Gra (My Grandmother) and the Start of World War One: A Contribution to History

Here is the brief article about my grandmother that appeared in the New York Times in August 1914. (This follows on from the article I wrote for the Guardian Family of Saturday 26th July, 2014.) My grandmother, known in the family as Gra, lived on in Lytham St Annes to the age of 105.


“The sunset tonight was most beautiful,” wrote MURIEL FURNESS, an English schoolgirl, in the diary she kept at the convent school in Eysden, Holland, when war was declared. “It kept changing its color – that, we are told, is a sign of war.” Perhaps it is a sign of war. Nobody can feel so wise now as he might have felt a few weeks ago, and a little simple faith in signs seems reasonable enough when a war, which few believed would ever occur, came without warning, and is causing destruction in the centre of the civilized world. Anyhow, Miss FURNESS believes in the relation of brilliant and changing sunsets to war, and she has a clear mind and an aptness of expression which make the excerpts of her diary in the Dutch border town between July 30 and Aug. 11, which were cabled to THE TIMES yesterday, not only readable but positively valuable.

Miss FURNESS’S brief notes on the early encounters between the Germans and Belgians are coherent and graphic enough to be of service to future historians. She could hear the guns, she could see and talk to the wounded who were carried to neutral territory, and she sets down not only what interests her. There is a pathetic human touch in this little incident narrated by the young diarist:

‘There is a Belgian soldier here who is slowly recovering. A German, badly injured, was brought in, and the Belgian at once ran forward and unlaced his boots for him.’

It is through veracious chronicles of this sort, not through the technical writings of military experts, that the world gets its knowledge of wars.

Muriel Furness, fourth from the top, aged nine.

Muriel Furness, fourth from the top, aged nine.

And here is the longer but equally remarkable article from The Blackpool Gazette. In her terse diary entries, my grandmother definitely – at points – equals Hemingway:



As Recorded by a School-Girl.

There is scarcely a man or woman in Europe for whom the great war will not bring fresh sensations, fresh experiences, and perhaps fresh perils. Among the many Blackpool people for whom, in years to come, the mention of 1914 will bring back a flood of recollection, perhaps the ones who will have most to remember will be the young girls who were penned up for days amid the raging of battle. The experience of the two Blackpool girls, Miss Muriel Furness, the daughter of the Borough Electrical Engineer, and Miss Lola Taylor, of South Shore, will never be forgotten as long as they live.

Together with eight other young English girls, they had to remain in a convent school near Limbourg, in Holland, where wounded soldiers were being continuously carried inside, when the thunder of heavy artillery shook the very foundations of the building, and aeroplanes dropped bomb after bomb over the flaming town of Visé, only a few miles away.

Miss Furness, whose fourteenth birthday was only in July, was formerly a student at the Blackpool Secondary School, and she left there about eighteen months ago to complete her education at the Convent School of the Ursulines, at Eysden, which is just on the border of Holland and Belgium. Beautifully situated amid peaceful wooded slopes, the convent is one of the most charming of the many similar institutions for which the Netherlands are famous. Amid such scenes the girls in the convent, who comprised at least half-a-dozen nationalities, of which the English contingent amounted only to ten, were taught the arts of peace. Mrs. Furness speaks in glowing terms of the way in which her daughter has been taught music, sewing and carving. The English girls were made exceedingly happy by the sisters and the Mother Superior, who looked affectionately after their young charges.

It was upon Thursday, July 30th, that the ominous clouds of war first threw their shadow across the convent in the peaceful Dutch valley. Many telegrams were received from German parents, who apparently recognised already the significance of the German preparations, asking for their children to be sent home by the next train. The Mother Superior hesitated, and then, in consequence of the continued arrival of German telegrams, she decided upon sending the girls home at once. The next day the Belgian and German students were sent off under the care of sisters; and from that time the outlook became blacker and blacker, until the convent was soon literally enveloped in the smoke of battle.

Meanwhile, in Blackpool, the uneasiness of Mr. and Mrs. Furness and Mrs. Taylor was deepening as time went on. Mrs. Furness had gone to London a few days previously, and intended to meet her daughter at Liverpool-street Station on Tuesday, August 3rd. On the Monday night, Mr. Furness received a telegram from Louvain, which is half way between the convent and Brussels, in Belgium, as follows – “Impossible for children to leave.” In response to a wire from her husband, Mrs. Furness returned to Blackpool the following day. On the next day, Wednesday, arrived an unsigned postcard from Visé, bearing the date of August 1st, four days previous, saying, “Impossible for children to leave. Fetch them.” That was all.

