Our stories of women and war are wrong

This novel told the truth about women’s WWI service… and then it was entirely forgotten

Today’s newsletter is written by Hannah Groch-Begley, a dear friend of mine and honestly one of the smartest people I know. She is also, lucky for you, a beautiful writer. Hannah is currently a doctoral student in History at Rutgers University and has so kindly shared a VERY FUN finding with us.

(Photograph by John Warwick Brooke, Digital Archive of the National Library of Scotland, http://digital.nls.uk/74548032.)

Did you know that there were women in the trenches in World War I? I’m genuinely curious. Unless we’re friends and you’ve heard me rant about this for years, my guess is no.

Writing the story of WWI for a long time meant writing about soldiers and sacrifice, battle plans and Winston Churchill’s incompetence. If novels and memoirs mattered, they largely mattered because they were written by and about Robert Graves, Wilfred Owen, and Erich Maria Remarque, male poets who knew what war was “really” like.

But there were also female ambulance drivers, women who ran along the firing lines of the Western Front and hid from the guns in No Man’s Land, collecting the wounded and the dead. They experienced the war as up close and personal as any soldier could. The red crosses on the ambulances they drove were prime shooting targets for the enemy. Shells could drop on their heads at any moment. Women could be injured just trying to get their ambulance out of the mud and muck of war, breaking an arm on the crank engine. Worse were the fumes of poison gas, which clung to decaying bodies. When a driver bent over a soldier to pick him up, her eyes would burn with acrid fire.

Did you know that one of the most popular novels written in English after the war was about these women? Everyone and their mother has heard of Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1929), but hardly anyone remembers the wildly successful retort published one year later.

Not So Quiet…Stepdaughters of War, written by journalist Evadne Price under the pseudonym Helen Zenna Smith, became an instant best-seller in Britain and was decently reviewed in the US. It was translated into five languages, won France’s Prix Severigne which was awarded to novels that “promote international peace,” and was turned into a Broadway play. One English reviewer suggested that it should be “burned” for its scandalous, harrowing portrayal of female life at war, but that only increased interest. There were even talks of a movie.

And then…the novel was forgotten. History moved on: the Great Depression, World War II, Stalin, Hitler. Historians moved on, too.

Photograph by John Warwick Brooke, Digital Archive of the National Library of Scotland, http://digital.nls.uk/74548028.

But why, exactly, was Not So Quiet forgotten? Other female voices from the war were not so easily dismissed. Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth (1933), about her miserable time as a nurse on the Front, is still assigned in some high schools (or so I’m told), and a few years ago was made into a film starring Alicia Vikander and Kit Harrington. (It’s fine!) Virginia Woolf’s descriptions of post-war life in Mrs. Dalloway and A Room of One’s Own sit on any decent shelf. Not So Quiet’s absence seems glaring.

Theories abound: Not So Quiet is written as if it is a first-hand account by a driver named Helen Zenna Smith, and the revelation that it was instead a fictionalization of a driver’s diaries, which were merely read by Evadne Price, can’t have helped. It was also published by Albert E. Marriott, aka Netley Lucas, aka a massively successful con artist who was known for making things up to sell books.

(The specific diaries Not So Quiet was based on are gone, but as one of the few historians who has spent time in the archives reading other, similar diaries from female ambulance drivers, I can attest to its verisimilitude.)

In a recent Paris Review “Re-Covered” column, Lucy Scholes also suggests Not So Quiet was “tarnished” by its four sequels (four sequels!), which moved away from the novel’s brilliance and biting realism. It was no longer just a bloody, honest, anti-war novel about a complex heroine who hates her own cowardice and hates her patriotic family and loves only her fellow drivers just to watch them die. Now it was a series of wild “adventure” novels.

But I think Not So Quiet was also forgotten because all female ambulance drivers were forgotten, for a time. Even today, well-respected historians will insist to you that there were few women on the Front, certainly no women in the trenches, and definitely none in No Man’s Land. If they admit any female presence, it’s often a reference to just two: Mairi Chisholm and Elsie Knocker, “the Madonnas of Pervyse,” two drivers and nurses who provided first aid at the firing line in Belgium. Chisholm and Knocker were impressive, but they were not alone.

