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“This Is How It Was”: An American Nurse in France During World War I

Ellen N. La Motte was one of the first American nurses to serve in a French field hospital during World War I.The Backwash of War, a series of fourteen vignettes of a French field hospital, recounting her 1915 service in Belgium, was first published in fall 1916, before American entry into the world war. Once the United States had entered the war, La Motte’s unsparing view of the devastation of war was suppressed by the pervasive national propaganda effort of the home front, and the publishers withdrew the book. Republished in 1934, the book found a new audience among Americans determined to avoid involvement in foreign wars. Included here is her introduction to the 1934 republication, which gave the book’s publishing history, and one of the sketches.

THE BACKWASH OF WARwas first published in the autumn of 1916, and was suppressed in the summer of 1918. Until this happened it went through several printings, but the pictures presented—back of the scenes, so to speak—were considered damaging to the morale. In the flood of war propaganda pouring over the country, these dozen short sketches were considered undesirable.

From its first appearance, this small book was kept out of England and France. But it did very well in the United States, until we entered the War. Even then, by some oversight, it continued to be sold, although suppression and censorship held full sway. In the summer of 1918, however, something happened. An issue ofTHE LIBERATORwas held up—it could not be released until a certain objectionable passage, it appears, was a reference toTHE BACKWASH OF WAR. THE LIBERATORcarried a column in each issue of books specially recommended by the editor. In each issue, month after month, appeared a short paragraph of three or four lines, recommendingTHE BACKWASH OF WAR.So—whenTHE LIBERATORwas held up till this passage could be inked out, one suspected that something had happened to theBACKWASHitself.

No official notice was ever sent to me. After several weeks I ventured to inquire of the publishers what had happened. The Government, it appeared, did not care for the book.

Now that we are again going through a period of peace, it seems an opportune moment for a new edition of this book. The sketches were written in 1915 and 1916, when the writer was in French military field hospital, a few miles behind the lines, in Belgium. War has been described as “months of boredom, punctuated by moments of intense fright.” During this time at the Front, the lines moved little, either forward or backward, but were deadlocked in one position. Undoubtedly, up and down the long reaching kilometers of “Front” there was action, and “moments of intense fright” which produced fine deeds of valor, courage and nobility. But where there is little or no action there is a stagnant place, and in that stagnant place is much ugliness. Much ugliness is churned up in the wake of mighty, moving forces, and this is the backwash of war. Many little lives foam up in this backwash, loosened by the sweeping current, and detached from their environment. One catches a glimpse of them—often weak, hideous or repellent.

There can be no war without this backwash.

July 18, 1934E.N.L.M.

Pour la Patrie[For the fatherland]

THIS is how it was. It is pretty much always like this in a field hospital. Just ambulances rolling in, and dirty, dying men, and the guns off there in the distance! Very monotonous, and the same, day after day, till one gets so tired and bored. Big things may be going on over there, on the other side of the captive balloons that we can see from a distance, but we are always here, on this side of them, and here, on this side of them, it is always the same. The weariness of it—the sameness of it! The same ambulances, and dirty men, and groans, or silence. The same hot operating rooms, the same beds, always full, in the wards. This is war. But it goes on and on, over and over, day after day, till it seems like life. Life in peace time. It might be life in a big city hospital, so alike is the routine. Only the city hospitals are bigger, and better equipped, and the ambulances are smarter, and the patients don’t always come in ambulances—they walk in sometimes, or come in street cars, or in limousines, and they are of both sexes, men and women, and have ever so many things the matter with them—the hospitals of peace time are not nearly so stupid, so monotonous, as the hospitals of war. Bah! War’s humane compared to peace! More spectacular, I grant you, more acute,—that’s what interests us,—but for the sheer agony of life—oh, peace is way ahead!

War is so clean. Peace is so dirty. There are so many foul diseases in peace times. They drag on over so many years, too. No, war’s clean! I’d rather see a man die in prime of life, in war time, than see him doddering along in peace time, broken hearted, broken spirited, life broken, and very weary, having suffered many things,—to die at last, at a good, ripe age! How they have suffered, those who drive up to our city hospitals in limousines, in peace time. What’s been saved them, those who die young, and clean and swiftly, here behind the guns. In the long run it dots up just the same. Only war’s spectacular, that’s all.

Well, he came in like the rest, only older than most of them. A shock of iron-gray hair, a mane of it, above heavy, black brows, and the brows were contracted in pain. Shot, as usual, in the abdomen. He spent three hours on the table after admission—the operating table—and when he came over to the ward, they said, not a dog’s chance for him. No more had he. When he came out of ether, he said he didn’t want to die. He said he wanted to live. Very much. He said he wanted to see his wife again and his children. Over and over he insisted on this, insisted on getting well. He caught hold of the doctor’s hand and said he must get well, that the doctor must get him well. Then the doctor drew away his slim fingers from the rough, imploring grasp, and told him to be good and patient.So all that first day, the man talked of getting well. He was insistent on that. He was confident. Next day, the second of the three days the doctor gave him, very much pain laid hold of him. His black brows bent with pain and he grew puzzled. How could one live with such pain as that?

