“Fragments of A Great Confusion”: The Psychological War Sketches of Mary Borden

Between 1914 and 1918, American heiress Mary Borden bankrupted herself to establish a field hospital for the American Red Cross in the “strip of land immediately behind the zone of fire”, where no civilians were allowed.[1] This front-line hospital was positioned strategically on the road between Dunkirk and Ypres, where it received the most severely wounded soldiers. In the hospital’s first six months of opening, Borden received over 800 cases, resulting in 68 deaths, achieving a remarkable 5 percent mortality rate.[2] This hospital would receive the gravest cases from the Battle of the Somme, as well as cases from the Second Battle of Ypres. For her leadership, Mary Borden would become the first American woman to be awarded the French medal of honor.[3] In this field hospital, rocked by exploding shells, Borden wrote what she called “fragments of a great confusion”: short pieces of writing, along with poems.[4] The strip of land where Borden’s hospital stood was known as la zone interdite, – from which Borden draws the name of her autobiographical collection of fragments – The Forbidden Zone

Borden wrote most of her manuscript during her work for the American Red Cross between 1914 to 1918, but was unable to find a publisher until 1929. With her publication of The Forbidden Zone, Borden dedicates her work “to the poilus who passed through our hands during the war”– that is, the French soldiers whom she and her hospital tended.[5] However, Borden focuses her fractured narrative upon the experience of nurses, an unusual decision, as most war narratives at the time focused upon the experiences of combatants. Through this narrative of psychological alienation, Borden crafts a set of seventeen stories divided into two sections, “The North” and “The Somme-Hospital Sketches.” Kate McLaughlin argues that the purpose of representing war is to present order out of chaos, to create an experience which can be rendered comprehensible.[6] Yet Borden makes no such attempt: she strives to create a surreal melding of clinical language and psychological realism, which does not attempt to reproduce the events of the war, but to provide what Ariela Freedman calls “a series of impressions,” an intentionally subjective portrait of the war from the vantage point of a hospital nurse.[7] However, this singular voice is fractured and made multiple by the confusion of war: in this fracturing of Borden’s narrative voice, The Forbidden Zone unbalances the reader. While one nurse serves as Borden’s autobiographical persona, Borden also draws on the third-person omniscient voice to craft disorienting, fractured plots. Borden depicts a world in turmoil, writ small upon the personal struggles of nurses, who are physically fragmented by immense toil, both emotional and physical. This labor results in alienation from the body and the mind, culminating in physical breakdown. Thus, her autobiographical persona takes up the voice of the war nurse to occupy this space of alienation. Throughout this collection of sketches, I argue that Borden develops and then fractures her autobiographical persona to represent the gendered labor of nurses during the First World War. Towards this end, I turn to three fragments from The Forbidden Zone, “Belgium,” “Rosa,” and “Conspiracy.” Through these short pieces, I analyze Borden’s use of fragmentation as a means of depicting narrative agency—and how such agency fails when confronted with the faceless authorities which govern total war.

Through visceral, stripped-down details, Borden describes the process of caring for soldiers and the impact of rendering care in a field hospital. In her introductory story, “Belgium,” Borden begins in third-person omniscient voice, establishing the setting of this interconnected set of sketches through a sweeping description of the environment which surrounds the field hospital: “Mud: with scraps of iron lying in it and straggling fragments of a nation, lolling, hanging about in the mud on the edge of disaster.”[8] Borden’s work, too, could be considered “straggling fragments,” as necessarily flawed representations of war. In Modernist writing and art, fragmentation as both form and metaphor represents a break with standard forms, experimentation with space, time, and place. Literary theorist Rebecca Varley-Winter argues, “Fragmentation is, at heart, about conflicted textual embodiment.”[9] In her introduction, Borden defends her fragmented form, saying that “any attempt to reduce them to order would require artifice on my part and would falsify them.”[10] Through structuring her work as a collection of fragments, Borden avoids any attempt to categorize her work: her fragments speak to and through one another, shifting between place, person, and time. In this introductory fragment, Borden’s writing slips between place and person, establishing the setting as a force to be dealt with. 

