Harrowing frontline accounts from Great War by famous female writer with Irish roots

Back in July railway-historian and author Charles Friel shared some of his research into Ireland's Great War ambulance trains on this page, the little-reported last leg of the journey home for wounded Irish soldiers.

Friday, 12th October 2018, 9:43 am
Updated Friday, 12th October 2018, 1:16 pm

And marking World Mental Health Day, Wednesday’s page referred to the huge numbers of First World War soldiers who suffered from severe mental illness due to the unimaginable horrors they experienced on the front lines.

A recent News Letter reader’s email to Roamer began with a one-line introduction to Nellie Bly – “a pioneering American reporter who feigned madness to expose asylum abuse”.

She’s been the subject of numerous articles, books, films and a board game, and Bly’s journey around the world in 72 days in 1889, beating Phileas Fogg’s fictional record, has gone down in history.

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Newspaper drawing of Nellie Bly's Homecoming and Around-the-world Highlight

She got her first big ‘scoop’ in 1887 by feigning madness to get admitted into a mental institution – so successfully that she had difficulty getting herself discharged ten days later!

She also reported from First World War’s front lines, including a harrowing account from an Ambulance Train.

Nellie Bly, her pen name, was the granddaughter of Robert Cochran who emigrated to the fledgling USA from Londonderry in the 1790s.

She was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran in 1864, in Pennsylvania, in a small town named after her family, Cochran’s Mill.

Elizabeth Cochran alias Nellie Bly

“Bly had an almost irritatingly twee biography,” a recent New Yorker profile began, “her childhood nickname was Pink; she owned a pet monkey and, despite little formal education, enjoyed an illustrious, precocious career. At the age of 30, she married a millionaire who was almost a half century her senior.”

The story of her rise to journalistic fame is so colourful it’s absolutely dazzling, from her first scoop about a women’s asylum to articles where she pretended to be an unemployed maid, an unwed mother selling her baby, and, of course, her Jules Verne record-breaking circumnavigation of the world.

She also dabbled in elephant training and ballet dancing!

Nathan Mannion, senior curator of EPIC, The Irish Emigration Museum in Dublin’s Docklands, wrote the perfect introduction to Nellie – “insane asylums, ghost houses, gambling dens, illicit pawnbrokers and Chinese leper colonies.”

Cover of the 1890 board game Round the World with Nellie Bly

“These are but a handful of the unusual locations the determined investigative journalist Nellie Bly found herself in, in pursuit of a good story. She continually pushed the boundaries of her vocation and gave a voice to those all too often left voiceless – the poor, the socially disadvantaged, women and those affected by war.”

She wrote a despatch from “the firing line in Austria” about the “war perils of the cholera” for the New York Evening Journal in December 1914:

“Winter is here. Before this article reaches New York what shall the bitter cold show us? Can the horror be pictured? Countless thousands frozen in trenches, countless wounded frozen by the roadsides in their search for hospitals; countless thousands frozen in the freight trains on their way to the cities.

“Daylight brought the same ugly picture – unending monotony of either dark-grey men or dark-blue men, moving briskly but unsmilingly, everywhere. In windows, in doorways, in the streets, on the fields, marching in great unending columns here, standing in silent lines before straw-made sheds from which they get their food.

Publicity photograph promoting Bly's Around-The-World Journey

“Every few yards flies the flag most seen in all the world, the Red Cross, always so symbolic, with its red staining blood crimson on white. Everywhere they are, in school buildings, in hovels, on high land, in mud puddles, and always, in startling numbers, the yellow flag, the cholera.

“We pass the new cholera barracks where I was the other day. Men are bringing a rude black coffin out of one building. Three more coffins are being carried toward the gate, where wagons of the same queer construction as the one I am in stand waiting. Patient, uncomplaining soldiers! Noble, brave doctors! I turn away.”

Headlined ‘Servian Woman Loses Everything in War’, Nellie Bly reported in February 1915 from a village on the Austro-Hungarian frontier where she talked to local woman.

“She began to talk. War was terrible. She did not know the fate of her husband. He had been taken as a spy. She had not heard since. Everything she possessed was taken. Officers had taken her beds, her towels, her linens, her food. No one paid. She had nothing. No tea, nothing to eat. Nothing to sleep on. No wood to burn.”

Also in 1915, Nellie boarded an ambulance train bound for Budapest packed with soldiers who were “sunken-eyed, wounded and sick from the most frightful experience living man ever witnessed”.

Pitifully, she noted a dried flower from the front lines on one man’s mud-stained cap.

“Their lips have forgotten how to smile,” Nellie’s article continued, “Their bodies bear wounds. They are sore and filled with the pain of long days and endless nights in wet, cold, muddy trenches.

“Besides their frightful wounds, they have cholera, dysentery, typhoid and hollow coughs which rack them like the last cough of a consumptive.

“Three soldiers died last night. Once the thought of three deaths on one’s train in one night would have been appalling, but here, where death is everywhere, where the sight of dead and dying men is as familiar to one as sparrows in New York, one gets hopeless, not heartless. It is like a scourge sweeping the world. One stands dumb, despairing, dry-eyed before the vastness of the misery.”