future performances by interested ensembles, please contact: WWrite at firstname.lastname@example.org
Letter That You Will Not Get: Women’s Voice from The Great War was performed on December 1, 2018.
Composer: Kirsten Volness
Libretto created by: Kate Holland and Susan Werbe
Conductor: Mila Henry
Performers: Sarah Beckham, soprano; Maria Stacey Lindsey, soprano; Caitlin McKechney, mezzo-soprano; Jessica Sandidge, soprano; Meaghan Burke, cello; AndieTanning Springer, violin
Photography: Pegeen Rubinstein
Susan Werbe is an independent scholar who for thirty years has pursued her interest in the social, cultural, and political history of early 20th Century England, including a focus on the social and cultural history of World War One. She was the executive producer and dramaturg for The Great War Theatre Project: Messengers of a Bitter Truth, performed in Boston, New York, and Letchworth (UK). In creating The Great War Theatre Project spoken word script, in collaboration with Script Advisor Kate Holland, Susan engaged in WWI primary source research in the US and the UK. She has served as presenter or panelist at international conferences on The Great War at the National World War I Museum in Kansas City, USA, and at the University of Kent, UK. She was also a panelist speaking on Visual Memory in a Time of Endless War, presented in conjunction with the 2016 art installation Paul Emmanuel: Remnants, hosted by Boston University. Susan was a member of a panel presenting at the War, Literature & the Arts conference, which was held in September 2018 at the US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. She served as the dramaturg for Vilda Chaya Collective’s production of A Bright Room Called Day and mentored Boston Arts Academy student dramaturgs for Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice. Susan holds a BA in English Literature from New York University and a Master’s in Education from the University of Massachusetts/Amherst.
Category: WWrite articles main
A First-hand Account of the Silver Greyhounds Overseas Courier Service by Captain Wallace F. Hamilton and His Daughter Felicita Hamilton Trueblood
By Felicita Trueblood
Drawing of the Ardennes in WWI by Wallace F. Hamilton. Image courtesy of Felicita Trueblood.
The Silver Greyhounds and My Father
During the WWI Centennial year articles have appeared in the media about the Silver Greyhounds, the Overseas Courier Service established in late summer 1918 to speed up the delivery of important communications between Washington, London, and Paris. The archives belonging to the commanding officer, Major Amos Peaslee, were recently donated to the State Department by Major Peaslee’s grandson. A portion of them is on display at the State Department’s Diplomacy Center.
100 Years of Diplomatic Couriers Exhibit at the U.S. Diplomacy Center. Image courtesy of diplomacy.state.gov
My father, Captain Wallace F. Hamilton, happened to be Major Peaslee’s assistant. He had served in the U.S. First Cavalry, the horse cavalry that protected the U.S./Mexican border in Southern California. General John “Black Jack” Pershing was in command of this operation. When it came time to establish the courier service, General Pershing assigned the task to a trusted cavalry officer, General James Harbord, who chose my father to be a part of this special unit. He had been plucked from the front in late August 1918 and told he was needed for special duty. As he made his way from Chateau Thierry to the Services of Supply in Tours, he made drawings of his observations.
From top left to right: Calvary recruitment poster 1914; Christmas Card San Ysidro 1915; Marne Campaign 1918 French 75 mm field gun; Champagne Country 1918. Images courtesy of Felicita Trueblood.
Dad was assigned to run the Paris office, responsible for getting the couriers and their pouches safely to and from trains and ships. Then, after the Armistice, he was responsible for all the transportation vehicles belonging to the Postal Express Service (PES), to which the courier service had been assigned.
My Father’s Scrapbook Stolen and Recovered
While unhappy about his assignment to a non-combatant post after all his military training, Dad soon realized there was adventure in his new mission and wrote an account of his time with the Silver Greyhounds in 1968. He sent it to Major Peaslee, who was very pleased with the manuscript and hoped my dad would publish it, including a never-before-seen statistical summary of the OCS activities through April 1919.
From top left to right: OCS statistics Feb. 1919; Peaslee letter May 1950; Peaslee letter 1968; Peaslee letter 1970. Images courtesy of Felicita Trueblood.
