Friday, May 6, 2016


Ellen N. La Motte (1873–1961)
From War No More: Three Centuries of American Antiwar & Peace Writing

Mary Borden-Turner, who recruited Ellen La Motte as an army hospital nurse on the front, receives wounded soldiers from an ambulance. Photo from Jane Conway /
A century ago, in 1916, Ellen Newbold La Motte published The Backwash of War: The Human Wreckage of the Battlefield as Witnessed by an American Hospital Nurse, which became an immediate success, selling well and going through several printings. Because of its unflinchingly gruesome depictions of wartime horror, however, the book was prohibited in England and France and two years later it was withdrawn from publication in the U.S. When the book was finally reissued in 1934, she wrote in a preface that “the pictures presented—back of the scenes, so to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.”

An expression that became current during the early months of World War I defined war as (to use La Motte’s phrasing) “months of boredom, punctuated by moments of intense fright.” From the ennui—and from the terror—arose the grisly scenes La Motte experienced as a nurse in a French Army field hospital in Belgium:
During this time at the Front, the lines moved little, either forward or backward, but were deadlocked in one position. . . . [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.
After her stint at the hospital, La Motte contributed to The Atlantic Monthly a series of articles, including “Heroes,” that became the backbone of her book. Additional information about her will be found in the headnote preceding the selection, presented by Lawrence Rosenwald in the just-published LOA collection War No More: Three Centuries of American Antiwar and Peace Writing.

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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. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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