“Weak, hideous, repellent”: Grotesque Bodies, Grotesque Faces and Filthy Wounds in the Writings of the Nurses of the First World War
Behind closed doors or screens, in operating theatres or field hospitals, the nurses of the First World War carried out healing mainly through containment. When they wrote of their experiences of treating wounded or dying soldiers, they did not write simply of medical containment, but of the whole range of emotions involved and challenges faced on treating a man whose body has been severely mutilated by the war. In this talk I will examine how the nurses wrote about the shattered male bodies in their diaries and memoirs, and what they made of the public and private wounds of the soldiers who were sent to them to be healed.
The atrocities of the First World War provided space for the pioneering reconstructive surgeries on the mutilated bodies of wounded soldiers by surgeons like Harold Gillies, for Francis Derwent Wood’s portrait masks for soldiers inflicted with devastating facial wounds, and for Henry Tonks’s delicate paintings of wounded soldiers. The nurses’ treatment of mutilation, hence, was part of the greater drive to physically contain and heal men to send them back to the front, and their aesthetic representations of the corporeal fitted in with the paintings and portraits of mutilation and reconstruction happening around that time. The firm line between medical representation and aesthetics got blurred around this time with the recognition that being human is as much aesthetic as it is biological. Against this background, I will consider the aesthetic in terms of the grotesque, close reading hospital scenes to see the way the nurses represented the mutilated bodies and faces of the soldiers in their writings. At its core will be the private observations of women—mostly young, some amateur and some veteran in the art of healing—reflecting on mangled bodies of men, and approaching them with their own tremulous bodies. The texts I will be discussing are Ellen N. La Motte’s The Backwash of War and Mary Borden’s The Forbidden Zone.