By Courtney Suciu
To mark 100 years since the end of World War I, a love sonnet by forgotten literary figure Mary Borden “will form the heart” of an installation at the Tower of London, according to The Guardian1.
Borden, a best-selling novelist and innovative poet as well as heiress, suffragette, humanitarian and nurse, ran a field hospital for French soldiers during the war. There, she met and fell in love with Brigadier General Edward Louis Spears, the inspiration for the poem featured at the upcoming event honoring the centenary of the Armistice.
It’s an extraordinary love story, but Borden was an extraordinary woman. In this blog post, we take a closer look at who she was, and consider how the writing of women – particularly poets – of the Great War reveal unique and often intimate perspectives of the scope of devastation beyond the trenches to humanize the conflict’s broader impact.
“Borden was married to a Scottish missionary with three children when, in 1915, at the age of 29, she persuaded the French Army to let her fund and run a field hospital as close to the battlefront as possible,” Allison Flood of The Guardian reported.
While it might seem unusual for a married woman with a family to go off and become a war nurse, Borden was unusually independent. Earlier in her marriage, she’d been arrested for her activities with the Suffragette movement and she used her own funds to establish the hospital which, Flood wrote, “treated 25,000 soldiers in its first six weeks.”
It was while tending to the brutally wounded that she met British officer Louis Spears. According to the The Guardian, Borden recalled of their meeting: “My apron is stained with mud and blood; I am too tired to take it off. My feet are burning lumps as I hobble to open the door. A young man stands there. He too is spattered with mud; his face is haggard.”
The two became lovers (leading to Borden’s divorce), and Spears became the subject of several passionate love poems. After the war, they wed and Borden published The Forbidden Zone, a collection of story sketches and poems reflecting – often graphically – on her experiences as a war nurse. Her writing “mixes an overtly poetic diction with a consciously clinical vocabulary to create an elliptical form that, paradoxically, particularizes trauma,” scholar Laura Kaplan observed2.
While Borden wrote several other works – poems and prose – about the war (as well as many popular novels on other subjects), The Forbidden Zone is notable for a couple of reasons. For one, it was published at the same time as other more canonical books about the war including Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. Hemingway’s work is still widely read, while Borden’s book, which received high praise when it came out, has for the most part been forgotten.
Second, The Forbidden Zone reveals a quite different perspective of the war. “In this bold and disturbing book, Borden chronicles how she and her nurses – and, by extension, other female care-givers – received the wounded straight from the battlefields,” Kaplan noted.
There has been an abundance of writing from soldiers’ points of view in the trenches, but from Borden we get a first-hand account of the horrors of war as experienced by a woman who was as close as possible to the front without being in combat. This closeness results in an urgency and an intimacy that shatters differences including those of gender to distill all participants – soldiers and nurses, men and women – down to their most vulnerable essence, as demonstrated in this passage quoted by Kaplan:
There are no men here, so why should I be a woman? There are heads and knees and mangled testicles. There are chests with holes as big as your fist, and pulpy thighs, shapeless; and stumps where legs once were fastened. There are eyes-eyes of sick dogs, sick cats, blind eyes, eyes of delirium; and mouths that cannot articulate; and parts of faces-the nose gone, or the jaw. There are these things, but no men; so how could I be a woman here and not die of it?
In these early decades of the 20th century, poetry was “produced and consumed by a voracious public,” scholar Maria Geiger wrote in her article, “No Trench Required3.” “It was enjoyed by society at every level,” she continued, as it was regularly published in newspapers,” so “poetry and the war became entwined on a national level.”
According to Geiger, more than 500 women published poetry during the war “and it was as diverse as the women themselves.”
There where poets like Borden who, aside from chronicling her experiences of war, possessed great literary merit and embodied the stark cynicism of the burgeoning Modernist movement. There was also the accomplished and prolific writer Margaret Sackville, unfortunately best known for her long-running secret affair with British prime minster Ramsay McDonald, who penned early anti-war poems and took a controversial view of humanity that “embraced everyone who died in WWI, including the German soldiers.”
“Sackville’s poems did not have the warmest reception in 1916, for it was published at a time when British nationalism was booming,” Kaplan wrote, and following the war, Sackville “quietly faded into obscurity."
