Witnessing the consequences of war

THE ROSES OF NO MAN’S LAND by Lyn Macdonald, originally published in 1980

Bookcase 10, shelf 3, book 13

This is a remarkable book, and yet again the dice gave me something vaguely appropriate. With one hand immobilised by a giant dressing following an op, I get a book on nursing. Admittedly, nursing in WW1…

Actually, The Roses of No Man’s Land is so much more than that. It’s partly an oral history, full of eyewitness testimonies and personal accounts grabbed just in the nick of time by Lyn Macdonald, formerly a BBC Radio 4 producer. Her beautifully written histories of the Great War are extraordinary – Somme and They Called it Passchendaele are especially vivid – and are all the more moving because they are tied together with first-hand accounts.

Roses is a bit different because it moves (slightly) away from the battlefields.

Macdonald did become irritated by people referring to it as ‘your book on the nurses’, and I’m not surprised. It isn’t, not wholly: it’s about the inevitable and appalling consequences of war for those involved, from the wounded and dying to the plastic surgeons who had to develop revolutionary techniques, from the VADs coping with horrific situations completely outside their previous experience to Americans who became caught up in the War well before their country was directly involved, from tired stretcher bearers and orderlies to, yes, the nurses.

‘If the ghost that haunts the towns of Ypres and Arras and Albert is the statutory British Tommy … then the ghost of Etaples and Rouen ought to be a girl. She’s called Elsie or Gladys or Dorothy, her ankles are swollen, her feet are aching, her hands are reddened and rough. She has little money, no vote, and has almost forgotten what it is to be really warm…’

Bear in mind that during the First World War five times as many men were wounded, affected by gas poisoning, shellshock or disease as were actually killed (and that’s considering the vast numbers of deaths). The Roses of No Man’s Land is their book.

Throughout all of her works on WW1, Macdonald uses interviews with survivors (and sometimes diaries and letters, and material from the Imperial War Museum archives) to build up an intensely personal view of the conflict, one which gives real life to what can sometimes be a litany of dreadful statistics.

And the people, mostly octogenarians when she interviewed them – well, they’re just like us, but caught up in a situation of appalling horror and coping with it. In Roses, many of her witnesses are women which does make it different to the other books she has written. And you often follow the individuals through the course of the conflict, too. But there is much more to Macdonald’s books than a string of personal accounts; they are set firmly in their context, and this more orthodox historical setting is illuminated by the voices of people who were there.

Given the nature of Lyn Macdonald’s wonderful book, perhaps the rest of this post should be given to a few of these testimonies…

This is Gladys Stanford, from the very start of the War:

‘…my family had planned a very big and special picnic. […] We were going to have cricket in the afternoon and dancing in the evening, by the light of lanterns among the trees. Overnight we got messages from some of the guests to say they would be unable to come…’

and here she is a couple of years later, working as a VAD with casualties from the Somme in Southampton:

‘There were extra beds up everywhere. [… The wounded] were in a terrible state, straight off the ships, and doing the dressings was terrible. We didn’t give them anaesthetics for these dreadful dressings – there just wasn’t time to administer them. […] There was one man who must have been splattered all over with shrapnel. It took five nurses to do his dressing, little bits of him at a time. His leg was fractured and we had to roll him over on his side, because his back was completely riddled with holes…’

There are flashes of attempts at a normal life:

‘It was absolutely ridiculous how they enforced that regulation about not going out with officers. […] I was actually not allowed to go out with my own father, and he was a general in the Army! […] Matron said “No. […] You know perfectly well that VADs are not allowed  to walk with officers.”‘ (Kitty Kenyon, another VAD, over in France at Camiers)

By the spring of 1918, exhaustion was general:

‘There was an awful atmosphere of depression. We had no news, but we could tell what was happening by the very bad condition of the wounded who came down, and the tremendous numbers of them, and you could feel the atmosphere of anxiety and worry around you…’ (Lorna Neill, British Red Cross ambulance driver)

and yet the end was in sight, of course. And here is how it was, really, for Margaret Ellis of No. 26 General Hospital, Camiers:

‘On the day the Armistice was declared, there wasn’t one man in the ward who knew. They were all delirious, not conscious enough to know, too ill. There wasn’t one man who understood. Not one man.’

And it wasn’t over when the guns stopped, either. The flu epidemic still had to run its course:

‘I was working in the casualty clearing station, doing the usual work. There wasn’t much surgery to do. I shall never forget the sight of the mortuary tents. There were rows of corpses … dying from something quite different. It was a ghastly sight, to see them lying there dead of something I didn’t have the treatment for.’ (Captain Geoffrey Keynes, RAMC)

These are the reality, the authentic testimonies of people caught up in the most appalling, disgusting conflict. The Roses of No Man’s Land gives them a voice. It is a profoundly humane book, and it is also a deeply angry one (while being objective – and, yes, there are German voices here too, and it covers more than just the Western Front).

It’s been a while since I read it last, and I’m so glad I have re-read it now – and I’m very grateful that Lyn Macdonald managed to gather her witnesses to history, and bring their testimonies to a wider audience.

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