On 18 September 1914 twenty-five writers signed an Author’s Declaration in The Times, declaring that “Great Britain could not without dishonour have refused to take part in the present war”. There were four women who signed: May Sinclair, Hope Mirrlees’ friend Jane Harrison, Flora Annie Steet, and Mary Ward (Mrs Humphrey Ward).
In an unpublished typescript Sinclair noted that before the war “most of us […] were ceasing to live with any intensity, to believe with any conviction incompatible with comfort, and to feel with any strength or sincerity… Reality—naked, shining, intense Reality—more and not less of it, is, I believe, what we are going to get after the War” (quoted Raitt, 150).
Sinclair was 51 in 1914. But on 25 September 1914 she took a boat to Belgium to work with the Munro Ambulance Corps. Hector Munro was a charismatic, though chaotic, leader, who seems above all to have attracted determined women to his cause. The Baroness de T’Serclaes (then Elsie Knocker, since her title derived from her second marriage, with an aristocratic Belgian pilot, in 1916) describes the astonishment when she and her fellow motor-bike enthusiast Mairi Chisholm turned up at Victoria Station in “knickerbocker khaki suits”. Knocker got fed up with Munro, not long after Sinclair left, and went off to found her own hospital at Pervyse with Chisholm. They based themselves only a hundred yards or so from the British trenches near Ypres, and performed amazing acts of bravery until being gassed and bombed out of their hospital in 1918: “the Madonnas of Pervyse”, they have been called.
Although May Sinclair’s description of her time in Belgium, in A Journal of Impressions in Belgium (London: Hutchinson, 1915), was challenged after publication by others who had been there (see Raitt, 162), it is a fascinating personal response to the dangers or war. As they drive from Ostende to Ghent:
It is all unspeakably beautiful and it comes to me with the natural, inevitable shock and ecstasy of beauty. I am going straight into the horror of war. For all I know it may be anywhere, here, behind this sentry; or there, beyond that line of willows. I don’t know. I don’t care. I cannot realise it. All that I can see or feel is this beauty. I look and look, so that I may remember it. Is it possible I am enjoying myself? (JIB, 12).
She compares her feeling with those of “Mrs Torrence” (Elsie Knocker) and the others, “who seem to me inspired with an austere sense of duty, a terrible integrity” (12). Moreover, Mrs Torrence is so brave. “I conceive an adoration for Mrs Torrence and a corresponding distaste for myself” (16). But the danger fascinates her:
A curious excitement comes to you. I suppose it is excitement, though it doesn’t feel like it. You have been slightly drunk, very slightly drunk with the speed of the car. But now you are sober. Your heart beats quietly, steadily, but with a little creeping, mounting thrill in the beat. The sensation is distinctly pleasurable. […] You can imagine there thing growing, growing steadily, till it becomes ecstasy (JIB 12-13).
Later on, in a letter of 16 October 1915 to H.G. Wells, she described it in similar terms:
Danger’s different, there’s always a fascination about it. But out there there’s something more, I’ve tried to describe it, but I can’t, it’s an awfully intimate thing, only, at the bad moments, such as they were, it was as near ecstasy as it cd. be (quoted by Raitt, 158).
On 8 October she met her first wounded man, and forced the stretcher bearers to carry him even though they needed a rest. She watched as Dr Munro “rammed cyanide gauze into the red pit [of the wound]. It looked as if he were stuffing an old crate with straw” (198). On the 9th she went again as five wounded men were taken into the ambulance. On 10 October, when she tried to get onto the ambulance to go with the others, Mrs Knocker physically pushed her out of the vehicle, saying “You can’t come. You’ll take up the place of a wounded man”. Sinclair commented “it was the most revolting thing that had happened to me yet, in a life filled with incidents that I have no desire to repeat” (248).
That evening they hear rumours that Antwerp had fallen to the Germans. The following day, after Sinclair has spent a night watching over a wounded man, they hear that Ghent has to be evacuated. they retreat to Bruges, and then to Ostend.
Elsie Knocker said of Sinclair:
She was a very intellectual, highly strung woman who managed to survive for only a few weeks before the horrors of war overcame her and she was sent home. Her functions were not entirely clear: I think she was to act as secretary to Dr Munro, though she could only have had the effect of making his own confusion slightly worse, and there was the idea that she might help to swell the corps’ tiny finances by writing articles for the Press about its work (quoted Raitt, 155).
Knocker thought that the horrors of the war had overcome Sinclair, and that consequently she was sent home. This is not actually in conflict with Sinclair’s own account, except that what was presented to her was that the funds were running out, and they needed for her to go to London to do some fund-raising. Quite soon, she realised that this had been an excuse to get rid of her. That was the end of her war experience. She returned to England on 13 October 1914, and did not return to the Front. Nevertheless, she ended her Impressions with the words: “I do not know whether I have done the right thing or not in leaving Flanders (or, for that matter, in leaving Ghent). All that I know is that I love it and that I have left it. And that I want to go back” (332).
Her involvement with the war was far from over, though from then on it took a largely literary turn. (On a personal note, two of her nephews were killed in 1915, and a third was so ill after his years in a prisoner-of-war camp that she had to spend several months nursing him in her London house.) In A Journal of Impressions in Belgium, and in her novels, she continues to work out the complex feelings inspired by her nineteen days in Belgium. The first novel that she wrote after her return from Belgium was Tasker Jevons: The Real Story (1916) in which the wife follows her husband to the Front, as a nurse; The Tree of Heaven (1917) weaves together her experiences as a suffragette and the nursing service (the hero is a poet whose conscience eventually compels him to abandon his pacifism to become a soldier); The Romantic (1920) tells of a couple who decide to set up an ambulance unit in Belgium as the war breaks out; Anne Severn and the Fieldings (1922) has a manipulative woman (Elsie Knocker?) who has the man who controls the ambulance unit at her beck and call, and edges out potential rivals.
My information comes largely from Suzanne Raitt’s May Sinclair: A Modern Victorian (Oxford: Clarendon, 2000).