Book Review
Complicating the Canon of the First World War: A Review of Ellen La Motte’s <em>Backwash of War</em>, edited by Cynthia Wachtell

Complicating the Canon of the First World War: A Review of Ellen La Motte’s Backwash of War, edited by Cynthia Wachtell

Think back on any syllabi of the First World War and the literature represented in it. For me, those titles included Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, and Frederick Manning’s The Middle Parts of Fortune, or poets like Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and Laurence Binyon. Indeed, white, Anglo-Saxon men’s experiences and depictions of war have shaped and defined the western understanding of the war to the point that they go unquestioned as the legitimate wartime experience. This is precisely why books like Ellen La Motte’s Backwash of War are so critical to the canon of First World War literature. In an important new release of La Motte’s work, editor and historian Cynthia Wachtell has also included three war-related essays written by La Motte as well as a biography and critical introduction to La Motte as a writer that is dearly needed and very useful.

From her early years, it was clear that Ellen La Motte was a woman who knew her own mind and lived her life on her own terms. She was born in 1873 in Louisville, Kentucky to a prominent, if somewhat poorer, branch of the du Pont family, who had gained both fame and fortune through the production of gunpowder. Despite the security and social standing provided by her du Pont cousins, La Motte recognized early that she wanted something very different than most women of her acquaintance. Thus, in the summer of 1898, she applied to the Johns Hopkins Training School for Nurses, telling the interviewer at the school that “she wanted to make something out of her life and was ready and anxious to do any amount of hard work to accomplish it.”1

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)

She proved to be a highly competent and compassionate nurse, earning a reputation as an expert in the care and prevention of tuberculosis. She even published her own textbook, The Tuberculosis Nurse in 1915. She was also an early and devoted suffragist, moving to England for several years to observe and assist with the militant suffrage movement. She advocated first for voting rights, but she also included the ways in which patriarchal, capitalist societies exploited working-class women as well as “race prejudice” in the American South, where feminists only supported suffrage for “taxpaying women only.”2

At the outbreak of the First World War, La Motte was eager to volunteer her services where they would be most useful. She became one of the first American volunteer nurses working on the Western Front and would continue working in military hospitals until the late spring of 1916. She documented her observations and visceral opposition to war in her essays and, later in her collection of thirteen short, harrowing, and piercingly insightful stories titled The Backwash of War. The title was taken from La Motte’s own observation that war was by its very nature vicious, repulsive, and it thrived on consuming people and spitting them out: “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…. There can be no war without this backwash.”3

Wachtell insists on La Motte’s writing as a vital part of the canon of First World War literature. Her critical introduction emphasizes the fact that The Backwash Of War was a piece of literature well ahead of its time, one that set the tone for the postwar modernist movement. Because she emphasized her experiences of a nurse forced to witness and repair the cataclysmic wounds of war, she provided a gendered vantage point that forced readers to consider the work and the suffering of nurses during wartime. As an antiwar radical, La Motte didn’t glorify war, and she refused to valorize the act of waging it. Instead, as Wachtell notes, she “manages to make the horror and suffering at the frontline hospital seem repetitive and disturbingly routine.”4

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)

Indeed, it is a tribute to La Motte’s fearlessness that the book was immediately censored upon its release in England and France because governments considered it a threat to public morale.5 As Wachtell shows, however, the book was widely circulated in the United States until the autumn of 1918. In fact, its very popularity eventually brought it to the attention of government censorship officials, specifically the postmaster general, who suppressed its publication. Though the book was re-released after the war, it never reclaimed the public momentum that it previously enjoyed.

Wachtell also advocates for La Motte herself — as an activist, a radical, a professional nurse, a lesbian, and a writer. In her biographical essay, she examines Ellen La Motte’s public face, including her lifelong advocacy for women’s rights, and her multi-focal postwar campaign against the global opium trade. La Motte waged this campaign through her popular writing, as well as through collaboration with members of the League of Nations. She also explores La Motte’s private life, examining her lifelong friendship with her cousin, Alfred du Pont, who consistently provided funding and support for her work (despite not sharing her personal or political convictions), her friendships with such literary luminaries as Gertrude Stein, as well as her devoted relationship with American heiress Emily Crane Chadbourne. Chadbourne, who left an unhappy marriage to a New York lawyer, had moved to Europe, where she used her considerable fortune to amass a world-respected art collection and establish a popular haven for writers and artists in her Mayfair home.

