Having become interested in Mabel Dearmer – actress, novelist, illustrator, playwright, theatre producer, vicar’s wife, and mother – I decided to find out more about her life and found a book of her letters, written to a friend just before and after the outbreak of the First World War, and published by that friend in 1915 (Letters from a field hospital, 9537.d.226). These letters chronicle her reactions to the impending war, the news of which reached her while she was recuperating from an exhausting London theatre production in the Cotswolds village of Oakridge Lynch.
Hardly any families were left untouched by horrors of the First World War and the Dearmers were no exception, although at first Mabel Dearmer could see no connection between her own life and the momentous happenings beginning to unfold on the Continent.
“I knew nothing of European complications and cared less. The murder of an Archduke meant no more to me than some tale of an imaginary kingdom in Zenda. … I did not hate the enemy, I hated the spirit that made war possible…”
Then her sons enlisted and suddenly war became a very real threat. “…I envied the proud mother who sends her sons, proud of them, proud of the war that calls them out, proud of the God of battles. But that God is not my God, and my heart was heavy.”
She returned to London and helped with European refugees while continuing with her theatre work until her husband, Percy Dearmer, offered to go to Serbia as an army chaplain. On the same day, she decided to accompany him and accepted a posting as a hospital orderly: “Here was the work for which I had waited. I had no doubt and no hesitation. Every tie that could keep me in England had been cut, every difficulty removed from my path.”
Her husband reacted calmly to her announcement that she too was to go to Serbia. “What fun” was his only comment.
In Serbia, she suffered from overwork, the mud, the fleas, prickly heat and the now intimate knowledge of war. “This war will not bring peace – no war will bring peace – only love and mercy and terrific virtues such as loving one’s enemy can bring a terrific thing like peace.”
3 months after leaving Britain, Mabel Dearmer died of enteric fever. Her friend the editor writes of her: “It is easy to go into danger when convinced that your country’s cause is righteous; she thought that for all countries war was unrighteous, yet she went.”
Her life and that of her younger son Christopher, who was fatally injured at Gallipoli only months after his mother’s death, are commemorated on the war memorial fountain in Oakridge Lynch, near Stroud, Gloucestershire.
In memory of MABEL DEARMER
who went from Oakridge the place she loved best
to give help in Serbia where she died of fever
at Kragujevatz on July 11th. 1915, and of
who died of wounds at Suvla Bay of Gallipoli
on October 6th. 1915 aged 21
Proud of the war all glorious went the son.
Loathing the war all mournful went the mother.
Each had the same wage when the day was done.
Tell me was either braver than the other.
They slept in mire who went so comely ever
Then when you wash let the thought of them abide.
They knew the parching thirst of wounds & fever.
Here when you drink remember them who died.