The latest book in the LibraryThing Great War theme read has turned out to be a novel that packs quite a punch, a searing denunciation of the realities of war. As the introduction to my 1988 VMC edition by Barbara Hardy explains its authorship is complex. Helen Zenna Smith is a pseudonym for Evadne Price, the first person narrator of the story is also a Helen Z Smith (Smithy to her colleagues in France, Nell or Nellie at home). Evadne Price was a journalist who was asked to write a parody of Eric Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. Revolted by the idea of such a work, Price instead committed herself to writing a serious woman’s war story. It was a task she undertook out of feelings of pacifism, in praise of the women who sacrificed their health and wellbeing to the horrors of domestic slavery, and ambulance driving at the French front. Price didn’t want to merely invent war stories, she was able to use the first hand experiences of a former ambulance driver in France, Winifred Constance Young; whose family like that of the fictional Helen Smith had been proud of their daughter’s wartime service but unable to face up to its harsh and uncomfortable realities. Evadne Price’s novel gave Winifred Constance Young the chance she wanted to tell her story.
Not so Quiet is told in a very personal, first person narrative, and it is no wonder that upon its publication many people thought it was a memoir. It was a book that was to divide people too, as many simply refused to believe in its contents, but nevertheless it became a best seller and won the author the Prix Severigne as “the novel most calculated to promote international peace.”
As the novel opens the reader is thrust right into the harsh world of an enormous ambulance station on the French Front, its winter, the food is uneatable and hours of work ridiculously gruelling. The women ambulance drivers are all women of gentle birth – for some reason the only women considered to do this work – the experiences of war, living cheek by jowl with other women, scrubbing out their own ambulances of gangrene and vomit, their gentle ways are soon coarsened. Lice, and limited hot water, leading some women to go as far as cutting off their long hair, shrugging off the thoughts of horror struck parents at home. The words ambulance driver don’t in away adequately describe the work these women undertake, driving several causalities at a time, men hideously injured, screaming, vomiting, bleeding as the drivers try to negotiate their way from the receiving station to one of thirteen hospitals, number thirteen the furthest out and therefore the one dreaded, along pitch black uneven roads, and back again. After which the women had to get to cleaning and maintaining their own vehicles to an enormously high standard, before heading back out to do it all again.
“I am the last ambulance home … which means no hot cocoa. My luck has been dead out this convoy. The others struck it fairly easy, but I started off badly. I got Number Thirteen Hospital at the station gate – not only the farthest out of camp, but the one on top of the hill with a rough, detestable, badly-winding road, dotted with irregular heaps of snow-covered stones hard enough to negotiate by daylight, but hell to drive up at the crawl with a load of wounded on a pitch black night in a hurricane of wind, … when the slightest jar may mean death to a man inside. We all loathe driving Number Thirteen, and an audible sigh of relief always goes up from a driver when the sergeant on duty gives her any other number.”
Living and working alongside Smithy are: Tosh; daughter of an Earl, cynical and foul mouthed, tougher than many, she’s the first to sacrifice her hair, The B.F a rather ridiculous figure, she somehow retains her pre-war refinement, the law abiding Etta Potato, the vilified Skinny, the daughter of a big wig at the war office and The Bug, a tiny weak silent girl. Everyone must have their nicknames, including the Commandant – nicknamed Mrs Bitch – and she really is. Like so many strong capable women who ran organisations during the war, the Commandant is a harsh unyielding figure, dishing out punishments for the minutest of mistakes, refusing to believe in the necessity of sleep, criticising, hectoring and bullying, she is universally loathed, her reputation travelling far and wide.
For me the most stinging rebuke in this novel is dished out to the so called armchair pacifists who back in England, boasted of their children at the front, cajoled and gently bullied their offspring to sacrifice their youth and their health to the war effort – to “doing their bit.” Back in England Smithy’s mother sits on committees helping to encourage others to volunteer and competes with Mrs Evans-Mawington whose son Roy, Smithy’s childhood playmate is at the front, but who has no daughters to sacrifice, and so Smithy’s mother wins on that score.
“Her soul died that night under a radiant silver moon in the spring of 1918 on the side of a blood-spattered trench. Around her lay the mangled dead and the dying. Her body was untouched, her heart beat calmly, the blood coursed as ever through her veins. But looking deep into those emotionless eyes one wondered if they had suffered much before the soul had left them. Her face held an expression of resignation, as though she had ceased to hope that the end might come.”
This is no glorification of war, there are no heroes in the accepted sense – (only there are of course) these are people who write lies home, telling how much they are enjoying being a part of it all – getting stuck in, – because to do otherwise is unthinkable. Terrified, disgusted and only wanting to get home, Smithy is soon passionately against war – she has no noble ideas of sacrifice, she just wants it to end. Not so Quiet is a dark novel, there is no light relief, it contains too much that is real and cruel and pointless. Evadne Price wrote a brilliant novel, that exposes the truths of women at the front in WW1, and the dangers and horrors they faced, despite the darkness it is hugely readable, and the voices of those women resonate still.