Category: WWrite articles main
Two WWI Nurses Writing From No-Man's-Land
"I have not invented anything in this book."
—Mary Borden, The Forbidden Zone: An American Nurse at the Western Front (1917)
"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.'"
—Ellen Lamotte , The Backwash of War: The Human Wreckage of the Battlefield as Witnessed by An American Hospital Nurse: (1916)
Nurses in gas masks at the trenches, France, c. 1917 (U.S. postcard). From the archives of the National Library of Medicine, via Wikimedia Commons.
The first post in this series,, "Censored WWI Works" addressed Stanley Kubrick's film, Paths of Glory, and Gabriel Chevallier's novel, Fear. France censored both works decades after WWI because each seemingly portrayed the French military in a negative light. Today, they are considered among the best artistic representations of the war due to the realistic way they paint a gory, corrupt, and anti-triumphant picture of combat and trench warfare.
This second installment features, as Concordia University literature professor Ariela Freedman names them, two "Women Writing From No-Man's-Land:" Mary Borden and Ellen Lamotte, two field hospital nurses who witnessed some of WWI's worst casualties. Borden's The Forbidden Zone and Lamotte's The Backwash of War chronicle, part by part, the ways battle shreds the human body beyond recognition. They slowly and painfully stretch the battle experience from the trenches into hospitals, where the agonizing soldier might spend his last days. Censored in America to protect national morale from the ghastly descriptions of the wounded, their accounts have ignited new interest as the Centennial takes shape.
Before the United States entered WWI, Ellen Lamotte served with the American Ambulance Service in Paris and a nurse at a French military hospital from 1914-1916. Lamotte composed The Backwash of War into fourteen vignettes, each telling a different story of a wounded soldier's experience once brought in from the battlefield. He could be patched up quickly and sent back out only to come back the next day. He could die quickly or spend harrowing hours or days before the end. He could be sent home with a missing limb or a wound so repulsive, he could never enter society without the terrible stigma of his plight. Unflinching, Lamotte misses no detail—body fluids, nauseating odors, screams. Even the most un-squeamish reader can't help turning away. The book was censored at the end of the war and wasn't republished until 1934. Before Lamotte plunges us into the nightmarish vignettes, she warns us in her introduction "After this war, there will be many other wars, and in the intervals there will peace. So it will alternate for many generations. By examining the things cast up in the backwash, we can gauge the progress of humanity. When clean little lives, when clean little souls boil up in the backwash, they will consolidate, after the final war, into a peace that shall endure. But not till then."
Mary BordenMary Borden's account, The Forbidden Zone, strays from Lamotte's autobiographical tone with an experimental approach. As Ariela Freedman explains in the introduction to her interesting article on Borden, "Mary Borden's Forbidden Zone: Women's Writing From No-Man's-Land,"
It is one of the most powerful and one of the most experimental pieces of writing to have emerged from the war. Although Borden's preface asserts the truth of her account, her method is more imagistic than documentary. Indeed, she wrote a surreal memoir about the war during a period when most war memoirs were written as conventional autobiographies. Neither a record nor a chronicle. . . her war memoir attempted to register the impact of World War I through innovative aesthetic strategies. Borden mixes the genres of essay, fiction, and poetry, and blurs the lines between documentary and fiction. Beginning with the unfocused, muddy fields of Belgium, she portrays war as a series of phantasmic dislocations, an apocalyptic landscape marked by the posthuman incursion of the war machine. She describes the men and women of the war as displaced inhabitants of a strange, hallucinated world where people are reduced to bodies and functions.
Like Lamotte, Borden's book, with its ghastly descriptions of lice-infested, hemorrhaging bodies, was deemed inappropriateEllen Lamotte and consequently taken from the shelves at WWI's end. It was published in 1929. More than just graphic, readers today find Borden's account a work of Modernism—appropriately confused and chaotic. In her moving introduction, she explains
To those who find who find these impressions confused, I would say they are fragments of a great confusion. Any attempt to reduce them to order would require artifice on my part and would falsify them. To those on the other hand who find them unbearably plain, I would say I blurred the bare horror of facts and softened the reality in spite of myself, not because I wished to do so, but because I was incapable of a nearer approach to the truth.
I have dared to dedicate these pages to the Poilus [French WWI soldiers] who passed through our hands during this war because I believe they would recognise the dimmed reality reflected in these pictures. But the book is not meant for them. They know, not only everything that is contained in it, but all the rest that can never be written.
If you happen to read either book, your comments are welcome. Why do you think these were censored?
