Ellen N. La Motte, Alone (Review)

I decided to read Ellen N La Motte’s story “Alone” from recent Library of America (LOA) Story of the Week offerings because it was a war story, but as I read LOA’s notes I became more and more intrigued. I hadn’t heard of La Motte (1873-1961) before, but she was an American nurse. Two years before the US formally joined the First World War in 1917, she offered to work at the American Hospital of Paris.

She wasn’t pleased by what she saw. Rather than a serious “warzone” she found a bunch of “alleged do-gooders crowding out the recuperating soldiers”. In an essay written at the time, “An American Nurse in Paris,” she described the workers, as follows:

nearly all are dressed in the becoming white gowns of the French Red Cross and a few are pearled and jeweled, rouged and scented till they are quite adorable. . . . This system floods the institution with a mass of unskilled labor, some of which is useful, much superfluous, and some a positive menace to the patients themselves.

Not surprisingly, La Motte decided to move on, and worked for a year in a military hospital in Rousbrugge outside Dunkirk. She was little prepared, LOA writes, for the horror she witnessed. She herself described it as “beyond and outside and apart from the accumulated experience of a lifetime.”

Ellen N LaMotte, The backwash of warWhile working at the hospital, she wrote of her experiences, and upon her return in 1916 published a dozen or so sketches in The backwash of war: The human wreckage of the battlefield as witnessed by an American hospital nurse. However, it was withdrawn in 1918 by her publisher, due to government pressure. It was too “unpalatable”, and wasn’t published again until 1934!

“Alone” is one of the sketches in the book. It tells the story of injured soldier, Rochard, who has gas gangrene. It’s a straightforward story – story-wise, anyhow. Rochard is brought into the hospital within six hours of being injured, but his wounds are inoperable and all know he will die. All they can do is offer pain relief and nursing care to keep him as comfortable as possible. What impressed me about the piece was La Motte’s insight, her humanity, and her ability to write, all of which turn this sad story into something more powerful.

La Motte describes the doctors in the hospital as comprising, primarily, young recent graduates from medical schools, and old doctors who had graduated long ago. She writes that

all those young men who did not know much, and all those old men who had never known much, and had forgotten most of that, were up here at this field hospital, learning. … there were not enough good doctors to go round, so in order to care for the wounded at all, it was necessary to furbish up the immature and the senile.

Oh dear. She describes the initial treatment given to Rochard in rather gruesome detail – which I won’t share here – and then describes his dying. He is given morphia, which “gives a little relief, at times, from the pain of life, but it is only death that brings absolute relief”. She never mentions euthanasia but, from her description of Rochard’s horrendous pain, you sense she’d support it. His death is a long and painful one. She writes, after one trying night:

So when the day nurse came on in the morning, there was Rochard strong after a night of agony, strong after many picqures of strychnia, which kept his heart beating and his lungs breathing, strong after many picqures of morphia which did not relieve his pain. Thus the science of healing stood baffled before the science of destroying.

As Rochard nears death, the screams of pain reduce and he becomes quiet. She writes that:

he had been decorated with the Médaille Militaire, conferred upon him, in extremis, by the General of the region. Upon one side of the medal, which was pinned to the wall at the head of the bed, were the words: Valeur et Discipline. Discipline had triumphed. He was very good and quiet now, very obedient and disciplined, and no longer disturbed the ward with his moanings.

Bitter, eh. The piece moves to its inevitable end – Rochard’s death – but the language La Motte uses to describe it and the way she controls the narrative to deliver a punch at the end, is impressive. This woman could have been a writer – well I suppose she was! – but her passion lay elsewhere, nursing and public health.

After the war La Motte, who wrote many books and articles on her nursing experiences, travelled in Asia and saw the devastation caused by opium addiction. According to the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, where her papers are stored, she became an authority on opium trafficking, and reported to the League of Nations. She was awarded the Lin Tse Hsu Memorial Medal by the Chinese government in 1930 and received the Order of Merit from the Japanese Red Cross.

But, she did more, too, so I’m going to conclude with the final paragraph from the American National Biography Online:

Ellen La Motte’s professional life was devoted to causes she analyzed through the lens of public health advocacy. Her efforts on behalf of the antituberculosis campaign, woman suffrage, and the anti-opium crusade emerged from a firm belief that promoting ways to improve the health of the larger community could create a more equal and just society for all.

Someone well worth knowing about … I’m glad I decided to read this LOA story.

Note: The backwash of war is available in entirety at Project Gutenberg.

Ellen L. La Motte
First published: The backwash of war: The human wreckage of the Battlefield as witnessed by an American hospital nurse (1916)
Available: Online at the Library of America

12 thoughts on “Ellen N. La Motte, Alone (Review)

  1. Much as I dislike war stories, I’ve always found – and I’ve had Stand Easy, the WWII collection by Aust soldiers since I was 8 or 9 – direct accounts by men and women who were there to be largely honest, unsentimental, well worth reading.

    • Interesting Bill, I take your point, but I lI don’t distinguish between fiction and non-fiction in my interest in war stories. Fictional ones can explore some truths that perhaps aren’t always fully admitted to in nonfictional ones? But certainly, if you want honest, unsentimental writing, this one’s for you. And it’s only about 5 pages. Just click on the link at the end of the post.

  2. I had never heard of this remarkable writer. What does it say about the bitter hysteria of that time that her work was withdrawn by government pressure?

    • No, Ian, why haven’t we. I love the work that the Library of America does. I’m guessing it was withdrawn because she told the truth and the American government wanted the American people to support its involvement in the war. War – oh dear – and where are we heading now? It’s scary.

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