Reading Ernesta

Almost a year since I started with Ernesta Drinker Bullitt’s Uncensored Diary from the Central Empires, I finally got around to reading my Indian print on demand copy, and if you are interested in such things it was worth the wait.

Ernesta Drinker Bullitt was married to the American diplomat William Bullitt, and she accompanied her husband on a journey to Germany in 1916, shortly after their marriage, and, she kept and published a diary of her journey.

Contemporary sources in English about life in Germany and AustriaHungary during the first world war are understandably a bit thin on the ground, so Ernesta’s diary is an interesting historical resource.

As the spouse of a diplomat, she was of course to some extent insulated from the shortages and rationing, although she does record seeing long queues for bread and meat, and shortages of butter and eggs affecting even in the political class, as well as the need to have one’s ration cards ready to hand to a waiter in a restaurant.

She also took an intelligent interest in what were termed ‘women’s issues’, including the increased provision of child care as more and more women were drafted into the workforce to cover for men drafted to the front, and interestingly concerns about how, after peace, women were to be eased out of jobs to free them for men returning from the front, and her diary records the measures put in place, and what she was taken to see.

Obviously, as the wife of a diplomat, she was most likely only shown the best workers restaurants, kindergartens, clothes recycling factories, but she provides a record of these measures. Likewise when she accompanied her husband to occupied Belgium, the Germans tried their best to present their occupation in the best possible light, although she also records large scale acts of civil disobedience by the populace.

Her diary is just that, a diary, and as well as visits to childcare centres and so on she also records dinners and diplomatic functions, and indirectly the existence of a peace party within the German political class who as even as early as 1916 increasingly believed the war was unsustainable and it was better to seek a political solution.

She was also in Berlin during the battle of Jutland, and describes how the German press described the battle as a major victory, and a major attempt to break the British blockade which was seen as a major cause of the food shortages as it was believed that the ReichsBank had the cash reserves to cover food imports if only they could get the goods into the country. Interestingly she also records that the London papers were available in Berlin, though only in a few select hotels, where it could be expected only foreign diplomats and journalists were staying.

At the same time she also records deep concern at the impact on the harvest of the wet summer and how shortages of grain might lead to increasingly stringent rationing of bread and potatoes.

From my personal viewpoint it’s slightly annoying that her diary mostly covers Germany and her visit to Vienna and Budapest was only for a few days and does not provide as much detail as her account of Germany, even though she was in Budapest at the time that Rumania declared war on AustriaHungary (and coincidentally set a Krupp75mm gun on its journey to end up outside the public toilets in Beechworth).

Generally, the book is engaging and well written, and not without moments of levity, including how, prior to the first world war, Prince von Blucher leased the island of Herm in the Channel Islands from the British government, and then, eccentrically, commenced to introduce a colony of kangaroos (actually red necked wallabies) which bred successfully. (The wallaby colony declined after world war one and none now live on the island).

Despite some of its superficiality and sometimes uncritical reporting of the German response to the shortages of men and resources it is a valuable source of information on life in Germany in the summer of 1916.

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About dgm

IT professional, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical and medieval historian ...
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