My dad recounts the inspiration for committing to paper his WWI experience as follows:
“I wrote this account of the Overseas Courier Service fifty years after the incidents themselves. My daughter’s curiosity sparked it. Her high school history class was concerned with World War I. Aware of this, her mother gave her a photo from my scrapbook of me with a group of Overseas Couriers in front of the Hotel Crillon, Place de la Concorde, Paris in December 1918. Scrapbooks and diaries were not encouraged in the Armed Forces at war but I was determined to keep my scrapbook. My daughter requested more information, as did her teacher. I looked over my scrapbook with its sketches, photos, and memorabilia and then turned to my typewriter to comply. I enjoyed the experience, as it provided a bond for a father whose daughter is 61 years his junior. Once launched by that Fay Lady of the Lake upon waters of romantic recollection, the adventures came very much alive.”
My dad passed away in April 1972 and the manuscript and artwork went into storage. His scrapbook from the war was stolen from our storage facility and returned to me many years later through a stroke of seeming divine intervention.
I knew my father was busy writing a manuscript, right up until his passing, but I was in college, studying literature at the University of California, San Diego, and recently married, so his scrapbook and various manuscript iterations went into storage. We subsequently lived and worked in Frankfurt, Germany, for 24 years and I had neither the time nor the inclination to take on this project, although it was always in the back of my mind. When we finally returned to San Diego and we were able to empty our storage unit, I found the box with the manuscripts but the scrapbook was nowhere. Our storage had been broken into at some point and I assumed that the scrapbook had landed in a dumpster since it wasn’t of any commercial value. I was so angry with myself for losing my most precious possession, as I had grown up with that scrapbook, not really understanding its importance but loving to look at it. The menu from the Parisian restaurant Maxim’s, not your usual war souvenir, left an indelible impression.
In 2008, my job as the family memory keeper led me to check out my great grandfather online. His name was Frances Wallace Hamilton – the reverse of my dad’s name. Incredibly, I came across a query on www.Art.com searching for information about the World War One trench artwork of Wallace Frances Hamilton, my father! We were able to determine that the gentleman who made the query did, indeed, have the scrapbook. In an almost unbelievable story, we learned that it made its way 100 miles north and into the catacombs underneath the old Kaiser Steel plant in Fontana, California, only to be lovingly retrieved and cared for by this gentleman for the last 12 – 15 years! I was able to buy back the scrapbook contents, somewhat the worse for wear but basically intact.
Now I had my father’s manuscript and his artwork. I still had no time to work on the project and was wondering if I ever would. After my husband passed in 2016 and I was able to retire from my job at UC San Diego, I thought about what the next chapter of my life would be. The centennial of the US entering WWI was coming up in April 2017, so I thought it was the perfect time to pull everything together and start writing. I immersed myself in the various versions of Dad’s manuscript and began to check it for historical accuracy. I identified what his artwork meant in the context of his story. I focused on his manuscript first, then on his letters home to his parents, and finally to my memoir of growing up with this old cavalryman who painted, sang, danced, cooked, wrote stories and kept up a regular correspondence on the state of the world with Richard Nixon.
Wallace F. Hamilton 1917 (left) and AEF ID card (right). Images courtesy of Felicita Trueblood.
My Father’s Story and Mine
I chose to present the story and artwork as a website (www.silvergreyhounds.com) rather than as a book because I believe the story is a relatively unknown part of WWI history and deserves to be in the public domain. Part One of the book is my father’s war story in his own words, with editing and clarification by me. Part Two is his personal story, which includes letters home to his parents during WWI. Part Three is my writing, a memoir of growing up with a father 61 years my senior, a domesticated old cavalry soldier who raised me on stories of life out in the big world and became responsible for setting me on my own life adventure.
My father’s WWI letters home show an artist’s flourish in his animated and colorful descriptions of events. I had to get used to his writing style when editing the manuscript. I made slight alterations for clarity and admit to toning it down when his love of elegant words made the text unreadable. I was astonished by the historical detail he was able to correctly remember while in his late 70’s.
