Thursday, August 13, 2015

WWI & Women's Words

Vera Brittain got me thinking the other day about women's stories and experiences with the first world war.  Here's a small list of books if anyone (like myself) has gotten super into reading war memoirs lately.

I also want to take a second to warn that these books will have descriptions that can be shocking and really emotional.

A Hilltop on the Marne: An American's Letters from War-Torn France
by Mildred Aldrich

This book collects the letters Mildred Aldrich written in the spring of 1914 to  friends overseas.  Despite pleas from her friends to return to America as the situation worsens in Europe, Aldrich decides to not leave her home in Huiry, France.  From her farm, she watches as soldiers march across the fields.

Her letters even detail events from after the war as she sees the small world around her rebuild itself.

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A Volunteer Nurse on the Western Front
by Olive Dent

This book collects the diary entries of V.A.D. nurse, Olive Dent.  She served for two years during WWI and her writing captures clear and powerful moments of every day life in a tented hospital in France.

Her first-hand account of her experiences with suffering soldiers and with watching the people around her support one another will capture readers.

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The Forbidden Zone: A Nurse's Impression of the First World War
by Mary Borden

An intimate look at war from another nurse, Mary Borden, who was stationed at an evacuation hospital just behind the front lines.  In fact, she was an American who took it upon herself to fund and lead the hospital.

This book is divided into three parts and even includes poetry by Borden.  Her writing is actually very poetic so even Part One draws upon a lot of imagery.  I also find what she focused on to be interesting like specific soldiers and hospitals.

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The Backwash of War
by Ellen N. La Motte

In The Backwash of War, Ellen N. La Motte shares the horrific and shocking aspects of the WWI.  In her four years of serving in a hospital 10 kilometres behind the Western Front, she saw the "human wreckage" of war as she attended to diseased and broken French soldiers.

Her first-hand accounts were so controversial for revealing the true costs of war that the American Government banned the book in 1918.  

La Motte's book inspired the BBC series The Crimson Field, which just finished airing on PBS. 


Honorable Mentions:

Chronicle of Youth
edited by Alan Bishop 
& Terry Smart

This book is not the same as Testament of Youth.  I repeat, it is not the same.  I had a bookseller try and pass it off to me as an American edition of Vera's memoir but it's not.  It's actually a collection of her diary entries from 1913 to 1917.  It's not all of her diary entries but a good portion of them.

Testament of Youth is based on those diary entries and follows a narrative that she wrote sometime after the war. So yes, there is a difference.

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Letters from a Lost Generation: First World War Letters of Vera Brittain and Four Friends
edited by Alan Bishop
& Mark Bostridge

This one is an honourable mention because of the mixture of voices in it.  This book has letters of correspondence between Vera, her brother Edward, her fianc√© Roland Leighton and two friends Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow.

The book covers the years 1913 to 1915 and follows each of them from their hopeful beginnings to their disappointed endings.   It's especially important as four of the voices were extinguished during the war and this is all that remains.  The young voices of a generation lost too soon.

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Women Heroes of World War I:
16 Remarkable Resisters, Soldiers, Spies, and Medics
by Kathryn J. Atwood

This book collects the stories of 16 fascinating and brave women that contributed to the war effort in their own unique ways.  They come from different backgrounds and nationalities, but the single thing that unites them is their willingness to fight for their country.

It provides historical context about the war, reading lists, suggested resources, quotes and excerpts from diaries.  A lot of information that really rounds out their stories.  For example, one of the women featured in the book is Maria Bochkareva, who led an all female combat unit.  For women who did not have the right to vote yet, that is incredible.

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The Great War: The People's Story DVD

Below is a video of a 4 part series where actors play out letters written by soldiers and loved ones during WWI.  The stories are given context by a narrator who drops in often to describe historical facts about the war.  I have read reviews stating that its a very haunting and unsettling series as the actors look directly into the camera (i.e. in the viewer's direction).



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