My most recent book for The WWI Challenge was Enid Bagnold’s A Diary Without Dates, which is out of copyright and available for free download. It’s a famous work (the author also wrote National Velvet) and one I’ve meant to read for some time. I’m glad the challenge gave me a push!
Bagnold worked as a V.A.D. at the beginning of the war, but after this memoir was published, she was dismissed because her writing was seen as too critical of the hospital administration. She then volunteered as an ambulance driver in France, a more dangerous and physically challenging duty; I haven’t yet read her memoir of her experiences as a driver.
Accounts of war work written by women are much rarer than those written by men, and accounts published while the war was still going on are even rarer. (Many were published decades later.) Even aside from its historical value–it shows a woman’s thoughts as well as her activities– A Diary Without Dates is worth reading for its prose quality.
Yes, the impermanency of life in a hospital! An everlasting dislocation of combinations. Like nuns, one must learn to do with no nearer friend than God. Bolts, in the shape of sudden, whimsical orders, are flung by an Almighty whom one does not see.
From a later section:
The hospital–a sort of monotone, a place of whispers and wheels moving on rubber tyres, long corridors, and strangely unsexed women moving in them. Unsexed not in any real sense, but the white clothes, the hidden hair, the stern white collar just below the chin, give them an air of school-girlishness, an air and a look women don’t wear in the world. They seem unexpectant.
This paragraph is so baldly stated, it seems brutal, but it’s also very emotional.
When a man dies they fetch him with a stretcher, just as he came in; only he enters with a blanket over him, and a flag covers him as he goes out. When he came in he was one of a convoy, but every man who can stand rises to his feet as he goes out. Then they play him to his funeral, to a grass mound at the back of the hospital.
…no philosophy helps the pain of death. It is pity, pity, pity, that I feel, and sometimes a sort of shame that I am here to write at all.
This bit of incident offered an unusual glimpse of a colonial soldier, stranded far from home, in a land where no one has ever met anyone else like him:
Henry came in to help us with our Christmas decorations on Christmas Eve, and as he cleverly made wreaths my Sister whispered to me, “He’s never spitting…in the ward!” But he wasn’t, it was part of his language–little clicks and ticks. He comes from somewhere in Central Africa, and one of the T.B.’s told me, “He’s only got one wife, nurse.” He is very proud of his austerity, for he has somehow discovered that he has hit on a country where it is the nutty thing only to have one wife. No one can speak a word of his language, no one knows exactly where he comes from; but he can say in English, “Good morning, Sister!” and “Christmas Box!” and “One!”
Every person she writes of has a larger story that we will never know. But at the same time, because she wrote of them, we will never forget.
The man I was to inquire for has no nostrils; they were blown away, and he breathes through two pieces of red rubber tubing: it gave a more horrible look to his face than I have ever seen. The Sister came out and told me she thought he was “not up to much.” I think she means he is dying. I wonder if he thinks it better to die…. But he was nearly well before he got pneumonia, had begun to take up the little habits of living. He had been out to tea. Inexplicable, what he thinks of, lying behind the screen.
…Ryan, the man with his nose gone, was lying high on five or six pillows, slung in his position by tapes and webbing passed under his arms and attached to the bedposts. He lay with his profile to me–only he has no profile, as we know a man’s. Like an ape, he has only his bumpy forehead and his protruding lips–the nose, the left eye, gone. He was breathing heavily. They don’t know yet whether he will live.