Although she has now been dead for twenty-five years, Martha Gellhorn can still be considered one of the most accomplished war correspondents of the 20th century, having covered most of the major conflicts: from the Spanish Civil War up to, and beyond, the Vietnam War.
During World War II she outshone her more high profile husband, Ernest Hemingway, by a long shot, concentrating, as he never did, on more personal stories — as was the case with John Steinbeck and Ernie Pyle — that dealt with serving personnel, and the consequence, both physical and mental, that such personnel suffered.
But, early on the 6th of June, 1944, D-Day, the thirty-six year old, still unaccredited correspondent Martha Gellhorn, had managed to get aboard the first hospital ship to sail with the invasion fleet. Martha had simply walked on board, found a nurses uniform and, when the injured started coming aboard in their thousands, got stuck in. And as the daughter of a doctor, who had trained her well, and a fluent German speaker, Martha more than pulled her weight, as well as writing a splendid dispatch.
That first dispatch, for Collier’s Weekly, of June 1944, doesn’t mentioned her methods of course, but it’s a wonderfully encompassing piece of writing:
“ Our ship was snowy white with a green line running along the sides below the deck rail, and with many bright new red crosses painted on the hull and painted flat on the boat deck. We were to travel alone, and there was not so much as a pistol on board in the way of armament, and neither the English crew and ship’s officers nor the American medical personnel had any notion of what happened to large conspicuous white ships when they appeared at a war, though everyone knew the Geneva agreement concerning such ships and everyone wistfully hoped that the Germans would take the said agreement seriously.”
Martha describes the ship’s facilities, including four hundred and twenty-two bunks with new bedding, a bright and clean, well-equipped operating theatre. Great cans of ‘Whole Blood’ stored on the…