It is a rare event for a woman to write of war.  Until WWI possibly none. Though women have been in the ranks of war since time immemorial, as wound dressers, cooks, bearers, foot soldiers and even leaders in battle, their stories, when they have been told,  have been overwhelmingly told by men. Not until the U.S. Civil war did women in noticeable numbers have stories about war published. ¹  World War I, brought more women closer to the fighting, often more immersed in the chaos and injury than men in the trenches. More came home to write about their experiences.

Ellen La Motte was one of them. Raised in gracious circumstances in Washington D.C. with her DuPont relatives, she broke the mold of bestowed privilege at the age of 24, applying to the nursing school at Johns Hopkins. After graduation and increasing specialization in tuberculosis, and political activism, she took herself to Paris in the fall of 1913, forging a friendship with Gertrude Stein, and drafting her first book The Tuberculosis Nurse.  War swept over the continent the summer of 1914.  La Motte was soon nursing in a French field hospital ten miles from the front.  By the summer of 1916, she had left that service, finished her book, The Backwash of War: The Human Wreckage of the Battlefield as Witnessed by an American Hospital Nurse,  and was on her way to China, where she discovered the British Empire created opium addiction of the Chinese, which she spent much of the rest of her life, fighting against and writing about.

Backwash of War was an almost unknown sort of book: no holds bared, war at its worst, and written by a woman who had seen things that women were thought too frail to tolerate.

“War, superb as it is, is not necessarily a filtering process, by which men and nations may be purified. Well, there are many people to write you of the noble side, the heroic side, the exalted side. I must write you of what I have seen, the other side, the backwash.”

 

The book was long lost to a public.  At its publication, in 1916 by G.P. Putnam’s and Sons it earned lavish praise and angry condemnation, enough to push it through four printings.  The radical magazine The Masses called it “immortal.”  Though it was published in England it was censored there immediately, and not allowed in France at all.  After two years at war, with millions of dead, offering a look at the “backwash” would be to dispirit the nation, tantamount to treason. In April, 1917, the U.S. entered the war; the book was banned there as well.  The Espionage Act of June, 1917 and the Sedition Act of May, 1918 gave the Postmaster General the power of censorship, and it was used: blackening the book title in a small advertisement was demanded before magazines could be mailed; eventually the book itself was banned.   Neither a small release in 1919, nor a larger one in 1934 resuscitated public interest, and it all but dropped from sight, and memory.

Cynthia Wachtell uncovered a copy in the early 1990s while researching American anti-war stories for what was to become War No More: The Antiwar Impulse in American Literature, (2010). Stunned by what she read, Wachtell did additional research and eventually brought out the current edition with the original set of stories, then titled the Back Wash of War,  an additional three essays written about the same period, a biography –of a path breaking activist– and a bibliography of La Motte’s other writing. 

It consists of 14 short pieces, observational and unsparing, though clearly from her daily experience, written with a persuasive fictional style. Her use of repetition to emphasize a scene, her short, direct sentences, are easily mistaken as coming from a certain male style not to become popular for another decade. She speaks directly as to the wounds and the responses of the men; she is sometimes sharply cynical, sometimes sympathetic.  Never sentimental.  Never pulling the silk of patriotism or the rough burlap of “necessary sacrifice” over the scenes.

The opening story, “Heroes” opens with this line:

 “When he could stand it no longer, he fired a revolver up through the roof of his mouth, but he made a mess of it.”

The nameless soldier is transported, “cursing and screaming,” to a field hospital where his life must be saved 

“He was a deserter, and discipline must be maintained. Since he had failed in the job, his life must be saved, he must be nursed back to health, until he was well enough to be stood up against a wall and shot. This is War. Things like this also happen in peace time, but not so obviously.”

Another soldier, with a deep belly wound, is brought in cursing the stretcher bearers, the surgeon, the nurses – male and female.  He curses two American ambulance drivers:

“Strangers! Sightseers!” he sobbed in misery. “Driving a motor, when it is I who should drive the motor! Have I not conducted a Paris taxi for these past ten years? Do I not know how to drive, to manage an engine? What are they here for—France? No, only themselves! To write a book—to say what they have done—when it was safe! ²

An elegant general quickly bestows the Croix de Guerre on dying soldiers and quickly makes an escape.  Orderlies drink wine in a corner while one of their charges dies unattended.  The wounded, dying or patched up to fight again, are not noble or patriotic; they are not stoic or prayerful.  La Motte, without a whisper of condemnation, shows them as filthy, rude, intolerant, demanding

“… night Rochard screamed in agony, and turned and twisted, first on the hip that was there, and then on the hip that was gone, and on neither side, even with many ampoules of morphia, could he find relief. Which shows that morphia, good as it is, is not as good as death.

The staff, nurses, orderlies, doctors, even with the best of intentions, which they do not all have, all of the time, can not cope.

The floor was filthy, covered with cakes of mud tramped in by the stretcher bearers during the night. The men screamed for attention they did not receive. The wrong patients got the wrong food at meal times.

