Jane Potter gave a good talk at Brookes today, partly about wartime romantic novelists and partly about nurses who published memoirs.

An interesting question came up about the memoirs, and the graphic horrors sometimes included – in passages like this:

Have you seen men as they came down from the Front during the first mad months, primitive, demented, at their last gasp, ready to face death in any form rather than the hellish uncertainty they had just left? Have you heard the groans of the wounded, seen arms rotting off and legs smashed to pieces, and dressed black gaping holes in young boys’ sides?

Kate Finzi, Eighteen Months in the War Zone (1916)

Someone expressed surprise that a book with this kind of distressing language could be published during wartime, but in fact it was not so uncommon. Patrick MacGill’s articles in the Daily Mail (especially those later published in The Big Push) had plenty of grim details.

Why were these published? Today we tend to read the horrors as conveying an anti-war message, but in 1916 they could have had various other purposes:

  • writing of horrors was a guarantee of the authenticity of the writing, a sign that the writer had seen the worst
  • describing horrors could convey not so much an anti-war message as an anti-German one. Detailing the effects of gas, for example, was a way of arousing anger against those who first used it in battle.
  • it was a way of satisfying curiosity. As Jane Potter reminded us, Robert Graves claimed that when he came home on leave people wanted to hear about the horrors
  • people wanted to share the experience of those at the front, because they identified with them.
  • people wanted images of horror as strong as their own profound pro-war emotions

Were horrific descriptions censored? I think this depended on the context. Pacifist pamphlets later in the war had to be submitted to the censor, and graphic horrors would count against them. The publication of horrors in a positive context – in the Bryce Report, for example – could be publicly sponsored.

It depended, too, of course, on the kind of horror. The nurses’ memoirs describe soldiers’ suffering, and might inspire pity, anger or a desire for reprisals. What would be far less acceptable were accounts of the brutality of British troops (though having said that, it’s worth remembering that Douglas Goldring’s novel The Fortune (1917) , with its thuggish British soldiers in Dublin, was never prosecuted.)


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