A Memory of Women

It was nine-fifteen on the evening of July 31 that we bade a joyous farewell to the Port Melbourne and first set foot, on British soil — which, in this particular case, was the timber and concrete of the pier. On the whole I was sorry to leave the boat. True, the food had been abominable, but the voyage had been a treat: seventeen days of glorious rest, sleeping and dreaming in the sunshine, had made a difference.

Still, for the good of the crowd, it was high time we were off. There was beginning to be too much grumbling among the men, the inevitable result of nearly three weeks of too much proximity. Of course, the order to put on our packs had been given hours before we were to leave the boat; and during the time we waited, the old army rumors began to circulate — rumors of ten-mile hikes, of rest-camps, and other delusions. To the ‘enlisted personnel,’ the army is nothing but standing in line and rumors.

Luckily, we little suspected what was in store for us. And so we lay around the hold of the old British cattleship, with packs and rolls, like a crowd of weary rag-pickers, already hot, and rapidly tiring. Those packs tired us even when they rested on the table behind us. Perhaps it was just the idea of having to carry them — so far as we knew, for ever and ever—that tired us as much as anything else. There was no air-circulation in the hold — nothing but the odor of greasy pans, musty wood, and sweaty bodies. The minutes dragged their weary selves along in heavy silence. No one talked, as everything had already been said over and over again during the seventeen days we were penned together, and I guess we were all more or less busy with our personal thoughts.

Our organization was nearly the last to leave the ship; it was almost dark when we did leave, and quite dark when we were marched off the docks, to fall out in a deserted rubbish-heap of some sort. Again old Dame Rumor glided about among us: ten miles to a rest-camp. Well, perhaps it was ten miles, but I am certain that it was no ‘rest-camp’ to which we went. Those British rest-camps—1 ‘Fall in’ was given about ten o’clock; we gave our precious packs one final hitch, and fell in line just behind Base Hospital Number 35. I do not know where we went that night, but some day I am going back to that rubbish-heap, and close my eyes and walk it all over again, without a pack!

How am I to describe that walk? It remains in my mind as a hazy impression — a sort of afterglow; the kind that follows certain types of dreams. Nothing stands out distinctly: it was like walking in one’s sleep. I remember starting off through the dark, — there were no street lights, of course, because of the danger of air-raids, — stumbling over streets paved with the roughest, bumpiest, hugest cobble-stones I have ever encountered. Probably they were just normal stones; but it was very dark, our packs were heavy, and we had just a touch of ‘sea-legs.’

I remember passing rows of dull brick buildings that looked like disreputable resorts, or tenement houses, with occasional wine-shops lighted by a carefully shaded candle. I could feel, rather than see, ragged women leaning out of one or another of the endless rows of windows — indistinct shapes in the darkness. I remember dark alley-ways, with black figures leaning up against the walls, or sitting on the curbing with feet in the gutter. Occasionally a streetcar passed us — great double-decked affairs, with crazy spiral steps leading up the back to the second floor. But above all else I remember the women; and as long as memory holds, the women of Liverpool, as I saw them that night, will remain indelibly etched on my brain.

Almost before I realized it, I found that we were marching between a double column of black figures — black against a blacker background. At first these figures were mere incidents, but soon — as soon as walking became a mechanical performance and my eyes became accustomed to the darkness — I began to examine into the composition of that crowd. And then I realized with a shock that they were all women! Women, women, women, endless double rows of women, lining the street down which we stumbled. And they were all women of low class — shawl-clad, disordered hair, and sallow, worn faces. They stood there and watched us pass. Women in black, mostly, though not conspicuously in mourning; women holding nursing infants in their arms; women with little children clinging to their skirts — sleepy little brats, for it was well past their bed-time; women with careworn faces, when one could get close enough to see details, with a shawl thrown over their shoulders to ward off the chill of the damp air; young women — girls — enjoying the sight, throwing kisses to us; children, many of them uncertain as to what it all meant, standing with open mouths, gaping at us as we passed.

Once in a while there was an ancient, gray-haired man, bent, crippled, standing in the crowd. But all, all, ALL were smiling! That is what impressed me: women smiling — nothing, nothing but smiling women. Where, in God’s name, were the men? Where were the sons, brothers, husbands of these hundreds of women who watched us pass, smiling? Where were the men of England ? And then, in a sort of cold wave, the first true realization of what was going on swept over me. Where were the men of Liverpool? At the front: in France, in Belgium, in Italy, in Greece, in the Holy Land, in Africa, on the seas, beneath the seas, sailing the air, in the trenches, in dug-outs, dead — many of them dead.

Smiling women! And they greeted us, not with a ’Welcome’ — no, not by any means, us who had but just landed. Smiling women with men at the front gave no ‘welcome’ to the Yanks just arrived. It was ‘Good-by-e,’ always ‘good-by-e’; ‘good luck, good-by-e, Yanks [they called us ‘Yonks’]; good luck, Sammy.’ There was a sort of terrible fatalism in that eternal ‘ good-by-e,’ especially coming from smiling women — smiling women in the dark.

But far more impressive to me was the pathetic thigmotaxis of these women. As we went past, they reached out their hands and touched us, usually silently, on the arm. Smiling women, with men at the front, touching American soldiers as they marched out into the darkness, going, as they saw it, to the relief of their weary men at the front! Do you get the picture of it? True, as a picture it is not much; but the pathetic significance of it all! I wonder what new strength they drew into their weary bodies from that brief touch of passing Sammies? In their eyes we were a sort of ‘touchstone,’ a sort of good-luck charm, an assurance of the victory and the peace they prayed for, a relief for their weary, weary men at the front.

I am extremely grateful that it was dark out there in the streets, for my eyes were very wet. And I think that it was then that I realized that my early suspicions were correct: that it was a women’s war after all; that it is the women who pay the biggest part of the war-debt in the way of suffering, waiting, hoping, enduring. Theirs is the mental pain, theirs the uncertainty day after day after day. And theirs is not the path of glory; their suffering is unsung, unpaid, and often, very often, I am afraid, unrewarded. A women’s war, fought silently by those women in the streets of Liverpool — by those women smiling in the dark. Their ‘good-by-e’ will ring in my ears to my dying day. — Smiling women — in the dark! ‘Good-by-e, Sammy’ — and a touch on the arm — all in the dark!