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A Nation at Bay: What an American Woman Saw and Did in Suffering Serbia

April 19, 2008


A Nation at Bay: What an American Woman Saw and Did in Suffering Serbia

By Ruth S. Farnam, over 30 B/W photos

Bobbs-Merrill Co. (1918), 229 pp.

Reviewed by Christopher Deliso

This remarkable first-hand account of the First World War in the Balkans, available infrequently and only in its original 1918 printing, is the passionately told work of an American woman who, moved by the great suffering of the Serbian people at the hands of German and Austrian invaders in World War I, volunteered to assist with medical work, humanitarian fund-raising and, by the end of the book, briefly became an honorary soldier in the Serbian army as it was on the verge of breaking the Bulgarian lines on the River Crna in Macedonia in October of 1916.

A Nation at Bay: What an American Woman Saw and Did in Suffering Serbia is not a work of immense historical significance, nor will it win awards stylistically. The author’s evident subjectivity (the Germans are presented as the “blonde beast,’ the Bulgarians derisively as “Mongols,’ etc.) might also be considered to detract from its value for some, though it should be said that the simple sincerity of the author’s voice does come through, as do her strongly held beliefs, loud and clear. For what it’s worth, however, this book does provide some unique insights into the war and life in the Balkans at the time, along with some vignettes about political figures of note.

History records little of Ruth Farnham, an American born in 1873. She was married to another American, and (as a photo indicates) possessed a rather sumptuous residence in England. She must have been a woman of extraordinary toughness. The old “war is hell” ethos prevails throughout A Nation at Bay, from the vivid descriptions of horribly wounded and tortured Serbian soldiers in Belgrade to the depiction, in the penultimate chapter, of actual front-lines fighting in Macedonia. Far from shrinking from the action, the author wins the affections of the Serbian soldiers by her zeal for the cause and for her bravery in very dangerous situations. That she seldom complained, and protested when anyone wanted to put her needs before those of the rank and file, also apparently endeared Farnham to her unlikely comrades in arms.

An interesting fact about the book is that it was penned while the war was still going on, in 1918. At the time the author had returned to America from the front, via the lengthy and difficult (between the bureaucracy and the furtive German submarines) route from Greece through Italy to France and England, and was making speeches and raising funds for providing medical and other humanitarian supplies for Serbian civilians and soldiers. As such, her book might be considered a classic piece of for-the-moment war propaganda; however, it is much more than that, preserving over the long decades observations and anecdotes of a time that no longer seems recognizable to us.

Along with the more general descriptions of the Serbian countryside, village life and zadruga household system common at the time, Farnam provides interesting specific images, such as descriptions of Senegalese conscripts marching in the French army, and grand old Salonica, swarming with the allied war effort. Amusing anecdotes of dealing with surly Italian border police, and unfailingly polite British officials, are retold. The author’s personal interactions with famous individuals such as the gallant Prince Alexander of Serbia and “that splendid patriot,” Greek Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos, liven up the book, and provide an element of historicity to it.

There are more dramatic contentions, such as the claims that the Bulgarians and Germans were selling hundreds of Serbian girls into the harems of Constantinople, or that Bulgarians were injecting Serbian civilians with “inoculations” composed of diseases, though these are harder to verify. The obviously partisan author does seem to have a way of getting swept up in things, though this should not detract from the veracity of her specific personal experience as recounted. And while her brief recounting of the Serbian army’s desperate flight across the mountains of Albania to be evacuated by boat to Corfu in the winter of 1915-16 is positively elegiac, this and other accounts of strength amidst great hardship do give the book, the simplicity and naivete of style considered as well, an oddly moving feel.

In the end, considering the current situation, what is perhaps most unusual about the story Ruth Farnam tells in A Nation at Bay: What an American Woman Saw and Did in Suffering Serbia is the fact that Americans and Serbs were fighting on the same side. This fact, and the significance of it, are constantly cited throughout the book. One suspects that was this stout, uncompromising author to be resurrected today, certain American officials would be in for more than a good sound tanning.

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