Thursday, 13 February 2014

WW1: Books That Deserve Some Attention

If you didn't already know that I'm a World War One nut then don't worry, because you do now. I've always had a particular interest in war (goodness knows why) but it wasn't until my final year at uni that it really became a big deal. I spent weeks trying to think of a topic for my dissertation, freaking out that I'd never find something I could write 11,000 words about (silly me), until I suddenly hit upon the idea of war writing and then, women's war writing and then, women's writing from the First World War. I was sold and since then I have never looked back. 

I read so many books in my research for the dissertation - some good, some downright awful, some that made me cry and others that made me just fume with the injustice of it all. Since I have started focusing on war writing again with my new project, I have had a look back and a flick through the books that really stood out for me (I wrote about most of these). Anyway, the long and the short of it is that I'm going to share with you the books written by women during/about WW1 that I think deserve some attention (or more attention, at least).

1. Not So Quiet...Stepdaughters of War by Helen Zenna Smith

This is an interesting one - the author, Evadne Price (Smith was a pseudonym), was asked by her publisher to write a spoof of All Quiet on the Western Front but instead chose to write a serious work based on the diaries of a WW1 nurse. Not So Quiet... explores a range of themes through a group of female ambulance drivers at the front. On a couple of slight occasions it is a bit heavy-handed but in general this is an insightful and gripping novel with characters who are hard to forget.

2. The Forbidden Zone by Mary Borden

This is (I think) one of the most powerful books written about the First World War. Mary Borden was an American nurse who set up a field hospital near the front. She writes about her experiences in this collection of short stories. It's been a couple of years since I read it but I can still remember certain extracts clearly, particularly a piece called 'Conspiracy'. It's harrowing and uncomfortable at times, but in a no holds barred way that I find very refreshing. 

3. The Backwash of War by Ellen La Motte

La Motte was a nurse who wrote short sketches about her experiences. These sketches are often anthologised alongside Borden's The Forbidden Zone. Like Borden's collection this is difficult to read at times but it gives such a raw and true account of nursing on the front lines. 

4. Diary Without Dates by Enid Bagnold

Diary Without Dates is based on Bagnold's experiences as a VAD (she also wrote about her experiences as a driver in The Happy Foreigner). It is short, detailed and varied - she gives us an impression of the whole experience of nursing. Interestingly she was dismissed from the service for criticising the hospital administration (this was published in 1917), and went on to become an ambulance driver. 

5. We That Were Young by Irene Rathbone

This 1932 anti-war novel is based on the experiences of Rathbone and her friends. It has one of the most memorable depictions of a munitions factory, including an incident that I have never quite been able to forget.

6. Return of the Solider by Rebecca West

This is one of my favourite novels and probably the most well-known in this list. West explores shell-shock through the eyes of the women at home and the final lines sum up the feeling of the time so perfectly it almost breaks my heart.

Have you read any of these? If not, would you?



  1. Hi. I actually enjoyed reading your writing!. Top notch written content. I might recommend you to submit articles a bit more frequently. This way, having such type of a useful site I think you could rank better in the search engines
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  2. I just ordered Not so quiet I thought it would balance the Remarque nicely. I also put Return of the Soldier on my wishlist to eventually read. Thank you for the list!


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