When the news was first received in London by Mrs. Furness, she made urgent inquiries as to how soon she could get to the convent in Eysden. She was strongly urged not to go; and in response to Mrs. Furness [words missing] said, with emphasis, “Madame, you may possibly reach Eyden. But I can tell you this – you will not get back again.” Mr. Furness realised the extreme difficulty of the situation, and communicated with Mr. W. H. Fox, the private secretary to Mr. W. H. Ashley, M.P. Repeated inquiries from Mr. Maas, the Consul General for the Netherlands, only elicited the response that the girls might obtain a military escort to Flushing, but it was doubtful; and that it was impossible to guarantee anything at all in the circumstances. Last Monday, however, Mr. Furness decided to do his very best to rescue his daughter and her friends from a situation that was hourly becoming more perilous.

Eysden is situated at the bottom of a long thin strip of Holland which separates Germany from Belgium. If the Germans, concentrating in enormous numbers north of Liege, were driven back over the frontier and into Holland, the odds were that they would violate the neutrality of Holland as they had done that of Belgium rather than surrender, and then the convent would have been the very pivot of the fighting. Little wonder that uneasiness had merged into anxiety, and anxiety into an ever-present fear.


Meanwhile, what was happening at the convent? The story can best be told in the words of Miss Muriel Furness, who throughout the stirring days maintained sufficient sangfroid to write a vivid and intelligent diary of their experiences. For such a young authoress and for such disturbing surroundings, this diary is verily a literary achievement. It commences at the beginning of the war, and we give it practically as it stands, as written in ink, in an ordinary copy book.

July 30th – Early this morning the Mother Superior received many telegrams from the parents of German girls asking for them to be sent home by the next train, as there were rumours of war between England, Germany, Russia, Austria, etc. We girls scorned the idea, and laughed. At tea-time the Rev. Mother said that as so many telegrams had arrived, she had decided that the holidays should commence on August 1st instead of August 3rd.

July 31st – We went to the station to see the Belgian girls off, still thinking there would be no war and expecting to be home on Monday. One of the sisters went to Cologne with the German girls. The Dutch girls expect to go home to-morrow.

August 1st – It was found impossible for the Dutch girls to return home to-day, as the trains were filled with troops going to the frontier. The sister who went to Cologne has not come back. Went to pack up and prepare for the journey home, but we are still doubtful as to whether we shall have to stop here if war breaks out. The nuns told us that we should all go home, and we then felt content.

It will be noticed that the postcard from Visé, received four days later in Blackpool, must have been already dispatched. The children still thought that their departure for home was imminent, however, for the next entry reads: —

August 2nd – Still in a doubtful state of mind, but rejoice to think that we are going home to-morrow. At tea-time the Rev. Mother came in crying, telling us that war had actually been declared, and that the Germans were approaching the frontier, and that we could not now go home. The sister who went to Cologne with the German girls returned to the convent after much difficulty, as she was taken for a spy, and it was only her Prayer-book, which contained her name, that saved her. To-night there was one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen. The clouds were always changing in colour. They said it was a sign of war, and we were not a little frightened.

For Monday, August 3rd, the day they should have started home, the entry read: — “This day we should have gone home. The Belgian girls have been taken away by their parents, and there are only us ten English girls left at the convent. In the morning we cleaned out the drawing room in preparation for the wounded soldiers. They came into our garden, which was close to the frontier.”

The account of the next three days’ fighting round Liege and Visé is as vivid as any of the accounts transmitted by any of the war correspondents in the field, some of them the most accomplished in the world.