If you have a censored WWI literary work in mind, or would like to write more about the works discussed in the series, please contact me at email@example.com
Category: WWrite articles main
Rich Bacchus on Writing Fiction from a Family Archive, Praise for WWrite Bloggers' Forthcoming Book, It's My Country Too, the Mothers of WWI Soldiers, and Poetry in the Trenches
This Week's WWrite Featured Post: This week's post features journalist, writer, and teacher, Rich Bachus. Bachus edits and curates the WWI Centennial Commission blog, Trench Commander, which chronicles his family's military adventures and the ways in which they influenced his generation of Baby Boomers. For the WWrite Blog, Bachus discusses the complex process of writing his novel, Into No Man's Land, inspired by a family archival collection of letters and other artifacts dating from his grandfather's experience in WWI as a Trench Commander in France to the present. Check out Bachus' fascinating work in his interview with Chris Isleib, Director of Public Affairs, WWI Centennial Commission, Four Questions for Rich Bachus, "Bringing the War to Life Through the Details (both Great and Small) of One Soldier." (Bachus book cover, image right).
Next week's post will feature another installment in the series about WWI censored written works. Jennifer Orth-Veillon, the WWrite blog curator, will discuss two censored works by Army nurses: Ellen N. Lamotte's The Backwash of War (book cover image, left) and Mary Borden's The Forbidden Zone.
It's My Country Too Advance Praise WWrite bloggers Jerri Bell (post on WWI Navy Yeoman, Marjory Stoneman Douglas) and Tracy Crow (post on Marine Sergeant, Leila Lebrand) have received intense praise for their book, which will be released on July 1, 2017, It's My Country Too: Women's Military Stories from the American Revolution to Afghanistan (book cover, right). Major Dee Anne McWilliams U.S. Army (Ret.), president of Women in Military Service for America writes "This compendium of women s bravery and accomplishments is a compelling read of firsthand accounts in U.S. military conflicts. No American woman should raise her right hand and swear to support and defend without these haunting voices urging her to walk the trail where few have gone. Every American history syllabus should include this book as a requirement. A true inspiration!" Award-winning veteran writer, Matt Gallagher, author of Youngblood says "Jerri Bell and Tracy Crow have done a great literary service with this book for too long, the courage and gallantry of American women on the battlefield has gone unnoticed. This is vital, superb reading."
Mother's Day and Mothers of WWI Soldiers As highlighted by the WWI Centennial News this week, the mother figure played an essential and difficult role in WWI. In recruitment campaigns, propaganda artists used the mother symbol to remind young men of their duty to their country and family (recruitment poster, left). Mothers managed the home front, taking up jobs men left behind, and they were also healers, serving as nurses to the wounded and sick. For WWI soldier-writers, they often served as muses—the wife or girlfriend sparked sentimentality and commitment but also complication—children, a geographically-difficult relationship, or the promises of return. The mother solidified eternal, unconditional love for the man serving abroad. Whether he returned or not. With his life at stake, the mother sometimes held more ground for the young soldier than the lover or wife. The Mother also was known as an unmistakable symbol for the soldier's country. On this Mother's Day, the WWrite Blog encourages readers and subscribers to revisit Connie Ruzich's post on Lieutenant John Hunter Wickersham's poem "Raindrops on Your Old Tin Hat." In the hours before the battle that would kill him, he writes a poem to his mother comparing the relentless rain of northeastern France to her tears shed for his suffering. It seems his consecrated his last words were for her as a call to engrave his tortuous experience for posterity, to not forget. For Wickersham, it seemed the mother's tears held the keys to understanding the soldier's experience.
Mike Schuster on Poetry in the Trenches Also featured in this week's WWI Centennial News is Mike Schuster's post on his site, The Great War Project. He highlights the bitter and hopeless tone that soldier-poets began to express in their poetry during long periods of waiting in the trenches. Check it out!
For those who missed the news last week —WWrite Blog Comment Feature Now Available! The Commission is excited to announce that it has authorized and enabled comments for the blog posts. Comments are a vital part of the WWrite project as the purpose of the blog is to expand and modernize the complex space of memory by featuring today's writers and scholars inspired by writing or events from WWI. We want WWrite to become a learning resource for students, teachers, writers, readers, artists, and anyone curious about writing's unique place in the Great War. We don't want you just to read, but also to engage with these writers and scholars. The comments allow discussions among the diverse readership, which will not only encourage a conversation about memory—it will also rehabilitate, construct, and create the memory that has been absent from current collective culture.
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