11th Jul 2012
Non-Fiction Stories of Women & War
There’s tonnes of contemporary fiction depicting tales of war and sorrow, sometimes based upon true events , and sometimes almost completely fictionalised (for the For Books’ Sake guide to war fiction, head here).
Personally though I feel nothing helps the modern reader connect with the hardship, pain and loss of war more than pieces written during the actual events themselves.
Since it’s the 20th anniversary of the modern classic novel Birdsong, it’s the ideal time to reflect and consider the effects of the First and Second World Wars – upon our nation, and the world as a whole.
I studied literature from both ‘Great Wars’ as part of an A Level literature module. It was one of my earliest experiences of truly being emotionally connected to a genre of literature. I maintain that connection still, and it was the poetry that caught me, hook, line and sinker
These poems – written from the front lines, from institutions and hospitals, and from back home – with a mixture of sickening political agendas combined with the true consequences of horror, not only made me glad for what I have, but made me almost weep for what we all have lost.
While I want to focus upon literature by women, it’s impossible to talk about this without acknowledging the poetry written from the front line by the men who fought and usually died on government orders.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace/Behind the wagon that we flung him in,/And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,/His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;/If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood/Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,/Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud/Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,/My friend, you would not tell with such high zest/To children ardent for some desperate glory,/The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est/Pro patria mori.
This poem is largely accepted as a response to Jessie Pope who was hired to create jingoistic poetry encouraging more men to join the fight.
Who’s for the Game? is a classic example of this kind of poetry, with simplistic yet judgemental language that creates a sense of the tension in England surrounding the men that were too young or too old to join the army. “Who would much rather come back with a crutch/Than lie low and be out of the fun?”
The likening of war to a game when you have read poetry written from the front lines is enough to make anyone question the motives behind the First World War, and the loss of such a great amount of life.
Men Who March Away contains the ultimate range of poetry from before the war, continuing right through to the aftermath, containing some of the most well know First World War poetry from the likes of Wilson and Sassoon, to lesser known poets from around the world.
If poetry isn’t really your cup of tea, then there are numerous factual accounts written and recorded during the period. Nella Last’s War, an ordinary woman’s observations from home during the Second World War, was the inspiration behind Housewife, 49 , which starred Victoria Wood and won a BAFTA.
Through taking part in a mass observation project, Nella has become one of the most recognisable ‘everyday’ women from the war, thanks to maintaining this diary for over thirty years. Her youngest son signed up and was sent to the war zone. This, as well as living in Barrow-in-Furness, meant Nella was amongst those most heavily affected from bombing and loss.
While it is interesting to see how Nella’s every day life is affected by the war, and to see how her concerns and fears change and develop (as well as her increasingly confident writing style), there are also feminist undertones within the text.
Nella begins to question her marriage which she comes to liken to slavery, meaning this non-fiction article is a fantastic insight to the workings of marriage and feminism only seventy years ago. It is both humourous and heartbreaking in turns, and I cannot recommend it enough for a woman’s point of view of the war.
Forgotten Voices of the Second World War is probably the one book I would recommend for a rounded view of all the events of war both from men and women. The book is laid out in chronological order according to the most significant events, and is made up from recorded accounts from both the men who fought and the women left behind.
Some of the accounts are very, very funny, and it is encouraging to see people maintaining a light heart of optimism during one of the most harrowing events in modern history.
Outweighing these though are graphic depictions of death, injury and infection, of homes and lives lost, and it will create the most vivid picture that you can imagine of what it was like to live through these events.
Whether it’s poetry, diaries, or recordings that help you connect with the past, I cannot recommend these books enough for a truly insightful approach to life during the First and Second World Wars.
What non-fictional accounts of the First and Second World War have you read? Do you prefer the poetry from the front lines or more factual memories?