August 4th – About 4 o’clock this morning we heard a most terrific explosion, and afterwards learned that it was the bridge at Visé over the Meuse which had been blown up by the Belgians. After this explosion, we heard repeated artillery duels, and were very frightened. A German officer came to Visé. He commenced to read a proclamation, but before he finished doing so was shot dead. This the nuns told us. About 3 o’clock in the afternoon, refugees came rushing into the convent from Visé with the news that they had escaped from German cavalry, who were attacking civilians and were firing on the houses. They said the Germans had taken the town, and it was reported there was a lot of wounded. Straight away the Rev. Mother ordered that all beds should be put into the drawing room and arranged as a hospital in case they brought in the wounded. When that was finished we hoisted a white flag with a red cross on the top of the tower, denoting that the place was a hospital. We also put another flag right in the centre of the front garden – such a lovely flag! We heard the sound of aeroplanes and the continuous noise of artillery. No wounded came in to-day, as the Belgians would not let them pass over the frontier into Holland.

August 5th – Artillery firing all through the night prevented us from sleeping. In the morning we could hear aeroplanes. I jumped out of bed, but I was too late. I was told they were German officers inspecting the position of the Belgian troops. The nuns told us that twelve aeroplanes had flown over the house during mass. The Germans tried to make a bridge over the Meuse, but they could not succeed in getting it across, owing to heavy Belgian fire. They pulled down houses by the side of the river and used the débris to stem the current. As soon as they had the bridge half finished, the Belgian fire would destroy it. It took 36 hours of hard work before the Germans had spanned the river. This morning some refugees arrived from Fouron-le-Compte, and they reported that the Germans were there, and that they had had to fly for their lives.

I received two letters from home this morning, wishing me a pleasant crossing. They made me feel sad to thtink it would perhaps be a long time before I could return home. After tea we could again hear the noise of the aeroplanes which came towards us. They were very high, and kept disappearing in the clouds. It was a lovely sight. Just at the back of one we saw a light. I suppose it was a searchlight for the night. We watched it until our eyes ached, and until it was quite out of sight. At supper time we were told that a large number of Germans had successfully crossed their temporary bridge, and that they had set fire to the village of Mouland. From our windows we could see the smoke from the fire. It was said they would soon be in Liege. The fire from the artillery was soon greater than ever. It was dreadful and nobody could sleep. This night we crowded into the cloak room, which is partially underground, and has a communicating door with the painting room. We fetched down the pillows and coverlets and my big winter overcoat, for the nuns expected that perhaps the French might catch up the Germans and begin firing into our village. If that happened we should have to fly and hide ourselves in the meadow. About 9.30 we lay down on the floor, but it was impossible to sleep.


It is obvious from the above account what must have been the situation at the convent. Yet in a letter to her mother, dated August 5th, the day of that entry, she writes brightly and cheerily, without the slightest intimation of what she was going through. In that letter, she wrote: “At last I can write to you and let you know I am well and content with my lot. Of course, you understand what a great disappointment it was not to be able to return home. But never mind, better days will follow, and the darkest are always before the dawn.” Continuing, she said, “Don’t fear for me, I am quite safe. You see it is as yet Belgium that is fighting because it will not let the Germans pass, and I am in Holland. I will not tell you all in this letter: I will wait until I am at home to tell you everything in detail.”

The brave letter is concluded in the same brave spirit. “I suppose,” she wrote, “you will be writing to me again very soon to keep up my heart. I am doing my best to be a brave little girl, like I know you wish me to be. Don’t worry, we are all in the hands of God.”

Mère Alphonsine, the Mother Superior, added the following foot-note: “We have a lot of wounded, and they are arriving continually. We are too glad to nurse them. So far as this, Holland is preserved; and I hope we shall be safe to the very end of the war. You can understand what misery is around us. The children are in very good care, and we shall place our confidence in God for the future. One never knows what might happen.”

But to turn to the diary again: —

August 6th – About 3.30 in the morning we were in the church. The firing ceased and we went to the top of the house from which we could see the smoke at Mouland. We were told that fourteen wounded soldiers had arrived. I saw a motor come with a wounded officer and a Boy Scout. Many fugitives arrived from Visé. At tea-time a German officer was brought in who had fainted from fatigue on the battlefield. After tea we heard the sound of aeroplanes. One of the nuns saw an aeroplane under fire. It kept dodging up and down with shrapnel bursting below it. It escaped, however. To-night we are to sleep in the cloak-room in the basement.

