Pictured here, one of Grandad's medals, and how haunting that engraving now seems with our revisionist approach and doctorates in hindsight.
It's almost beyond comprehension even to consider the British casualties alone for that first day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1st 1916.
585 taken prisoner.
In the words of Gavin Stamp ' That dreadful day ended in chaos and confusion, but it soon emerged that a catastrophe had occurred...it was the greatest loss of life in British military history.' It is also estimated that perhaps a third of those who died could have been saved if help could have reached them in time. many lay wounded on the battlefield for days afterwards.
So expect little escape from the trauma if you decide to read Mary Borden's book The Forbidden Zone, A nurse's impression of the First World War published by Hesperus Press but don't be deterred. This little book packs the hugest of punches, gives such a stark and sharply contrasting account of humanity at both its worst and yet also at its most glorious. A microcosm of thoughts and emotions about the Great War crystallised into just over 100 pages. I'm not sure I've read a more moving and terrible account yet all rendered in great swathes of understated almost elegiac narrative. Somehow this doubles and redoubles the power of this little book.
Wealthy Chicago-born Mary Borden took herself off to the Western Front . With no nursing experience and a spare command of the French language she had written to General Joffre offering to fund and manage her own field hospital and faced with over half a million wounded troops the General was hardly going to refuse. During the Somme offensive of the summer of 1916 Mary located herself at Bray-sur-Somme, uncomfortably close to the front line, doubtless much closer to the action and the terror than the Generals themselves, according to Gavin Stamp, holed up in a luxury chateau.
In six months it is estimated that the hospital received 25,000 patients and at any one time cared for about 800 wounded men, and with no nursing experience Mary must have had to adjust dramatically. Each nurse will have developed her own way of dealing with the less palatable aspects of the task in hand and somehow Mary did and quickly.
Her descriptions are matchless the imagery beautifully juxtaposed for maximum impact,
'The daylight brightened, painting the surfaces of the buildings with pale rose and primrose...the pattern of the town spread out on the earth, with its neat edges marked by walls and canals, gleamed like a newly varnished map.'
then a bombing raid destroys all before,
'Scars appeared on it like the marks of smallpox...it seemed as if it were being attacked by an invisible and gigantic beast who was tearing and gnawing it with claws and teeth, Gashes appeared in the streets, long wounds with ragged edges. Helpless, spread out to the heavans, it grimaced with mutilated features.'
Believe me, if this is how Mary can breath life into an inanimate sight, then expect more to follow and it does,
'There has been a harvest. Crops of men were cut down in the fields of France where they were growing. They were mown down with a scythe, were gathered into bundles, tossed about with pitchforks...scattered by storms and gathered up again and at last brought here - what was left of them.'
' Real, splendid, ordinary men' now 'mew like kittens' and though the stories are brief, often just centred on
snatches of moments or events which must have crowded into Mary
Borden's life on a daily basis, they are perfectly pinned down on paper for our examination. With her now well-developed nurse's-eye-view for the grim
realities don't expect to be spared the harrowing nature of what she
was experiencing, but it's all wonderfully written. There was no need
for exaggeration of emotion as Mary recounts the story Rosa.
Brought in from No Man's Land with a clean shot through the roof of his mouth, it is clear this casualty has attempted to take his own life rather than wait for the enemy to do it. Strong as an ox he has miraculously survived this court-martial offence for which the punishment is execution. If his life is saved it will be for him to face a firing squad.
Try and sift the ethics out of that moral maze, Mary does and acts decisively.
There's dark humour too, watch out for the knee that resembles a ragout of mouton and almost ends up on the menu.
But it's the pain that Mary Borden conveys supremely well as the men lie in its grip,
'Pain is the mistress of them...you can watch her plying her trade here any day. She is shameless. She lies in their beds all day...she never leaves them...she lies there to spoil their dreams.'
The metaphor extends and develops and moulds finally into the death of a soldier and somehow there is a profound grace in amongst all this dying and putrefaction,
'Listen! The whimpering mew of the wounded cat has stopped. There's not a sound except the whisper of the wind in the grass. Quick! Be quick! In a moment a man's spirit will escape, will be flying through the night past the pale, beautiful sentimental face of the moon.'
An essential book for any Great War reading shelf.