Through her decentered, omniscient voice, Borden signals that she will not be crafting a heroic memoir of the glory of war. This is a landscape of desolation, a hostile world fragmented by war, a place where soldiers and citizens alike are trapped by the clash, and nurses try and fail to heal the men under their care. The road to Ypres is not a route taken by heroic choice, but by desperation: “You can’t get out that way. No, there’s no frontier, just a bleeding edge, trenches.”[11] In this story, the bleak terrain of her setting is reflected in the sprawled bodies of soldiers, reflecting their possible deaths in the pit of the trench. Borden writes through the bleeding edge of the war hospital, centering her writing upon the struggle of nurses to keep the men under their care alive. The mud, like Borden’s fragments, is neither/nor, neither water nor earth. In this introductory fragment, Mary Borden establishes The Forbidden Zone as a work which will not attempt to replicate or sequentially display the events of war, but instead, a work which questions the boundaries of autobiographical memory itself, along with individual frameworks of agency and power. 

Throughout the collection, Borden’s narrative is sketched out through a series of stories, which serve to mark fraying empathy in the face of war through increasing abstraction and surrealism. In “Rosa,” Borden’s narrative persona works to tend a “red giant” of a soldier who has attempted to shoot himself through the head in the trenches: despite his best attempts to kill himself, “his immense body continued, in spite of his absence to hum and drum like a dynamo, like a machine whose tremendous power takes time to run down, and his breath came whistling and spurting through his rough bruised lips like escaping steam…”[12] While this unnamed soldier has attempted to shoot himself through the head, his body maintains its vital functions in a stubborn refusal to die. The only way Borden can make sense of his continued survival is to present him as though his body is a machine, a creature which cannot live or be killed. 

When Borden asks what will become of the soldier if he survives, the orderly responds,  “He’ll be court-martialled and shot, Madame, for attempted suicide.”[13] This reply conveys the absurd notion of sentencing a man to death for attempting suicide, along with the irony of nursing a soldier back to health, only to return him to the firing squad. When this “personal tragedy” appears before the hardened nurses and orderlies, they avoid looking at this soldier, unable to comprehend this case “above the dead level of mass destruction.”[14] Throughout The Forbidden Zone, individual identities become entangled with collective tragedies, thus when this personal tragedy appears, it is almost more shocking than the mass destruction of war. If nursed back to full health, the soldier known as “Rosa” would be tried for his betrayal to his duty as a soldier, his duty to the collective — through his suicide attempt. When understood through the utterly impersonal language of bureaucracy, individual acts such as suicide assume a collective responsibility to patriotism and country. In the field of battle, personal tragedies and attempts at suicide are deemed traitorous, a failure of the soldier who breaks, “not afraid of being killed, but of not being killed,” the dread of waiting for the blow to strike.[15] In this sketch, the narrator cannot even save this man from the firing squad, despite the fact that she has been charged with saving his life. As the orderlies put the soldier under for surgery, the narrator cries out, “You’ve made a mistake. It wasn’t fear… you can’t bring him back to be shot at again.”[16] Her cry goes unheard by the attendants, and whether she spoke at all is in question: “Perhaps I had not shouted aloud.”[17] As nursing historian Christine Hallett elaborates in Containing Trauma, nurses were under great strain to continue their work, and when they broke under the strain, they would be sent to specially established Red Cross rest homes, intended to allow recovery and containment of the shattered self.[18] Borden’s sketch demonstrates the unenviable position of nurses who were expected to broker the mental health of soldiers under their care, while managing their own reactions to the constant bombardment which rocked their hospital buildings.

