Ellen N. La Motte and The Backwash of War: The “Lost” Author of a “Lost” Classic

My fascination with The Backwash of War, by Ellen N. La Motte, began twenty-five years ago, when I was a graduate student tracing the untold history of American antiwar writing for what would become my first book, War No More. I knew immediately that this long-forgotten collection of interrelated stories written during World War I by an American nurse was an extraordinary work.  

What I did not realize until twenty years later, when I began intensively researching the book, is quite how extraordinary its author was. Not only did La Motte boldly breach decorum in writing The Backwash of War, but she also forcefully challenged societal norms in other equally daring ways.

In Backwash, La Motte masterfully highlights the senselessness of war and the suffering of those caught up in it. Midway through the work, she explains, “Well, there are many people to write you of the noble side, the heroic side, the exalted side of war. I must write you of what I have seen, the other side, the backwash.” Bravely rejecting the staid conventions of wartime writing of her time, she invented a new way of describing the human destruction she witnessed while working in a French field hospital located jarringly close to the battle lines of the Western Front.

Published in September 1916, The Backwash of War was immediately banned in England and France. Two years later – after being widely hailed as America’s most significant work of war writing and going through four printings – it was judged damaging to morale and was censored in wartime America. Except for an unsuccessful re-release in 1919 and a reissued edition in 1934, Backwash remained out of print for nearly a century, and both the book and its author vanished into literary oblivion.

When I searched for information about La Motte a quarter-century ago there was virtually nothing to be found. I located her New York Times obituary from 1961, which noted that “Miss La Motte was one of the first American nurses” to arrive at the battlefields. And that was about all.

Over the course of the last five years, I doggedly tried to learn more. What I discovered – from archived letters, century-old newspapers and nursing journals, and the wispy recollections of those who knew her – proved thoroughly fascinating. Born into the extended duPont family – whose namesake business, DuPont, would become America’s largest manufacturer of munitions during World War I – La Motte utterly defied the scripted and restrained role of an American society lady.

As I came to realize, her boldness took many forms. As a member of one of America’s most prominent industrialist families, she attended Johns Hopkins’ nursing school and pursued a professional career over her relatives’ strong objections. As a tuberculosis nurse, she tenaciously challenged the status quo and astutely argued for segregating highly infectious patients. As a public health administrator, she rose to be the first woman in charge of a city department in Baltimore. As a volunteer war nurse, she relinquished the safety of a military hospital in Paris and risked the dangers of a field hospital in the war zone. And after the war, she became a world-renowned anti-opium advocate and critic of colonialism.

But that was not all. As a prominent suffragist, she championed the cause of women’s votes both in America and alongside the militant suffragettes of England. As a socialist and self-proclaimed anarchist, she challenged America’s social order and fought for a host of crucial reforms. As a lesbian, she declared herself willing to withstand social censure to be with the woman she loved, and for over forty-five years she was the partner of the heiress and art collector Emily Crane Chadbourne. As an intimate friend of Gertrude Stein, she became the subject of one the avant-garde writer’s most distinctive works. And as a dauntless adventurer, she journeyed to far-flung destinations, including the jungles of Cambodia and the remote capital of Abyssinia.

Few writers of any era can boast such an astounding career or have contributed as much to improving the public weal. I am proud to have written the first biography of La Motte, which is included in the expanded edition of The Backwash of War I just published with Johns Hopkins University Press.

The Iraq War veteran and acclaimed author Brian Castner was among the first to read the new volume and wrote of Backwash, “I was blown away by this book. It reads like a Great Book you've always meant to get to, yet it lies in censure and obscurity. Ellen N. La Motte's short stories, written in the midst of WWI, are literally ahead of their time. She is a legit Hemingway, writing 15 years before him. Seriously, these stories are amazing. Get this book.” Please do get the book. The “lost” classic is extraordinary, not to mention its “lost” author.

Cynthia Wachtell is a research associate professor of American studies at Yeshiva University and author of  War No More: The Anitwar Impulse in American Literature 1861-1914. As part of the expanded edition of The Backwash of War: An Extraordinary American Nurse in World War I, she wrote a biography of Ellen N. La Motte and a new introduction to the book.

For more about The Backwash of War, see: https://jhupbooks.press.jhu.edu/title/backwash-war and www.thebackwashofwar.com