That afternoon, about five o’clock, came the General. The one who decorates the men. He had no sword, just a riding whip, so he tossed the whip on the bed, for you can’t do an accolade with anything but a sword. Just the Médaille Militaire. Not the other one. But the Médaille Militaire carries a pension of a hundred francs a year, so that’s something. So the General said, very briefly:“In the name of the Republic of France, I confer upon you the Médaille Militaire.” Then he bent over and kissed the man on his forehead, pinned the medal to the bedspread, and departed.

There you are! Just a brief little ceremony, and perfunctory. We all got that impression. The General has decorated so many dying men. And this one seemed so nearly dead. He seemed half-conscious. Yet the General might have put a little more feeling into it, not made it quite so perfunctory. Yet he’s done this thing so many, many times before. It’s all right, he does it differently when there are people about, but this time there was no one present—just the doctor, the dying man, and me. And so we four knew what it meant—just a widow’s pension. Therefore there wasn’t any reason for the accolade, for the sonorous, ringing phrases of a dress parade—

We all knew what it meant. So did the man. When he got the medal, he knew too. He knew there wasn’t any hope. I held the medal before him, after the General had gone, in its red plush case. It looked cheap, somehow. The exchange didn’t seem even. He pushed it aside with a contemptuous hand sweep, a disgusted shrug.

“I’ve seen these things before!” he exclaimed. We all had seen them too. We all knew about them too, he and the doctor, and the General and I. He knew and understood, most of all. And his tone was bitter.

After that, he knew the doctor couldn’t save him, and that he could not see his wife and children again. Whereupon he became angry with the treatment, and protested against it. The piqûres [injections] hurt—they hurt very much, and he did not want them. Moreover, they did no good, for his pain was now very intense, and he tossed and tossed to get away from it.

So the third day dawned, and he was alive, and dying, and knew that he was dying. Which is unusual and disconcerting. He turned over and over, and black fluid vomited from his mouth into the white enamel basin. From time to time, the orderly emptied the basin, but always there was more, and always he choked and gasped and knit his brows in pain. Once his face broke up as a child’s breaks up when it cries. So he cried in pain and loneliness and resentment.

He struggled hard to hold on. He wanted very much to live, but he could not do it. He said, “Je ne tiens plus.”

Which was true. He couldn’t hold on. The pain was too great. He clenched his hands and writhed, and cried out for mercy. But what mercy had we? We gave him morphia, but it did not help. So he continued to cry to us for mercy, he cried to us and to God. Between us, we let him suffer eight hours more like that, us and God.

Then I called the priest. We have three priests on the ward, as orderlies, and I got one of them to give him the Sacrament. I thought it would quiet him. We could not help him with drugs, and he had not got it quite in his head that he must die, and when he said, “I am dying,” he expected to be contradicted. So I asked Capolarde to give him the Sacrament, and he said yes, and put a red screen around the bed, to screen him from the ward. Then Capolarde turned to me and asked me to leave. It was summer time. The window at the head of the bed was open, the hay outside was new cut and piled into little haycocks. Over in the distance the guns rolled. As I turned to go, I saw Capolarde holding a tray of Holy Oils in one hand, while with the other he emptied the basin containing black vomitus out the window.

No, it did not bring him comfort, or resignation. He fought against it. He wanted to live, and he resented Death, very bitterly. Down at my end of the ward—it was a silent, summer afternoon—I heard them very clearly. I heard the low words from behind the screen.

“Dites: 'Dieu je vous donne ma vie librement pour ma patrie” (God, I give you my life freely for my country). The priests usually say that to them, for death has more dignity that way. It is not in the ritual, but it makes a soldier’s death more noble. So I suppose Capolarde said it. I could only judge by the response. I could hear the heavy, labored breath, the choking, wailing cry.

“Oui! Oui!” Gasped out at intervals.“Ah mon Dieu! Oui!”

Again the mumbling, guiding whisper.

“Oui—oui!” came sobbing, gasping, in response.

So I heard the whispers, the priest’s whispers, and the stertorous choke, the feeble, wailing, rebellious wailing in response. He was being forced into it. Forced into acceptance. Beaten into submission, beaten into resignation.

“Oui—oui!” came the protesting moans.“Ah, oui!”

It must be dawning upon him now. Capolarde is making him see.

“Oui! Oui!” The choking sobs reach me. “Ah, mon Dieu, oui!” Then very deep, panting, crying breaths:

“Dieu — je — vous — donne — ma — vie—librement—pour—ma—patrie!”

“Librement! Librement! Au, oui! Oui!” He was beaten at last. The choking, dying, bewildered man had said the noble words.

“God, I give you my life freely for my country!”

After which came a volley of low toned Latin phrases, rattling in the stillness like the popping of a mitrailleuse [machine-gun].

Two hours later he was still alive, restless, but no longer resentful. “It is difficult to go,” he murmured, and then: “Tonight, I shall sleep well.” A long pause followed, and he opened his eyes."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."

Source: Ellen N. La Motte,The Backwash of War, (NY: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1934), pp. v-viii, 119–31.

See Also:"His Car Is His Pride": Ode to a World War I Ambulance
Gas and Flame in World War I: The New Weapons of Terror
"Bombed Last Night": Singing at the Front in World War I
Hot Chocolate: A World War I "Canteen Girl" Writes Home
"No Negroes Allowed": Segregation at the Front in World War I