Martha Gelhorn: The Face of War

Martha Gellhorn was born in St. Louis on 8th November, 1908. She attended Bryn Mawr but left in 1927 to begin a career as a writer. Her first articles appeared in the New Republic, but determined to become a foreign correspondent, she moved to France to work for the United Press bureau in Paris.  While in Europe she became … Continued

Martha Gellhorn was born in St. Louis on 8th November, 1908. She attended Bryn Mawr but left in 1927 to begin a career as a writer. Her first articles appeared in the New Republic, but determined to become a foreign correspondent, she moved to France to work for the United Press bureau in Paris. 

While in Europe she became active in the pacifist movement and wrote about her experiences in the book, What Mad Pursuit (1934). When Gellhorn returned home she was hired by Harry Hopkins as an investigator for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, where she had the task of reporting the impact of the Depression on the United States. Her reports for that agency caught the attention of Eleanor Roosevelt, and the two women became lifelong friends. Her findings were the basis of a novella, The Trouble I’ve Seen (1936). 

In 1937 Gellhorn was employed by Collier’s Weekly to report the Spanish Civil War. While there she started an affair with Ernest Hemingwayand the couple married in 1940. Gellhorn travelled to Germany where she reported the rise of Adolf Hitler and in 1938 was in Czechoslovakia. After the outbreak of the Second World War wrote about these events in the novel, A Stricken Field (1940). 

Gellhorn worked for Collier’s Weekly throughout the Second World War and later recalled how she “followed the war wherever I could reach it.” This included reporting from Finland, Hong Kong, Burma, Singapore and Britain. She even impersonated a stretcher bearer in order to witness the D-Day landings. 

After the war Gellhorn worked for Atlantic Monthly. This included all the major world conflicts, including the Vietnam War, the Six-Day War in the Middle East and the wars in Central America. 

Gellhorn published a large number of books including a collection of articles on war, The Face of War (1959), a novel about McCarthyism, The Lowest Tress Have Tops (1967), an account of her life with Ernest Hemingway, Travels With Myself and Another (1978) and a collection of her peacetime journalism, The View From the Ground (1988). Martha Gellhorn died in London on 15th February, 1998.

Source: Spartacus: http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/USAgellhorn.htm

Excerpts from Martha Gelhorn’s Writings

The Undefeated (1945) 

At the end of the gray unheated ward, a little boy was talking to a man. The boy sat at the foot of an iron cot and from this distance you could see that they were talking seriously and amiably as befits old friends.

They had known each other for almost six years and had been in five different concentration camps in France. The little boy had come with his entire family in the great exodus from Spain at the end of the civil war in 1939, but the man was alone. He had been wounded at the end of the war and for six years he had been unable to walk, with a wound in his leg that was never treated and had never healed. He had a white, suffering face and cheeks that looked as if the skin had been roughly stitched together in deep hunger seams and he had gentle eyes and a gentle voice.

The little boy was fifteen years old, though his body was that of a child often. Between his eyes, there were four lines, the marks of such misery as children should never feel. He spoke with that wonderful whisky voice that so many Spanish children have, and he was a tough and entire little boy. His conversation was without drama or self-pity. It appeared that the last concentration camp was almost the worst; he had been separated from his mother and father. Also the hunger was greater, although the hunger had always been there, and one did not think about it any longer.

In the last camp they all ate grass, until the authorities forbade them to pull it up. They were accustomed to having the fruits of their little communal gardens stolen by the guards, after they had done all the work; but at the last camp everything was stolen. And there were more punishments for the children: more days without food, more hours of standing in the sun; more bearings.

‘The man who guarded us in our barracks was shot by the Maquis, when they came to free us,’ the boy said. ‘The Maquis shot him for being bad to children.’

His mother was here with him, and three sisters, too. An older brother was somewhere fighting with the French Maquis.

‘And your father?’ I asked.

There was a pause and then he said, in a flat quiet voice, ‘Deported by the Germans.’ Then all the toughness went, and he was a child who had suffered too much. He put his hands in front of his face, and bowed his head and wept for his father.

Is There a New Germany?, Atlantic Monthly (1964) 

The adults of Germany, who knew Nazism and in their millions cheered and adored Hitler until he started losing, have performed a nation-wide act of amnesia; no one individually had a thing to do with the Hitlerian regime and its horrors. The young realize this cannot be true, yet one by one, each explains how guiltless his father was; somebody else’s father must have been doing the dirty work. Santayana observed that if a man forgets his past he is condemned to relive it. Germans trained in obedience and dedicated to moral whitewashing are not a new people, nor are they reliable partners for anyone else.

Martha Gellhorn worked on a hospital ship during the D-day landings. She later wrote about the experience for Collier’s Weekly (June, 1944) 

Belowstairs all the partitions had been torn out and for three decks the inside of the ship was a vast ward with double tiers of bunks. The routing inside the ship ran marvelously, though four doctors, six nurses and about fourteen medical orderlies were very few people to care for four hundred wounded men. From two o’clock one afternoon until the ship docked in England again the next evening at seven, none of the medical personnel stopped work. And besides plasma and blood transfusions, re-dressing of wounds, examinations, administering of sedatives or opiates or oxygen and all the rest, operations were performed all night long. Only one soldier died on that ship and he had come aboard as a hopeless case.

It will be hard to tell you of the wounded, there were so many of them. There was no time to talk; there was too much else to do. They had to be fed, as most of them had not eaten for two days; shoes and clothing had to be cut off; they wanted water; the nurses and orderlies, working like demons, had to be found and called quickly to a bunk where a man suddenly and desperately needed attention; plasma bottles must be watched; cigarettes had to be lighted and held for those who could not use their hands; it seemed to take hours to pour hot coffee, via the spout of a teapot, into a mouth that just showed through bandages.

But the wounded talked among themselves and as time went on we got to know them, but their faces and their wounds, not their names. They were a magnificent enduring bunch of men. Men smiled who were in such pain that all they really can have wanted to do was turn their heads away and cry, and men made jokes when they needed their strength just to survive. And all of them looked after each other, saying, “Give that boy a drink of water,” or “Miss, see that Ranger over there, he’s in bad shape, could you go to him?” All through the ship men were asking after other men by name, anxiously, wondering if they were on board and how they were doing.


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