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Bench

Not So Quiet

Something I usually try to do in November is read one or two war books. Today being Armistice Sunday, this is the perfect day to review Not So Quiet by Helen Zenna Smith.




Helen Smith, 'Smithy', is an ambulance driver at the front during the Great War. She's a middle-class 'nice' girl, as are all the ambulance drivers, the powers that be deciding that only nice, middle-class girls are capable of this sort of work. She shares a billet with 'Tosh', the daughter of an earl, The B.F. (her initials but it means the other thing too), Eta Potato (called so because her name is 'Potter'), and Skinny, despised by Tosh for various reasons. The work they do, driving dead and injured men from the front to various field hospitals is indescribably dangerous and harrowing. They work until they drop, with hardly any sleep, atrocious food and flea ridden accomodation. Not only that, they have to put up with the cruel and vicious treatment from the camp commandant, known as The Bitch. It's her idea of fun to victimise any and all of the drivers for no reason whatsoever or for tiny infringements.

As the story moves along we also hear about Smithy's friends and family, both back at home and serving at the front. Her sister, Trix, is working in a field hospital kitchen and also being treated like dirt by the nursing sisters. Smithy's family are all proud that both their girls are 'doing their bit' for the war effort without having any clue what conditions are like in France. It's a serious bone of contention between them and Smithy knows only too well that much of what she's enduring is for her mother to look good amongst her friends and various committees. Giving up and going home is not an option unless you're injured and even then you're harried back to France in case the neighbours think you're shirking your responsibilities. Not being able to take any more is considered cowardice from those who have no idea what the soldiers and other serving personel are going through.

This book reads like a work of non-fiction when it is, in fact, fiction. However, the author, Evadne Price (pen-name for this book, Helen Zenna Smith), borrowed heavily from the war diaries of WW1 ambulance driver, Winifred Young, when asked to write a spoof on Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front. Evadne refused to write a spoof on such a serious subject and wrote instead, a damning comment on the futility of war and of the people in charge. It's a powerful piece of work, harrowing to read and making you wonder why so many thousands of men and women in their twenties put up with the conditions and the carnage, sacrificing, if not their lives, then their physical or mental health. This book should be read by all as an excellent accompaniment to Remarque's superb book.

Comments

The book sounds like a good, but grim, read. I have to agree with the author: All Quiet on the Western Front is not an appropriate subject for mockery. Books like the M*A*S*H series or Gunner Asch series or Catch 22 manage to find the humor that exists in even dreadful circumstances, but they also illustrate what the old cliché means: we laugh to keep from crying.
Exactly. You put it very well indeed.