Book Review: Nurses At The Front, Writing The Wounds Of The Great War Edited By Margaret R. Higonnet

The editor Margaret R. Higonnet writes a long introduction that prepares the reader for the memoirs that were written by 2 nurses that served during the early years of World War I. These women were Ellen N. La Motte and Mary Borden. Margaret states that even before the United States joined the war (Spring 1917) there were as many as 25,000 American women serving as volunteers. Each of them joined in order to serve their country. Many of them wanted to be at the Front lines in order to help. They were "as eager to get to the Front as any Boy." The only way to be at the Front was as a nurse.
Mary Borden (1886-1968)was an American, wealthy, and had been educated at Vassar College. She'd married an English Captain. She had children that she left behind in England in order to serve because, "she signed up with the French Red Cross."
Ellen Newbold La Motte (1873-1961) also an American, was an experienced nurse from Baltimore. Upon arriving in Europe she first worked at an American hospital in Paris. Soon afterwards she joined Borden in a, "frontline surgical unit that Borden had established under French military command in the Belgian zone."
La Motte wrote The Backwash of War in 1916, includes 9 stories as well as a short introduction.
Borden wrote The Forbidden Zone 1929, also with 9 stories and a preface.
Included is a French glossary of common words throughout the stories.

La Motte begins by describing the war as, "months of boredom, punctuated by moments of intense fright." "The Front line has not moved," "the air is stagnant" and "with much ugliness." It is with these opening lines that the reader is thrust behind the curtain so to speak, of war and its aftermath. It is in its aftermath that nurses and surgeons care for the wounded.
The wards are full of men whose bandaged--broken--limbs missing-- bloody--screaming in agony--bodies lie in wait. It is the carnal damage of what shrapnel and exploding bombs and poisonous gas does to a frail human body.
La Motte and Borden both write of soldier's who wished to take their own lives, they tried, and were left grossly and painfully disfigured.
In another story a patient with gas gangrene---the foul stench that "swirled round him."
There is the heart-breaking story of a young boy, and whose mother does not seem to care.
There were several pages that were written as movingly as poetry, and because poetry must be read a loud, I read these pages aloud. Their haunting punctuating words reverberated not only in my mind but throughout the room.
Some of the descriptions are dizzyingly macabre. I wanted to gasp, and probably did. 

This is a MUST read for anyone wanting to read on the subject of World War I, nursing, or medicine during the early 20th century.

I'll not forget this book, it is more than memorable.

Published by Northeastern University Press Boston April 29, 2001
161 pages
Non-Fiction/World War I/Nurses/War Through The Generations Challenge

Link @ Amazon:
Paperback $24.95


  1. Hi Annette, just stepped over to check out your blog, which is great btw. The only book about a nurse's experience that I have read (still reading), is In the Midst of Life, by Jennifer Worth. I'm a nurse, so to read how nursing has changed over the years is just fascinating. This is a book that I will have to read.

  2. This one sounds great, Annette! I wish my library had it!

  3. Thanks for participating as always. We've linked to your review on the reviews page and a snippet will appear on the main page on June 30.


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