Miles Franklin’s War


The Great War (WWI) broke out in Europe on 28 July 1914, with the Austro-Hungarians preparing to invade Serbia in retaliation for the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Miles Franklin was in the USA – which stayed neutral until 1917 – working with fellow Australian Alice Henry on the journal Life and Labor and for the National Women’s Trade Union League of America. Franklin, like most of the Australian suffragists, but unlike their fellows in England led by Emily Pankhurst, took an anti-war position.

This was not Franklin’s first war, although it was the only war in which she would be directly involved. Born in 1879, she was still home on the farm at Thornford in 1899 when troops from the various Australian colonies were sent to fight alongside the British in South Africa in the Boer War. Franklin even then was anti-war and in the often autobiographical Cockatoos, originally written in 1902 or 1903, she is scathing about the young men she had grown up with who rushed to enlist:

Wynd Norton came and was triumphantly conducted inside by the boys. He … hoped to make an impression on Sylvia by announcing that he had joined a local rifle corps and from that would get into a contingent for South Africa …

“Wynd, you’re not really going away to murder people, are you?”

“I wouldn’t call it that,” protested Wynd, not at all happily. He had hoped for quite a different response from the girls. (p.129)

Later, she gets in a dig for her no. 1 passion as well:

“I hate this killing. Hypocrites, going to free the Uitlanders, and they haven’t given their own women votes yet!”

“Yes, but don’t you think all the men’ll have to be free first and then the women?”

“No! England should practise what she preaches and free her own women first. I despise soldiers. Even that silly old Cowpens can be a soldier.” (p.149)

In America in 1914-15 Franklin’s first inclination seems to have been to continue with work as usual in the women’s labor movement. She had had published one American novel and was working on another, On Dearborn Street (not published until 1981. My review here). When war breaks out, during the course of the novel, she intrudes her own voice over that of the (male) narrator:

… came to the last week of July 1914, when into the regular routine … crashed the appalling news that Europe had gone mad overnight and was at war.

One pack of pampered hell hounds, maddened by the delusion that it was menaced by all the other packs, and freed from leash, had almost annihilated another nation before the other dogs of war could be whipped into readiness. (p.110)

Roy Duncan in his Introduction to On Dearborn Street writes:

The shock of World War I, together with continuing irresolution about woman’s position in society and marriage as an institution, stimulated five full-length manuscripts [by MF]. One of the earliest, “Red Cross Nurse” (1914), is an impassioned piece. Digressing savagely on male responsibility for the War, it speaks of “this half-tamed yahoo, this ninety percent criminal which is known as civilized man”.

In 1915 Franklin replaced Alice Henry as editor of Life and Labor but within a few months she had clashed with her patron, Margaret Robins, resigned and in October sailed for England, with these bitter parting words:

Perhaps it was the general war poison which has affected me this last year to the extent of feeling that I had never met one single human being not excepting my mother who would not exploit me to the last inch for what usefulness and entertainment was in me and then throw me on the scrap heap without qualm. (Quoted in Coleman, 1981, p.178)

For the next part my source is Jill Roe’s great biography. In turn, a great deal of Roe’s material comes from Franklin’s (unpublished, I think) record of 1916, How the Londoner Takes His War by a Dissenting Diarist, 20,000 words in 43 sketches.

Franklin had excellent connections in London, from her previous visit in 1911, from her suffragist friends in Australia, and from all the women who had passed through Chicago during her 9 or so years at the heart of the US women’s movement. She was already a member of the Women’s Freedom League – a breakaway from the Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union – and they found her (minimal!) employment for 2 days a week as a cook/waitress at their Minerva vegetarian cafe. The rest of her time was spent visiting wounded soldiers, attending rallies, conferences and conscientious objector tribunals, plus some journalism for Australian newspapers.

Her first intention was to go to France as an orderly in an Ambulance unit (think Phryne Fisher or Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas), but that cost money which she did not have. So, early in 1917 she applied to join the Scottish Women’s Hospitals (SWH) for Foreign Service, an all-women organisation established by Dr Elsie Inglis (my post here) in 1914 under the auspices of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies and run on a voluntary basis by women doctors. ‘The British War Office repeatedly declined its services but it found plenty to do on the Continent, where it served mainly alongside French armies.’ (Roe, 2008,p.202).

