Witness to War
Modernist ideas on civilian trauma
Shortly before the birth, H.D. had been deeply affected by the sinking of the passenger ship the Lusitania, which had caused 1,200 civilian casualties. Though not necessarily recognised in medical terms, H.D.’s ideas were not all that unusual, believing as she did that civilians suffered trauma during wartime as well as soldiers in the trenches.
Some may have viewed H.D.’s ideas as a specifically female response to the extreme violence of the war. She went on however to discuss the disproportionate affects war had on civilians, both male and female, resisting such gendered stereotypes. H.D. specifically referenced a condition known as ‘war neurosis’ – often referred to during WW1 (incorrectly) as ‘shell shock’ – which she strongly believed affected civilians as well as soldiers.
This was not a theory supported by medical journal The Lancet, however, who were still maintaining that the conflict would not contribute to long-term mental effects on either civilians or soldiers. They even held out the prospect that for the general public, the spectacle of war would remove general apathy and boredom, believing that this would transcend any concerns over the idea of mangled soldiers and death.
By 1916, The Lancet had begun to accept that war neuroses could indeed contribute to the psyche of both civilians and fighting personnel. They reported on a mother of seven sons – five of whom had been wounded on the battlefield – who was admitted to Leicester Mental Hospital for treatment. Further asylums began to state stress as a direct result of the war as a frequent cause of mental breakdown, particularly amongst both young soldiers and their civilian wives. The Lancet later reasoned that, as civilians were not expected to witness the actual violence of the war, they were instead left to imagine it, and this imagining led to the civilian war trauma referenced by H.D.
In both Mrs Dalloway and Jacob’s Room, Virginia Woolf interrogated the idea of PTSD in soldiers returning from the WW1 battlefields. In more contemporary fiction, writer Pat Barker explores this in her Regeneration trilogy, using the real-life character of Dr W.H.R. Rivers at Craiglockhart War Hospital, Edinburgh, who famously treated poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon in 1917.
But this idea of civilian trauma has perhaps been less well represented. H.D.’s personal experience of losing her brother in the war in 1918 added to her anxieties, as did Katherine Mansfield’s loss of her own brother, who admitted to finding it difficult to let go of returning visions of death, as suggested by The Lancet. Speaking about his death, Katherine Mansfield stated that she became haunted, unable to stop imagining the sights of war. ‘I keep seeing all these horrors’, she wrote in 1918, ‘bathing in them again and again (God knows I don’t want to) and then my mind fills with the wretched little picture I have of my brother’s grave. What is the meaning of it all?’2
The writer Rudyard Kipling covered the phenomena of civilian trauma as a reaction to both bearing witness to the violence of war, and to the imagination of violence, in his short story ‘Mary Postgate’, in which a young woman experiences a severe traumatic reaction to witnessing the death of a child during an air-raid, as well as the loss of a young pilot formerly in her charge. It was thought that Kipling may have written this story in response to his own trauma of losing his son early in the war.
Whilst it was easier to see how air raids and direct exposure to the violence of war could affect the mental health of civilians, H.D.’s claims were noticeably different, in that she had not been directly exposed to this. The trauma which led to the death of her unborn child, she claimed, was ‘from shock and repercussions of war news broken to me in a rather brutal fashion’.3 The death of H.D.’s brother was thought to have also contributed to their father’s death shortly afterwards.
H.D. returned to the death of her unborn child many times throughout her poetry and fiction. In an early memoir of the war years titled Asphodel, H.D. references the stillbirth, stating: ‘Khaki killed it.’4
H.D. was a patient of Sigmund Freud, with whom she underwent psychoanalysis. She found great solace in Freud’s treatment, and claimed that she had partly undergone this work in an effort to understand and support others whom may experience similar trauma from the war, and as a prelude to WW2.
References to war trauma in the non-combatant is explored in depth in the work of WW1 nurse Mary Borden, whose short story collection The Forbidden Zone, (referred to by Borden as a collection of ‘sketches’ or ‘fragments’), contains some of the most unique and explicit writing about the desecration of the male soldier ever to have been published. In fact, so explicit was it, that when she submitted the manuscript for publication whilst still serving as a WW1 nurse, it was summarily rejected due to its graphic nature and the effect it may have on war morale. Only later, in 1929, a decade after the war ended, was it published, after the successful publication of male writers’ novels condemning the war, such as Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front.
Borden, a 28-year-old Chicago-born heiress, set up and ran a successful hospital at La Zone Interdite in 1915. Her hospital went on to have a high success rate, something which Borden wrote of in her collection in somewhat less than favourable terms in her sketch ‘Conspiracy’ in which she responds to the reality of patching up injured male soldiers merely to send them back to the Front:
‘It is all carefully arranged. Everything is arranged. It is arranged that men should be broken and that they should be mended…and we send our men to the war again and again, just as long as they will stand it; just until they are dead, and then we throw them into the ground’.
