Guest blog: Women Editors and the Khaki Press, 1914-1918
Her name was “Miss Donaldson.” I imagine her to have been Scottish, or Australian, but in a Europe as cosmopolitan as that of 1914 she could as well have been a naturalized Greek citizen. For Greece is where we can retrace her steps, in Salonika (now Thessaloniki), on the corner of Venizelos and Jean Tchimiski, in the winter of 1915-1916. From that street corner she edited the first English-language army periodical on the Macedonian front, which came into being when the editors of two local French newspapers, Opinion and Indépendant, kept receiving complaints from British troops that their papers were somehow only published in French. The Balkan News started out as a modest endeavor, printed on poor quality paper and sold at two cigarette shops, a local hotel, and “at Mr Yeraham’s on the quai.” Yet, English-language magazines filled a desperate need in news-deprived outer theatres of war, since by the time the London papers arrived on the Macedonian front they were more than three weeks old. In Salonika the soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force came to refer to the editor of the News as their “Balkan Princess.”
In March 1916, the Balkan News – or “Bawkanoos” after the cries of Ottoman vendors on Thessaloniki’s piers – was adopted by the British authorities, who installed two male officers as co-editors. This is where I lose all trace of “Miss Donaldson”. While the magazine itself features in many histories of the Eastern Front, Donaldson would have been forgotten were it not for the small print in the back corner of the first numbers of the magazine: “All correspondences should be addressed to the Editress”. It is not my intention to make any claims about the politics of what Raymond Williams termed “selective tradition”. Rather than look at the Balkan News in its early stage as an exception, I suggest we try to make sense of it on its own terms. For, if there is one thing the WeChangEd-project promises to show, it is that there exists a long tradition of women taking up leading roles in the periodical business – war or no war. Pushing up against the project’s farthest boundary (1710-1920), the case of the Balkan News reveals the formative influence of a female editor on a periodical that sought to give form and meaning to the war’s moment of encounter between different cultural and linguistic traditions (Greek, Ottoman, French, English). What new perspectives could it offer, I wondered, if I were to enter the cultural history of the First World War through a gateway like this?
This is new to me. I had long thought that the army papers of the First World War would not lend themselves to such an approach. My own research in periodical studies, on a project supervised by Marysa Demoor and Sarah Posman, attempts to read these publications into the history of modernism. This is a modernism in the tradition of men like Hulme, Lawrence (T.E., not D.H.), or Hemingway (all of whom fought in the war); it is “hard”, “classical” and “sparse”. “On the inside pages,” wrote the editor of Stars and Stripes in a tone characteristic of most soldiers’ magazines, “are words which pulsate with noble purpose, and short sentences which are redolent of sweat-soaked khaki, of mud covered shoes, of night-tired eyes and sore feet – things which are not written of except when real men write.” Scholars have also been recovering the voices of women – like that of the exotic dancer Mata Hari, executed by the French army under charges of espionage, or that of Maria Bochkareva, the commander of an all-female “Battalion of Death” in the Russian army [fig. 1] – from the vast archive of the First World War. These voices are different in all but one respect: they show us that there were just as many real women as there were real men. And yet, of female editors in the army press we know little. While the lives of women in front hospitals and war factories are by now well-documented, the diverse ways in which often these same women positioned themselves as assertive participants in the periodical press remains uncharted terrain.
In fact, the Balkan Princess was one among many. Mrs. Stuart Sutherland, for instance, edited the Women’s Volunteer Reserve Magazine [fig. 2], and Meriel Talbot, from the Women’s Land Army, created the organization’s flagship publication, The Landswoman [figs. 3,4]. Closer to the line of fire we encounter Agnès Rossolin, a French sculptor and ‘marraine de guerre’ who edited and financed the trench journal Le Bochofage. Though her editorial policies were apparently ruthless, the ‘poilus’ only had kind words to say about her: “protectrice des lettres au front qui, non seulement nous édite notre journal, mais encour s’est faite la veritable rédactrice en chef du Bochofage en faisant composer et tirer nos articles et en … les censurant même tout en se ralliant à nos idées.”
Then there was Katherine Fish, daughter of the sub-editor for Wilde’s Woman’s World, and nurse at the Third London Hospital in Wandsworth. Under the pseudonym of the First Woman, “Eve”, she wrote on the war’s impact on gender in the hospital monthly, which she also helped edit and distribute on Sundays. She was affectionately known among the patients as the “Gazette Girl” [fig. 5]. “Gazette Girls” travelled across the globe – this is a world war, after all – and we can still sense something of their legacies. Hester Maclean, the Matron-in-Chief of the New Zealand Army Nursing Services, founded a journal called Kai Tiaki (“guardian” in Māori culture) in 1908, and edited it until her death. The journal still exists today.
Taken together, the now-fragmented stories make a straightforward point: beneath the rhetoric of manliness in which the khaki press was drenched (and which I, in fairness, had assumed to be symptomatic of the genre) soared an army of women. As editors they went on to steer public debate on the many issues – cultural, political, sexual – that the war exposed. It is difficult to measure their anonymous successes in retrospect. If I leave the hard work to Marianne’s team, it is because I know they are well equipped. What sets their collaborative project apart (it is one of its most promising features) is the sheer range of languages spoken by the six researchers. This means that it gives them access to a wide variety of sources. But it also enables them to look at a single transcultural object, like the Balkan News, from different sets of eyes –– those of the Ottoman street vendors, the Greek protagonists in its pages, the French founders, the English readers on the Macedonian front, and the inconspicuous first editor, who, for now, continues to elude our grasp.
Cedric Van Dijck is working on a PhD on trench journals in the First World War at Ghent University. He was recently awarded the British Association for Modernist Studies Essay Prize for his paper entitled “Time on the Pulse: Affective Encounters with the Wristwatch in the Literature of Modernism and the First World War.”