In exploring the love that LaMotte and Chadbourne shared, Wachtell has provided a critically important dimension of both women’s lives and the ways in which their love changed them. At the same time, her work emphasizes the difficulties of recovering the histories of women whose relationships “remained cloaked in euphemisms and conservative conventions.”6 In this sense, her work represents not only the elevation of a powerful and defining voice of the First World War, but also the recognition of Ellen La Motte as a fully-rounded, complex, and emotional individual–something that is all too rarely done for women writers.

Nevertheless, I was a little uncomfortable with the repeated emphasis on La Motte as a “forgotten” or “lost” writer. Making this claim overlooks a small, but excellent body of work focused on La Motte as an individual and as a woman writer during the First World War (I think immediately of Margaret Higonnet’s work, but others are relegated to the book’s footnotes). This becomes especially apparent when Wachtell attempts to situate La Motte’s writing within the context of other women nurses from the time. We learn that La Motte was hired by Mary Borden, the American heiress who underwrote the cost and hand-selected the staff of a new field hospital, and who also wrote The Forbidden Zone during her war service. In addition, Wachtell notes that “three of La Motte’s colleagues at the field hospital in Belgium also wrote about their wartime experiences.”7 She then compares and contrasts how Borden and La Motte described the same patients and incidence in their writing. The effect is fascinating, especially as it sheds important light on the overall message of each woman’s writing.

However, it seems disingenuous to declare that La Motte “essentially reinvents the rules for war writing,” when other talented, insightful, and disillusioned women were producing works with similar messages and inspiration. Rather than favoring one woman writer over another, this study would be far more successful as proof that women established and developed the modernist movement by confronting the horrors of war head-on, and that men like Hemingway only adopted and co-opted their efforts.

Additionally, it seemed at times that Wachtell experienced some difficulty managing La Motte’s biographical contradictions. For example, she notes that:

[gblockquote]…even as she was volunteering at the front, La Motte was supported with the DuPont Company’s wartime profits. Equally puzzling is the fact that she chose to purchase shares of DuPont stock, even as she was working as a war nurse…And what of the fact that she was a socialist, and even an avowed anarchist, who empathized with the working-class soldiers on both sides of the battle lines?8[/gblockquote]

The biographies of men are filled with such contradictions and complexities as a matter of course. I look forward to the day when we can discuss similar contradictions in the lives of women, who are both socialists and family members, both wartime volunteers and concerned with their own financial future.

Overall, however, Wachtell has produced an important work that assembles Ellen La Motte’s full bibliography of war writing, even uncovering one work previously unattributed to her. Her careful research and obvious devotion to La Motte’s memory has also produced an impressive and complete biography that places La Motte within the context of many historical, political, and literary movements of her time. Her book will be a welcome addition to my syllabi in the future and would serve others who are looking for ways to incorporate more critical, gendered, and artistic voices into their histories of the first half of the twentieth century.


  1. Cynthia Wachtell, “Biography” in The Backwash of War: A Extraordinary American Nurse in World War I (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019), 42. Return to text.
  2. Wachtell, “Biography,” 50. Return to text.
  3. Quoted in Wachtell, “Introduction,” 23. Return to text.
  4. Wachtell, “Introduction,” in The Backwash of War: A Extraordinary American Nurse in World War I (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019), 20. Return to text.
  5. Wachtell, “Introduction,” 6-7. Return to text.
  6. Wachtell, “Biography,” 63 Return to text.
  7. Wachtell, 32 Return to text.
  8. Wachtell, 70. Although the family surname is “du Pont,” the company name is “DuPont,” Return to text.

Featured image caption: A WW1 nurse gives an injured soldier water. (Courtesy Anders/Flickr)

Bridget Keown is a lecturer in the Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies Program at the University of Pittsburgh, where she is leading their gender and science initiative. She received her doctorate in history from Northeastern University, and her MA in Imperial and Commonwealth History from King's College London. Her dissertation focuses on the experience and treatment of war trauma among British and Irish women during the First World War. She is also researching the history of kinship among gay and lesbian groups during the AIDS outbreak in the United States and Ireland.