Martha Gellhorn and D-Day at Rainy Day

It’s Martha Gellhorn week at Rainy Day, Eamonn Fitzgerald’s wonderful blog.

As the 60th anniversary of D-Day approaches, Rainy Day will be marking this pivotal historical event with a week of excerpts from the journalism of Martha Gellhorn, who stowed away on a hospital ship and sneaked ashore as a stretcher bearer during the landings at Normandy on 6 June 1944. Her eyewitness accounts of what happened on that long day are among the great feats of war reportage.

The week starts on 31 May with a profile of Martha Gellhorn, followed by excerpts of her writing, of which the following are tiny morsels.

Leaving for France

Pulling out of the harbour that night, we passed a Liberty ship going the same way. The ship was grey against the grey water and the grey sky, and standing on her decks, packed solidly together, khaki, silent and unmoving, were American troops. No one waved and no one called. The crowded grey ship and the empty white ship sailed slowly out of the harbour towards France.

Then we saw the coast of France

Then we stopped noticing the invasion, the ships, the ominous beach, because the first wounded had arrived. An LCT drew alongside our ship, pitching in the waves. A boy in a steel helmet shouted up to the crew at the aft rail, and a wooden box looking like a lidless coffin was lowered on a pulley, and with the greatest difficulty, bracing themselves against the movement of their boat, the men on the LCT laid a stretcher inside the box. The box was raised to our deck, and out of it was lifted someone who was closer to being a child than a man, dead-white and seemingly dying. The first wounded man to be brought to that ship for safety and care was a German prisoner.

On a deck lay a very young lieutenant

The man behind him was a 19-year-old Austrian. He had fought for a year in Russia and half a year in France; he had been home for six days during this time. I thought he would die when he first came on board, but he got better. In the early morning hours he asked whether wounded prisoners were exchanged; would he ever get home again? I told him that I did not know about these arrangements, but that he had nothing to fear. I was not trying to be kind, but only trying to be as decent as the nurses and doctors were. The Austrian said, ‘Yes, yes.’ Then he added, ‘So many men, all wounded, want to get home. Why have we ever fought one another?’ Perhaps because he came from a gentler race, his eyes filled up with tears. He was the only wounded prisoner on board who was grateful or polite, who said ‘Please’ or ‘Thank you’, or showed any normal human reaction.

They spoke of the snipers

Two men who thought they were being invited into an old woman’s house to eat dinner were actually being warned of snipers in the attic; they somehow caught on to this fact in time. They were all baffled by the French and surprised by how much food there was in Normandy, forgetting that Normandy is one of the great food-producing areas of France. They thought the girls in the villages were amazingly well dressed. Everything was confused and astounding: first, there were the deadly bleak beaches, and then the villages where they were greeted with flowers and cookies — and often by snipers and booby traps.

Rainy Day and Regions of Mind, two blogs rich in history, were the ones that most inspired me to start my own. One feature I particularly like about Rainy Day is the regular inclusion of excerpts from journals or diaries that present an articulate individual’s unique perspective on events.

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Filed under Europe, publishing, war

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