“A Cap of Horror/Een Kap van Afschuw” edited Leo Van Bergen (dt) – book review

Cover image A Cap of Horror

“A Cap of Horror” is subtitled “First World War poetry written by female nurses and carers” and is edited by Leo van Bergen, Marijke Foncke and Renee Schoffelen. Leo van Bergen’s introduction explains the rationale behind the anthology, “I wondered whether besides Brittain and Borden other female nurses had turned their wartime experiences into poetry as well. Eventually I found seventeen women, nurses and others working in the medical line, who in forty poems and a cycle of sonnets reflected on various aspects of the (medical) war. Many of these touched me deeply, as I hope they will do you.” The anthology is bilingual in English and Dutch in the hope of gaining recognition for the poets in Dutch-speaking countries. Open the book from the English language title to get the poems in English, reverse the book to the Dutch title to get the poems in Dutch. The contents list includes Vera Brittain, Mary Borden, May Sinclair and Rose Macauley and the poems are organised by theme.

The opening poem “To a Red Cross Nurse” by Margaret Helen Florine starts,

“You’re as great as any hero,
In the bloody strife,
He can give unto his country
But one sacred lilfe.”

This heroism is explained in the final stanza,

“The hundred you return to fight
Have suffered, bled, faced death and when
They know that they are in the right
Are worth two hundred men.”

Here the nurse’s job is to heal men to go back to the front line reassured that they are on the right side and doing the right thing even though most will not return. But the strengthening of their resolve will double their might. Similar sentiments surface in Vera Brittain’s “A military hospital”,

“A mass of human wreckage, drifting in
Borne on a blood-red tide,
Some never more to brave the stormy sea
Laid reverently aside,
And some with love restored to sail again
For regions far and wide.”

However, some are less gung-ho about war, “In a soldier’s hospital I: pluck” by Eva Dobell starts,

“Crippled for life at seventeen,
His great eyes seem to question why:
with both legs smashed it might have been
Better in that grim trench to die
Than drag maimed years out helplessly.”

At that time the UK had no established state welfare benefits so those who couldn’t work became reliant on family or church and charity donations to survive. For some, dying on the battlefield was the better option. From this perspective, being patched up enough to go back to war looks less like heroism and more like a least worst option.

The poems don’t just focus on nurses. M Winifred Wedgwood’s “Our VAD scullions” focuses on those stuck in the kitchens, producing drinks and meals and washing and cleaning afterwards. ‘VAD’ is the Voluntary Aid Dispatch, nurses and support workers who volunteered and were dispatched to convalescent homes or where they were needed,

“Our nurses are always apparent,
So we give them their halos alright;

But how many think of our scullions,
Because they work buried from sight?

Yet their toll is hard and unceasing,
And often it’s dirty work too:”

Inevitably, there’s a section on loss. Lilian Bowes Lyon lost her brother Charles in France in 1914 when she was 18 and a volunteer at Glamis Castle, which belonged to her uncle and was being used as a convalescent home. Her poem, “Battlefield”, ends,

“So heavy a wrong –
How many this black world right who trod them into slime?

Still must pour milder suns,
Splintering the stained glass window of a wood,
Be darkly seen through these men’s blood
And midnight mutter in her sleep with guns.”

Bowes Lyon used her VAD training in the Second World War when she was living in London and became a first-responder at bomb sites and also an auxilliary support worker in a local hospital.

The collection’s title comes from “Sonnets to a soldier” number 2 by Mary Borden,

“No, no! There is no sinister mistake.
You cannot love me now. I am no more
A thing to touch, a pleasant thing to take
Into one’s arms. How can a man adore
A woman with black blood upon her face,
A cap of horror on her pallid head,
Mirrors of madness in the sunken place
Of eyes: hands dripping wiht the slimy dead?
Go. Cover close your proud untainted brow.
Go quickly. Leave me to the hungry lust
Of monstrous pain. I am his mistress now –
These are the frantic beds of his delight –
Here I succumb to him, anew, each night.”

It explores the secondary trauma the nurses felt in tending to the injured and listening to their stories from the front line. Winifred Mary Letts’ “The casualty list” by Winifred Mary Letts takes a more considered view and ends

“Yet how shall we forget them, the young men, the splendid,
Who left this golden heritage, who put the Summer by,
Who kept us our England inviolate, defended
But by their passing made for us December of July?”

“the splendid” echoes the ideas of heroism from the opening poems, however, here their loss is also acknowledged and encapsulated in the winter in summer image of the last line. Although posed as a question, it asserts the nurses will not forget their charges.

There are biographies of the poets at the end of the book, although it wrongly states that Lilian Bowes Lyon was “a niece of Elizabeth Bowes Lyon”; their fathers were brothers which makes them cousins.

“A Cap of Horror/Een Kap van Afschuw” is a welcome anthology of war poetry from the viewpoint of nurses and support workers who cared for the casualties. While there is some jingoism and some poets cast soldiers as heroes, others temper this by addressing the affect caring for the injured had on the nurses. Loss is also acknowledged and questions raised about the nature of war and the importance of remembering. The research in tracking down the poems and rediscovering women poets of the period is a useful reminder that there is more to be written about war than the work produced by soldier-poets. A useful addition to the canon of First World War poetry.

The book can be purchased from the publisher here https://www.uitgeverijduidelijketaal.nl/store/Kap-van-Afschuw-p253054682.


Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.

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