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The Backwash of War: The Classic Account of…
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The Backwash of War: The Classic Account of a First World War… (1916)

by Ellen N. La Motte

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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English (8)  Dutch (3)  All (11)
Showing 1-5 of 8 (next | show all)
During WWI, Ellen serves as a nurse in France. She offers several short stories about the cruelty and harshness of war. A viewpoint rarely seen elsewhere. The stories themselves were fairly short, just quick snapshots into a patient, a procedure or an odd situation. She presents a very vivid, very honest point of view, which works well with her subject manner. Overall, highly recommended. ( )
  JanaRose1 | Jun 13, 2014 |
This short nonfiction book packs a powerful punch. Vignettes written by an American nurse about field hospitals during WWI, it is dark and graphic and disturbing. It is all too real.

There are heroes in the book, and there are also just plain people, people who ended up as fodder for war and those who ended up treating them. While emergency treatment for soldiers has changed drastically since the period of this book, and methods of fighting war have changed, the effect on bodies and souls is still devastating.

This is not a book full of hope and feel-good stories of redemption. It is a books of despair and hopelessness, and the timeless, relentless brutality and reality of war. ( )
  TooBusyReading | May 18, 2014 |
AUG 5 - Opens with an introduction by the publisher setting up a background on the author and the circumstances under which the book was written. Is then followed by the author's introduction to the 1934 edition which discusses the books suppression during the war years. Then includes the original 1916 author introduction. This is an interesting first hand account of the WWI French front from a field nurse's point of view. It is a short book and makes fast reading with each chapter being a vignette of a different patient and the medical case he represents. Ms. Motte is very candid in her discussions of the wounded and the treatment making the book probably graphic for its time, though not so much for the modern day reader. While I found the book interesting as a contemporary piece of history from the war, I didn't connect with the author's voice at all. She is quite stand-offish and never really gives a personality or emotion to her storytelling. Oddly enough, we never get to know the author as she never refers to herself when telling her stories. She refers to "the nurse" or "the Directrice", which I came to conclude was her in the third person. A couple of times she does speak of herself as "I" but this is only during two passages in which she goes on a personal discourse of her opinion of war, and yet these are also removed from any emotion as they are written sarcastically. She speaks in a condescending tone of how war, the bureaucracy, etc. must be, is perfect, is right, and yet it fair oozes with sarcasm showing her true meaning and thoughts but missing the mark on connecting with the reader's sentiments. In my opinion, these passages could well have been the reason the book was "banned" in the latter years of the war, due to there anti-propaganda message.

I've read a lot of first-hand accounts of war and perhaps it has conditioned me a bit, but I am more inclined to think that this author, while showing a fair enough account of her experiences, was just not a good enough writer to get any emotion across to the reader. There are much more well-written accounts that are also moving and poignant, neither of which I find "Backwash" to be. ( )
  ElizaJane | May 2, 2014 |
WHAT an amazing book. Honestly, I don't believe I've ever read a historical source like it. THE BACKWASH OF WAR is not done as a documentary. And it certainly isn't first person nor the type of history you would get with Xenophone or Gregory of Tours. Instead, this is a book of vignettes. And the author, Ellen Newbold La Motte, gives you stories that are drawn on her experience as an American nurse volunteering in Flanders during WWI.

Her writing is astonishingly good. It's philosophical, poetic, poignant, and very successful in relating the horrors of war. In fact, if I had had her experiences, I'm quite sure I would have had to write them down, or else go mad.

Take the suicide.

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. This ball tore out his left eye, and then lodged somewhere under his skull, so they bundled him into an ambulance and carried him, cursing and screaming, to the nearest field hospital.

..Since he had failed-in the job, his life must be saved, he must be nursed back to health, until he was well enough to be stood up against a wall and shot.


Nurse Ellen writes of the irony of the time and expense of saving this man. How the surgeon took so much time to partially repair him, and spent so much in materials to save his life, items that might have been used for men who wished to live. All that ether and gauze. All spent so that the poor fellow, with his eye left dangling, could be shot by his countrymen. Because well, discipline is important.

About the Croix de Guerre she writes,

He had performed no special act of bravery, but all mutilés are given the Croix de Guerre, for they will recover and go back to Paris, and in walking about the streets of Paris, with one leg gone, or an arm gone, it is good for the morale of the country that they should have a Croix de Guerre pinned on their breasts.


This is a blunt author. A blunt book. A book I reacted to strongly. If you are like me you'll find her insight into how 'the system' worked very interesting. Just as some of her asides are. She comments at one point, for example, about the patients in her ward discussing how when they over took a German gunnery site, they found the Germans chained to their weapons.

Read this book --which was banned in the United States after we entered the war. You will not find stories that are purposefully uplifting. But I think you'll marvel at the women and men who worked in that horrific environment. Who volunteered for it.

And all that night he died, and all the next day he died, and all the night following he died, for he was a very strong man and his vitality was wonderful.

... His was a filthy death. He died after three days' cursing and raving. Before he died, that end of the ward smelled foully, and his foul words, shouted at the top of his delirious voice, echoed foully. Everyone was glad when it was over.
( )
  PamFamilyLibrary | Apr 25, 2014 |
I was provided a gratis ebook copy of this book through NetGalley.

This 200-page book packs a powerful punch. It's said that any book that's truly about war is anti-war, and that's the case here. La Motte never judges the politics behind the Great War (the greatest open criticism she offers is in one section where she scoffs at the men who show off pictures of their wives and sniffle at how they miss her, then use convenient Belgian prostitutes), but she paints a visceral image of the consequences. The forward of the book says that the original publication sold well in America in 1916, but after the country entered the war, the government quietly banned its publication. That doesn't come as a huge surprise to me. The book is extremely graphic even by modern standards.

These are the two opening sentences in the first story:
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. The ball tore out his left eye, and then lodged somewhere under his skull, so they bundled him into an ambulance and carried him, cursing and screaming, to the nearest field hospital.

In particular, La Motte isn't shy about describing the conflicting stenches in the ward. I had to Google the term "anal fistula"--good times, there. As a writer who loves researching medical subjects, this book is gold. I will likely buy a print copy so I can easily bookmark sections. I can compare it to A Surgeon in Khaki by Arthur Anderson Martin, a WWI memoir of a doctor who died in duty soon after his book's publication; Martin is far more gentlemanly in his ward descriptions, instead going into detail about the different damage offered by varying types of bullets, and a constant frustration at Britain's lack of preparedness for the war. La Motte as a female and American nurse is much deeper into the psychology of the ward--she offered true vignettes, rather than stories. Both are excellent books, and the writers bring very different viewpoints to the same horrible place.

There are many books and reprints on World War I being released right now at this centennial of the war's begin. These chronicles are invaluable. They offer an important look at the past, but also show how little has changed. ( )
  ladycato | Apr 18, 2014 |
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» Add other authors (3 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Ellen N. La Motteprimary authorall editionscalculated
Mortier, ErwinTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Toen hij het niet langer verdroeg stak hij een revolver in zijn mond en vuurde af, maar hij maakte er een knoeiboel van.
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