The Missing Page of Ellen N. La Motte’s The Backwash of War
By Cynthia Wachtell
Special to the Doughboy Foundation web site
It was late in my process of researching Ellen N. La Motte’s extraordinary wartime book,The Backwash of War, that I made a fascinating discovery about its contents. Or, more accurately, I made a fascinating discovery about what is absent from its contents. I realized a key page is missing. And that missing page speaks volumes.
Let me back up a bit. I first came across The Backwash of War: The Human Wreckage of the Battlefield as Witnessed by an American Hospital Nurse when I was working in the mid-1990s on my dissertation, a study of American antiwar literature. Published in September 1916, The Backwash of War is a collection of stories about La Motte’s experience nursing at a French field hospital in Belgium, which was located terrifyingly close to the battlefront. Brilliantly observed and darkly humorous, the stories anticipate, and likely influenced, the works of Ernest Hemingway and other postwar writers.
The first story, ironically titled “Heroes,” bluntly begins, “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 “Heroes” and a dozen other stories, La Motte deftly defied all norms of decorous wartime writing, exposing war’s unseemly underbelly, its backwash of mangled, miserable men writhing in agony and a hospital staff unable to staunch the mass bleeding of modern war.
When I first read The Backwash of War as a graduate student, I was amazed that such a radical and brilliant wartime book was written by an American woman and published before the United States had even entered the fray. And I was dismayed that it had been all but lost to history. Immediately upon its publication, the book had been banned in England and France. In America, by contrast, it had gone through four printings and been widely praised as a seminal war work. In the words of the Los Angeles Times it revealed the “first realistic glimpse behind the battle lines.”
But then in September 1918 the book was deemed dangerous to wartime morale, and censored. Despite being re-released in 1919 and appearing in a new edition in 1934, it disappeared into literary obscurity.
That fact nagged at me, and it continued to nag at me long after I submitted my dissertation. So, it was that some twenty-five years later I was in the process of trying to bring this lost antiwar classic to light in an expanded volume, which would include La Motte’s published war essays as well as my exhaustively researched biography of La Motte. She was, I had discovered, a boldly non-conformist woman in many regards: a self-proclaimed socialist and anarchist, a path-breaking public health administrator and expert in the field of tuberculosis, a prominent suffragist, a lesbian openly partnered for decades, and America’s most dedicated and prolific anti-opium activist of her day.
It was then, as I painstakingly pored over my original edition of The Backwash of War from 1916, with its olive green cover and gold lettering, that I noticed the missing pages. I realized that two pages had been physically cut out of the volume, one directly preceding the title page and one directly following the title page. All that remained of each was a very narrow stub, with a sheared edge, near the inner hinge.
Nor was it simply my volume that had been altered in this way. Upon further research, I discovered that the copy that belonged to the avant-garde writer Gertrude Stein, now housed in Yale University’s Beinecke Library, is also missing the two pages. So is the copy in the British Library, acquired when the book was finally released in England in 1919. The publisher, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, had physically cut out the two pages from each volume. Why?
I was also able to find an intact version of the original book and looked to see which pages had been clipped from the other copies. The first “clipped” page lists La Motte’s book titles. I concluded that it had been clipped due to an editing error of no great consequence.
The second “clipped” page was the book’s dedication page, and its removal seemed far more consequential. The dedication page reads: “To Mary Borden-Turner ‘The Little Boss’ to whom I owe my experience in the zone of the armies.”
Borden-Turner was the American heiress who was the founder, benefactor, and director of the French field hospital in Belgium where La Motte had worked and where most of the stories in the volume are set. Why had the book’s dedication to her been removed?
The answer, I think, reflects just how radical and risky La Motte’s work was. As Johannes Allert observes in his review in The Strategy Bridge of my expanded edition of The Backwash of War, “Throughout her writing, La Motte is highly critical of the manner in which the wounded are treated, the upper echelons of command, and their mismanagement of and overall prosecution of the war.”
My guess is that Borden-Turner did not want to be publicly linked to La Motte’s incendiary book. It was simply too dangerous for her. After all, she still had a hospital in a war zone to run and could not risk offending the French Army or others. So the publisher agreed, at some point following the books’ release, to remove the dedication page.
Interestingly, Borden-Turner would publish her own very graphic remembrance of her wartime experience, The Forbidden Zone. But she would do so from the safe distance of the late 1920s. By that point war criticism was in vogue. In fact, her work appeared the same year as Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front.
La Motte, by contrast, wrote while the war was still underway. The Backwash of War is brilliant and bold and even – in its challenge to accepted war doctrine – blasphemous. The missing dedication page is the ultimate proof.
Cynthia Wachtell is a research professor of American Studies and director of the S. Daniel Abraham Honors Program at Yeshiva University. She earned her PhD in the History of American Civilization at Harvard University. She is editor of The Backwash of War: An Extraordinary American Nurse in World War I, for which she wrote the first biography of Ellen N. La Motte, and author of War No More: The Antiwar Impulse in American Literature from 1861-1914. Her web site is here.