The Forbidden Zone: A Nurse’s Impressions of the First World War
By Mary Borden
Hesperus Press, 26 September 2008
Mary Borden worked as a nurse during World War One, being based in a hospital unit that tended mainly to French soldiers, her beloved poilus.
This book focuses on her experiences during that time but it is by no means a straightforward memoir. What we have instead is a series of sketches and fragments, prose pieces with a very definite subject in mind. Five of them are specifically called stories, and the author says of these that ‘they recount true episodes that I cannot forget’. All except the stories were written contemporaneously, though the book was only published in 1929. There were apparently some poems in the original edition but they are absent here, which is a pity.
The first duty of an artist is to report and Borden does this in writing that is direct, clear-sighted and unsparing. In one sketch, she describes the bombardment of a small town: a new phenomenon. Other, larger towns and cities (Guernica, London, Dresden…) would meet a similar fate later. ‘In the Operating Room’ reads like a raw typescript, a fly on the wall documentary. It shows surgeons saving life, or failing to. That morphine was often used as a mercy drug, to ease these fallen courageous giants into death when their wounds were too severe to treat, is clear enough (see, for example, page 93).
Borden is, as noted above, unsparing and her questioning and even scolding extends to herself. What was it like to tend men on the brink of death? Here is an account, and a self-portrait, taken from the story ‘Blind’:
I think that woman, myself, must have been in a trance, or under some horrid spell. Her feet are lumps of fire, her face is clammy, her apron is splashed with blood; but she moves ceaselessly about with bright burning eyes and handles the dreadful wreckage of the men as if in a dream. She does not seem to notice the wounds or the blood. Her eyes seem to be watching something that comes and goes and darts in and out among the prone bodies. Her eyes and her hands and her ears are alert, intent on the unseen thing that scurries and hides and jumps out of the corner on to the face of a man when she’s not looking. But quick, something makes her turn. Quick, she is over there, on her knees fighting the things off, driving it away, and now it’s got another victim. It’s like a dreadful game of hide and seek among the wounded. (pages 99-100)
It is impossible to deny the authenticity and the power of this document of the Great War. Amongst other works of the period, it has the most affinity with Cendrars’ Lice and Manning’s Her Privates We, while certain of Borden’s stories remind one of Babel.
Yet the best story, ‘Enfant de Malheur’, seems curiously out of place. To my mind, it has a definite eroticism (even a homoeroticism). A priest attends a Catholic believer, a beautiful young man who we are to understand has done much evil. Before the young man dies (his wounds mean that his death is certain), a priest tries to save him through prayer. He sits by him night after night. Will the young man confess and be saved? Or will the priest be seduced? Both, it seems, are in torment. It is a strange story to find in this context, but a fine one nonetheless.