Photograph by John Warwick Brooke, Digital Archive of the National Library of Scotland, https://digital.nls.uk/74548028.

Female ambulance drivers were dirty and complicated, as Not So Quiet bracingly depicts. Unlike nurses with starched white aprons and cinched waists, drivers wore khaki pants and boots, outfits that looked uncomfortably like male soldiers’ uniforms. They also swore, and drank, and cleaned their ambulances of “pools of stale vomit…blood and mud and vermin and the stale stench of stinking trench feet and gangrenous wounds.” They got abortions. They died, or they lived and suffered. Their minds could break just as quickly as their bones, though they received little psychiatric treatment. Here’s a passage from the book I’ve underlined 3 times:

“Whenever I close my aching red eyes a procession of men passes before me: maimed men; men with neither arms nor legs; gased men, coughing, coughing, coughing; men with dreadful burning eyes; men with heads and faces half shot away; raw, bleeding men with the skin burned from their upturned faces; tortured, all watching me as I lie in my flea-bag trying to sleep…an endless procession of horror that will not let me rest. I am afraid. I am afraid of madness. Are there others in this convoy fear-obsessed as I am…others who exist in a daily hell of fear? For I fear these maimed men of my imaginings as I never fear the maimed men I drive from the hospital trains to the camps. The men in the ambulances scream, but this ghostly procession is ghostly quiet. I fear them, these silent men, for I am afraid they will stay with me all my life, shutting out beauty till the day I die. And not only do I fear them, I hate them. I hate these maimed men who will not let me sleep.”

The first major British museum to document WWI, the Imperial War Museum, was created in 1917 as the war was still happening. Its creators wanted to capture a war “record,” an accurate depiction of the world they saw all around them. It was, of course, wildly biased and full of conscious omission. The historian Deborah Thom has done great work documenting this, and argues that the museum created a particular memory of women’s war work: one in which matronly nurses, and munitions workers safe at home, predominated. The only female ambulance drivers the museum initially included in its “record”? Mairi Chisholm and Elsie Knocker, those adored “Madonnas.” The vomit and blood was gone; the experiences of the kinds of drivers Not So Quiet depicts, with their far more complicated relationships to femininity and war service, were deliberately ignored.

How could a novel, which depicts those very facts, survive the active creation of a war “memory” that wished nothing more but to forget?

It has taken nearly a hundred years to rectify that decision, for historians to take seriously the experiences of women on the front that are uncomfortable, not easily categorized or gendered, not neat or kind or gentle. It wasn’t until 1989, when CUNY’s The Feminist Press re-issued Not So Quiet, that interest began to return. The re-issue coincided with the upswing in Women’s and Gender History among academics, and with a general desire to re-examine women’s roles and voices from WWI. As the 2000s rolled around, more and more books were published that explored women’s war work and the messy business of defining “service” and “sacrifice.” Even so, there are still only a handful of works about drivers, and they tend to focus exclusively on the British experience.

Not So Quiet reminds us to fill those gaps in our histories. Reading it is unforgettable; the best review I can give of it is simply that it is the reason I do the kind of historical research I do. If it helps us remember these complicated, sometimes unlikeable, always remarkable women, all the better.

Hannah Groch-Begley is a History PhD student at Rutgers Univ., New Brunswick. Her research focuses on the British Empire, war, gender, violence, and disability. If anyone wants to make a mini-series about female ambulance drivers in WWI, she would absolutely love to be your historical consultant. Footnotes are weird in newsletters, so if you’d like citation information for any of the above, feel free to let her know. You can find more of her shouting about woman and violence on Twitter, @grouchybagels.

You can buy and read Not So Quiet…Stepdaughters of War here.

Photograph by John Warwick Brooke, Digital Archive of the National Library of Scotland, http://digital.nls.uk/74548576.