Heroes of History – No job for a woman

Being an avid reader of everything fiction and non-fiction, it is hardly surprising that every so often I come across names that connect the dots and make me want to learn more about their particular contribution to history. 

I’ve just finished a book about the Spanish Civil War and in it, two names that should ring bells with anyone with a basic general knowledge were mentioned, Ernest Hemingway and his then mistress, Martha Gellhorn.
You can probably tell by the title of this piece that it isn’t Hemingway that I plan to focus on; its Martha and how possibly she changed the face of war journalism for women – and perhaps men too.

The Spanish Civil war deserves many articles in it’s own right, the acts of atrocity perpetuated -predominantly, it has to be said by Franco’s Nationalist side - are horrific and it was also the German testing ground for mass bombardment from the air to strike terror into civilians that was to be used to such horrific effect a mere three years later during World War II, but more of that in future blogs. My focus is on Martha, and how she paved the way for future female war correspondents such as Kate Adie and the late Marie Colvin. 

I can’t in a blog of only 600 words or so go into all of Gellhorn’s literary work, one look at her bibliography would tell you what a prolific writer she was, but I do want to focus on one of the tales that surrounds her and why I think she is worthy of the title as that of a hero of history.
Born in St Louis, Missouri in 1908, it can only be assumed that the influence of a suffragist mother implanted a strong sense of self belief in her and the drive to compete in a man’s world. It was some years later, in Key West Florida that at the age of 28 on a family holiday, she was to meet a huge influence on her life, Ernest Hemingway and be persuaded to go out to Spain to cover the Civil War which was tearing apart the country and it’s people. It was her inclusion in an event which has its 75th anniversary on 6th June 2019 that she was best known for.
For Martha was going to be the only woman present at the Normandy Beach Invasion, better known as the D Day landings.

By 1944, she and Hemingway had been married for four years; however as was perhaps inevitable between two such independent and driven characters, that which had attracted them to each other was also going to tear them apart. It is reported that by this time, her husband had already started to tire of her mission to be reporting on war around the world rather than playing the dutiful wife and warming his bed. In a move perhaps synonymous with the somewhat egotistical and narcissistic reputation of Hemingway, he had press permission to be on the beaches on 6th June 1944 and she did not. It is reported in various media that he chose the somewhat more secure confines of a military ship and Gellhorn was to masquerade as a stretcher bearer to enable her to be in the thick of the destruction. She wrote for her article in Colliers Weekly (who her now estranged husband had gone to and obtained that invaluable press pass, although she was the more respected journalist it must be said)
“It was no fun at all, considering the mines and obstacles that remained in the water, the sunken tanks with only their radio antennae showing above water, the drowned bodies that still floated past.”

It is possible that it was Gellhorn’s happy consent to be seen as one of the boys that made her so readily accepted by the troops that she shared both a laugh and a conversation with, the fact that she refused to be told no and was determined to cover these battles from her point of view, a point of view not highlighting the actual weapons or the power of this warfare, but the social aspect, the effect on humanity that has made her so important and so critical to writers going forwards.
But I will leave you with these words written by the lady herself.

“I didn’t write, I just wandered about”
Please listen to more history content on my podcast, Haunted Histories, every Wednesday at 9pm on Parasearch Radio.

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