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I Saw Them Die: Diary and Recollections of Shirley Millard (Journeys and Memoirs Series) [Kindle Edition]

Shirley Millard , Elizabeth Townsend Gard
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (6 customer reviews)

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Book Description

This true contemporary account of an American nurse’s horrific – and sometimes bizarre – experiences while serving at a French battlefield hospital near Soissons during World War I has poignant layers which even the often naïve author did not see. “As our camion drove through the château gate we could see that the grounds were covered with what looked like sleeping men.” That is just her own introduction to the unit, housed in what was once a country estate; soon she was standing hours on end treating friend and enemy alike, facing harrowing hyperreality with aplomb.

Shirley Millard is throughout a willing reporter of her fascinating perspective on war, youth, loss, and love – and always slapdash surgery and gallows camaraderie, inside a MASH unit before there was M*A*S*H. And before antibiotics, it is painfully clear.

But she is also an unwitting reporter of so much more. The modern reader sees truths and wrongs that Shirley fails to experience herself, some at the time and too many upon rested reflection. Even some of the pronouns she uses reveal herself and the understory more than she realized. The book compels attention not only on the level on which she wrote it, which would be enough to bring crashing home this forgotten war, but also on levels hidden to her. Either way the insights pierce through, as when the young French doctor sums up war: “La gloire, la gloire! Bah! C’est de la merde!” He is a hero too, but has his own incongruous scenes later, just in his smoking habits alone.

This collection of diary entries and later flashbacks compares as a personal account of World War I to that by the much more self-aware Erich Remarque (though readers here may find themselves drawn into the lack of awareness as much as the account itself). Yet this book seems to have been lost in time and the crush of later events. As Time Magazine reviewed it in 1936, "Spare, simply written diary of a young, red-haired U.S. volunteer nurse in French hospitals near the front lines of 1918, in which romantic interludes heighten rather than ease a grisly atmosphere." It is that, but there is a lot more to it. And much of the writing is deeper than that, and certainly crisp and evocative in prose, even if some of the depth is more for the reader than the author. Ar the least it answers the question, When are maggots a good sign? And how can a man be a grateful ashtray?

Includes explanatory new Foreword by law professor Elizabeth Townsend Gard, who studied the genre as part of her Ph.D. research in History at UCLA. Features contemporary photographs of nursing and service in the war. The original book, and its incongruities and twists revealed by Townsend Gard, will stick with you. Previously only available as a rare book, now returned to its place in poignant history.

Editorial Reviews

About the Author

A volunteer nurse in World War I France tells about her true-life experiences and often reveals more about herself and the incongruities of war than she realizes.

Product Details

  • File Size: 513 KB
  • Print Length: 100 pages
  • Publisher: Quid Pro Books (March 5, 2011)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Not Enabled
  • Lending: Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #801,171 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Profoundly moving, starkly real March 16, 2012
Shirley Millard was an untrained but determinedly quick-learning American girl who traveled to France in the spring of 1918 in order to nurse the war wounded. She was also a brilliant diarist. Or rather, her clear prose brilliantly paints the stark realities of the Great War in a way that no textbook written after the fact could begin to do.

Millard stumbled upon her war diary 15 years after the Armistice and immediately decided to have it published after implementing it with additional detail. Her writing had only improved within that time frame and she had apparently forgotten little as all that she relates in the recollection sections seems so startlingly immediate that it brings one as through a time machine, face-to face with all the mangled horror that was the Great War.

From her initial desire to go overseas - "the lilt of "Tipperary," "Madelon," and "Roses of Picardy" heated my enthusiasm to a fever pitch" - to first hearing news of the Armistice while working in a "death ward" - "There is no armistice for Charley or for any of the others in that ward" - Millard not only clearly describes medical horrors but also reveals the philosophical transformation that was shared by so many of her generation and which became foundational for the American pacifism that was prevalent prior to Pearl Harbor.

Speaking of Americans, her description of the US wounded reminded me distinctly of Muriel Engelman's descriptions (found in her memoir "Mission Accomplished: Stop the Clock.") of the WWII G.I.s who she nursed during the Battle of the Bulge. Ms. Millard has this to say about her fellow Americans: "I hate to see them pouring in [to the hospital], yet I am proud of them. Such gallantry, such nerve, such pluck! Even the French nurses have remarked about it.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A remarkable testament, highly recommended January 22, 2013
By Griffin
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I totally agree with Kathryn Atwood's five star review of this excellent book. I want to emphasize that it isn't all gut wrenchingly horrific in the telling, since some might avoid it if they think it would be too bloody and grim a slog. Yes, Shirley Millard's work as a volunteer wartime nurse was bloody indeed. But as Atwood points out, her story is filled with inspiring moments and characters, in addition to her own steady heroism under intense pressures including bombings of her field hospital. This wartime diary-based book was written in the looming shadow of WWII, motivated by Millard's fears for her son as a likely conscripted combatant in another war, which makes it even more poignant. I have known several nurses and other selfless medical servers, so I was immediately attracted to an original edition of this book I happened to come across in a used bookstore. I now also have a copy of this new edition, which I hope will attract a wider audience for this classic wartime tale of almost a century ago which still strongly resonates into the present day. As a writer, I appreciate the clarity of her narrative, coming to us straight from the heart of her experience.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Definitely worth the read. March 7, 2015
By Jordan
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
This is a rare perspective on the first world war. I have never run into anything like it before. Exactly as the title says, it is the diary of Millard, with reflections added at a later date (somewhere before WWII?). It helped me gain a better understanding of what the war was like from the perspective of someone who was so close to the front lines, yet just a step removed. It is not just about who wins or loses, but the real human experience- doctors she does or doesn't like, the attitudes of German POWs etc.
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