- Women of Valor: The Rochambelles on the WWII Front
The observation from Ecclesiastes that "of making many books there is no end" was never more apt than with regard to World War II. Every theater of the war has been reported on, remembered and studied from every point of view, in historical records, scholarly studies, biographies, memoirs, documentary films, and frequent revisions of earlier accounts. There would seem to be little to add [End Page 605] at this date to the experiences of those who have been given the honorific of "the greatest generation." Yet while participants in the conflict are still among us, writers continue to unearth little-known stories of pain or valor, contributions made or hardships endured. Occasionally a literary masterpiece emerges. More often, the work is of interest primarily to those it celebrates and those with a particular focus on its subject.
Such is the case with this well-meant but weightless account of a group of women ambulance drivers who served on the European front during some of the most difficult days of the war. The problem is not with their story but with the telling, a chronological record of a group's exploits by a journeyman writer who fails to bring scenes and characters alive or to imbue them with the gravitas of a gifted historian.
The "Rochambelles" is the rather cute girlish version of their name adopted by the Rochambeau Group, named for a French hero of the American Revolution. The group was formed by Florence Conrad, the American widow of a wealthy Parisian, who organized its volunteers, ordered and paid for their ambulances and other equipment herself, and persevered against military authority until the group was officially made part of General Leclerc's Second Armored Division. They were the first all-female contingent at the front, and their dedication and efficiency on the battlefield turned reluctant acceptance by the authorities into admiration and praise.
This should have made for an absorbing tale. All the ingredients are there: a varied crew of adventurous women from different walks of life; a rigorous period of training; blood and guts spilling from the bodies of young soldiers carried by compassionate and comforting women drivers to field hospitals over tortuous roads near enemy lines; moments of relaxation and comradeship amidst the strain of duties.
But somehow nothing seems to catch hold of the reader. The tone of the book is reminiscent of an alumnae or sorority publication; like the suffix "belles" it never loses its upbeat "look what girls can do" point of view, which shortchanges the seriousness of the subject and the participants. Surely these women must have had some darker thoughts and deeper feelings than this account suggests in its casual use of memories and anecdotes. There have been many histories told both in the first person and by historians and journalists of the experiences of women in wartime France—in the Resistance, on the transports, in the camps, or even at home making the best of hunger, cold, fear, and loneliness—which have the power to move by virtue of some revelation about the human condition that resonates with the reader.
Women of Valor is not gripping enough to provide any such resonance. Not a book to recommend for the general reader, the story of the Rochambelles does make a contribution to the history of women in the military, and deserves the attention of students of military history and of women's studies for the data it provides about the role that women have played in wars past.