Other women poets of World War I ran “the gamut from militaristic jingoism to outspoken pacifism,” Kaplan noted. Many romanticized the soldiers in combat with flowery verses in honor of sweethearts, husbands and sons. But for Vivienne Newman, editor of Tumult & Tears: An Anthology of Women’s First World War Poetry4, the skill of these poems (which, she admits, “are little more than ditties”) matters less than the truths they reveal.
“From the outset,” Newman explained in the introduction to her collection, “my guiding principle was what the piece might tell us about the reality of the war for the poet – and by extension other women, rather than the intrinsic literary ‘value’ of the poem.”
In contrast to the war poems by men, Newman argued “in terms of subject matter women’s poetry is often broader than men’s, reflecting that fact that warfare involves far more than writing about the trenches and the camaraderie of those who live and die in battle.”
So, considering the volume of war poems written by women, as well as the importance of these works for their perspectives on war, why are women poets missing from most discussions about World War I literature?
Kaplan wrote that some scholars blame a lack of quality writing from women during this period. “It is true that some of the women were not experienced writers (most women had limited educational opportunities at the time), but neither were the majority of male poets,” she pointed out.
Rather, for Kaplan the omission of women war poets is a consequence of an “‘Old Lie’” that “perpetuates the ideology that the only WWI poetry of value is that which was written by those with first-hand experience of battle.”
Fortunately, Kaplan also described an increasing interest over the last 20 years in WWI poetry written by women. In the meantime, other marginalized voices from the war have remained in obscurity.
Owen Clayton noted in the New Statesman5, “We often see the First World War as an Anglo-Saxon affair but many thousands of non-white combatants also took part.” Women like poet Sarojini Naidu, known as “the Nightingale of India” and the first female governor in that country, wrote about the impact of war from a rarely considered colonial perspective.
Naidu’s best-known work, “The Gifts of India,” depicts WWI soldiers from India “strewn like blossoms mown/down by chance/On the blood-brown meadows of/Flanders and France.”
“The anger is clear,” Clayton wrote of the poem. “India has given her best sons to fight for Britain and received nothing in return.”
For further research
Learn more and request complimentary trials via the heading links below.
Literature Online Premium is a comprehensive database encompassing full-text poems and stories as well as scholarly articles, criticism and biographical information – a great place to begin researching the poets of WWI. Additional collections reveal more marginalized perspectives of the war. The World Literature Collection includes works by writers who experienced the devastation in countries around the world; while the Black Writing Collection reveals realities of the war from a Black perspective.
Trench journals and Unit Magazines of the First World War were published by every type of military and support service unit, from every involved nation, as a means of expression through which men and women engaged in all aspects of World War I could share their thoughts and experiences. This digital collection includes over 1,500 periodicals, drawn from the holdings of major libraries and research collections, including the Imperial War Museums and the British Library.
Explore political and military perspectives of the war, including many first-hand accounts and previously classified documents, in these digitized primary source collections from History Vault:
The British Foreign Office Political Correspondence on World War I begins with the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austro-Hungary in July 1914 and continues through until the armistice between Germany and the Allies in November 1918, and beyond, into 1920. Along the way, this formerly confidential correspondence addresses a wide variety of topics on World War I as reported by and to the British Foreign Office. The documents include dispatches, reports, and telegrams.
The World War I: Records of the American Expeditionary Forces, and Diplomacy in the World War I Era (1915-1927) module offers extensive documentation on the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) during World War I as well as materials on U.S. intelligence operations and the post-war peace process. AEF documents consist of correspondence, cablegrams, operations reports, statistical strength reports and summaries of intelligence detailing troop movements and operations of Allied and enemy forces.
Das, S. (2006). Touch and Intimacy in First World War Literature
Hallett, C. E. (2016). Nurse Writers of the Great War
Kendall, T. (Ed.). (2013). Poetry of the First World War: An Anthology
Marsland, E. A. (2011). The Nation's Cause: French, English and German Poetry of the First World War
Noakes, V. (2006). Voices of Silence: The Alternative Book of First World War Poetry
O’Prey, Paul. (2016). First World War Poems from the Front
Puissant, S. (2009). Irony and the Poetry of the First World War
Courtney Suciu is ProQuest’s lead blog writer. Her loves include libraries, literacy and researching extraordinary stories related to the arts and humanities. She has a Master’s Degree in English literature and a background in teaching, journalism and marketing. Follow her @QuirkySuciu