Sunday, August 30, 2015

Shadows In A Timeless Myth Presents True stories of Heroic Women During WWI


Tales of Feminine Deeds of Daring
Thousands of stories from the battlefields tell of the heroism of the women of France, Russia, England, Italy—and all the countries involved in the war—women fighting as soldiers in every army; women who act as spies; women who risk their lives on dangerous missions. A few of these stories are told in these pages. The first three are from the New York World, and the fourth from the New York American.

If Mlle. Gouraud were not the niece of Gen. Gouraud, whose right arm was blown off by a bursting Turkish shell at the Dardanelles, and who was in command of the contingent of Russian troops fighting in France, and who succeeded Gen. Lyautey as Military Governor of Moroccco, she probably would never have had a chance to suffer from "tank sickness." And it's because she came so close to proving her point—that men and women are equal in war work as well as peace pursuits—that Mlle. Gouraud is discouraged. For to-day she is engaged in the—for her—exceedingly tame occupation of driving a motor ambulance between the railroad stations and the various hospitals in Paris.
Mlle. Gouraud has always believed in equal rights for women. When she was sixteen years old and first interested herself in suffrage she was hooted and laughed at. Her first speech was delivered in the Place de la Concorde, in Paris, near the Seine. The crowd deserted her for the river bank to watch some boys' swimming races.

"I'll show them," said Mlle. Gouraud, and forthwith began swimming.

Eighteen months later she was the champion woman swimmer of France, and defeated many Belgian, Italian and German swimmers. Once interested in sports she speedily branched out and became a proficient amateur boxer. She put on the gloves with Frank Moran and Willie Lewis and Eugene Mattrot, and even Georges Carpentier, in exhibition bouts. Then motorcycling became popular, and after she learned the ways and habits of a gas engine she learned to fly and was brevetted.

The day all France was plastered with mobilization order notices Mlle. Gouraud gave up sports. She offered herself for the army, but even the influence of her uncle, Gen. Gouraud, was not enough to win her entree direct into active service. Instead she obtained the post of ambulance driver for a certain unit of aviators. But she was never satisfied with that and finally obtained permission to fly at the front but in a biplane machine, with a Frenchman as mitrailleuse operator.

And there came the rub. Machine gunners clamored for chances to go up with the men pilots, but all hung back at going up with Mlle. Gouraud. It was unlucky, they said, and beside they didn't want to be in on the deal if she persisted in risking her life when there were plenty of men for the job. Just as sailors of old were superstitious about women on board ship, so were the observers and machine gunners superstitious about having a woman in their airplane. And they tried to prove their point by citing the fact that in the burned wreckage of the first Zeppelin brought down inside the French lines were the feet of an incinerated body clad in filmy silk stockings and tiny black satin slippers.
But Mlle. Gouraud stuck to aviation, hoping eventually to persuade some machine gunner to be her team mate and at the same time trying to find another girl who would enter the service with her, until the French Army created its "tank" corps. Then she lost no time in setting to work for a transfer to that arm of the service.

The order for "V. Gouraud" to join the "tanks" was finally put through and she went off to their base, behind the Champagne front, between Soissons and Rheims, thankful at last that she had won a berth in the newest and most dangerous and most exciting and the least understood and most interesting department of the army.

That was only a couple of weeks before Gen. Nivelle's great offensive was unleashed in the middle of April. It was just about the time that Lieut. Charles G. Sweeny of San Francisco and West Point, the only commissioned American in the French infantry, gave up his post in charge of a squadron of "tanks" to return to the United States and offer his services to the United States Army.

The first week of Mlle. Gouraud's training was easy and delightful to her. Inside the steel walls of the mobile fortress she learned to swing the little three-pounders and to operate the cartridge belts of the machine guns that bristled from all sides of the armored car. She learned how to sight through the periscopes projecting from the roof and sides to see the way and the enemy, and all the other routine work of the "tank's" crew.

But the second week, when she began her training in a "tank," spelled her undoing. The walls and the roof of the "tank" are covered with leather upholstery, and every projecting bit of mechanism and artillery in the little chamber was also cushioned with leather, because as the great steel fort plunged forward across shell craters and over trenches and up and down great piles of debris—which had once been French villages—the occupants were tossed about inside like ashes in a sifter.

But cuts and bruises and knocks and falls didn't weaken Mlle. Gouraud's determination to stay with the "tank" for the great offensive soon to be begun when the engines of destruction were to receive their baptism of fire under the tricolor. So she rigged up a sort of harness, with a line attached to a ring in the roof of the "tank" and with a belt around her waist. This left her swaying like a pendulum when the "tank" was moving but kept her from bumping against the walls, and, what was more important, from stumbling against other members of the crew and interfering in the pursuit of their duties.

