The Survivor a poignant 1934 reflective feminine war voice

“The Survivor” was written by Mrs. Amabel King (maiden name Reeves) (born: May 3, 1899, Toronto, Ontario – died: January 19, 1979 Brompton, Ontario) during her final year (1934) studying in the University of Toronto Extension Journalism course in which she was registered during 1932 to 1934. “The Survivor” under the initial title “My Old Shoes” was awarded the U of T Journalism Student Prize in May,1934. In 1935 her poem along with a historically based but semi-fictionalized autobiographical story revolving around Reeves’s V.A.D. overseas participation at the end of and immediate aftermath of the war was published in a pamphlet as “Relics of a V.A.D.” Toronto, Ontario: The Leslie Press, page 7 although her poem “The Survivor” had already appeared in a 1934 issue of the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire magazine “ECHOES.” The University of Toronto Archives copy has an inscription on the front flyleaf, viz.: “To John M. Elson who guided my first faltering steps in the literary world – my sincere appreciation. Amabel King. Dec. 7. 1935.” John Melbourne Elson (born: 1880 – died: ? ) was a minor novelist (e.g. “The Scarlet Sash: A Romance of the Old Niagara Frontier.” published 1925 and a free-lance Canadian writer who also lived next door to King in Toronto. King had one child, Charmaine King (1925 – 2007) a successful Canadian stage and screen actress and wife of Canadian actor Gordon Pinsent (1930 – ). I believe Reeves a young adolescent served overseas most likely under the Canadian branch of the St. John Ambulance Canada who were mainly responsible for the bulk of the Canadian overseas VADs during WWI. She probably did visit Paris most likely in 1919 where her “shoes” were most likely bought. Given the combination of the cynically viewed Geneva Disarmament Talks 1932 – 1933 plus, the depths of human suffering and misery reached in the Great Depression’s years 1933-1934, the rise of Hitler to power in Germany in 1933 and concurrent swell of anti-war pacifism and isolationism sweeping especially the former Allied states her poem is indeed poignant when compared to the glorious sacrificial verses employed especially during the conflict. Moreover, a Canadian feminine inter-war voice of a most likely actual overseas participant is atypical in looking back and directly reflecting with sadness on the sheer futility of the sacrifices of so many young men’s lives. It is also quite possible that King visited the actual battlefields of the Western Front as such tourism was fairly popular generally and not just for immediate family members who had loved ones buried overseas.

“The Survivor”

In memory to-night I’m on Flanders’ front
Where poppies, blood-red, swayed
To the guns, and the drums, and the marching feet
of a million men — betrayed!
And I’m talking once more with old comrades — pals
Whose bodies have long been dust.
How firm was their faith that war would end!
Great God! — was it just — was it just?

Brief was their span, but their day’s dying sun
Left haloes of glory anon;
‘Midst unfurling flags, and screeching of shells
Their brave young souls marched on.
And now, though but half-way along life’s rough road,
I feel the cruel pressure of years,
For my youth went out with the old brigade
On that futile tide of tears.

And while their blithe spirits are hov’ring to-night
Over old familiar heaths,
Where, entangled and gassed in a hell of mud,
They died a thousand deaths.
I thank God they’re beyond the maddening truth
That War makes man its fool,
And will stalk abroad o’er a prostrate world
Till sovereign Love shall rule!

Her story’s focus on her wartime purchased French shoes is well worth quoting at length not only for its writing but in sharp contrasts to all the military/war impedimenta and war souvenirs that we typically associate with the war’s artifacts, viz.:

(page 9)

“My old shoes! Poor, shabby, inanimate things — what memories you revive! Your uppers are scuffed, your heels run down, and your buttons long gone, but I vowed I would always keep you, and I have! for did you not share the gladdest and saddest adventures of my youth? And were shoes ever so kind to tired, travel-worn feet?

When I first glimpsed you — black velvet, dainty and impractical — reposing gracefully in that shop window in the Rue de l’Arcade in Paris that glorious June day, I knew you were meant for me.

(p. 10 )

My English oxfords [ sic ] suddenly seemed to pinch my feet. I went into the shop, and in five minutes possessed you for fifty francs.

When I decided to wear you, the salesgirl gasped, “But no, M’mselle, they are velvet — for the soiree!”

I remember how emphatically I answered, “These shoes are for all occasions! I’m tired to death of low heels. For the duration of the war, working as a V.A.D. I’ve had to wear brogues and tweeds and felt hats, and I’m heartily sick of it all! This is my first visit to Paris, and I’m going to teeter ’round on those shoes, and enjoy it.” I walked out of the place feeling like a Parisian.

Your luxurious velvet softness caressed my weary feet, and a new gay frivolity, such as I had not felt since 1914, filled my whole being. You made me want to find music, dancing and laughter.

(p. 11)

Those first smudges that marred your sleek blackness were from the army boots of my dancing partners at that queer little place in Montre Martre — “The Red Mill” — As I look at you now I imagine I can hear the strains of that French orchestra, and the harsh laughter of disillusioned youth, as they drank and danced in that overcrowded cabaret, in a feeble effort to forget the war. Forget — did I say? No, that could never be. Always they will carry in the depths of their hearts the memory like a hideous scar, and all their experiences in life will be tempered by their shaken faith. Others whom the war did not touch will think them hard and embittered, and without illusions, a generation old before their time. No, they could not, if they would, forget.

When I sat still and quite with you tucked under my chair, a young captain who had been through Purgatory, was

(p. 12)

recounting how bravely someone dear to me had died — leading his men. And the next moment we were on the floor dancing, laughing and singing in chorus, “Mademoiselle from Armentierres . . . ” — One had to be gay. It was part of the price for winning the war.

. . . .

(p. 21)

Precious old shoes! Now I shall roll you in your tissue wrappings and place you back in my box of souvenirs where I shall always keep you. You have the power to bring laughter and tears to my eyes. I think when I am old, and the world has passed me by, I shall sometimes steal up to the store room, and hold you close to my heart — and live again the historical scenes of my youth.”

About hospitalship1

Historian teacher
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1 Response to The Survivor a poignant 1934 reflective feminine war voice

  1. tengkuputeh says:

    War and sorrow, that’s how I read it


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