August 1914: the Englishwoman who stayed in Germany
On 28 June 1914 Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. The crisis escalated slowly but inexorably from then on. Eventually Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August, launching a conflict that claimed around 40 million lives and changed history forever. It’s therefore remarkable to discover the story of an Englishwoman, living in Bonn, who initially decided to stay in Germany in August 1914.
Bonn: epitome of pre-war German culture and elegance
The Englishwoman was Edith Madge, a 26 year old clergyman’s daughter. She had been working for almost a year as an ‘English companion’ to a wealthy 42-year old German widow. The role involved light housework in the morning: dusting the ‘many exquisite objets d’art’ in the house, changing flowers in the countless vases, and cleaning out the canaries’ cages. She would then accompany her mistress on shopping trips and excursions; Frau S would apparently spend hours choosing her clothes.
Edith was a lively and intelligent young woman, who seems to have relished the opportunity to escape from the duties and obligations of being a ‘parson’s daughter’ in England. At first she found the job dull. But eventually she came to appreciate the Germans in general and to have a genuine affection for her mistress in particular. In her memoirs, Edith writes: ‘A very real friendship resulted which has outlasted wars and time and separation. She is still ‘Mutti’ to me, and I am her ‘liebe Edit’.
Edith found the Germans to be kind and friendly. In particular, she struck up a friendship with her mistress’s nephew Otto, an earnest college student with whom she shared ‘scholarly conversation and companionship’. She loved the Rhine valley scenery and enjoyed trips to Cologne to see Wagner’s operas. She found herself stimulated and interested by friends and places as never before.
When war broke out in August 2014, ‘Frau S and I pledged our friendship anew . . determined that no thought of the enmity of our two nations should spoil our mutual affection’. Writing in her memoirs, Edith recorded that her wish to stay arose because she ‘felt safe; with friends, kindly treated’. Dutifully, she felt that she should remain in Germany until at least Christmas 1914, as she had previously arranged. In any case, the journey home would be dangerous, with the North Sea planted with mines.
Behind Edith’s sense of belonging in Bonn, as Frau S’s companion, lay other factors, some personal, some reflective of Anglo-German relations generally on the eve of World War I. Although Edith was self-consciously English, her mother was American, and the family had travelled widely on the continent. She describes herself as ‘impressionable and adaptable’, so she found it easy to fit in to a German household. Life at home in Hampshire, as a parson’s daughter, wasn’t as satisfying as her life in Germany.
It should also be remembered that there were many strong and cordial links between England and Germany on the eve of the First World War. Many English tourists, bearing Baedeker’s Guides, had visited the Rhineland and the Black Forest. The British royal family had close links with its German counterparts. The music of Mendelssohn and Brahms echoed through countless middle class living rooms. Many English people felt greater affinity with the Germans, who were seen as sharing with us a common Teutonic heritage, than with the French. Not only were these links irrevocably broken in 1914, but history was subsequently re-written to discount their value. Richard Scully, in ‘British Images of Germany: Admiration, Antagonism and Ambivalence 1860-1914’ describes how Punch magazine published a retrospective of cartoons after the outbreak of war, illustrating how Anglo-German relations had deteriorated owing to Germany’s warmongering. This, Scully says, ignored the many cartoons published by the magazine that had presented a more positive image of relations, right up until the eve of war.
Curiously, Edith’s fondness for the family with whom she stayed represented a two-fold victory over prejudice. Not only was the family German, they were also Jewish. Anti-semitism was perfectly normal amongst the English in 1914, so Edith records that ‘my heart sank at the first sight of Frau S . . a typical Jewess of the least prepossessing type’. This prejudice was dissolved by her experience of living with Frau S, who was in any case completely assimilated and did not observe the Jewish faith, in common with many middle class German Jews of the time. An indication of the family’s assimilation was that Frau S’s son Alex, as a college student, was ‘engrossed in the barbarous German amusement of duelling’ and went off to fight for the Kaiser as soon as war broke out.
Edith’s decision to stay in Germany on the outbreak of war marked her out from the rest of the English community in Bonn. She saw off from the station a party of English girls who had been holidaying in Germany, but had been caught in Bonn by the outbreak of war, and were now hurrying home. The English chaplain from Cologne, who held services for the English community in Bonn, tried to persuade her to leave. The police took the trouble to let her know when other English were leaving, thinking that she would join them. Eventually she was alone.
Staying in Germany had practical consequences. Prudently, she and her mistress agreed that they would not speak English together in public, as they had previously done. Edith would be introduced to strangers as an American. The police summoned Edith and her mistress for an interview, but Frau S’s ‘well-known name and social standing stood us in good stead’. She was allowed to stay, and was told to report daily to the police station. Edith reports in her memoirs that she continued to be treated kindly and politely. At a party, a group of young officers, toasting ‘our brave German navy’, backtracked with ‘charming shy courtesy’ when they noticed Edith. They excused themselves, saying they couldn’t drink the toast in her presence. So Edith found that prejudices whipped up by the war were diluted when it came to personal contact.
Edith records that it wasn’t the English who the Germans most feared. They treated the colonial troops of Indians and Africans as bogies. ‘The Highland regiments, too, seemed to be held in special horror; something about the kilt and bagpipe seemed to inspire particular terror and loathing in the Rhenish breast’.
Eventually, Edith’s resolve to stay in Germany was overcome by her father, who was understandably growing anxious about her. She received a letter from him through a Dutch professor who acted as an intermediary, which ordered her to come home. She felt obliged to comply, and travelled alone, by train, to the Dutch border, trying hard to appear as inconspicuous as possible. There were throngs of refugees on the border, which showed her, in a way not evident in Germany itself, the impact of the war. She managed to get on a train to Rotterdam, and set sail at nightfall on 30th October from there to Tilbury, arriving home in Hampshire on 2nd November 1914, ‘not as pleased to be there as I ought to have been’.
Home again: Stoke Charity church
In her memoirs, Edith reflects that she was unaware at the time of the dangers from which she had escaped. Looking back at her younger self, she sees how foolhardy and naïve she was in thinking that she could remain in Germany after the outbreak of war. Yet she also conveys in her writing a continuing love for Germany and the Germans, of which she remained unashamed, and which transcended war. Nor was she deterred from future travels: she escaped the role of ‘parson’s daughter’ for a career as a missionary in China, returning finally to England only in the 1950s.
Note: The source for this account is ‘A Tethered Wanderer’, the unpublished typescript memoirs of Edith Madge, which are amongst the papers left to me by my grandmother Phoebe Mary Bacon.
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