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Not So Quiet …. by Helen Zenna Smith

Stepdaughters of War. Virago, 1988, 247 p. First published in 1930.

Not So Quiet ....cover

This is a novel about the experience of being a VAD ambulance driver during the Great War, something less than a cushy existence as it turns out. Not only are the volunteers exposed to the sufferings and mutilations, the deaths and quick funerals, of the soldiers, itself enough to scar for life, but their living conditions are appalling, their deprivations extreme. Starved of sleep, given execrable food – even the orderlies say they would not put up with the slop they are fed – lousy, harshly punished for minor transgressions by a martinet of a commandant. To them also falls the duty of keeping their ambulances clean, inside and out, on pain of failing the daily inspection; a task messy, grim and odorous as well as onerous. Only their camaraderie keeps them going – which is again a parallel with the soldiery they had enlisted to aid.

There is, too, the same mutual incomprehension between the VADs and their relatives at home as was experienced by the soldiers, the all but necessity of shielding the ignorant from the truths of war – partly due to the risk of being dismissed as cowardly, or a shirker. “A war to end war my mother writes. Never. In twenty years it will repeat itself. And twenty years after that. As long as we breed women like my mother and Mrs Evans-Mawnington.”

Not So Quiet…. would have been a worthwhile endeavour on its own but its genesis bears comment. The author (whose real name was Evadne Price) was approached to write something called All’s Quaint on the Western Front as by Erica Remarks, a parody of Erich Maria Remarque’s world famous novel Im Westen nichts Neues. As she thought this was an appalling concept (how could anyone not think so?) she resolved to write a book on women’s war experience, hence the novel’s subtitle Stepdaughters of War, basing it on the memories of a wartime ambulance driver, Winifred Constance Young. Not So Quiet mirrors many aspects of Remarque’s book but with more emphasis on daily routine. In this regard the ending is an apt echo, slipping out of the otherwise first person narration to provide a third person perspective on the effect on the soul of relentless exposure to suffering and death.

While it covers some of the same ground as did Vera Britain’s Testament of Youth there is more here of the details of VAD existence. This is certainly not a cheery book but it is a worthwhile one and is not in any way diminished by comparison with Remarque.

Pedant’s corner:- In the introductory segment about the author; Belson (Belsen.) Otherwise: “a true chip of the old block” (I’ve only ever seen that before as ‘a chip off the old block.’ Both make sense though,) iodiform (iodoform,) “one of the strings that holds a Union Jack” (the strings that hold a Union Jack,) flibberty-gibbert (flibberty-gibbet.)

Stobhill War Memorial

Stobhill Parish War Memorial, Midlothian, Scotland, lies alongside Hunterfield Road. I came across it on my way back from Crichton Castle and Crichton Collegiate Kirk. It’s unusual in having a pyramidal obelisk with the representation of a flag draped round it from a standard.

The upper inscription here reads, “In memory of the sacred dead who fell in the Great War 1914-1918.” Under the slogan, “They also gave themselves for the Empire,” are the names of two women, Mary Aitken, WRAF and Lizzie Dodds, VAD. The lowest inscription reads, “They shall grow not old as we that are left grow old.”

Stobhill War Memorial 1

The column to the right of the above reads, “Cherished is the memory of their costly sacrifice with fadeless pride and with the love that never grows old,” and the lowest inscription carries on the quote from the previous side, “Age shall not weary them nor the years condemn.”

Stobhill War Memorial

Reverse view. The right hand side here reads, “They gave themselves for the Empire, for the cause of freedom and for the uplift of the world.”

Below has, “At the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them.”

Stobhill War Memorial Reverse Sides.

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