"A Diary Without Dates" is Enid Bagnold's World War I memoir of her experiences over roughly a year and a half as a member of the V.A.D. (Voluntary Aid Detachment), or what we would today call a nurse's aide. Assisting the Sisters (both lay and religious nurses), the author attended to the day-to-day (mostly non-clinical) needs of wounded soldiers (almost entirely British) recovering from often horrific wounds in the Royal Herbert Hospital in Woolwich, 8 miles southeast of London. These poor men often stayed in the Royal Herbert for many months. It is a slim volume which the author wrote at the age of 28 and published in 1918. Divided into three arbitrary divisions ("Outside the Glass Doors", "Inside the Glass Doors", "'The Boys ...'") of roughly equal content (the last devotes, on the whole, more detail to individual "Tommies", referred to as "The Boys"), the book recounts the author's observations and fairly critical views of the relationships between nurses, physicians, V.A.D's, and visitors. Apparently the book was not well received by war authorities, leading to Bagnold's dismissal from her position.


"A Diary without Dates," her first book, is, like Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, a running illness narrative cum dissection of ideas emanating from the lives of institutionalized sufferers of disease as viewed through the lenses of death and time. Although Diary is a much shorter book, it is one equally unburdened by specific dates or identifying details. The result is a timeless prose poem about young men ravished by war and a verbal anatomy of these conditions as limned by a young woman with a burgeoning ability to depict such scenes and thoughts with force and beauty.

The young woman was Enid Bagnold, an author who was at the beginning of a very accomplished career as novelist (National Velvet, 1935), playwright (Chalk Garden, 1955) and autobiographer (Autobiography, 1969) when she wrote her WWI memoir. Already an accomplished stylist at age 28, confident of her lyrical powers, Bagnold created a vivid, simple, yet moving account of the quotidian lives of men facing pain, mutilation, disability and death. At her best, she reminds one of William Carlos Williams in his The Autobiography of William Carlos Williams, e.g.,

"Let them pile on the rules, invent and insist; yet behind them, beneath them, I have that strong, secret liberty of an institution that runs like a wind in me and lifts my mind like a leaf." (page 17)

Time and again, Bagnold wonders about the makeup of the nurses and nuns, characterized as "so strange, so tricky, uncertain as collies." (page 29) She is contemptuous when, on several occasions, they show less compassion for a patient in pain than the lay writer observing them. Or when they seem to look upon the V.A.D.s' raison d'être as service to them and not to their patients in common. The voyeuristic women visitors who visit the hospital to aggrandize their self-esteem, give superficial gifts, and see the wounded are deftly dispatched in so many words by the young writer.

For users of this database, this book will prove richly useful for its descriptions of early 20th century British soldiers suffering disease; experiencing deformity (amputations, useless limbs that would probably be amputated sooner these days, a horribly mutilated midface injury); and facing death with the denial of Mr. Wicks, lingering with (probably syphilitic) locomotor ataxia, who needs to be told to look at a beautiful moon outside the window of his death-in-life tomb of a bed. Nor is it only the injured patients who dread death. With the maturity of a writer twice her age, Bagnold writes that

"My sister is afraid of death. She told me so. And not the less afraid, she said, after all she has seen of it. That is terrible.               
But the new sister is afraid of life. She is shorter-sighted"(page 18)

However, the most salient descriptions, for this reader, are those exploring, like Daudet's In the Land of Pain or Scarry's The Body in Pain, the inscrutable phenomenon of pain:

"As he spoke his knees shot out from under him with his restless pain. His right arm was stretched from the bed in a narrow iron frame, reminding me of a hand laid along a harp to play the chords, the fingers with their swollen green flesh extended across the strings; but of this harp his fingers were the slave, not the master." (page 23)

And again, here she is observing poor Gayner - a six feet two soldier of the Expeditionary Force, wounded at Mons, with terrible ulcers on his legs and mortally afraid of contracting tetanus (a death sentence only recently preventable with tetanus antitoxin) - in the grip of an hysterical fear of tetanus, his psyche contorting his body with what he imagines are the risus sardonicus and other spastic concomitants of tetanus, an ictus of fear leaving him diaphoretic and ghastly pale, but a painful simulacrum of tetanus that the bored Sister dismisses with the smile of those whose hearts have grown cold and callous:

"Isn't the fear of pain next brother of pain itself? Tetanus or the fear of tetanus - a choice between two nightmares. Don't they admit that?"

Bagnold, like others contemplating the relationship of sufferers to observers of pain, forecasts the work of Scarry when she writes:

"The pain of one creature cannot continue to have a meaning for another. It is almost impossible to nurse a man well whose pain you do not imagine. A deadlock!" (page 88)


W. Heinemann

Place Published




Page Count