Harriet’s War (2018)

Published: Commando #5179

Art: Khato (story); Ian Kennedy (cover)

Writer: Andrew Knighton

In honour of Armistice Day, “A Resource on Jinty” brings you this Commando. 

Plot

It’s October 1918 in Belgium, but for Harriet “Harry” Weekes, an army nurse and ambulance driver, the closing days of WWI have gotten tougher than ever with increased fighting and lines on the move, which means more casualties. Not that she’s going to let that stop her and her friend Vera Davis from helping them. Harriet and Vera get so close to the combat zone they’re nicknamed “the angels on wheels”. They also get a lot of sexist remarks from chauvinist pig officers. Having grown up with four brothers Harriet knows how to stand her ground, but unfortunately she tends to go over the top about it. We soon see Harriet is the more emotional and prejudicial of the two; Vera is the cool head who thinks before she acts, is more open-minded and empathic, and acts as the voice of reason when Harriet’s hot head steams up.

Vera and Harriet get captured by a German soldier, Hauptmann Franz Maier, who wants them to treat their wounded. Seeing the state the wounded German soldiers are in, Vera immediately goes to help them. But Harriet does so under protest because they’re the enemy, “brutes” and “murderers”. She prompts Vera to make a run for it with her, but a German soldiers sees them and opens fire, wounding Vera. Harriet notices that Maier stopped the Germans firing more bullets, but she isn’t voicing her gratitude. Harriet is impressed to see Vera continue to treat the German soldiers despite her injury. 

Harriet is both surprised and angry when Maier questions how compassionate she is, running off like that when those men needed her. Harriet’s still too consumed with anti-German prejudice to show even one ounce of compassion when Maier says they’ve lost all their medics because of the Allied advance: “You could do the decent thing and surrender!”. She even slaps Maier.

Then their attention is drawn to a German soldier, Gerhard Muller, whose condition is now critical and medical attention is urgent. Harriet is so surprised to see the softer side of Maier when he tries to comfort Muller that she begins to open her mind. She even obeys Maier’s order to drive Muller to a German medical station. Maier comes along as translator and to deal with any hostile Germans. Harriet is even more surprised to hear Maier does realise the war is pretty much done (his final orders to his men reflected that); all he can do now is save his men.

The drive takes them through hostile German territory. Maier is very surprised at how Harriet drives through such territory; she says no man’s land has given her plenty of practice. 

When they arrive at the German medical station they find it’s in a sorry state because of Allied artillery bombardment. They manage to stabilise Muller with what is available, but he needs proper medical treatment and it’s not available there. As they treat Muller, Harriet and Maier draw closer together when he says he studied English in London and has friends there and Harriet says Muller reminds her of her brother Tommy. They draw even closer together when the station is hit by more artillery fire. It catches Harriet by surprise, as she never has encountered bombardment before, but Maier tells her what to do.

They can’t stay because of the bombardment. Harriet is against heading further towards the German lines because of the artillery – their better bet is to head for the British ones. Now it’s Maier who has to overcome his prejudices – against the British army! He doesn’t relish the thought of a POW camp either if he surrenders to the British.

Maier agrees to take Muller to the British lines, but the ambulance has to fight its way through more fighting and artillery as the Germans fight the British advance. Along the way she promises British soldiers she’ll come back for them. Muller is approaching death, and he reminds Harriet so much of her brothers that she’ll risk anything for him. And she does – she heads straight for the main British force, which is right in the heart of the fighting!

But when they arrive, it’s not the fighting that’s the problem, it’s the anti-German prejudice the soldiers have. Not even the forceful Harriet can persuade them to allow Muller to be treated and Maier ends up in the POW camp. Fortunately the nurses eventually reach a medical station where Harriet’s friend Captain Scott is in charge. They soon have Muller on the mend, and in the nick of time. Scott treats Vera’s wound as well. Harriet honours her promise to go back for the Allied soldiers, although by now she is collapsing from exhaustion. When the armistice is declared, everyone in the ward, including Maier (allowed out), celebrates, whether “British or German, nurse or soldier”. 

Thoughts

The story makes one huge comment about prejudice and how it can make good characters flawed as well as less savoury ones. Harriet’s wartime prejudice against Germans is so deep she’s not honouring the Hippocratic Oath, which dictates that medics treat all patients regardless of who or what they are. Maier’s prejudice is against the British army, a prejudice that proves more justified than Harriet’s when the British lines meet him, to the extent of their refusing to let Muller be treated because he’s German. By contrast, we have Vera and Captain Scott, neither of whom let prejudice get the better of them and both offer medical treatment to anyone who needs it. On the flip side is the chauvinism in some officers who don’t approve of women at the front, not even when they’re doing honourable and invaluable things there.