The following passage provides a stark description of what he saw while attempting to leave the front and report for his new duty:
“Well, at least this would be a change from avoiding artillery caissons galloping out of the rain-soaked forest at night’s darkest hour, side swiping my pup tent and kicking unexploded German shells around, as the 77th Field Artillery got its baptismal fire in the Foret de Fere near Fere-En-Tardenois. The sector I had so reluctantly departed was a place of unburied dead, artillery duels, captive balloons, flies, yellow jackets and lost bedrolls. Evening mess was on the enemy – we captured his rolling kitchens and food cache. [This fighting would become known as The Aisne-Marne Counter Offensive, Phase II of the Second Battle of the Marne, July 18 – August 17, 1918.]”
Fere-en-Tardenois, 1918. Image courtesy of Felicita Trueblood.
Once away from the horror of the war, Dad waxed romantic in his trip from Tours to Paris by Cadillac a few days later:
“Our first stop on the way to Paris was an excellent dinner. The region of Vouvray is not just a place. It is a rare vintage that will not ship but lives only a golden moment in the Loire atmosphere to impart that certain appeal of a masterly French “omelette,” impossible either to describe or forget.”
Everything must have been bathed in gold, considering the hell he had just witnessed.
Drawings Hamilton did while in France during WWI at Chateau de Valencay in 1919. Bottom left image is of Italian Artillery Officer and Calvary Officer, Rome in spring 1919. Images courtesy of Felicita Trueblood.
It was also interesting to note that he wrote separate letters to his mother and his father. The letters to his mother are much lighter fare. Letters to his father were more grim and factual. It was a balancing act to write with an eye to each reader.
My dad has been gone for almost 45 years but I have realized that, after pouring over his manuscript and letters, my writing has begun to sound like his, minus the artistic flourishes. This is unintentional though I seem to know how he might have expressed the thoughts I wrote down in 2017. I spent so many years alone with him when I was young that the years during which he told me stories formed the person I became. In a college essay I wrote:
“He taught me to value the experiences I would have in my life, to reflect on them, to remember details, moments, to study things around me. As a professional artist and writer, he had mastered the ability to look deep into things and learn from them. He encouraged me to write down what I saw and thought. I could never do anything as well as he did, but I knew what an opportunity I had been given. From him, I learned to daydream. Together we would make things up. He always wished he had a wigwam – he liked to pretend he was outside in his wigwam with a fire blazing, while the rain fell around it. He had lived a rough life, almost always outdoors, raising horses and Airedales, or working in the jungles of Trinidad. I found out from him all the incredible things there were in the world, how much there was to daydream about."
Wallace F. Hamilton 1912. Image courtesy of Felicita Trueblood.
This “melding” of my father’s writing and my own made it seem as though we were having a conversation like two adults. I finally understood what his experience had been like because I analyzed every word that he wrote and every sketch that he drew. And I learned about his love story, falling for a lovely USC student during his short time with the California National Guard in Los Angeles. His hopes were dashed, however, when he was told she was taken, as he prepared to make his way to her home after returning from Europe in 1919. I knew the name of the woman, and the details I found on the Internet allowed me to make her into a real, three-dimensional person. I prefer to believe that she did want to marry him but her father would not give his blessing. My Dad’s prospects as an artist were not the best for a banker’s daughter. Either way, it was a crushing blow that made soft-hearted Wallace Hamilton put off marriage for another 30 years.
The writings that Wallace Hamilton left behind helped me to not only open doors to an important piece of WWI history but to my father’s life. He was a man I was lucky to know.
The Silver Greyhounds in WWI. Image courtesy of Felicita Trueblood.
The Silver Greyhound Insignia. Image courtesy of Felicita Trueblood.
As a major in Literature from the University of California, San Diego, Felicita Trueblood has been thinking about completing the writing that her father started for well over 40 years. Now semi-retired, she was able to fulfill her father’s wishes and tell his story just in time for the 100th anniversary of the Diplomatic Couriers and to celebrate the centennial of the November 18, 1918 Armistice agreement. She hopes that silvergreyhounds.com will introduce a relatively obscure piece of WWI history, and the man who was part of that history, to the general public.