One of the most extraordinary women of the First World War was born on this day in 1886.
Mary Borden, a Chicago heiress whose father had made his fortune as a prospector and a property speculator, came to Britain before the War, having married a Scottish missionary. When he enlisted, she was also determined to contribute to the war effort, and seems to have been in no way distracted by the birth of her third child in November 1914. By the following January, she was in Belgium serving as a Red Cross volunteer, and in July 1915 she established her own hospital under French military authority. Before long, it could boast the lowest mortality rates on the Western Front.
As the areas of intense fighting moved, so did Borden: she founded a new hospital near Bray-sur-Somme in October 1916. The following year she wrote her masterpiece, The Forbidden Zone, which told of the conditions in which she worked: ‘Looking back, I do not understand that woman—myself—standing in that confused goods yard filled with bundles of broken human flesh. The place by one o’clock in the morning was a shambles. The air was thick with steaming sweat, with the effluvia of mud, dirt, blood.’
For her medical work, sometimes carried out while the hospital was under bombardment, Borden was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Légion d’honneur. But that was not the end of her courage. During the Second World War, she set up a field hospital in France—and barely managed to escape back to England as the country was overrun—then founded a mobile unit for the Free French in Palestine and Egypt. Even so, the memories of the French poilus of 1914-1918 endured: ‘I see them still, marching up the long roads of France in their clumsy boots and their heavy grey-blue coats that were too big for them; dogged, patient, steady men, plodding to death in defence of their land. I shall never forget them.’
Borden was a prolific novelist, but today she is best and most deservedly remembered for The Forbidden Zone. Blocked from publication by military censors, the book would not appear until 1929, and fell into neglect for decades until a new interest in nurses' memoirs led scholars to champion her cause. But—perhaps surprisingly for a novelist—Borden writes a book which is more prose poem than memoir; eschewing chronology, it works by rhythm and repetition, and by offering stark tableaux vivants (not really short stories, despite Borden's intentions) which act out seemingly unconnected spots of time. The Forbidden Zone is a wonder. There is no other war writing remotely like it.
Borden did produce a handful of poems. Several of these were eventually published as part of The Forbidden Zone, although they have been dropped from the most recent edition. If her best prose is reminiscent of poetry, it is fitting that her poetry should return the compliment. 'At the Somme' finds the gap between Whitman and prose, as demonstrated in the opening lines of its second section, 'The Song of the Mud':
This is the song of the mud.
The pale yellow glistening mud that covers the naked hills like satin,
The grey gleaming silvery mud that is spread like enamel over the valleys,
The frothing, squirting, spurting liquid mud that gurgles along the road-beds,
The thick elastic mud that is kneaded and pounded and squeezed under the hoofs of horses.
The invincible, inexhaustible mud of the War Zone.
Jane Conway in her superb biography reports that Borden's friend, E. M. Forster, admitted to being completely baffled: 'Stuff curiously disposed in metrical lengths. Quite three pages of the prose ran into the rhythms of Hiawatha. I cannot make out what she is up to, but then never could.' Her refusal to succumb to orthodoxy can always be said in her favour, but Borden was not a natural poet except when writing prose.
N.B. My thanks to Paul Groves for pointing out that Borden's much-loved Berkshire house, in which she died in 1968, is currently on the market for £3m.