It can’t have escaped anyone’s attention that the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I is almost upon us. Huge amounts have been written about almost every aspect of the war. But some topics have received less attention than others. One of those is the role of French women during the war, a subject that is a theme of my novel, The House at Zaronza.
A role at one remove
Ostensibly, women had a limited role in the war. The men did the fighting. Despite running farms, working in munitions factories and undertaking other war work behind the lines, women were seen as removed from the war. They were wives, mothers, sweethearts, widows, daughters, but had no direct role. Things were very different in World War II, when women played an important part in the resistance.
The nearest women came to an active role in the war effort was as volunteer nurses. Even here, there was ambiguity about their involvement. Right at the beginning of the war, the French government even told women to stop volunteering to be nurses, so great was the flood of requests to set up hospitals and organise ambulances. As the war progressed and it became obvious that it would not all be over by Christmas 1914, attitudes changed and the essential role of nurses at the Front was acknowledged.
The first two parts of my novel are set in Corsica. But in the third part, the main character, Maria Orsini, becomes a volunteer nurse, first at a converted convent in Corsica. She then applies for training under a military nursing scheme in 1916. She works in a field hospital in Verdun and then transfers to Amiens during the German spring offensive of 1918.
A contemporary account
A big challenge for me was to find out what it was like to serve as a French military nurse. Plenty of contemporary accounts by British nurses exist, but there are few in French, or so it appears. Happily, I came across a memoir written by Claudine Bourcier. Her great-granddaughter found the memoir by chance and had it published.
This was the break I needed. This redoubtable character told it as it was. She was already in her fifties and so somewhat older than most of her colleagues. What she recounted about her experiences was incredibly valuable to me in writing my novel.
She writes about nursing practice and medical advances. She also describes the jealousy that sometimes existed between nurses, the predatory doctors who regarded themselves as lords of all they surveyed and the stultifying bureaucracy that got in the way of providing care. All this appears in my novel.
These heroines still went largely unsung. Some received medals individually. But French women were not considered to be worthy of receiving the vote until after the liberation in 1944. Some claim that the right-wing Charles de Gaulle allowed them the vote only because women were thought to be more conservative than men. In 1918, things went back to the way they were before the war, with the exception that there were rather fewer men around.
Here is a short extract from my novel, describing Maria’s early nursing experiences:
Corsica had been turned into a hospital island, a place where the war wounded came to recuperate – and in some cases to die. The convent just outside Zaronza had become a base hospital and each week, received its contingent of the wounded, who had been gassed, machine-gunned, mortared and torn apart by shells, patched up in the dressing stations, and then operated on in the hospitals behind the lines. Those considered well enough to travel were sent on. After a train journey of several days and a sea crossing they arrived here. Some were in a poor state, their dressings unattended to and infection setting in. This was the result of lack of personnel to clean and re-bandage their wounds after their operation, and a journey during which they received little care.
Some were sick with dysentery, piles, trench foot and other illnesses. These men required more nursing care than the wounded. A few with tuberculosis also arrived, although they should have been consigned to isolation hospitals near the Front. These men were put in a separate ward in the basement.
You always knew the ones who were going to die. They had a haunted look about their eyes, as if they could already see beyond this life to something we couldn’t yet make out.
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