Then the blow descended. Mlle. Gouraud fell ill of "tank sickness." Worse than seasickness, worse than any form of sickness which comes as result of riding in airplane, or on camel, or by any form of transportation ever invented, "tank sickness" rendered her absolutely incapable of remaining with the movable forts. So she was drafted out, sent to hospital as "malade" and in a few days when she was discharged, was shunted back to Paris as "reforme."

Just one fact consoles Mlle. Gouraud to a certain extent. And that is that she is not the only victim of "tank sickness."

"I stuck it out three days longer than any of the rest of the crew who were subject to it," she says.

The thrilling adventures of Mme. Simone Puget, noted Frenchwoman, who, under disguises as a Belgian peasant and British "Tommy," undertook reaching her husband in the trenches at the grave risk of losing both their lives. While they were still together his regiment was despatched to the dreaded "first line" and ten days later she was notified of his death under fire.

There arrived in New York from Europe a young Frenchwoman, Mme. Simone A. Puget, dressed in deep mourning. Watching her as she stepped ashore, a stranger scarcely could picture her as she actually was, not many months ago, wearing the uniform of an English soldier and risking her life in that vague, blood-soaked and shattered inferno of trenches, craters and barbed-wire called "somewhere in France," to reach her husband before he died.

Even before that Mme. Puget had achieved fame as the daring Frenchwoman who accompanied her husband, M. Andre Puget, the playwright and novelist, through the Orient disguised as his brother, and as the brilliant tennis player who captured the woman's championship for her country four years ago. Mme. Puget also is the author of "Les Etrangères," and other novels.

"There is so little to tell," she said quietly ... as she folded her hands on her simple black dress. "We were in Paris when war was declared and my husband was called to the front.

"I volunteered as an ambulance driver and worked almost day and night for four months carrying wounded from a field hospital to the big emergency hospitals in Paris.

"Then I heard that Andre had been wounded and sent to Moulins. I went to him immediately and stayed to nurse him until he was able to rejoin his regiment.

"After my return to Paris I received another message, this time from a little village close to the Belgian frontier, but across the border in Belgium. It did not say in so many words that Andre had been wounded again, but merely gave me the impression that he wanted to see me once more and that I was to try to reach him.

"I quickly realized the difficulties and dangers of such a journey. Only a short time before the military authorities had made it a law that any soldier whose wife was found in forbidden territory would be shot. But Andre and I had been through many dangers together and he knew that he could trust me. I prepared to start at once. Armed with my letter, which simply asked me to come without delay to the bedside of my dying grandfather, I left Paris for Belgium attired as a Belgian peasant girl.

"Outside Paris I was stopped. The military guards absolutely refused to let me proceed.

"'We see too many letters like yours,' was the only explanation offered.

"In vain did I plead and weep. Then when I had almost given up in despair, I spied an English officer whom Andre and I had met in India. I told him who I was and he recalled me at once, despite my peasant garb. I asked him to help me to reach my husband. He said it was impossible.

"But I was desperate and when I wept and quietly implored his aid, he said he would help me if he could. That was the last time I saw him, but after my return to the little hotel where I had spent the night I received a parcel containing a soldier's uniform together with some instructions.

"I always felt very much at home dressed as a man, for I travelled all through Persia and other parts of the Orient as my husband's brother.

"An artillery train with much baggage was about to move forward and I could go with that provided I didn't object to riding in a forage wagon for six hours. My peasant costume I was to take with me wrapped in a bundle. Once through the rear lines in Belgian territory I was to look out for myself.
"We started. I rode for hours and hours, expecting at every halt to be detected and questioned. But fortune smiled on me and that night after we were well across the border of Belgium I slipped down and walked forward unchallenged. The place fairly swarmed with soldiers, Belgian, French and British. Near a farm house I changed back to my simple Belgian peasant garb and prepared to resume my journey on foot as soon as it became daylight.

"Fortunately I had not many miles to reach the farm to which the letter had directed me. Walking all day I reached the farm that night and there I learned to my great joy that my husband was safe. He had not been wounded, but his regiment was under orders to leave within a day or so for another part of the front where severe fighting was expected and he wanted to see me once more, if possible, before he left. I saw him next day. He came to the farm. Then on the morrow he marched away with his regiment toward Arras, and ten days later he was killed."

