Nobody ever wins a war

The solemn faces at a Remembrance Day service say it. Monument and cenotaph inscriptions catalogue it. Motion picture epics, such as Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan or Kubrick’s Paths of Glory depict it. And over the years, immortal war poetry, such as Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade and McCrae’s In Flanders Fields has warned us of it. But not until this year has a woman who witnessed war expressed its futility so simply:

But when daylight comes she’s up and away
Ready to start another full day
Such is the life of a Red Cross Nurse
When the curse of war descends on earth
But men never learn from years before
That nobody ever wins a war.

Those lines were written by Ella Mae Bongard, a Canadian nurse, as she lay ill during the winter of 1918. It was one of the few times during her volunteer stint with the U.S. Army Nursing Corps in France during the First World War that she was not to find herself at a field hospital while on duty. Otherwise – from October 1917 until the Armistice in 1918 – she tended wounded soldiers brought to her hospital in Etretat, France, on the Normandy coast.

Typical days included “a big unexpected convoy Tuesday morning (Nov. 27, 1917) of about 460 patients. They were right from the battle of Cambrai and such wounds as I’ve never seen. There were so many bad cases that even the medical wards had to be filled with surgical cases…

“We have worked madly all day with no time off except for hurried meals. I really enjoy being busy but oh how my back and feet ache at night… We do dressings nearly all day for wounds that are so large and take so long. Most of the men are regular bricks and don’t scream even when you know it must be hurting them horribly. One little boy of 19 has had to have his leg amputated since he came here and another boy his right hand. They are both angels and it seems such a pity.”

These stark reflections of a nurse’s life only came to light last year, 10 years after Ella Mae Bongard’s death at age 95. For nearly 80 years the personal remembrances and poetry sat in the attic of this remarkable woman’s family home near Picton, Ont., until her adult son Eric Scott “found three small diary books in a trunk full of World War One souvenirs.” At first, intrigued at reading the voice of his mother on the faded pages, Scott began transcribing the diaries on a computer. But it was his daughter Sandie who suggested, “Why don’t you publish Granny’s diaries?” And he did.

The diaries reveal the excitement of her 1917 trans-Atlantic crossing aboard the S.S. Cedric, on which she experienced “Field day sports. Sack races, potato races, submarine suit races. I participated in most of them but have nothing to show for it all but two black knees and a loose tooth all acquired by hitting the deck.”

When her daily duties commence at the hospital, they include taking “care of sick Germans. I’m glad it isn’t my regular job, for I can’t help thinking how they treat our men who are prisoners and I want to shoot them. However, I don’t mind the real sick ones… C’est la guerre, you know.”

And during some of the darkest moments of her overseas experience, she grapples with the realities of her war and the one endured by those in her care: “Oh for a steam heated apartment! I sometimes wonder if I’ll ever be warm again. Sam McGee didn’t know what real cold was, the damp penetrating kind that reaches your bone marrow. Thank the Lord for my sleeping bag. But why all this raving? I came to France to endure hardships and goodness knows it is nothing compared to the trenches.”

For Eric Scott, himself a veteran of the Second World War, editing the diaries for publication was amazing reading. “She sensed she fit right in. In fact, when it really got tough and they thought they might have to evacuate the hospital, she insisted that’s where she belonged. She would stay there. So be it. Come what may.”

Like the aging Pte. James Ryan (in Spielberg’s film) returning to Omaha Beach to pay respects to comrades-in-arms, Ella Mae Bongard came back to Etretat in 1969. While short-term memory “was troublesome for her,” explains Scott, who accompanied her on the revisit, “her long-term memory was sharp as ever. In the military cemetery she would point out crosses. She’d say, ‘I remember nursing him and him.’ The experience was extremely moving.”

Among the final diary entries in Scott’s book, Nobody Ever Wins a War, The World War One Diaries of Ella Mae Bongard, is this one from Monday, Nov. 11, 1918:

“Today, the Armistice was signed!! We can’t believe it. Everyone is so excited that the work is in a mix up. The patients (the ones up) can get in the cafes now and are making up for lost time. We marched through the village streets at night carrying lighted torches and with our army capes inside out to show the scarlet lining. The French people kissed us on both cheeks as is customary here. It is hard to believe that the awful slaughter is over after four years.”