Reflecting on Netflix's "Women at War"Culture Watch
tags: womens history
Walter G. Moss is a professor emeritus of history at Eastern Michigan University, a Contributing Editor of HNN, and author of An Age of Progress? Clashing Twentieth-Century Global Forces (2008). In the last dozen years he has also written over 400 online essays for HNN and other websites. For a list of his recent books and online publications click here.
Camille Lou in "Women at War" (Netflix, 2022)
My main reaction after watching the eight-episode Netflix series “Women at War” was how foolish and stupid World War I was, and how more women than men seemed to sense that war’s folly. By the first several days of August 1914, all of the major European Powers had declared war, and the entire eight episodes (each lasting between 48 and 56 minutes) take place starting in mid-September and culminating sometime in October. At the end of the last episode, we see written on the screen, “The Great War lasted another four years.”
Although we lack exact counts, over 8 million combatants lost their lives in the war, and that does not count civilian deaths. Since the “women at war” in the series are French women, consider this: In the war three out of every ten French men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-eight, overwhelmingly soldiers, lost their lives (although not as proportionally high as French losses, the total number of German and Russian deaths was each higher). As one historian has written, “Among the major [European] combatants, it is not an exaggeration to suggest that every family was in mourning: most for a relative–a father, a son, a brother, a husband–others for a friend, a colleague, a lover, a companion.”
And all these deaths, all the innumerable individual tragedies, all these sacrifices of husbands, fathers, sons, friends, etc., were for what? In an earlier essay, “A Memorial Day Lament for Capt. Wilfred Owen, Sgt. Joyce Kilmer, and the Needless Dead of Foolish Wars," I indicated that the loss of these two poets (one from England and one from the U. S.) and so many others was needless.
But before readers sense any forthcoming historical harangue about the folly of most wars, let’s switch focus and concentrate for a while on the series’ characters and plotting. As the title suggests, the main figures are women, especially four of them: Marguerite (Audrey Fleurot), a Parisian prostitute; Suzanne (Camille Lou), a nurse; Agnes (Julie de Bona), the Mother Superior of a convent turned into a hospital; and Caroline (Sofia Essaïdi), who takes over her husband’s truck factory when he goes off to war. Marguerite, Suzanne, and Caroline each have interesting backstories, and all three and Mother Agnes become entwined in various plots and counterplots during the time covered in the eight episodes.
All four women operate mainly in the area of the mountainous town of Saint-Paulin in the Vosges Mountain region of Eastern France. As a result of German gains in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, this small town was very near the border of Germany, which had gained most of the regions of Alsace and Lorraine during that war (in late 1961-early 1962, I was stationed as a U. S. army officer for six months near Luneville, a Lorraine town that the Germans captured but lost back in mid September 1914).
Dealing with the four women are plenty of villains, mainly men. Marguerite’s principal nemesis is a brothel owner. For Suzanne, it’s a Parisian detective who wants to kill her. For Mother Agnes, a priest who sexually abuses young novitiates at the convent-turned-hospital. And for Caroline, her brother-in-law, who attempts to gain control of the factory she runs after her husband goes away to serve in the military.
Each off the eight episodes is packed with drama. But to avoid spoiler alerts, this review/essay will refrain from revealing too much. Very briefly, however, Marguerite is almost obsessed with the fate of a young officer in the front lines, and with combating the evil doings of the brothel owner who employs her. Suzanne, who attempts to hide her identity, not only has to evade the Parisian detective, but also to prevent a French pilot who seems to be a German spy from taking her away from her nursing work to save lives. In addition, she develops a romantic relationship with a doctor. Mother Agnes not only contends with the evil priest who is a sexual predator, but also grapples with her own inner struggle between her vow of celibacy and her attraction to one of her patients (a struggle similar to one I recently described of U.S. monk Thomas Merton.) And Caroline not only battles her brother-in-law for control of the family factory, but also contends with her mother-in-law, who wishes to take Caroline’s young daughter from her.