Mme. Andre found that it was easier to get out of the war zone than into it and she had little difficulty in returning to Paris. There she began to raise funds for Red Cross work and to gather material for future reference about the men-of-letters of America, France and England who have given up their lives in the great war.

We in America find it possible to read with calm pulse and an attitude of cold, reasoned impartiality the stories that are written in red blood and heroic action by real participants in the great war. Their language, like their viewpoint, seems to us extreme, violent, embittered. Yet, inasmuch as the presence of stern reality, which colors viewpoint and language, is the same that inspired the valorous action itself, we submit, exactly as it came from Paris, this article, which recounts at first hand the desperate courage of Mlle. Moreau.

In the musty archives of the French Government she is merely Emilienne Moreau, youngest of her sex to have achieved mention in Gen. Joffre's Order of the Day and the right to wear upon her breast the Cross of War. But to thousands upon thousands of French and British soldiers, she is the Jeanne d'Arc of Loos—whose valiant spirit won back Loos for France.

The Official Journal has only this to say about Emilienne Moreau:

"On Sept. 25, 1915, when British troops entered the village of Loos, she organized a first-aid station in her house and worked day and night to bring in the wounded, to whom she gave all assistance, while refusing to accept any reward. Armed with a revolver she went out and succeeded in overcoming two German soldiers who, hidden in a nearby house, were firing at the first-aid station."
No mention is made in the official record of the fact that she shot down the two Germans when their bayonets were within a few inches of her body; and that later on she destroyed, with hand bombs snatched from a British grenadier's stock, three more foemen engaged in the same despicable work.
Nor is it set forth how, when the British line was wavering under the most terrible cyclone of shells ever let loose upon earth, Emilienne Moreau sprang forward with a bit of tri-colored bunting in her hand and the glorious words of the "Marseillaise" upon her lips, and by her fearless example averted a retreat that might have meant disaster along the whole front. Only the men who were in that fight can fully understand why Sir Douglas Haig was right in christening Emilienne Moreau the Joan of Arc of Loos.

All this happened during the last great offensive of the allies in Artois, between Arras and La Bassee. For almost a year before Emilienne Moreau, who is now just seventeen, had lived in Loos under the rule of the invader. During almost all of that time the village had been under the allies' artillery fire. Yet neither she nor her parents made any attempt to move to a safer place.

Their home was in Loos, and some day, they felt sure, the Germans would be driven back. They were always short of food. Sometimes they faced death by starvation, as well as by bombardment.
But they remained, and Emilienne even contrived to continue the studies by which she hoped to become a school teacher.

Like the historic Maid of Orleans, the maid of Loos has not only the warlike but the diplomatic genius. Despite the dangers she faced because she was both young and comely, she succeeded in gaining the Germans' confidence to such an extent they entrusted to her much of the administration of what remained of the village.

Children whose parents had been killed or taken away as prisoners were put in her care, and she was permitted to give them what little schooling was possible under the conditions. She was at the same time the guardian angel of her entire family; for her father, a hot-blooded old veteran of 1870, frequently put them in danger of drastic punishment by his furious denunciations of the enemy.

His chagrin so embittered him that, what with that and scanty nourishment, he died. Then Emilienne became the protectress and sole support of her mother and her ten-year-old brother.

She buried her father with her own hands, in a coffin built by her brother and herself, there being neither undertakers nor carpenters left in Loos. And she continued to go quietly about her many tasks, still stifling within her the resentment against the ever-present "Boche," until there came that glorious day when she knew the allies' offensive had begun.

For three days the girl huddled in the cellar with her terror-stricken mother and little brother waiting for the end of that awful cannonade which she realized was destined to bring the British to Loos.
Every minute of those seventy-two hours she and every one of the handful of old men, women and children in the village were facing death, but she told an English officer after it was all over that to her it had been the happiest time since the German occupation began.

As soon as Emilienne heard among the deep notes of the guns the sharp reports of rifles she rushed out into the street and into the midst of the first phase of the battle. The British were driving the Germans before them at the point of the bayonet, but there was still much desperate activity going forward with bombs and hand grenades, for remnants of the German main line were ensconced strongly in various fortlets and bombproofs scattered among the trenches. On every street of Loos the wounded lay thickly.

Emilienne saw there was only one way she could help them, and so very swiftly she turned the Moreau house into a miniature hospital, and with the aid of the British Red Cross men she tended as many wounded as she could drag from the maelstrom of the fight.

It was when the first lull came that she detected the firing upon her first-aid station. How she followed and shot down the two Germans responsible for this wanton attack is narrated in the official report. Not long afterward she located three more in the act of perpetrating the same outrage, and this trio she despatched with grenades borrowed from a British sergeant.

