The Face of War

Martha Gellhorn


The Face of War

Martha Gellhorn


Often cited as the best war reporter of the twentieth century, Martha Gellhorn began her career during the Spanish Civil War in 1937 and was still reporting well into her eighties. This collection, selected by the author, plunges us back to Madrid in 1937, China in 1941, Europe during the Second World War, Vietnam and the United States’s dirty little wars in Central America. Immediate and surprising, it’s a seat-of-your-pants experience of history, and brilliantly shows the real cost of war wherever it occurs.

‘Memory and imagination, not nuclear weapons, are the first deterrent,’ she writes. The Face of War gives us the chance to remember and imagine, and to share her firsthand experience of the folly of mankind at war.

‘One of the most readable accounts of conflict in the 20th century, unspoiled by convictions which would have been disastrous in a less able writer.’  London Review of Books 
‘Committed war reporting in mainstream journalism is an endangered species today … There's hardly anyone around who does it any more, which is why Martha Gellhorn's reissued war correspondence has such impact and vitality.  There is a hard, shining, almost cruel honesty to Gellhorn’s work.’ The Guardian



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The Face of War: Writings from the Frontline, 1937-1985
ISBN: 978-1-78060-105-2
Format: 304pp demi pb

Author Biography

Martha Gellhorn (1908-98) published five novels, fourteen novellas and two collections of short stories. She wanted to be remembered primarily as a novelist, yet to most people she is remembered as an outstanding war correspondent and for something which infuriated her, her brief marriage to Ernest Hemingway during the Second World War.

As a war correspondent she covered almost every major conflict from the Spanish Civil War to the American invasion of Panama in 1989. For a woman it was completely ground-breaking work, and she took it on with an absolute commitment to the truth. "All politicians are bores and liars and fakes. I talk to people", she said, explaining her paramount interest in war's civilian victims, the unseen casualties. She was one of the great war correspondents, one of the great witnesses, of the twentieth century.

Her life as a war correspondent is well illustrated by two incidents. After Hemingway stole her accreditation, she stowed away on a hospital ship on 7 June 1944 and went ashore during the Normandy invasion to help collect wounded men; she was also refused a visa to return to Vietnam by the American military, so infuriated were they by her reports for the Guardian.

She was a woman of strong opinions and incredible energy. Though she turned down reporting on the Bosnian war in her 80s, saying she wasn't nimble enough, she flew to Brazil at the age of eighty-seven to research and write an article about the murder of street children. Touch-typing, although she could barely see, she was driven by a compassion for the powerless and a curiosity undimmed by age.


Extract from the War in Spain

In the summer of 1936, I was checking background material for a novel, in the Weltkriegsbibliothek of Stuttgart. The Nazi newspapers began to speak of fighting in Spain. They did not talk of war; the impression I got was of a bloodthirsty rabble, attacking the forces of decency and order. This Spanish rabble, which was the duly elected Republic of Spain, was always referred to as ‘Red Swine-dogs’. The Nazi papers had one solid value: Whatever they were against, you could be for.

Shortly after I was twenty-one I had gone to France to work and there became one of a group of young French pacifists. We had in common our poverty and our passion. Our aim in life was to kick out the evil old, who were clearly leading us into another war. We believed that there could be no peace in Europe without Franco–German rapprochement. We had the right idea, but the Nazis arrived.

In 1934 we met the young Nazis in Berlin. At the frontier, German police had come through the train, paused in our third-class carriage, and confiscated our newspapers. Although we represented no one except ourselves, we read and disagreed on all opinions, ranging from Monarchist to Socialist to Liberal–reformer (me). We united, for once, in thinking this newspaper seizure an outrage. When we got off the train, in our usual shabby argumentative huddle, we were greeted by the young Nazis in clean blond khaki-clad formation. They proved to have one parrot brain among the lot and we did not care for them. We tried very hard to excuse them; we tried to agree that they were Socialists, as they kept assuring us, not National Socialists. Being sorry for the defeated Germans was a condition of mind of many people, after both world wars; I had it then. Also, I was a pacifist and it interfered with my principles to use my eyes. By 1936, no amount of clinging to principles helped me; I saw what these bullying Nazi louts were like and were up to.

But there I was, working with miserable determination on a novel about young pacifists in France. I stayed some months in Germany discussing, with anyone who still dared to discuss, the freedom of the ind, the rights of the individual, and the Red Swine-dogs of Spain. Then I went back to America, finished my novel, shoved it forever into a desk drawer, and started to get myself to Spain. I had stopped being a pacifist and become an anti-Fascist.

By the winter of 1937, the Western democracies had proclaimed the doctrine of non-intervention, which meant simply that neither people nor supplies could pass freely to the Republican territory of Spain. I went to the French authorities in Paris to get whatever stamps or papers were required to leave the country. The French fonctionnaire, as all know who have dealt with him, is a certified brute. He sits, unlistening, behind a grille, scratching away with a sharp governmental pen and pallid ink. I cannot have come out well with this type, as I only remember studying a map, taking a train, getting off at a station nearest to the Andorran–Spanish border, walking a short distance from one country to another, and taking a second train— ancient cold little carriages, full of the soldiers of the Spanish Republic who were returning to Barcelona on leave.