The story also illustrates that prejudice can be overcome and bridges get crossed. But Harriet illustrates that in some cases it takes a lot to do it. In her case, it’s being forced to work together with Maier. In the process she learns that Germans are human beings too and becomes more compassionate and empathic, and in so doing becomes a far better nurse than when she first started. At the beginning of the story she would never have dreamed she would celebrate Armistice Day together with Germans, but that’s precisely what happens. And so we get a far more satisfying end to the story than the Allies just hearing Armistice has come and the helmets fly up in the trenches in celebration.

Sadly, it’s not universal. Harriet and Maier are exceptions to the rule. For the most part, anti-German prejudice would have continued to run deep and, as history knows, it went a long way towards the infamous Treaty of Versailles, which proved to be the bedrock for the rise of Hitler and the start of World War II.

You also come away from this story with a whole new respect for wartime ambulance drivers. The story really shows what a tough, dangerous job it was, navigating such dangerous, unpredictable territory, sometimes having to drive through the line of fire itself and risk being blown up or whatever, in order to get much-needed medical attention to the boys on the battlefield. And so often you have to make do with what is to hand, which in the line of fire can get constantly blown up and be in short supply or not available at all. The story makes a strong point that medical services were casualties of artillery fire too, which did not distinguish what it hit.

The only problem I find with the story is one plot error. They keep talking about Muller needing a blood transfusion and antibiotics. Historically, in World War I the former was infrequent and its technology inadequate, and the latter was unavailable. If a bit more research could have been done there, we would have seen an even grimmer and more realistic of the medical situation on the WWI front that would illustrated how primitive WWI medicine was by modern standards. 

The Commando is yet another in the new line of Commandos to feature female protagonists. Its focus on nursing rather than resistance fighters or army officers is also innovative for Commando. The military must have often thought of nursing as a woman’s occupation, but the story shows that nurses often have to fight their own as much as the female fighters, whether it’s against the bombardment of the battlefield to do their job or the chauvinism of many of their own officers.

10 thoughts on “Harriet’s War (2018)

  1. Very good stuff! I like this sort of post a lot, with a detailed look at a story that I don’t know at all and of a type that I am not familiar with.

    Pat Mills is currently talking on Twitter about how the First World War is very under-represented in war stories; he says it is because it is taken to be less glamorous and features more working class stories than the Second World War. (I paraphrase somewhat and might have got it wrong there.) Does Commando have a number of WWI stories overall, or did they mostly feature as part of the 14-18 centenary?

    1. As far as I can tell, Commando has its fair share of WWI stories. More modern warfare such as Vietnam and the Falklands also feature. I have another Commando with a WWI setting that has fighting females in it. Maybe I’ll do an entry on it sometime.

      Yes, WWI is very under-represented in girls’ comics. There are loads of WWII serials in girls’ comics but not WWI. I commented on it in my entries “25 Things you may (or may not) have noticed in girls comics”. It could be because it’s less glamorous, but I also think it’s because WWI Germans aren’t the villains you love to hate as much as Nazis are.

      However, I do recall two WWI stories in The Button Box series, both to do with soldiers.

      1. Yes indeed. Pat M was thinking of boys comics and stories in general about WWI really, like his Charley’s War of course, which he feels had a harder reception than it should have done. Interesting to hear that Commando probably has a fair share of WWI stories. If someone had time and energy it’d be good to have some numbers to back that up, tho I appreciate it is not going to be everyone’s priority of course!

        I agree that the Nazis make a very ‘easy’ enemy to hate, and the feelings for the germans in WWI are more mixed. I think that’s part of Pat’s overall point, that the working class lads on both sides had much more in common with each other than with the lordly officer class in each case, and that this class war element is why this war is less talked about than the second one.

        1. A girls’ serial set in WWI might be interesting. I wonder how it could be done? WWII girls’ serials went for female resistance fighters, fugitives from the Nazis, and evacuees and war orphans on the home front. Female fighters like Kitty Hawke were around, but they didn’t seem to be as popular. Female fighters, nurses and serials set in the home front in WWI could work, but resistance fighters and fugitives wouldn’t because WWI Germany didn’t succeed with invasions and occupying countries as WWII Germany did.

          1. Nurses would work as you say, and they could be located in a number of places including overseas if the characters were old enough. Or, maybe it could go full Slave story and have a bunch of kidnapped girls be put onto nursing wounded German soldiers behind the german trenches! That would make it difficult for them to escape and tell the authorities and of course there would be the dilemma of ‘would they believe me if I told them where I had been and why’!

            1. They did that, sort of, with this story. The Germans kidnapped these British nurses to tend to their wounded, but it was out of desperation because they had lost their own medics.

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