Great War 100 Reads

Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books

Wake and The Backwash of War


Two books for the price of one in this review, looking at the effects of war from different vantage points.


“Wake” takes on many meanings in Anna Hope’s novel of the same name: emerge or cause to emerge from sleep, a ritual for the dead, consequence or aftermath. The lives of three London women play out in the wake of the five days leading to the burial of the unknown warrior in Westminster Abbey. Hettie (19), Evelyn (29) and Ava (mid 40s) still live with lingering effects of the war in November 1920. In juxtaposing the everyday with the momentous, remembrance and moving on are tied up together in the same event. The three women and the men around them convey the range of fallout from the war and the path to healing.

Why can’t he just move on?

Not just him. All of them. All of the ex-soldiers, standing, begging in the street, boards tied around their necks. All of them reminding you of something that you want to forget. (p 71)

Hettie resents the responsibilities falling to her because of her father’s death of influenza, brother’s shell shock and mother’s old-fashioned expectations. A debonair gentleman could be her route to excitement, but he seems not quite reachable.

She hates it, anyway, this Armistice Day; this new tradition already dripping with oily reverence; another opportunity for those with blood on their hands to play fancy dress in their murderers’ suits and drag their horses and their gun carriages behind them as they parade the London streets. As if there is no other way to honour the dead. (p 183)

Evelyn, embittered by the loss of her fiancé, buries herself in self-destructive behaviours. Her pension office job, dealing with the thousands of claims and complaints by wounded veterans, is a slap in the face to her wealthy family.

There with her pieces of paper, with her maps of graveyards. These are the things of riches; Ivy is rich. It may well cost pounds to visit France, but if she know that there was a patch of land that held the body of her son, she wouldn’t complain about money. She would save everything she had until she could go and visit it. Sit by that piece of grass. Put her hands on it. (p 159)

Ava’s only son was killed under mysterious circumstances. She sees him on every street corner and can’t quite believe that he is dead.

The stories of the three women are intertwined with that of the unknown warrior – the exhumation and selection in France, his journey to England, the march accompanying him through the streets of London.

And then she understands: They all wore that helmet. All of these women’s husbands, brothers, sons. (p 268)

Wake is a good read. The ending in the middle of a sentence may be crazy-making for some. For me, it was a reasonable way to point to things to come.

The Backwash of War

Ellen La Motte was an American nurse who volunteered in a French military field hospital during the war. She recorded her experiences in The Backwash of War, The Human Wreckage of the Battlefield as Witnessed by an American Hospital Nurse, first published in 1916.

In an introduction and 13 vignettes, La Motte offers stark, uncompromising observations of the poilus, the generals and the medical staff. Her graphic account was so controversial – bad for morale – that the book was banned in England and France. The publisher bowed to government pressure and withdrew it in the US after the Americans entered the war. It was not republished until 1934.

The Backwash of War is good companion piece to Mary Borden’s The Forbidden Zone … indeed, La Motte dedicates her book to Borden. The text is available on Project Gutenberg.



Author: greatwar100reads

Canadian crusader for equality and justice. Connoisseur and creator of the written word. Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books and monuments. Read more at

2 thoughts on “Wake and The Backwash of War

  1. I continue to enjoy your website and this is where I have found much of my new reading material. Speaking of new reading material, I have just launched my second book on First World War Nurses titled Called to Serve: Georgina Pope Canadian Military Nursing Heroine.
    Katherine Dewar, author of the award winning book Those Splendid Girls.

  2. Thank you so much for your kind words, Katherine, and congratulations on the new book. Georgina Pope was instrumental in getting military nurses integrated into the Canadian armed forces … a biography is well deserved. I look forward to reading it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.