Friday, March 31, 2017


Ellen N. La Motte (1873–1961)
From World War I and America: Told by the Americans Who Lived It

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.
One hundred years ago, on April 2, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war against Germany. The resolution was approved by the Senate (82–6) on April 4 and by the House (373–50) on April 6. By this time the decision to go to war seemed a foregone conclusion; two months earlier, Germany had announced that they would resume unrestricted submarine warfare, which led the U.S. to break off diplomatic relations. [See “The Diary of a Retreat” by H. L. Mencken, who was stuck in Berlin at the time.] Then, on the last day of February, Wilson released to the media the decoded text of the infamous Zimmerman telegram, a diplomatic message proposing a German-Mexican alliance against the United States if the U.S. did not remain neutral and promising to help Mexico “reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.” And finally, on March 18, three American merchant ships were torpedoed without warning, killing fifteen Americans.

The war in Europe had already been raging for nearly three years and Americans there had been sending back to their homeland increasingly distressing reports on the carnage. In early 1915 Ellen N. La Motte, a trained nurse, offered her services at the American Hospital of Paris. Instead of a warzone, she found a coterie of alleged do-gooders crowding out the recuperating soldiers: “society women of the American colony in Paris, young society girls gathering experiences which will tell well in year's ball-rooms, artists, painters, opera singers, writers, a few members of the French nobility, and others of a nondescript variety.” Near the end of her stay, she wrote “An American Nurse in Paris,” an essay describing the atmosphere of the hospital in scathing terms. “Nearly all are dressed in the becoming white gowns of the French Red Cross and a few are pearled and jeweled, rouged and scented till they are quite adorable. . . . This system floods the institution with a mass of unskilled labor, some of which is useful, much superfluous, and some a positive menace to the patients themselves.”

Frustrated by the scene at the American Hospital, on June 20–21 La Motte traveled to Dunkirk, where Mary Borden had established a military hospital in the nearby village of Rousbrugge. La Motte reported that she found little evidence of the conflict: “Shops were open and business thriving; the streets were full of civilians going about their daily tasks, unheeding, apparently, the threatening danger. Confidence was restored; there had been no bombardment for six weeks. . . .” But then, the very next day, Germans began bombing the city at three in the morning in an unrelenting air campaign that lasted until late afternoon, and she and her compatriots were forced to abandon the building in which they were staying and ended up across the town in a cellar. Trapped, she spent the day writing a draft of “Under Shell-Fire at Dunkirk,” which was published by The Atlantic later in the year.

Little prepared her for the cruelties and indignities and terror she would witness. “There was nothing in past experience, nothing of will-power, of judgment, of intuition, that could serve me. I was beyond and outside and apart from the accumulated experience of a lifetime.” Nevertheless, she spent the next twelve months at Borden’s hospital in the village of Rousbrugge. The year in Belgium made her cynical about both the war and her own efforts: “Was it not all a dead-end occupation, nursing back to health men to be patched up and returned to the trenches, or a man to be patched up, court-martialled and shot?” she wonders in “Heroes” (a previous Story of the Week selection). After returning to America, she published The Backwash of War, which gathered a dozen profiles of soldiers and civilians at the front. As literary scholar Hazel Hutchinson notes, “La Motte’s writing demonstrates [that] one of the most insidious traits of war is the way in which it strips the individual of his or her particularity.”

This trait is starkest, perhaps, in “Alone,” a notably grisly sketch about a soldier brought to the hospital with gas gangrene. La Motte remarks that the swiftness with which this particular ailment killed its victims led her contemporaries to believe that the cause was a particularly toxic poison used in German ammunition. In fact, gas gangrene is caused not by a chemical agent but by infection by Clostridia, a genus of anaerobic bacteria. The problem was so prevalent during the war that, in 1929, the U.S. Surgeon General issued a special report concluding that the microbes originated in the soil on the battlefield, where they “thrive on decaying animal and vegetable matter, but not on living tissue, and through their resistant spores are able to retain their vitality through long periods of conditions unfavorable to their multiplication.”

Notes: La Motte scatters a few French expressions in her essay: M├ędecin Chef (chief doctor); Cela pique! Cela brule! (It stings! It burns!); picqures (injections), and C’est triste! C’est bien triste! (It’s sad! It’s very sad!).

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Rochard died to-day. He had gas gangrene. His thigh, from knee to buttock, was torn out by a piece of German shell. . . . 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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