Throughout the night, the soldier calls out for someone named Rosa, and attempts to remove his bandage so he may die. Borden stands by the end of his bed, gazing into his eyes: “Who are you, I wondered, and who is Rosa? And what can I do? How can I help you?”[19] Constantly the man calls out during the night, tearing the bandage from his head. In anger at the barbarity of saving a man in order that he may be shot for his suicide attempt, Borden goes to the General to plead for the man’s life: “Here you are with your military regulations asking me to save him for you so that you can shoot him. You expect us to tie up his head every night and prevent his dying so that you can march him off to trial and stand him up against a wall.”[20] Unable to spare this man from the firing squad, Borden directs the nurse on duty to allow the soldier to do what he wants. When the soldier tears off his bandage for a final time at night, by the next morning his wound is infected. He shares with her a look of “recognition,” a “faint look of gratitude”- she is the only person he acknowledges in a moment of connection.[21] Lapsing into unconsciousness, he dies. In her fragment “Rosa,” Mary Borden portrays the individual war nurse as trapped by the bureaucracy of war. As a nurse, Borden cannot save her patient’s life, regardless of whether he dies in the hospital or in a military execution. Through her individual act of empathy, the nurse signs his death warrant—but avoids participating in the mechanism of institutional execution. In this matter of personal tragedy, impersonal regulations entrap both the nurse and the soldier as cogs in the same machine, both dehumanized by the system which they cannot escape.

Borden plays upon this lack of agency in “Conspiracy,” which appears in the second half of the collection, entitled “The Somme-Hospital Sketches.” Fought across a period of 140 days, the Somme offensive brought a flood of men, shell-shocked, wounded, studded with shrapnel, mangled, and torn, to Borden’s field hospital.  In staunchly removed terms, Borden explains the process of providing medical attention to troops: 

It is arranged that men should be broken and that they should be mended. Just as you send your clothes to the laundry and mend them when they come back, so we send our men to the trenches and mend them when they come back again…just as long as they will stand it; just until they are dead, and then we throw them into the ground… We have all the things here for mending, the tables and the needles, and the thread and the knives and the scissors, and many curious things that you never use for your clothes.[22]

In this surreal sketch, Borden begins with a domestic metaphor: the common task of maintaining clothing after feeding it into an industrial machine. Within this metaphor, soldiers are fed through the industrial machine of the trenches, leaving nurses with the task of sewing soldiers up, performing amputations, until they are dead. The bodies of soldiers are presented as mere household objects, to be mended until they are killed. This metaphor functions as a gendered duty as well as a duty of care: military nurses were predominately women who volunteered for this service, just as “mending” was typically performed by women as a form of domestic labor. With the introduction of “curious things,” nursing is defamiliarized through a comparison to the domestic task of “mending,” a task which places this unnamed chorus of nurses in command and in control. Through this metaphor, Borden speaks through a persona which stands in for the collective voice of all nurses in this field hospital. This fracturing of her autobiographical persona evokes a Greek chorus of laboring nurses on this blasted field of battle. Trapped in a cycle of mending and damage, the nurses can only wait for the soldiers to return for further medical attention. Through her ironic tone and clinical register, Borden satirizes the bureaucracy of automatized war. This metaphor of an eternal laundry room conveys the desperate futility of war nursing during the first world war, when nurses were given men to heal, only to return them to the trenches. In this era of mechanized warfare, the lives of young men are sacrificed, not like heroes, but like socks in a laundry. 

Unlike “Rosa,” where compassion is the only defense against bureaucratized disdain, Borden’s collective voice does not have the time or space for such reflection. In describing nursing as an act of mending, Borden provides clinical, detached descriptions to strip nursing down to action alone. She provides visceral detail, and a lack of emotive words, which serves to replicate the deadened emotions of the nurses who care for these young men. In this sketch, these nurses betray no “personal tragedies” of the individual self. Without the individual worries of the narrator in “Rosa,” they provide a single unified front as they mend the fallen soldiers of war, dissociated from any individual weakness. They clinically assess each patient, and “conspire against his right to die.”[23] In this description, Borden defamiliarizes the work of nursing to create a grotesque image of a collective group which the soldier cannot escape: “We experiment with his bones, his muscles, his sinews, his blood. We dig into the yawning mouths of his wounds… To the shame of the havoc of his limbs we add the insult of our curiosity and the curse of our purpose, the purpose to remake him.”[24] Through her description of surgery as an “experiment,” Borden casts the nurses as working against Death, but in doing so, they must enter the wounded and now penetrable body of the soldier. The act of nursing erodes the bodily autonomy of the soldier. As he lies on the hospital bed, he is vulnerable, while the nurses avail their “curiosity”- the “curse of their purpose,” to return him to the front.[25] As Anne Summers details in Angels and Citizens, many nurses were called upon to embody a feminine ideal of nursing, the “angel of the battlefield”: the sympathy and controlled care of nurses provided a civilizing aspect to the rough men of the trenches.[26] Borden’s depiction resists this ideal. In this collective voice, Borden depicts a horde of nurses whose central defense against the industrial machine of war is a form of clinical detachment. Intentional dehumanization becomes yet another tool at a nurse’s disposal, and empathy is yet another casualty of the Great War. As Christine Hallett argues, many nurses avoided leaving the front, even when allotted rest time, preferring to continue their work even when physically or psychologically affected.[27] In this textual example of clinical detachment, Borden’s Greek chorus of nurses sacrifice their individual psyches to literally contain the trauma of war.

