26th March 1919

On Wednesday 26th we started work early at the Salvation Army Canteen and went on to the YMCA canteen, where the light was impossible. They had to use electric light all day, and had not got the tent down which shared all the daylight from the door. I decided that the only thing to do was to arrange a group out in the Courtyard under the tent. So we got tables and goods out and a crowd of Australian and English soldiers came in, so it make quite a picturesque arrangement, even though the exposure was long.

YMCA Tent

Y.M.C.A. Group, Lille © IWM (Q 8094)

Our plan was to meet Nigel Norman [Lady Norman’s step-son], who was coming out on his motor-bike… Unfortunately for keeping out appointment we took the wrong gate out of Lille…it was the only time in the whole tour that we went amiss. It probably took us ten kilometres out of our way, but let us through some villages where it was evident there had been tremendously heavy fighting. Meppe is one that remains in my memory. The smell was very unpleasant even in passing through, and I heard afterwards that it had not been properly “cleared up” yet.

We did eventually get on to the road for Haasebruck. It was very cold and we arrived there fairly frozen, and eventually found out canteen – after much enquiry.

“I propose”, said Lady Norman, “that we photograph the canteen first, and have tea afterwards.”

To this superhuman suggestion, frozen and miserable, I did my best to rise, but I did not enjoy it. It was not the first time that I found myself hardly on an exalted enough level to enter keenly into the game when almost to still with the cold to unpack myself or the camera.

Poor Olive is really starting to feel the strain of the tour by this point. She had been on the go for 26 days straight, with only one real day of rest in Paris, and even then she was out running errands and writing to her family to let them know her expected return date. To be out working in the freezing cold, constantly travelling from place to place in a rickety old Ford (an open-top car, so no roof to keep out the snow) with no idea whether she would even have a real bed for the night would have surely been enough to wear down even the fittest young adventurer. Edis was 42 when they set out on their tour, the oldest of the group and a good 20 years older than many of the women she was sent to photograph, and was unwell for some parts of the journey – to the point where she was on the verge of being sent home and hospitalised at one point (see 8th March).

On top of the physical aspects of the tour, there was also the mental strain of almost reliving the war through experiences recounted by the people they met (see 23rd March), not to mention her own experiences of the sights and smells of the battlefield, the fields of makeshift graves, injured soldiers, widows, refugees, and piles of rubble that only a short time ago were people’s homes. It must have taken everything she had to come through that and still have the energy to keep going, keep photographing, and keep writing her daily journal. “Superhuman” indeed.

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