May Wedderburn Cannan

May Wedderburn Cannan – a poet and a woman in the First World War

May Wedderburn Cannan was a poet and writer – and also, during the the First World War, an employee of MI5. In these extracts from her autobiography, Grey Ghosts and Voices, Cannan remembers what it was like to be a poet in war time – and what it was like to be one of the ‘surplus two million’ after the war…

Poets and the War

Cannan describes how poets reacted to the changing course of the war.

There were lots of young poets, “war” and otherwise, being published in paper backs at at about 2 shillings a piece. They weren’t, and didn’t expect to be, among the immortals, but they knew what life was being like and they said the things we wanted said at the time and in a way that “ordinary” people could understand. The established poets grumbled that they weren’t professionals (can any poet be a “Professional” since so much of poetry is what Humbert Wolfe called “overheard”?) and earned their livings by other skills.

After the Somme there was a change of heart among poets. Siegfried Sassoon wrote to the Press from France saying that the war was now [in 1917] a war of conquest and without justification, and declared himself to be a conscientious objector. He was rescued from trouble by Robert Graves and his friends who claimed a breakdown. C.E. Montague wrote “Disenchantement” and Wilfred Owen was much influenced by him. A saying went round, “Went to the war with Rupert Brooke and came home with Siegfried Sassoon”.

I had much admired some of Sassoon’s verse but I was not coming home with him. Someone must go on writing for those who were still convinced of the right of the cause for which they had taken up arms. I did not believe the dead had died for nothing, nor that we should have ‘kept out of the war’ – the dead had kept faith, and so, if we did not grudge it, had we. (p. 113)

Arrival in Paris and MI5

Cannan makes her way to Paris, under attack by the Germans, and discovers what wartime conditions are like in the women’s hostel. Cannan was a success at MI5 and was rapidly promoted.

A rather severe looking woman let me in; she wore a kind of film star version of a nurse’s uniform – blue dress and long floating blue veil (I found out afterwards that she worked in a canteen) and said no, I could not have any food – this was not England – but she would show me my room and bring me a cup of cocoa.

…There was not much breakfast; only a cup of coffee and 2 very small slices of bread, and I was still hungry, but there would be lunch and I was young and hopeful; and I had got back to France.

I was just three houses above Number 30 where the pavement blew up around me. A horse waiting at the side of the pavement screamed and fell at my feet twisted up in its harness. Two men crumpled up and fell in the road. Gendarmes appeared from nowhere. One took out his revolver and shot the horse; an ambulance with bells ringing picked up the two men. A woman who had come up beside me said “C’est La Grande Berthe” – A gendarme told her to move on; the incident was closed.

I went on down to the Office. The corner wall had been chipped, there was a good deal of dust and people were looking out of the windows. I went in and presented my pass to the poilu at the door. An officer appeared and I said “Secretary Miss Cannan come to report for duty”. He led me upstairs, opened a door and saying “Miss Cannan, Sir” stood aside for me to go in.

The Colonel was standing at the window. He turned, gave me a quick look and asked “which way did you come?” “Down the Avenue, Sir”. He looked at me again and said “Down? Then why the devil are you not dead?” “I really don’t know, sir”. “Oh, well”, he said, “you had better see Miss Harris”…

Generally we were known as the British Mission, actually we were the B.C.I. (the Bureau Central Interallie) and a branch of M.I.5. Four girls worked in “Trade” which dealt with smuggling over frontiers and other duller things, and five girls in “Espionage”.

It was a good thing I liked work for there was nothing else to do.

‘The Surplus Two Million’

Despite her successful work during the war, after the war Cannan found it difficult to find a job. Employers felt that jobs should be kept for the men returning from the war – even if they didn’t have the same skills as women like Cannan.

The Census for 1921 had found out there was in the country a surplus of women who, inconsiderately, had not died in the war, and now there was an outcry and someone christened them “The Surplus Two Million”. The Times suggested that they might seek work abroad ; the unemployment figures were swollen with these unnecessary and unwanted persons; and the name stuck. The Vote had been given only to women over thirty because given at 21 the women’s vote would have swamped the men’s in the last two elections. It was all very unfortunate, and it made it all the more difficult for a woman to get a job.

I had thought of London romantically in terms of Chesterton and his water-tower. Coming home from work on winter nights I had encouraged myself with his “largest lamp on Camden Hill” but now, going home in the tube, rocking along in the dark and looking at the white, indifferent, tired faces opposite me the wheels sang “surplus two million, surplus two million”, and I was one of them.