Sinclair, A Journal of Impressions in Belgium

Sinclair is more than open about what this journal of impressions is, and what it is not. It is not a work which depicts ‘the Solid Facts and the Great Events’, but instead it is the journal of Sinclair’s psychological experiences in Belgium. The impressions she has written here are of her experiences regarding what she felt and what her impressions make her believe she saw, and, therefore, she makes “no apology for my many errors” as this is a “human document”. An impression. The literary stylings of this make it of great interest to me personally, as I am a great admirer and student of Ford Madox Ford who, as far as I am concerned, is the master of Impressionism, which is what Sinclair here is referring to. (See my ‘Impressionism and the Great War’ post for more on this) Regarding what it actually depicts, though, this is also a fantastically valuable memoir as it is in fact one of the first. Sinclair was one of the first writers to get out to the front, volunteering immediately at the outbreak of the war with the ambulance corps, and this Journal was published in extracts in the English Review, a literary magazine started by Ford Madox Ford, in as early as May and June 1915. The work therefore gives an insight into the opening manoeuvres of the First World War and is a gateway into the mood of an early volunteer – Sinclair. The aspect that is going to be looked at here is the change in narrative present, a move matching her outlook to the war as she is witness to its severity and horrors.

Sinclair describes the initial process of getting to the front in much the same manner as Vera Britain in Testament of Youth – as a battle against the red tape to actually volunteer and help out. Sinclair writes this with a great sense of wit and light-heartedness, insinuating the naivety present at the war’s outbreak with those involved not yet understanding the conflict’s pain and suffering. For example here is one of a number of silly plans she outlines on a voluntary scheme to aid the wounded:

we were to have sent out a detachment of stalwart Amazons in khaki breeches who were to dash out on to the battle-field, reconnoitre, and pick up the wounded and carry them away slung over their saddles. The only difficulty was to get the horses. But the author of the scheme—who had bought her breeches—had allowed for that. The horses were to be caught on the battle-field; as the wounded and dead dropped from their saddles the Amazons were to leap into them and ride off… (3)

This light-heartedness continues upon her arrival into Ostend. Sinclair describes that in the build-up to their arrival she had been scared by the potential horrors she would see: “I had been living in black funk; in shameful and appalling terror. Every night before I went to sleep I saw an interminable spectacle of horrors…” (8) However, on arrival this disappears as she is not immediately confronted with any horrors and “this strange visualizing process ceases” – “Until suddenly the Commandant announces that he is going into the town, by himself, to buy a hat, and I get my first experience of real terror. For the hats that the Commandant buys when he is by himself – there are no words for them.” (8) There is no doubt a sense of dramatic exaggeration in her impressionism here, exaggeration is a large part of Ford’s impressionism too, and this serves to accentuate her initial mood in relation to the war.

Eventually, however, the mood changes when Sinclair is confronted with the true horrors of her experience. These horrors are arguably first seen in relation once more to the infuriating red tape that initially prevented her group from immediately going to Europe, though this time with deadly impact:

Two wounded men were left lying out on the battle-field all night after yesterday’s fighting. The military ambulances did not fetch them. Our ambulance was not sent out. There are all sorts of formalities to be observed before it can go. We haven’t got our military passes yet. And our English Red Cross brassards are no use. We must have Belgian ones stamped with the Government stamp. And these things take time. (21)

This marks the starting point, in my view, of Sinclair’s true war experience. Though for her it is the trip into Antwerp which stands out with significance, for it is here where a majority of fighting was taking place. “I have no clear recollection of Sunday morning,” writes Sinclair, “because in the afternoon we went to Antwerp; and Antwerp has blotted out everything that went near before it.” (115) From here onwards the style can be seen to alter and Sinclair swaps to a lengthy writing style of flowing description, depicting the horrors she sees through this stream:

And wherever the ambulance cars go they meet endless processions of refugees; endless, for the straight, flat Flemish roads are endless, and as far as your eye can see the stream of people is unbroken; endless, because the misery of Belgium is endless; the mind cannot grasp it or take it in. You cannot meet it with grief, hardly with conscious pity; you have no tears for it; it is a sorrow that transcends everything you have known of sorrow. These people have been left “only their eyes to weep with.” But they do not weep any more than you do. They have no tears for themselves or for each other. This is the terrible thing, this and the manner of their flight. It is not flight, it is the vast, unhasting and unending movement of a people crushed down by grief and weariness, pushed on by its own weight, by the ceaseless impact of its ruin. (120)

Sinclair’s position as witness to the war changes her outlook regarding it, and this can be seen in part here in the change of narrative voice. Moving from light handed wit to a gritty stream of descriptive consciousness. The account is well worth a read in full, and I have not done justice to it in this brief review as there are many more areas within it besides this. Particularly strong is the other aspect of her narrative voice, the increasing feeling of her own inadequacy and regret whilst surrounded by the true heroics of the ambulance crew compared to her own acts as reporter and observer. The narrative is unreliable, being impressionistic and at times going as far as a fictionalised memoir, however the changing narrative voice is a useful thing to track in relation to the war’s impact upon those who experienced it and I can strongly recommend it as a read. 6/10

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