A Woman Who Wrote About War: Recovering Ellen N. La Motte’s The Backwash of War

I love the old American spiritual “Down by the Riverside.” In fact, my first book borrows its title, War No More, from the song’s refrain.

I ain’t gonna study war no more,
Ain’t gonna study war no more,
I ain’t gonna study war no more.

However, as a scholar of American antiwar writing, I have been studying war for a very long time.

Sadly, my scholarly career has overlapped with America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Sadly, too, the conflict in Afghanistan continues. Now in its eighteenth year, it has the unfortunate distinction of being the country’s longest war.

Consequently, new works of antiwar writing, about these new wars, continue to appear. Some of these works — including those by Brian Castner, Phil Klay, Brian Turner, and Elliot Ackerman — are stellar.1 But I look forward to a day when there are no new wars to feed the literary imagination.

Men and War Writing

A few years ago, I was invited to write an essay tracing the history of American antiwar literature for Opposition to War: An Encyclopedia of U.S. Peace and Antiwar Movements. As I carefully outlined the development of antiwar writing from Quaker texts of the Colonial era through to the present, I was struck by a rather obvious fact. There were virtually no women writers.

White male writers — most of whom experienced war firsthand — authored the overwhelming share of antiwar literature. The most famous of their works are a group of antiwar novels written between the late 19th and late 20th centuries. These classics include Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, and Tim O’Brien’s interrelated stories The Things They Carried.

Why is there no equally famous work by a woman? A partial answer, at least for earlier eras, is that woman did not serve as soldiers and did not have firsthand experiences of war. But that’s not quite true. Although women did not experience combat, they served as nurses and in other roles in which they witnessed war’s ravages.

Ellen N. La Motte's passport photo, a headshot of a white woman wearing her dark hair up in a bun on top o fher head. She has dark eyes and a mischievous look.
Ellen N. La Motte in the summer of 1916 soon after she completed The Backwash of War. (Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration)

One such witness was Ellen N. La Motte, who wrote a highly acclaimed antiwar work about World War I. Why is it now all but forgotten?

A Woman Who Wrote About War

Ellen N. La Motte was an American war nurse, who volunteered in a French frontline hospital. In September 1916, she published an extraordinary book in which she presented an unflinching look at the destruction done by war to the human body and spirit. She titled the collection of thirteen interrelated stories The Backwash of War and in its introduction explained, “Much ugliness is churned up in the wake of mighty, moving forces. We are witnessing a phase in the evolution of humanity, a phase called War — and the slow, onward progress stirs up the slime in the shallows, and this is the Backwash of War. It is very ugly.”

The Backwash of War was immediately banned in England and France for its criticism of the ongoing conflict. But in the United States, which had not yet entered the war, the book went through multiple editions, and critics widely hailed it as America’s most significant war work.

Literary High Explosives

As one admiring reader explained in July 1918, “There is a corner of my book-shelves which I call my ‘T N T’ library. Here are all the literary high explosives I can lay my hands on. So far there are only five of them.” The Backwash of War was the only one by a woman and also the only one by an American.

In the fall of 1918, however, America’s government suddenly censored The Backwash of War. Its graphic depictions of what La Motte described as “the human wreckage of the battlefield as witnessed by an American hospital nurse” were deemed damaging to the country’s wartime morale. When La Motte protested that the stories were true, she was simply told, “That is exactly the trouble.” And the book that had once been described as “immortal” quickly vanished into literary oblivion.

An advertisement from 1916 for The Backwash of War. From the back pages of Laura de Gozdawa Turczynowicz, When the Prussians Came to Poland (Putnam, 1916).

Not only was the book lost, but also lost with it was a particular way of writing and reading war.

War has always been a highly gendered experience, and it was particularly so when all soldiers were male and all nurses female. As a World War I war nurse, first at a large military hospital in Paris and later at a field hospital on the Western Front, La Motte exclusively took care of male patients. She cared for men mangled by war. She cared for men in excruciating pain. She cared for men who sobbed and sobbed, terrified of death. And she filled The Backwash of War with stories of their futile hospital operations, foul bodies, and filthy deaths.

Her writing, in other words, reflects the particular vantage point of a nurse at a frontline hospital, of a woman at war.

Sex and War

She wrote boldly about topics that other wartime authors did not, including the taboo topic of war and sex.

In the story “Women and Wives,” La Motte explained that the French military banned wives from the war zone because they brought with them the worries of home and were “bad for the morale of the Army.” However, the French military permitted women who could “cheer and refresh the troops” access to the soldiery. As La Motte archly commented, “Of course the professional prostitutes from Paris aren’t admitted to the War Zone, but the Belgian girls made such fools of themselves, the others weren’t needed.”

La Motte exposed the uncomfortable truth that local women, and even teenage girls, prostituted themselves to military men, including those who worked at the field hospital. She noted that a young, married surgeon paid weekly visits to a local girl and that the hospital’s administrator commandeered an ambulance each night in order to sleep with a woman twelve miles away. Likewise, an old doctor, who was sixty-four years old and had grandchildren, regularly visited “a little girl of fourteen” in the nearby village. Even a priest who worked at the hospital frequently slipped “down to the village to spend the night with a girl.”

La Motte wanted her readers to understand that the social disruptions and displacements of wartime had ugly consequences that were often directly at odds with war rhetoric about protecting women and children. As she wrote, “After the war, it is hoped that all unmarried soldiers will marry, but doubtless they will not marry these women who have served and cheered them in the War Zone.”

Book cover of The Backwash of War: An Extraordinary American Nurse in World War I, edited with an introduction and biography by Cynthia Wachtell. (Courtesy of Johns Hopkins University Press)

La Motte revealed not just the horrors of war as seen from the wards of a frontline hospital but also the destructiveness of war more broadly, the incalculable pain and loss borne by both soldiers and civilians.

Recovering The Backwash of War

As the editor of a new expanded version of The Backwash of War, for which I am proud to have written the first biography of La Motte, I hope to set the record right.

By recovering The Backwash of War, after a century of neglect, we can restore La Motte to her proper place as an influential antiwar writer. We can also recover a woman’s view of war.

As I continue studying war writing, I also hope the new “classics” include works by women, especially those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. These women, who often faced rampant misogyny as they broke old gender barriers, have much to tell us about the woman’s view of war today.

Further Reading

For more information about Ellen N. La Motte and The Backwash of War visit the Backwash of War website.

Notes

  1. These include Brian Castner’s The Long Walk: A Story of War and the Life that Follows (New York: Doubleday, 2012); Phil Klay’s collection of war stories, Redeployment (New York: Penguin Press, 2014); Brian Turner’s two volumes of war poetry, Here, Bullet (Farmington, ME: Alice James Books, 2005) and Phantom Noise (Farmington, ME: Alice James Books, 2010), as well as his memoir, My Life in a Foreign Country (New York: W. W. Norton, 2014); and Elliot Ackerman’s novels Green on Blue (New York: Scribner, 2015) and Waiting for Eden (New York: Knopf, 2018). Return to text.

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