Young Hilda at the Wars

January 17, 2012

So, this is an odd book. Young Hilda at the Wars is the story of the first ambulance corps in Belgium in World War I, with a focus on Hilda, an American girl who joins the group, and its scatterbrained visionary leader Dr. McDonnell, in London. She and an English lady named Mrs. Bracher establish a nursing station almost on the front lines, along with a Scottish nurse known as Scotch. The book¬† manages to maintain an almost juvenile-adventure-story tone most of the time in spite of a) lots of dead people, b) lots of maimed people and c) little interludes where the author leaves the story and just writes about dead and maimed people. Here’s an example:

I looked into the face of my brother. There was no face there, only a red interior. This thing had been done to my brother, the Belgian, by my brother, the German. He had sent a splinter of shell through five miles of sunlight, hoping it would do some such thing as this.

That, oddly enough, is an entire chapter. The italicized meditations on war and death are all pretty short, but they’re distracting. Not that the main narrative is much less grim. And apparently both the interludes and the story are largely true, and based on Arthur Gleason’s experiences in Belgium in the first year or so of the war. Hilda is, I think, a stand in for Gleason’s wife. The book was published in 1915, and mostly subtly but sometimes explicitly pleads for American sympathies and support.

What’s impressive is the way Gleason manages to maintain a storybook quality in the face of all the grimness. Hilda is smart and intrepid and caring, and she races around in a fast car rescuing people, and her boss Mrs. Bracher is all those things and more capable than everyone and maybe my new hero, and none of that stops bad things from happening. It’s more idealistic than realistic, but not by much.

For more information about Gleason, who corresponded with everyone from G.K. Chesterton to Eugene Debs, check out the finding guide to his papers at the Library of Congress.


  1. I’m very undecided about reading this. I can think of two other “first hand” sort of books about WWI that I have read: Rilla of Ingleside (L.M. Montgomery) and The Deepening Stream (Dorothy Canfield Fisher). In Rilla’s case, the horrors of war came through news accounts and letters from her brothers, and she had her family to help strengthen her. The Deepening Stream was horribly depressing, I think because the protagonist was so alone. Hilda sounds like her story might not be so depressing.

    I have downloaded the book and might give it a try.

    • Individual bits of it are depressing, but I think it manages to be pretty positive on the whole by focusing on action. Yeah, Gleason keeps reminding us about all the dead people, but the takeaway is about how helpful individuals can be.

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