Although it was the first time in the war that a woman had fought with hand bombs, such was the confusion of the battle that her brave exploit passed unremarked until it was revealed by a special correspondent of a Paris newspaper, the Petit Parisien, who got the story from British soldiers. From the same source all France learned that because a young girl had been courageous enough to sing the "Marseillaise" amidst the din of battle the British troops had ceased to falter in their advance, and the village of Loos had again become part of France.

The spirit of Jeanne d'Arc, which inspired Mlle. Emilienne, is abroad, not only in her native France, but among the women of France's allies as well. Their heroines emerge in the war news day by day—sometimes individually, sometimes en masse.

There is an actual "Regiment de Jeanne"—a whole corps of French and Belgian women commanded by Mme. Louise Arnaud, who has obtained permission from the War Minister to put them in uniform. The corps is for general service at the front, one-third of the members to be enrolled as combatants, drilled and armed like ordinary soldiers, and all able to ride and swim.

Mme. Arnaud is the widow of an officer who was killed in the war. Her father was a merchant ship captain of Calais. Her new "amazon" command is to be officially designated the "Volunteer Corps of French and Belgian Women for National Defence."

Servian and Russian women are fighting alongside the men in the trenches along the Balkan and other fronts to-day. Mme. Alexandra Koudasheva, a distinguished Russian literary lady and musician, has been appointed Colonel of the Sixth Ural Cossack Regiment of the Czar's army, for her valiant services in the field.

England has the London Women's Volunteer Reserve, headed by Col. Viscountess Castlereagh, which drills regularly at Knightsbridge Barracks and has reached a high state of efficiency, both in manoeuvers and the manual of arms.

Many of the English women soldiers are assisting the authorities as guards of railway bridges and other points of military importance in out of the way parts of the country.

The British Government shows no disposition to make use of the women in fighting, but many of the women themselves are eager to fight. The "suffragettes" have made themselves remarkable by demanding a more vigorous prosecution of the war.

The reports generally agree that the women fight with great bravery and some even say that they display greater bloodthirstiness than men. This is an interesting question which has hardly yet been settled, although psychologists have furnished an explanation why we should expect them to be more ferocious. They are of course more emotional and when circumstances such as an attack on their homes or children force them to overcome their womanly instincts and resort to fighting, they throw away all restraint and fight with mad, instinctive ferocity.

A terrible tragedy, this cruel war that is tearing and searing Europe, but joy is sometimes an offspring of sorrow. In this instance one wonders if anything less strange and stern than an international earthquake would have delivered the beautiful Nadina Legat into the arms of Enrico Arensen. True, Arensen is a great singer and a distinguished musician, but he is a plebeian, whereas Mlle. Legat (her stage name), also a brilliant artist, is a member of a noble Russian family, the favorite daughter of General Schuvatoff, who is at present leading an army on the Roumanian frontier. Russian aristocrats, even if they have so far descended from their pedestals as to sing for the public, do not lightly relinquish their hereditary traditions, or if they listen to the pleadings of a lowly lover, a haughty parent intervenes and nips the tender affair in the bud. In this instance, however, it was Mars, and not Cupid, who broke the bars.
When you sit through a performance of grand opera—almost any one of those combinations of drama and music which retain their hold upon the public—you cannot fail to be impressed by the tragic misfortunes which pursue the hero and heroine. The wise composers of grand opera see to it that the principal tenor and the prima donna have troubles calculated to call forth their highest powers of vocal expression. To find these strange and inspiring situations they have searched the dramatic writings of the master-poets of all nations and periods.

Real life, however, occasionally moves a living hero and a living heroine in ways which the master-poets of grand opera could not foresee. By a strange coincidence that has happened to a principal tenor and a prima donna who are impersonating together before grand opera audiences classic heroes and heroines whose history and troubles were much less thrilling than their own.
Its coloratura soprano, formerly of the Russian Imperial Opera, is Mme. Nadina Legat, the much beset Gilda in "Rigoletto"—drawn from Victor Hugo's "Le Roi S'Amuse"; the heroine of "La Traviata," otherwise the consumptive Magdalene, Camille, created by the younger Dumas; the tragically unfortunate Lucia, for whom Donizetti went to Walter Scott's "Bride of Lammermoor."

The beginning of the story is essential because of its bearing on the "big situation." Legat and Arensen enjoyed their first great opera triumph together at the famous La Scala, in Milan, she was Gilda and he the Duke in "Rigoletto." Though both are of Russian birth, this was their first meeting. As La Scala is recognized throughout Europe as the final "acid test" of an opera singer's qualities, the status which both had attained separately in their own country was of comparatively small consequence. With nerves tense to the breaking point, each concentrated on the task of winning that cultivated, critical Milan audience.

