Martha Gellhorn – Prelude to World War II in Europe

U.S. Warships Sent to Aid Citizens in Spain

Chapter 1, an excerpt


With a knapsack and fifty dollars, Martha Gellhorn traveled to Spain to cover her first war, the Spanish civil war. Confident and fearless, Gellhorn was a foreign correspondent for Collier’s, a popular weekly magazine. She was twenty-nine years old, and she would spend the next fifty-three years of her life covering wars. When she died in 1998, the London Daily Telegraph honored her as “one of the great war correspondents of the century brave, fierce and wholly committed to the truth of the situation.”

Martha Gellhorn grew up in St. Louis, Missouri. From an early age she attended protest marches with her mother, a tireless activist, and she decided that her “plan for life was to go everywhere, see everything, and write about it.” The Spanish civil war began in 1936, when Generalissimo Francisco Franco led a revolt against the legally elected government of Spain. Arriving in 1937, Martha Gellhorn toured war-torn Spain by car, on horseback, and on foot. During her time at the front lines, she learned how to identify types of weapons from their sounds and “to gauge shell burst and know what is dangerous and what is not.”

During the siege of Madrid, Gellhorn stayed at the Hotel Florida, where she could walk to the front lines, just ten or fifteen blocks away. One day a shell hit the hotel. Creating a word picture of sights, sounds, and feelings, she described the scene: “Suddenly there came that whistle-whine-scream-roar and the noise was in your throat and you couldn’t feel or hear or think and the building shook and seemed to settle. Outside in the hall, the maids were calling to one another like birds, in high excited voices. On the floor above . . . there was nothing left in that room, the furniture was kindling wood, the walls were stripped and in places torn open, a great hole led into the next room and the bed was twisted iron and stood upright and silly against the wall.”

Gellhorn noticed that the male war correspondents stayed away from hospitals with wounded civilians and soldiers. She, however, did not. “I was a great frequenter of hospitals,” she explained, “because that’s where you see what war really costs.” Throughout her career, she wrote many graphic descriptions of the devastating impact of war on everything it touched – – the landscape, buildings, animals, men, women, and children. “I always thought that if I could make anyone who had not seen such suffering begin to imagine the suffering, they would insist on a world which refused to allow such suffering,” she wrote.

Martha Gellhorn was not the only American woman correspondent who went to Spain. Virginia Cowles, a correspondent for the Hearst newspapers who was fluent in French and Italian, covered the war in high heels, and became good friends with Gellhorn. “I had no qualifications as a war correspondent except curiosity,” Cowles later explained. “Although I had traveled in Europe and the Far East a good deal, and written a number of articles . . . my adventures were of a peaceful nature . . . When the war broke out in Spain, I saw an opportunity for more vigorous reporting.”

Allied Troops Storm Ashore at Naples To Trap Nazis After Italy's Surrender

Chapter 6, an excerpt



Martha Gellhorn returned to the war in the fall of 1943. Since Pearl Harbor, she had tried to get Hemingway to leave Cuba with her and cover the war. He was too busy, he said, using his fishing boat to search for U-boats in the waters off Cuba.

Finally, it became impossible for Gellhorn “to sit on the outside and watch.” She contacted Collier’s and set about getting accredited. “War is a malignant disease,” she once wrote, “an idiocy, a prison, and the pain it causes is beyond our telling or imagining; but war was our condition and our history, the place we had to live.”

She arrived in London in November. One of the first things she did was have breakfast with Virginia Cowles, her old friend from the days when they both had covered the Spanish civil war. Now Cowles was assistant to the American ambassador in London. In a flurry of activity, Gellhorn wrote articles about English pilots and Dutch refugees and accounts of atrocities against Jews, her visits to burn wards in hospitals, and her conversations with children. “They have never bought food except with ration books, or clothes without coupons,” she wrote of the children who had known only war throughout their lives. “They grew up to find trenches in playgrounds, bunks in subways, queues for everything, and they have never had a date except in the blackout.”

Martha Gellhorn went to Italy in February of 1944. By hooking up with French forces, she got around the frontline restrictions of her U.S. accreditation. “I had been sent to Europe to do my job, which was not to report the rear areas or the woman’s angle,” she later wrote.

Riding in a jeep with a French soldier, she traveled through snow and hail on narrow, slippery roads up mountains where the Germans were well entrenched. “From time to time,” she wrote, “we would pass a completely unnecessary sign: a skull-and-bones painted on a board, with underneath the phrase in French, ‘The enemy sees you.’ No one needed to be warned. There you were on a roller-coaster of a road freezing to death, and if the enemy couldn’t see you, he was blind; he was sitting right across there, on that other snowy mountain.”

Gellhorn described an endless stream of ” trucks and jeeps, command cars and ambulances, wrecking cars and tanks and tank destroyers and munitions carriers.” She noted that along the road there was always a soldier shaving: “Naked to the waist in the cold, he wages the losing battle to keep clean.” Then there were old women washing clothes in a stone trough, and children swinging on an old telephone wire “hung from a tree in an ammunition dump.” She reported her conversation with a doctor at a first-aid station about minefields: “’Think about it,’’ he said, ’for years after this war, people will be killed all over Europe in such fields; men will be killed sowing their wheat and children will be killed playing. It is horrible. Everything about war is too horrible to consider.”

That night Gellhorn lay on her cot in the aid station and “listened to the mice and the shells.” And she remembered “the dead girl ambulance driver, lying on a bed . . . with her hands crossed on a sad bunch of flowers . . . She had been killed on the road below San Elia, and her friends, the other French girls who drove ambulances, were coming to pay their last respects. They were tired and awkward in their bulky, muddy clothes. They passed slowly before the dead girl and looked with pity and great quietness at her face, and went back to their ambulances.”

Martha Gellhorn at the front during the Spanish civil war.Doris Fleeson, war correspondent for Woman's Home Companion, talking with two American soldiers in their foxhole on the Italian front.The daring exploits of Martha Gellhorn, who is referred to as Mrs. Ernest Hemingway, was the subject of this front page article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The daring exploits of Martha Gellhorn, who is referred to as Mrs. Ernest Hemingway, was the subject of this front page article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.