Kathryn's Reviews > I Saw Them Die: Diary and Recollections of Shirley Millard

I Saw Them Die by Shirley Millard
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's review
Mar 15, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: the-great-war, women-s-history

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 the widespread pre-Pearl Harbor American pacifism.

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. Always: Thank you, for every little thing . . . And: Help him first, he has waited longer than I have.” One might recall that the Americans weren't as trench-weary as their French counterparts at this point or one could surmise that Ms. Millard was experiencing an intense bout of patriotism but since all but a few of her other observations seem so level-headed one might assume that some members of the Greatest Generation were raised by those with a similar character.

The descriptions of Millard’s work with wounded men, which of course constitute the bulk of the book, had two affects on me. First, as already mentioned, it made the horrors of the war graphically clear and secondly, it made me agree with one French doctor’s assessment of the young nurse: “You can work like a man, and at the same time you are soft and sweet and very brave. That’s the best thing of all, to be brave.” Seeing the results of war through the eyes of an earnest young woman as she evolves from eager patriot to pacifist while tirelessly nursing her severely wounded patients makes this a profoundly moving read.
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