They hardly looked like soldiers, being dressed however they were able, and obviously this was an army in which you fed yourself, since the government could not attend to that. I was in a wooden carriage with six boys who were eating garlic sausage and bread made of powdered stone. They offered me their food, they laughed, they sang. Whenever the train stopped, another young man, perhaps their officer, stuck his head in the carriage and exhorted them. I gathered that he was exhorting them to behave beautifully. They did behave beautifully, but I do not know what they said, as I spoke no Spanish.

Barcelona was bright with sun and gay with red banners, and the taxi driver refused money; apparently everything was free. Apparently everyone was everyone else’s brother too. Since few people have lived in such an atmosphere, even for a minute, I can report that it is the loveliest atmosphere going. I was handed around like a package, with jollity and kindness; I rode on trucks and in jammed cars. And finally, by way of Valencia, we came at night to Madrid, which was cold, enormous and pitch-black, and the streets were silent and perilous with shell holes. That was on March 27, 1937, a date I have found somewhere in notes. I had not felt as if I were at a war until now, but now I knew I was. It was a feeling I cannot describe; a whole city was a battlefield, waiting in the dark. There was certainly fear in that feeling, and courage. It made you walk carefully and listen hard and it lifted the heart.

In New York a friendly and spirited man, then an editor of Colliers, had given me a letter. The letter said, to whom it might concern, that the bearer, Martha Gellhorn, was a special correspondent for Colliers in Spain. This letter was intended to help me with any authorities who wondered what I was doing in Spain, or why I was trying to get there; otherwise it meant nothing. I had no connection with a newspaper or magazine, and I believed that all one did about a war was go to it, as a gesture of solidarity, and get killed, or survive if lucky until the war was over. That was what happened in the trenches of France, as I had read; everyone was dead or wounded badly enough to be sent away. I had no idea you could be what I became, an unscathed tourist of wars. A knapsack and approximately fifty dollars were my equipment for Spain; anything more seemed unnecessary.

I tagged along behind the war correspondents, experienced men who had serious work to do. Since the authorities gave them transport and military passes (transport was far harder to come by than permission to see everything; it was an open, intimate war) I went with them to the fronts in and around Madrid. Still I did nothing except learn a little Spanish and a little about war, and visit the wounded, trying to amuse or distract them. It was a poor effort and one day, weeks after I had come to Madrid, a journalist friend observed that I ought to write; it was the only way I could serve the Causa, as the Spaniards solemnly and we lovingly called the war in the Spanish Republic. After all, I was a writer, was I not? But how could I write about war, what did I know, and for whom would I write? What made a story, to begin with? Didn’t something gigantic and conclusive have to happen before one could write an article? My journalist friend suggested that I write about Madrid. Why would that interest anyone, I asked. It was daily life. He pointed out that it was not everybody’s daily life.

I mailed my first Madrid article to Colliers, not expecting them to publish it; but I did have that letter, so I knew Colliers address. Colliers accepted the piece and after my next article put my name on the masthead. I learned this by accident. Once on the masthead, I was evidently a war correspondent. It began like that.

This is the place to express my gratitude to a vanished magazine and to Charles Colebaugh, the editor who then ran it. Thanks to Colliers, I had the chance to see the life of my time, which was war. They never cut or altered anything I wrote. They did, however, invent their own titles for most of my articles. I did not like their titles and am not using them here, but they were a trifling price to pay for the freedom Colliers gave me; for eight years, I could go where I wanted, when I wanted, and write what I saw.

What was new and prophetic about the war in Spain was the life of the civilians, who stayed at home and had war brought to them. I have selected three reports on this twentieth-century war in the city. The people of the Republic of Spain were the first to suffer the relentless totality of modern war.

I have praised the Causa of the Republic of Spain on the slightest provocation for twenty years, and I am tired of explaining that the Spanish Republic was neither a collection of blood-slathering Reds nor a cat’s-paw of Russia. Long ago I also gave up repeating that the men who fought and those who died for the Republic, whatever their nationality and whether they were Communists, anarchists, Socialists, poets, plumbers, middle-class professional men, or the one Abyssinian prince, were brave and disinterested, as there were no rewards in Spain. They were fighting for us all, against the combined force of European Fascism. They deserved our thanks and our respect and got neither.

I felt then (and still do) that the Western democracies had two commanding obligations: they must save their honor by assisting a young, attacked fellow democracy, and they must save their skin, by fighting Hitler and Mussolini, at once, in Spain, instead of waiting until later, when the cost in human suffering would be unimaginably greater. Arguments were useless during the Spanish War and ever after; the carefully fostered prejudice against the Republic of Spain remains impervious to time and facts.

All of us who believed in the Causa of the Republic will mourn the Republic’s defeat and the death of its defenders, forever, and will continue to love the land of Spain and the beautiful people, who are among the noblest and unluckiest on earth.

London, 1959