, , ,

Share it

Helen Zenna Smith, who wrote one of the most powerful witnesses to war I’ve ever read, was the pseudonym of Evaden Price. Not So Quiet: Stepdaughters of the War was published in 1930, based on the diaries of young woman who served as an ambulance driver at the Western Front, Winifred Young.

In this extended excerpt, she is conjuring up her mother and a society friend, both strong supporters of the war, and taking them on a tour of the train platforms where wounded soldiers are transferred from cars coming from the front into ambulances taking them to tent-hospitals.


I have schooled myself to stop fainting at the sight of blood.  I have schooled myself not to vomit at the smell of wounds and stale blood, but view these sad bodies with professional calm I shall never be able to.  I may be able to help alleviate the sufferings of wretched men, but commonsense rises up and insists that the necessity should never have arisen.  I become savage at the futility.  A war to end war, my mother writes.  Never.  In twenty years it will repeat itself.  And twenty years after that.  Again and again, as long as we breed women like my mother and Mrs. Evans-Mawnington.  And we are breeding them.  Etta Potato and The B.F –two out of a roomful of six.  Mother and Mrs. Evans-Mawnington all over again.

Oh, come with me, Mother and Mrs. Evans-Mawnington.  Let me show you the exhibits straight from the battlefield.  This will be something original to tell in your committees, while they knit their endless miles of khaki scarves,…. something to spout from the platform at your recruiting meetings.  Come with me.  Stand just there.

Here we have the convoy gliding into the station now, slowly, so slowly.  In a minute it will disgorge its sorry cargo.  My ambulance doors are open, waiting to receive.  See, the train has stopped.  Through the occasionally drawn blinds you will observe the trays slotted into the sides of the train.  Look closely, Mother and Mrs. Evans-Mawnington, and you shall see what you shall see.  Those trays each contain something that was once a whole man… the heroes who have done their bit for King and country… the heroes who marched blithely thorough the streets of London Town singing, ‘Tipperary,’ while you cheered and waved your flags hysterically. They are not singing now, you will observe.  Shut your ears, Mother and Mrs. Evans-Mawnington, lest their groans and heartrending cries linger as long in your memory as in the memory of the daughter you sent to help win the War.

See the stretcher bearers lifting the trays one by one, slotting them deftly into my ambulance.  Out of the way quickly, Mother and Mrs. Evans-Mawnington — lift your silken skirts aside… a man is spewing blood, the moving has upset him, finished him… He will die on the way to hospital if he doesn’t die before the ambulance is loaded.  I know… All this is old history to me.  Sorry this has happened. It isn’t pretty to see a hero spewing up his life’s blood in public, is it?  Much more romantic to see him in the picture papers being awarded the V.C., even if he is minus a limb or two.  A most unfortunate occurrence!

That man strapped down?  That raving, blaspheming creature screaming filthy words, you don’t know the meaning of… words your daughter uses in everyday conversation, a habit she has contracted from vulgar contact of this kind.  Oh, merely gone mad, Mother and Mrs. Evans-Mawnington.  He may have seen a headless body running on and on, with blood spurting from its trunk.  The crackle of the frost-stiff dead men packing the duck-boards watertight may have gradually undermined his reasons.  There are many things the sitters tell me on our long night rides that could have done this.

No, not shell-shock.  The shell-shock cases take it more quietly as a rule, unless they are suddenly startled.  Let me find you an example.  Ah, the man they are bringing out now.  The one staring straight ahead at nothing… twitching, twitching, twitching, each limb working in a different direction, like a Jumping Jack worked by a jerking string.  Look at him, both of you.  Bloody awful, isn’t it, Mother and Mrs. Evans-Mawnington?  That’s shell-shock.  If you dropped your handbag on the platform, he would start to rave as madly as the other.  What?  You won’t try the experiment? You can’t watch him? Why not? Why not?  I have to, every night.  Why the hell can’t you do it for once?  Damn your eyes.

Forgive me, Mother and Mrs, Evan-Mawnington.  That was not the kind of language  a nicely brought up young lady from Wimbledon Common uses.  I forget myself.  We will begin again.

See the man they are fitting into the bottom slot. He is coughing badly. No, not pneumonia. Not tuberculosis. Nothing so picturesque. Gently, gently, stretcher-bearers… he is about done. He is coughing up clots of pinky-green filth. Only his lungs, Mother and Mrs. Evans-Mawnington. He is coughing well to-night. That is gas. You’ve heard of gas. Haven’t you? It burns and shrivels the lungs to… to the mess you see on the ambulance floor there. He’s about the age of Bertie, Mother. Not unlike Bertie, either, with his gentle brown eyes and fair curly hair. Bertie would look up pleading like that in between coughing up his lungs… The son you have so generously given to the War.

Cough, cough, little fair-haired boy. Perhaps somewhere your mother is thinking of you… boasting of the life she has so nobly given… the life you thought was your own, but which is hers to squander as she thinks fit. ‘My boy is not a slacker, thank God.’ Cough away, little boy, cough away. What does it matter, providing your mother doesn’t have to face the shame of her son’s cowardice?

Books No Man's Land

This excerpt comes from the very fine anthology, No Man’s Land, edited by Pete Ayrton, 2014.  Highly recommended for a wide sampling of writing by men and women, of many nations, who knew WWI from deep, traumatic, experience.