Borden structures her collection as fragments of a greater struggle, the remnants of war which defeat description. Writing through the “bleeding edge” of trench warfare, Mary Borden’s work is fragmented, replicating the trauma of war which shatters the bodies of men, which she must mend.[28] Communicating through these fragments, Borden rejects a single autobiographical lens as a mode of representing memory. In Borden’s introduction, she defends this authorial choice as “fragments of a great confusion.”[29] Borden defends her use of fragmentation as a means of demonstrating the confusion of mass warfare through a Modernist method of psychological realism. Borden articulates this purpose in writing her collection of sketches as a formal choice, intended to replicate her psychological process in surviving the war. Throughout her sketches, Borden speaks through multiple voices: an omniscient narrator, who takes a sweeping view of the significance of war, a single, exhausted nurse, who is unable to save her patient, and finally, the mingled voices of a chorus, speaking of the horrors of war. In representing the unique labor which hospital nurses provided during the First World War, Borden intentionally shatters her narrative voice to provide a hallucinatory experience of war trauma and unites it as she places these fragments together. Through the fragments of The Forbidden Zone, at turns surreal and experimental, Mary Borden represents the confusion of mass warfare as tangled memories of a mind in turmoil. 

Galen David Bunting is a Ph.D. candidate in English at Northeastern University. He has contributed to the Women Writers Project, worked as an editorial assistant for Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, and currently teaches at Northeastern University. In his dissertation, he analyzes shell-shock as a gendered diagnosis and its effects on literature in the aftermath of the First World War.


  1.  Mary Borden, The Forbidden Zone: A Nurse’s Impressions of the First World War. (London: Hesperus Press, 2008), 3.
  2.  Jane Conway, A Woman of Two Wars: The Life of Mary Borden. (Munday, 2010), 47.
  3.  Conway, A Woman of Two Wars, 72.
  4.  Borden, The Forbidden Zone, 3.
  5.  Ibid.
  6.  Kate McLaughlin, Authoring War: The Literary Representation of War from the Iliad to Iraq. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 7.
  7.  Ariela Freedman, “Mary Borden’s Forbidden Zone : Women’s Writing from No-Man’s-Land.” Modernism/Modernity 9, no. 1 (January 1, 2002): 110.
  8.  Borden, The Forbidden Zone, 7.
  9. Rebecca Varley-Winter. Reading Fragments and Fragmentation in Modernist Literature (Eastbourne: Sussex Academic Press, 2018), 8.
  10. Borden, The Forbidden Zone, 3.
  11. Ibid., 7.
  12. Ibid., 63-64.
  13. Ibid., 65-66.
  14. Ibid., 65.
  15. Ibid., 68.
  16. Ibid., 66.
  17. Ibid., 66.
  18. Christine E. Hallett, Containing Trauma: Nursing Work in the First World War. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009), 214-215.
  19.  Borden, The Forbidden Zone, 67.
  20. Ibid., 69.
  21. Ibid., 70.
  22. Ibid., 79.
  23. Ibid., 80.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Anne Summers, Angels and Citizens: British Women as Military Nurses, 1854-1914 (London; New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1988), 43.
  27. Hallett, Containing Trauma, 218.
  28. Borden, The Forbidden Zone, 7.
  29. Ibid., 3.

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