One orderly, goes AWOL, and returns, in order to be imprisoned.  It would be better than working on the ward.

“He just could not stand it any longer. He was sick of it all. Sick of being infirmier, of sweeping the floor, of carrying vessels, of cutting up tough meat for sullen, one-armed men, with the Croix de Guerre pinned to their coffee-streaked night shirts. Bah! The Croix de Guerre pinned to a night shirt, egg-stained, smelling of sweat!

A priest, also serving as a nurse, sneaks into town from time to time, to visit a young woman, as do many others, often after showing photos of wives and children around the ward.

She reports the metaphysical as well as the physical:

“So Rochard died, a stranger among strangers. And there were many people there to wait upon him, but there was no one there to love him. There was no one there to see beyond the horror of the red, blind eye, of the dull, white eye, of the vile, gangrene smell. And it seemed as if the red, staring eye was looking for something the hospital could not give. And it seemed as if the white, glazed eye was indifferent to everything the hospital could give.

 A civilian child is brought to a French operating tent, by an English ambulance instead of to an English or Belgian, hospital.  After emergency abdominal surgery,

“…he began to bawl for his mother. Being ten years of age, he was unreasonable, and bawled for her incessantly and could not be pacified. The patients were greatly annoyed by this disturbance, and there was indignation that the welfare and comfort of useful soldiers should be interfered with by the whims of a futile and useless civilian, a Belgian child at that.

The mother is found, and brought, unwillingly.  She has other children at home who need her attention, she protests.  Her husband, making lots of money at their little store, needs her.

With her sharpest irony, La Motte writes of “Wives and Women.”

“You know, they won’t let wives come to the Front. Women can come into the War Zone, on various pretexts, but wives cannot. Wives, it appears, are bad for the morale of the Army. They come with their troubles, to talk of how business is failing, of how things are going to the bad at home, because of the war; of how great the struggle, how bitter the trials and the poverty and hardship. … 

“…always there are plenty of women. Never wives, who mean responsibility, but just women, who only mean distraction and amusement, just as food and wine. So wives are forbidden, because lowering to the morale, but women are winked at, because they cheer and refresh the troops. After the war, it is hoped that all unmarried soldiers will marry, but doubtless they will not marry these women who have served and cheered them in the War Zone. That, again, would be depressing to the country’s morale. It is rather paradoxical, but there are those who can explain it perfectly.”

 

In a particularly mordant piece, La Motte speaks of how fortunate the men are to die young, sparing them all the turmoil of life during peace time.  In another, a dying man, who during Last Rites has been coerced into saying “God, I give you my life freely for my country,” finally utters his last words:

“I was mobilized against my inclination. Now I have won the Médaille Militaire. My Captain won it for me. He made me brave. He had a revolver in his hand.”

 

No, war is not only not pretty, it is its own particular ugly, which few writers at that time — or even now – want to venture into.

Interestingly, though we read The Backwash of War as an anti-war book, as did many on its first publication, La Motte denied that was it purpose.

“I am not a pacifist … I am not even one of those people who you find everywhere who are saying that this is to be the last war, the war which will end war. … But I do not see why we should not tell the truth about war, just as we would tell it when describing the action of an earthquake or a typhoon.

She may be right.  War may never end, but we might hope that with more writing, honestly pulling up the hidden parts of war — and this has been more evident in recent war writing– we might slowly turn the gestalt of war approval from enthusiastic anticipation to informed reluctance.  It might become less easy for a dozen high-ranking war-thrilled to stir up a population to follow them into murdering millions.

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Other women war workers wrote movingly of their experienced.  Vera Brittain, of England is perhaps the best known with her Testament To Youth (a memoir,  1930) ,  Which was made into a decent BBC short series in 1979 and a 2009 film.  Another, very similar to La Motte was by Helen Zenna Smith, the pseudonym of Evadne Price, who wrote,  in 1930, an amazing and little read novel of WW I:  Not So Quiet… Stepdaughters of War.  Two friends of hers, St. Claire Livingston and Ingeborg Steen–Hansen, contributed their 1916 Under Three Flags: With the Red Cross in Belgium, France and Serbia.Mary Borden-Turner, to whom La Motte dedicated The Backwash of War, wrote an equally disturbing set of stories, sketches, and poems titled The Forbidden Zone (1929).

 

For more about La Motte, see Cynthia Wachtell, here.

And in Harvard Magazine, here.

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¹ Louisa May Alcott, who worked as a nurse in the Union army, wrote Hospital Sketches.

Others who did not see the wounded, wrote for popular magazines about the effects of war on families and the towns and villages from which the young men came, and to which they returned, sometimes.

Harding Davis,

Harriet Beecher Stow

Lydia Maria Child 

More, here 

² Ernest Hemingway, e e cummings, and John Dos Passos were all American ambulance drivers. Whether La Motte knew that, or intended them in this line is unimportant, only that it was not lost on French soldiers that Foreign “help” often arranged to not be in the front lines with them.