Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Ellen N. LaMotte: The Backwash of War (1916)

I apologize in advance to those now rolling their eyes at this seemingly endless stream of posts about the First World War. By the way, you can read the other post here.

Today's book was introduced to me by Joski, my father-in-law, who is still churning out posts on his Dutch-language blog on history, music, and everything in between. If your Dutch is strong, like the heart of a young stallion, you can click here to read his post on this book, which also includes several more photographs than can be seen here.

The Backwash of War: The Human Wreckage of the Battlefield as Witnessed by an American Hospital Nurse was written in 1916 by Ellen Newbold La Motte (1873-1961). Having worked as a qualified nurse since 1902, she volunteered her skills to the Western Front in World War I as one of the first American war nurses in Europe.

Ellen Newbold La Motte c. 1902.

From 1914 to 1916, La Motte served with the American Ambulance Service in Paris and as a nurse at a French Army field hospital in Belgium. The Backwash of War chronicles fourteen episodes from her time at the field hospital. The book is rich with powerful moments that, if not for the pen of Ms. La Motte, would have been lost in the sands of time.

The nurse's perspective is very different from that of a soldier. While combat itself often means death in the blink of an eye, things change dramatically when you follow the trickle of wounded to the field hospitals behind the trenches.

At the field hospital, you are faced with three possible outcomes. You may heal enough to get sent back to the front to die another day; you may end up in the cemetery; or you may be sent back home, where a missing limb or some other heinous wound serves as a constant reminder of your sacrifice for "the greater cause". The Backwash of War describes all of these possibilities with equal amounts of bitter realism.

La Motte describes life in a WWI field hospital in meticulous detail, never shying away from the most repulsive descriptions of the "human wreckage" she sees. She works in the hall of the Grands Blessés, where the most seriously wounded men are brought. It is an atmosphere of constant, lingering, slow and painful death. La Motte evokes the sight of dirt, blood and other bodily fluids, the smell from terrible wounds, and the moaning, screaming voices of the dying.

Presumably to preserve morale, the book was censored and withdrawn when America entered the war in 1917-1918. It wasn't republished until 1934, sixteen years after the Armistice.

Operating room in the field hospital at Roesbrugge near Ypres.

Like many other portrayals of the First World War, The Backwash of War is cynical, bitter, and relentlessly realistic. There is a good portion of sarcasm, for example in the description of generals who visit the hospital only to pin medals on the bedspreads of dying men, to boost morale among those who may heal enough to get a chance to die in a future battle.

There are no heroes in this book, only regular people trying to survive and do their job while all the world seems to be falling apart around them. There is no Kate Beckinsale here, running to and fro with blood packs while Hans Zimmer conducts the orchestra. There is only a tired staff of nurses, doctors and orderlies who see death every day and know that it is more than often ugly, painful, unavoidable and completely senseless.
Thus the science of healing stood baffled before the science of destroying.
La Motte does not shy away from less-than-flattering characterizations of individuals and groups. This provides a unique insight into some of the tensions that existed even between allies, especially the French and the Belgians whose country they were fighting to liberate. One of the fourteen vignettes, titled A Belgian Civilian, describes what happens when a small child, dying from a shell wound to the abdomen, is brought into the hospital. His reluctant mother is brought down from Ypres by another ambulance:
So she continued her complaints. She had been dragged away from her husband, from her other children, and she seemed to have little interest in her son, the Belgian civilian, said to be dying. However, now that she was here, now that she had come all this way, she would go in to see him for a moment, since the Directrice seemed to think it so important. The Directrice of this French field hospital was an American, by marriage a British subject, and she had curious, antiquated ideas. She seemed to feel that a mother’s place was with her child, if that child was dying. The Directrice had three children of her own whom she had left in England over a year ago, when she came out to Flanders for the life and adventures of the Front. But she would have returned to England immediately, without an instant’s hesitation, had she received word that one of these children was dying. Which was a point of view opposed to that of this Belgian mother, who seemed to feel that her place was back in Ypres, in her home, with her husband and other children. In fact, this Belgian mother had been rudely dragged away from her home, from her family, from certain duties that she seemed to think important. So she complained bitterly, and went into the ward most reluctantly, to see her son, said to be dying.
Later, the woman leaves for home, showing even less concern for her dead offspring than some animals would. The chapter ends with an exclamation of solidarity from a French soldier:
“These Belgians!” said a French soldier. “How prosperous they will be after the war! How much money they will make from the Americans, and from the others who come to see the ruins!”
And as an afterthought, in an undertone, he added: “Ces sales Belges!” ("These dirty Belgians!")
In the end, The Backwash of War is a shockingly honest firsthand depiction of one of mankind's darkest hours. If you're already acquainted with the soldier's perspective on the war in the trenches, this book will significantly broaden your horizon. Also, it's quite simply a very good read.

The Backwash of War by Ellen N. La Motte can be downloaded for free at the Project Gutenberg web site.


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