And all of the main actors do a first-rate job. Especially the four main women and Sandrine Bonnaire, who plays Caroline’s mother-in-law. Among the men, there is also some fine acting, notably by Tchéky Karyo (who plays General Duvernet), Tom Leeb (the general’s son, surgeon Joseph, who falls in love with Suzanne), Yannick Choirat (the brothel owner Marcel), Maxence Danet-Fauvel (the young officer Colin, whose actions Marguerite observes as closely as possible), and Grégoire Colin (as Caroline’s brother-in-law, Charles). Some of these actors I’ve seen before, especially Audrey Fleurot (Marguerite) who had a main role in the excellent 72-episode “French Village” series about the Second World War, and also “The Bonfire of Destiny” series on Netflix; and Tchéky Karyo (General Duvernet), who was the title character in the PBS Masterpiece series Baptiste.
It is through the characters of Marguerite and Caroline that we are primarily led to the military front and experience many of the brutalities of the war. Because of Marguerite’s interest in the young officer Colin, she is sometimes at the front, especially after she becomes an ambulance driver, as do some other prostitutes. This is made possible by Caroline’s conversion of the family truck factory to ambulance production.
One of the battle scenes shows the Germans using gas against French troops (although in many ways, the series reflects the actual history well, here it takes some artistic license because the Germans didn’t actually resort to gas attacks until 1915). After some of the afflicted soldiers are brought back to the hospital, doctor Joseph says, “They're dropping like flies. As if the gas is eating them from within. All I can do is ease their suffering with oxygen and atropine.”
The horrible effects of gas warfare were later captured by Wilfred Owen (mentioned above) in his poem “Dulce et Decorum Est,” which includes these lines,
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori [It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country].
The total of all gas deaths in WWI is estimated at 91,000. In “Women at War” it is primarily the women (mainly nuns and novitiates) who tend to those brought back to the hospital after being gassed. It is Mother Agnes and nurse Suzanne at the hospital; and Marguerite and other prostitutes who drive the ambulances, and Caroline, who runs the factory producing them, who are more focused on helping the war-wounded. Although doctor Joseph is one man more concerned with healing than killing, for most of the soldiers their primary responsibility was to kill the enemy.
In the decades leading up to WWI and during the war, women played a key role in first trying to prevent war and then in ending it. In The Proud Tower, Barbara Tuchman writes of European peace advocates like Baroness von Suttner and (in the U.S.) Jane Addams. In his To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918, Adam Hochschild writes of the important role many women, like the English Sylvia Pankhurst, played in opposing the possible and then actual war that began in 1914.
Early in 1915, the British Helena Swanwick wrote a pamphlet opposing war. It was called Women and War. She wrote of women’s special war burden as being “the life-givers and the home-makers.” In “Women at War” we often see the special agony that women feel as the men they love suffer and sometimes die in war, whether they be husbands, sons, or fathers. In one scene Mother Agnes is in chapel and prays, “God help me. Be my guide. These men [suffering mental disturbances] don't have the strength to fight anymore. I can't let them return to battle. They wouldn't survive. I beg you, give me a sign. Help me. What should I do?” In another scene tears run down her face as she tends to one of these soldiers.
While compassion seems to come more naturally to women, men must be wary of the trap of machismo. In 1977 Philip Caputo recalled how as a young college student in 1960 he enrolled in a Marine officer training program partly as a result of the romantic heroism of such war movies as Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), Guadacanal Diary (1943), and Retreat, Hell! (1952). He explained his motivation as such: “The heroic experience I sought was war; war, the ultimate adventure; war, the ordinary man's most convenient means of escaping from the ordinary . . . . Already I saw myself charging up some distant beachhead like John Wayne in Sands of Iwo Jima, and then coming home a suntanned warrior with medals on my chest . . . I needed to prove something—my courage, my toughness, my manhood.”
In a book on war, Gwynne Dyer wrote, “the most important single factor that makes it possible for civilized men to fight the wars of civilization is that all armies everywhere have exploited and manipulated the ingrained warrior ethic that is the heritage of every young human male.” He also indicates how an emphasis on toughness, compliance with orders, peer pressure, and concern for one’s fellow soldiers, can turn a young man (or at least a boy being made into a “man”) into someone who will kill when told to do so.
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