The Backwash of War

Ellen la Motte was an American nurse and subsequently journalist and author. She qualified as a nurse in Baltimore, Maryland prior to the war, and she volunteered during 1915 to nurse in Europe.

Ellen Newbold LaMotte, ca. 1910-1915, courtesy of Wikipedia

During her time at a French field hospital in Belgium she kept a diary and used her diary entries to produce a book called ‘The Backwash of War – An Account of a First World War Field Hospital’. The book is a series of short portraits about life in the hospital looking at a particular patient, a particular day, a particular event. The one thing that binds all the people and events together are the eyes through which the stories are told.

Ellen writes with passion and fervour, yet also with cynicism and contempt. Her descriptions are frank, quite brutal, and poetic at the same time. The journalist and author is right there in the ward, dressed in the nurse’s uniform, carrying out the nursing duties, but at the same time putting into words what she saw around her.

I found that her writing appealed to all my senses. I could smell the foul stench of wounds, with the occasional breath of fresh air from outside. I could hear the loud and ever-present shelling and explosions, yet also the hissing of the minute gangrene gas bubbles coming from internal organs during an operation

I felt I could touch the soldiers, even when they were not described as men but as ‘motionless bandaged heaps, that are lifted, shoved or rolled from the stretchers to the beds’

I could see the dark, grey, miserable world that was the field hospital and the camp, and every now and again, a flash of red would brighten up the scene, even though the red was the material of the screens drawn around the bed of a soldier receiving the last rites from a priest

Her comments on what was around her highlight both admiration, but to a greater extent contempt for what she witnessed from medical staff, military personnel, military procedure, even the soldiers themselves.

At the beginning of the book in the authors notes, Ellen talks about how her book, written and published in 1916 was banned in the summer of 1918 for the fear that the stories were undesirable, the authors views not patriotic, the whole book being bad for morale. Not republished again until 1934, this small book is blunt, vivid and a perfect example of ‘people watching’ in a field hospital in Belgium in WW1.

She says ‘there are many people to write you of the noble side, the heroic side, the exalted side of war. I must write you of what I have seen, the other side, the backwash”.


Blog written by Jane Wilson, WWI Project Volunteer and WWI Book group member



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