One of the better known WW I poems by women is Eva Dobell’s “Pluck” (1916), based on her experience as a nurse in the Voluntary Aid Detachment.
by Eva Dobell (1876–1963)
Crippled for life at seventeen,
His great eyes seems to question why:
with both legs smashed it might have been
Better in that grim trench to die
Than drag maimed years out helplessly.
A child – so wasted and so white,
He told a lie to get his way,
To march, a man with men, and fight
While other boys are still at play.
A gallant lie your heart will say.
So broke with pain, he shrinks in dread
To see the ‘dresser’ drawing near;
and winds the clothes about his head
That none may see his heart-sick fear.
His shaking, strangled sobs you hear.
But when the dreaded moment’s there
He’ll face us all, a soldier yet,
Watch his bared wounds with unmoved air,
(Though tell-tale lashes still are wet),
And smoke his Woodbine cigarette.
While [Dobell] was also known in her time as a regional poet (one of her Gloucestershire poems was recently set to music), Dobell is best-known today for her occasional poems from the war period, which all describe wounded soldiers, their experiences, and their bleak prospects…. “Night Duty,” for instance, is cited as one of many poems by female war-poets and nurses that provide access to an experience rarely shared by male poets such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. Perhaps the most frequently reproduced is “Pluck,” especially on sites dedicated to the Great War. “Pluck” also found its way into printed anthologies such as The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of the First World War, and was even set to music.
After the war, she continued to write; in all, she published half a dozen books of poetry, a verse drama, and edited a book of poems by Lady Margaret Sackville.
The Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) was founded in 1909 with the help of the Red Cross and Order of St. John. By 1914 there were over 2,500 Voluntary Aid Detachments in Britain. Of the 74,000 volunteers in 1914, two-thirds were women and girls.
The growing shortage of trained nurses opened the door for VADs in overseas military hospitals…. Female volunteers over the age of twenty-three and with more than three months’ hospital experience were accepted for overseas service.
VADs were an uneasy addition to military hospitals’ rank and order. They lacked the advanced skill and discipline of professional trained nurses and were often critical of the nursing profession. Relations improved as the war stretched on: VADs increased their skill and efficiency and trained nurses were more accepting of the VADs’ contributions. During four years of war 38,000 VADs worked in hospitals and served as ambulance drivers and cooks. VADs served near the Western Front and in Mesopotamia and Gallipoli. VAD hospitals were also opened in most large towns in Britain. Later, VADs were also sent to the Eastern Front. They provided an invaluable source of bedside aid in the war effort. Many were decorated for distinguished service.
Similar posts: Edward Thomas: “6.IV.15”; and The Night Virginia Woolf Went Skinny-Dipping with a Poet.