Trauma in Borden’s war narratives features through her use of the modernist writing technique of ‘fragmentation’, in which her prose does not follow the general rules of sentence structure or cadence. Her sentences are often ruptured and her characters express broken thoughts and ideas, contributing to a claustrophobic sense of confusion within the busy war hospital she ran.
‘Looking back, I do not understand that woman – myself – standing in that confused goods yard filled with bundles of broken human flesh’.
It seems obvious that war nurses were perhaps the most likely female and non-combatant candidates to suffer war trauma, given their proximity to the front line. However, many of Borden’s contemporaries did not choose to take the same route, writing instead in a more ‘acceptable’ way of expressing their experiences. Sticking to the accepted feminine script of the war nurse was perhaps a cynical stance in order to get their work published. But it also played into many stereotypes of women and war.
During the Great War, much propaganda circulated, portraying women in three main stereotyped roles: that of mother, wife, and nurse. All three roles were seen as caregiving, with the wife and mother both being responsible for sending their sons off to fight in the war as well as the wife procreating for the new generation. The nurse was seen as the only position open to women close to the theatre of war. As such, she was portrayed on recruitment posters as the starched-white, idealised, virginal caregiver.
Other stereotypes of the nursing role proliferated, however, with the nurse alternately seen as a potent symbol of femininity, and in a sexualised role, attractive to the male soldiers within her charge. This often led to the storylines in many WW1 novels and movies, such as A Farewell to Arms, in which the male soldier falls in love with the female war nurse.
There was also a bitter side to the view of the female nurse by male combatants. Some ex-soldiers bitterly reflected on women being unable to comprehend their suffering and experiences of the realities of the battlefield. Safely ensconced at home, it was sometimes felt that the men had been seduced into fighting in a war to protect the women and children back home.
Exposing this cultural critique of women, Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘Disabled’ makes reference to only going off to fight to ‘please his Meg’, and relates the experience of requiring the assistance of his female nurse and other women touching him ‘like some queer disease’.5
Borden’s own sketch ‘The Beach’ appears to work as a response to Owen’s poem, whereby she shows the conflicted ideas of a woman whose soldier amputee boyfriend has returned from the war. The woman is struggling to see how she will now love him as he is, and Borden cleverly juxtaposes the thoughts of both the male and female to show how the soldier resents his girlfriend for her wholeness and for the fact that she does not experience the flashbacks of the battlefield as he does:
‘He loved her. He hated her. He was afraid of her. He did not want her to be kind to him’.
Interestingly however, Borden’s work helped to break down the idea of the male/female divide within war narratives.
Previously, it had often been perceived that the difference in experience of war was gendered. Borden’s text suggested, however, that the breakdown in the experience of trauma was far more relevant between combatants and non-combatants. Although the war nurse could not claim to experience direct fighting or injuries, she was able, because of her proximity, to write from a place of experience.
Borden’s narrators within The Forbidden Zone utilise their unique female gaze in which to report on the realities of a brutal and traumatic war. In the story ‘The Beach’ for example, the male soldier’s memories are far more in tune with the female nurse’s thoughts and actions within many of the other sketches in the collection. It is the civilian girlfriend who cannot understand what he has seen and been through, whereas the female nurse has had access to the trauma of the chaotic hospital.
Borden’s writing, in its modernist aesthetic and original ideas on gendered stereotypes may seem at odds with that of H.D. and Mansfield (and others) in that Borden appears to suggest that within the arena of war, it was the joint experience of the proximity to the fighting which appeared to have the most profound effect on the psyche of the sufferer.
But it appears to me that this would negate the idea that trauma can be caused at a distance.
When the world effectively closed down in March 2020 (three years ago last week), did we not all, in our own ways, suffer from a collective fear of which we had no easily accessible response? The pandemic has been related to many issues around mental health world-wide, and its far-reaching consequences on daily life have been likened to living through a time of war.
Inarguably, people suffered in different ways and to differing extents. For some, the realities of loneliness were catastrophic; for others, their medical vulnerabilities meant that they were quite literally fighting for their lives.
In whichever way the pandemic affected us personally, I don’t think it is too much of a stretch to say that, as a collective, we all endured some measure of trauma during those long months of fear.
It strikes me then that it isn’t too much of a stretch to imagine how our minds can interpret such images and continual news overload and allow them to affect us as trauma, regardless of whether we are on the front line or not.
See Trudi Tate, Chapter 1 ‘Witness to War: War Neurotics’, Modernism, History and the First World War, (2013).
Katherine Mansfield, letter to Ottoline Morrell, November 1918, The Critical Writings of Katherine Mansfield, ed. Clare Hanson (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1987), 32.
H.D., ‘Tribute to Freud’, rev. edn (Manchester: Carcanet, 1985), 40.
H.D., Asphodel, ed. Robert Spoo (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 1992), 108.
Wilfred Owen, ‘Disabled’, (1915), The Norton Anthology of English Literature, (New York: W W Norton, 1986), line 13.