• Kate

The White Road to Verdun: What a children's book from the Crane Estate taught me about WWI women

Updated: Nov 16, 2018

Sometimes you buy a book on a lark and don't even realize how special it is until you get it home.

This early 20th century Gateway to Spenser ticks a number of boxes for me: It has beautiful illustrations by F.C. Papé, an elaborately blindstamped and gilded cover, and I love the Faerie Queen.

Later, I glanced at bookplate and realized it belonged to Cornelius Crane of the famed Crane estate in Ipswich, MA. Crane Castle, a well-known New England landmark, is one of the few properties in MA that rivals the mansions of Newport, RI. Cornelius, in fact, was named after his father Richard T. Crane Jr.’s good friend Cornelius Vanderbilt. You might recognize it as the property used for the mansion in "The Witches of Eastwick."

The Cranes were from Chicago, and purchased Castle Hill in 1910 for their summer home. Since they were only there a few months a year, and young Cornelius didn’t have many friends, his father invited the town children to a yearly picnic on Crane Beach for Cornelius’s birthday, a tradition which is still held in Ipswich to this day. Cornelius grew up to become a noted explorer, traveler, and benefactor of science. He funded and embarked upon a a massive expedition around the globe in 1928 with the Chicago Museum of Natural History to study wildlife and collect specimens.

Tucked inside the book is a typewritten draft of a speech that Cornelius’s father, Richard, made at a fundraising event in 1917 for Kathleen Burke, a Red Cross nurse from the Scottish Women’s Hospitals. Now, I am not a person who collects war memorabilia, because it makes me fucking sad, so my knowledge of these subjects is comparatively cursory. Determined to know who Kathleen Burke was, I researched the history of the Scottish Women's Hospitals and was astonished at what I learned.

During WWI, the British government issued repeated calls for doctors and nurses to help on the front lines... but they prohibited female medical professionals to serve in the Royal Army Medical Corps. When Dr. Elsie Inglis offered her services, it's reported that an official said to her, "My good lady, go home and sit still." Unwilling to take no for an answer, Dr. Inglis and her colleagues, most of them suffragists, set about establishing their own Foreign Services hospital. They served in Corsica, France, Malta, Romania, Russia, Salonika, and Serbia, offering both valuable opportunities to women and invaluable help to the Allies on the front lines of some of WWI's most harrowing battles. Their hospitals and medical units were staffed almost exclusively by women, and their efforts were entirely self-funded.

Enter, Miss Kathleen Burke. A 27-year old suffragist, Burke signed up as a Red Cross nurse when the war broke out, and joined the SWH in 1915. Within a year, she became their organizing secretary and was sent on a special mission to France and Belgium, where she met General Pétain. In 1916 she published an account of her experiences with the SWH and the conflicts she witnessed, The White Road to Verdun. The piece confirms the anecdotes I've read about her: She was an incredibly bright, witty, charismatic woman, and eventually became the SWH's mosy successful fundraiser. She made multiple, extensive trips across America, using her charm to hob nob with philanthropists at speaking engagements. The money poured in: They even dubbed her the "£1,000 pound a day girl." The SWH raised over £500,000 to fund their hospitals and field units, and of that impressive sum, Burke raised £126,000 by herself.


I especially wanted to share this story in November, when we remember and honor those who have served. I don't remember learning anything about these incredible women in any history class at school. Hopefully, like me, you'll want to read more. The SWH's archives are held at The Women's Library at the London School of Economics, including this extremely cool scrapbook.

Other links:

Scottish Women's Hospitals

"Women Brave Guns to Nurse Wounded" NYT article, 4/2/1916.

From the National Archives

And here is the book that sent me down this rabbit hole, if you want to make it yours!


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