August 7th – We went to bed at 9.30 last night, but could not sleep as the floor was hard and cold, and the noise alone was awful. At 3.30 a.m., we went to Mass, and then back to bed again. The Mother Superior told us to pray a great deal, as we might die at any moment. We must be prepared to die. Many wounded were brought in. I was so sorry for a young officer who was shot through both legs. We could see the smoke of burning Mouland curling up towards the sky. Just before dinner I was taken into the vestry to see the Prince Consort of Holland, who had come down with his suite to see the wounded soldiers. He bowed to us English girls, and shook hands with the Rev. Mother, and left a doctor and others to look after the wounded. Shortly afterwards the Consort and his suite left in five motor-cars.

August 8th – This morning I could hear the artillery. We were told that Liege was taken by the Germans and two aeroplanes had met in the air, a Belgian aeroplane having cut the German in two. I can’t say if this is true. Artillery has been firing all through the day, but the noise isn’t so great as before, as it is farther away. We were told there was little danger for the Convent now. All the wounded in the hospital are prisoners of Holland. Dutch sentries were on guard in the garden to prevent them getting away.

August 9th – Some of the soldiers came to Mass. It was so sad to see all the young fellows look so pale. Each had a Prayer book in his pocket, and their one desire seemed to be to get back to the front again. I took fruit to the wounded soldiers, and I spoke to a Belgian who had a bullet right through his cheek. He opened his mouth and showed me the hole. The only thing he wanted was to see his loved ones and go to war again. Poor things!


August 10th – Last night the cannon fired in earnest, and continued all through the night. From the roof I could see three villages on fire. The wounded get on very well together. There is a Belgian solder here who is slowly recovering. A German – badly injured – was brought in, and the Belgian at once ran forward and unlaced his boots for him. During the night an aeroplane passed over the house. It was very high and scarcely distinguishable. We could still see the fires at Visé.

That was last Monday, when Mr. Furness arrived in London. In the ordinary course of events, two days would have to have elapsed before he could have obtained a special passport for his dash to Holland. It was entirely through the good offices of Mr. Wilfred Ashley that he obtained one within an hour of application. Immediately the passport was obtained Mr. Furness took it for endorsement to the Netherlands Consulate and then wired to the convent, telling them he was on the way to Flushing, and would wait there for instructions. The passage across from Folkestone was accomplished by 8 a.m. on Tuesday.

Mr. Furness proceeded to tramp 1 and a half miles to the post office at Flushing, no vehicle of any sort being available, to see if any reply had come to his telegram. He did not then know that the Dutch government accommodatingly places on a large blackboard opposite the quay the names of those for whom telegrams are waiting. No message had come, however, and the harassed father once more wired to the convent. Eleven hours afterwards a reply came to say that the children had left Eysden for Flushing.

It was on Tuesday morning, according to the last three items in Miss Furness’s diary, that “we heard the joyful news that we should be allowed to pass through the Dutch military lines, so we were in great spirits.” On Wednesday, she wrote, “we travelled up to Rossenthal – soldiers all the way.”

The last entry in this memorable diary is for Thursday of last week, when she says, “Arrived at Flushing quite safely, and were soon on the boat for dear old England!”

Needless to say, Mr. Furness was overjoyed the receive his daughter once more, together with the six other English children under the charge of the Mother Superior. They were tired after the long two days’ journey, which, in normal circumstances, is accomplished in nine hours. All they way along they had been met with the question, “Are you Mr. Furness’s children?” They had been treated with every consideration.

If the meeting was a joyful one for Mr. Furness, the parting was pathetic enough for the nuns. “Do come back to us some day!” begged the Mother repeatedly. “We shall all be dreadfully poor, but still you will come back, won’t you?” To Mr. Furness she simply said, “Sir, you are taking all the sunshine out of my life!” She turned away to hide her tears, and so left them.

In addition to his daughter and Miss Lola Taylor, Mr. Furness brought home with him a Liverpool girl, Miss Renée Holt, whose parents are in India. For the present she will remain with Mrs. Furness. The four others, three London girls and one from Co. Clare, Ireland, were met by relatives in London.

And so the great adventure has ended happily. Miss Furness, a slim girl and tall for her age, has practically recovered altogether from the effects of her experience, whilst Misses Holt and Lola Taylor seem little the worse. During the week-end they have shown some tendency to jump at slight noises, as though half expecting to hear once more the thunder of artillery, but the nervousness is rapidly vanishing. And Blackpool’s bracing breezes will soon restore them to their former happy selves.


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