My latest read for the ongoing Librarything Great War theme read, found me back among women war workers not unlike those featured in Helen Zenna Smith’s ‘Not so Quiet’ and E M Delafield’s ‘The War Workers’ two of my earlier Great War theme reads. There is a short preface to my Virago green edition written by E M Delfield, in which she states:
“When I read Miss Rathbone’s faithful and unromanticised story of women’s war-work, I felt: Here is one who has remembered”
‘We that Were Young’ was Irene Rathbone’s fictionalised account of her own wartime experience, and that of many of her friends. She is uncompromising and painfully honest, and through the eyes of Joan Seddon, and her friends, Barbara, Betty and Pamela the war feels long and devastatingly destructive. In return for sacrificing their youth, their health and their men, what did these women gain?
“Pre-war interests had vanished almost as though they had never been; and the struggle for the vote which had been her especial interest, no longer required to be pursued. For the vote had been ‘given’ to women – to a section of them, at least – in 1918, as a reward for ‘war service,’ rather like a chocolate is given to a child who has behaved unexpectedly well under trying circumstances”
As ‘We that were Young’ opens, Joan Seddon is living in a happy, lively home with her Aunt Florence, her adored young brother Jimmy and their Airedale terrier. Joan’s contribution to the war thus far, bandage rolling alongside other local women doesn’t feel like enough. Joan’s friend Barbara is already working in the YMCA huts out in France, and Joan is anxious to join her and wants her friend Betty Paley to join them. This opening section of the novel in which we meet Joan and her family, her Uncle Robert and Aunt Rose Seddon, her cousin Jack, Betty’s brother Colin who so loves Joan, and their easy happy associations provides a stark contrast to what comes later.
Joan’s war-work takes her first to France, and the YMCA huts that provide food and drink to the khaki clad men on their back from or to the front. Here Joan meets up with her friend Barbara, and they are later joined by Betty. The work can be hard, and there are times when their huts are busy, but their lives are on the whole quite pleasant, life in the hostel one of friendship and camaraderie. Eventually Joan is conscious of her life being too easy, and she heads back to London to take up nursing. Joan is surprised at how good she is at nursing witnessing the horror of war injuries, missing limbs, infections, blindness and despair. While nursing Joan meets ‘Thrush’ Shirley whose early bereavement leads her to throw up war work completely and take up a life of soulless nightclubbing and flirtation. As well as long hours, difficult sisters and horrifying scenes Joan also finds that she encounters great gratitude, in her hospital work, often rather touched by the men whose spirits remain high in the face of terrible injury.
Another friend of Joan’s; Pamela also nursing in London, is a big hit with the men she cares for. Pamela falls head over heels for a New Zealand officer on her ward, and for a time is walking on air. The war claims it victims time and time again, the friends, lovers, brothers of women already sacrificing so much are despatched cruelly and suddenly and without warning. Prompted by revengeful despair, Pamela decides to work in munitions, much to her family’s bemusement and as Pamela’s health is already weak, it not long before it breaks down and she is obliged to leave munitions too, bitter and disgusted with everything that had happened and she had been witness to.
The war drags on, and Joan return to the YMCA huts in France, having utterly exhausted herself in her long service in the hospitals of London, having suffered septic fingers several times, and being persuaded by her friends, Joan sees the war out back where she started.
“People said ‘Time will heal,’ but you didn’t want it to heal – or rather you didn’t want it to heal at the price of remembrance. The one thing you were terrified of was numb forgetfulness. Suffering was atrocious; it was not a thing to be sentimentally hugged; but if it was the inevitable accompaniment of remembrance you would keep it”
After the war, firmly disgusted by all she has seen and experienced, Joan now a pacifist, is furious with the old men war-mongers and politicians who sent all those boys to their deaths. Here again, as in Helen Zenna Smith’s ‘Not So Quiet’ we see the older generation beguiled by the glamour and patriotism of war, with the younger generation, in the midst of it experiencing the realities, and at times shielding the older generation from the truth. The final chapter of the novel is set in 1928, and those women who gave the best years of their lives to that terrible conflict have been shaped by those experiences in a way that the younger generation cannot fully appreciate.
‘We that were Young’ is not just about the women in WW1, their men are a constant presence, their sacrifice often far greater, and the impact of their loss upon these women will last a lifetime. This is not a faultless novel, there are some pieces of dialogue I found clunky and unrealistic, and it could be seen as being over long (about 460 pages). Overall, however the testament that Irene Rathbone has left us with of an unimaginable period, and the destruction of a generation far outweighs any minor faults.