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Excerpts - Backwash Of War

From Cynthia Wachtell's Introduction

Throughout, La Motte masterfully highlights the senselessness of war and the suffering of those caught up in it. Boldly rejecting the staid conventions of wartime writing, she invents a new way of describing the human destruction she witnesses. Her tone is detached. Her sentences are clipped. Her descriptions are graphic and, at times, starkly horrific. She presents the operations - both literal and figurative - of the war hospital. And she does so with a distinctly mordant sense of humor. As one reader noted, "A strain of bitter irony running through the book eloquently testifies to the author's abhorrence of war."

First paragraph of "Heroes"

When he could stand it no longer, he fired a revolver up through the roof of his mouth, but he made a mess of it. The ball tore out his left eye, and then lodged somewhere under his skull, so they bundled him into an ambulance and carried him, cursing and screaming, to the nearest field hospital. The journey was made in double-quick time, over rough Belgian roads. To save his life, he must reach the hospital without delay, and if he was bounced to death jolting along at breakneck speed, it did not matter. That was understood. He was a deserter, and discipline must be maintained. Since he had failed in the job, his life must be saved, he must be nursed back to health, until he was well enough to be stood up against a wall and shot. This is War. Things like this also happen in peace time, but not so obviously.

First paragraph of "Women and Wives"

A bitter wind swept in from the North Sea. It swept in over many miles of Flanders plains, driving gusts of rain before it. It was a biting gale by the time it reached the little cluster of wooden huts composing the field hospital, and rain and wind together dashed against the huts, blew under them, blew through them, crashed to pieces a swinging window down at the laundry, and loosened the roof of Salle I. at the other end of the enclosure. It was just ordinary winter weather, such as had lasted for months on end, and which the Belgians spoke of as vile weather, while the French called it vile Belgian weather. The drenching rain soaked into the long, green winter grass, and the sweeping wind was bitter cold, and the howling of the wind was louder than the guns, so that it was only when the wind paused for a moment, between blasts, that the rolling of the guns could be heard.

First paragraph of "A Joy Ride"

At times, at the front, it gets frightfully dull. When there is an attack and, in consequence, plenty of work to do, it is all right in a field hospital. But when there are no attacks, when there are no new patients and all the old ones become convalescent, when there is practically no work, it becomes insupportable. Nothing but the green hedge on all sides of us, shutting us into ourselves, into our little, gossiping enclosure, with no news and no newspapers, with no aeroplane to fly overhead, with nothing to do but walk down to the little pond and sail boats. There is a fleet of boats on our little pond, all made by our chief surgeon, in moments of ennui, and every day he goes down to the pond, sets his boats afloat on one side, picks them up on the other, and walks around and sets them going again. All because of supreme boredom, because there are no attacks, no work, nothing but convalescent patients, to be discharged in a day or two. It often gets like this, and at such times we can stand it no longer, and ask to be sent out in the motor, on joy rides, or any other rides, anywhere, just for a change. There is a distinction between rides and joy rides. One means going away from the front, the other means going toward it. Thus, for a ride, we are often sent back to the English base, Hazebrouck, to send futile telegrams, just as an excuse; or else we are sent into Dunkirk, to buy white enamel basins, or oranges—anything. But a real joy ride consists in going toward the front, or in that direction. So on this particular day I was bored to extinction, because of lack of work, and to the Directrice,who is my friend, I made loud and bitter complaint. I wanted to escape from the hospital for a few hours, to see something outside and beyond the thorn hedge which shuts us in.

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