Franklin was almost immediately offered a position (food/expenses covered but no pay) as a cook with a SWH unit attached to the Serbian Army under the command of Australian doctors Dr Agnes Bennett (Wiki.) and later, Dr Mary De Garis (Wiki.). She departed for Macedonia in July ’17, one of 3 women on a troopship with 3,000 men. In one of her few surviving letters from the period she writes to friends in Chicago:

You should see my boots! I’m terrified that they’ll sink me, and I have gaiters like the ‘bus conductoresses right up to my knees, and such a jolly short skirt. It is a peach to walk in. All women should be compelled to wear short skirts.

And in a postcard to Rose Scott, her earliest mentor in Sydney:

… I sail today as a member of Scottish Women’s Hospitals for service in Ostruva, Macedonia. I am looking forward to the trip out as we go by Paris & Rome & many other places …

I am very proud to be an accredited Scot at last with the Gordon tartan on my shoulder strap & a thistle in my hat band.

A month later she writes to her mum:

I am quite well & quite happy – for me. I am enjoying the old Australian heat & we go swimming nearly every day in Lake Ostrovo. I am trying to pick up a little Serbian as one is perfectly helpless without it. We are far and safe from war’s alarums here – haven’t heard a word about it since leaving London.

In fact, the Serbian position was well behind the lines and she probably heard more gunfire in London – she comments on the boom of artillery from across the Channel – than she did on ‘active service’. After the six months she had contracted for was up she returned to a London experiencing Zeppelin air-raids, ill with malaria and influenza, convalesced for a while on the south coast and then, right at the end of the war, in Nov ’18 secured a position with the National Housing and Town Planning Council, through her WFL connections, which was to be her mainstay for the next few years.

She wrote on her time in Serbia in the essay Ne Mari Nishta: Six Months with the Serbs*, and by happenstance I found this connection to it (here) in the comments following a Historians are Past Caring post from last year (here), so thankyou Marion.

In 1950 Miles Franklin came over to Perth to deliver a series of talks on Australian literature to members of the public and students of the English Department of the University of Western Australia. These talks resulted in a book of essays, Laughter, not for a cage (1956). In the chapter on Anzacs, Franklin writes:

At certain anniversaries you will hear in windy rhetoric from countless platforms that Anzac (Gallipoli) made a nation of Australia. But what is nationhood? What is the value of nationhood if achieved only through murdering the pick of the male population in its youth? What intelligence, splendour or freedom is there in motherhood that will submit to the “superb specimens” of its travail being wasted as cannon fodder?

What is the value of nationhood indeed.

Ne Mari Nishta  – Serbian, one translation is ‘It matters nothing’

Debbie Robson, Australians Working with Scottish Women’s Hospitals here
Debbie Robson, The SWH and the Australians who served in it. Talk, here
Miles Franklin, Cockatoos, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1954
Miles Franklin, On Dearborn Street, UQP, Brisbane, 1981
Miles Franklin, Laughter, not for a cage, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1956
Verna Coleman, Her Unknown (Brilliant) Career, Sirius, London, 1981
Jill Roe (ed.), My Congenials: Miles Franklin & Friends in Letters (vol.1), Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1993
Jill Roe, Stella Miles Franklin, Fourth Estate, Sydney, 2008
Miles Franklin Central (here) for links to all my MF posts and reviews

9 thoughts on “Miles Franklin’s War

  1. “Windy rhetoric from countless platforms that Anzac (Gallipoli) made a nation of Australia” – I’m not a pacifist but I couldn’t have said it better myself.
    These days we also hear children spouting stuff like “the Anzacs fought for us, for our freedom” which is utter nonsense. This is deeply depressing to me as a teacher, because teachers are required to include both Anzac Day and Remembrance Day in the curriculum every year for all year levels and yet the kids end up not knowing the truth.


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