At rehearsals their quarrels were rather fiercer than is usual between the principal tenor and the prima donna.

"At that time I could hardly endure him," says Mme. Legat. "We quarrelled terribly. He seemed so unreasonably insistent on certain details at the rehearsals that I considered him unbearable, insupportable."

But Mme. Legat confesses that this feeling did not survive the triumph which they won together. Shortly afterward, when he departed to fill an engagement with the Imperial Opera in Berlin and she was summoned back to Russia, they parted as friends. If they had developed a stronger feeling for each other, neither was aware of it.

They went about their separate opera affairs. The beginning of the European war found Arensen still an opera favorite in Berlin and Vienna. Mme. Legat was spending the Summer at Nice, after two years of distinguished success in Russia, upon which the Czar himself placed the imperial stamp. She wished to return at once to Petrograd, but hearing from her mother that the latter would come to her, she remained at Nice until the Russian Hospital at Monte Carlo was founded, when both became nurses there.

And, month after month, while the celebrated opera soprano was nursing wounded soldiers, not knowing nor caring about anything else, Arensen, the tenor with whom she had quarrelled so fiercely on the stage of La Scala, was virtually a prisoner of war in Germany. For ten[278] days after the beginning of hostilities he continued his successful appearances in Berlin—and then, without warning, the blow fell.

Some said that rival singers, native Germans, directed suspicion against him, as though inquiring:
"Russia is our enemy. What is this Russian doing here?"

One night German soldiers arrested him at the opera house and he was interned as an enemy alien. He appealed to the Government for release, pointing out that he was above the fighting age—as he then was, which was before the Russian army age limit was raised—and Germany would lose nothing by letting him go home. The suggestion fell upon deaf ears. His subsequent efforts to obtain his release the tenor himself relates:

"I was a prisoner for twenty-four hours in the Hausvogter Gefangniss, which is the delightful name the Berlinese give to the institution where they intern aliens. I sent a letter to the Kaiser himself, before whom I have many times sung, asking my release.

"It was not long before I received an answer to the letter, granting my request—a communication from the Kaiser. Of course, there were conditions. I was to go to America as soon as it was practicable for me to do so, anyhow, but that was not sufficient guarantee for the meticulous German war office.

"No, indeed. It was really a very solemn procedure. I had to sign an oath in German and Russian that I would never take up arms in any way against Germany or her allies. My word, once given, was sufficient. The German military commander in charge of the prison camp gave me my freedom, and I received a passport that permitted me to leave the country. On my last night in Germany some German officers opened champagne in my honor.

"I went through Switzerland to Italy, where I remained for some time—in fact, during the greater part of the long conflict that finally broke down the barriers of neutrality and led to Italy's enlistment in the war against her former allies. Eventually I crossed the Piedmont to the border town of Mentone, where I contemplated entering France.

"Alas! Here misfortune began anew. I had barely entered the town when I was halted by a French frontier guard. From that time on I was treated pretty harshly.

"The French Government put me under strict surveillance. I was forced to report twice a day at the town police headquarters, and was really under suspicion at all times. The reason was, of course, that my associations with so many Berlin people were known—the French were aware that I had remained in the German capital after war broke out, and did not purpose to take any chances with me.
"I appealed to the Russian Ambassador in Paris for help, but was turned down pretty coldly. 'I can't do anything for you,' was the gist of his reply to my request, 'because I know that you have a lot of German friends.'

"The outlook was, then, that I should have to remain practically a prisoner until the war was over. It was a pretty black future. At almost any time, something might happen, I suppose, that would give the French reason to think that they had been too lenient in merely keeping me under surveillance. I might have been interned and placed in a real prison camp.

"But Providence intervened. One day last Spring, just after the first Russian troops had come to France, I met a Russian soldier while he was off duty and had the opportunity I longed for to talk with someone who used my native tongue. When he learned my identity, he was much interested, and he gave me some news that proved a godsend.

"'You are Arensen, the tenor!' he said. 'How remarkable! Mme. Legat, of the Imperial Opera at Petrograd, is only a short distance from this place—in the Russian hospital at Monte Carlo!'
"Imagine how the news delighted me! Here, at last, was a friend on whom I could count. I thanked the man profusely for the information he had given. Then I went to my lodgings and wrote an appeal to my country-woman."

The exact wording of that appeal has not been submitted for publication. Its effect upon Mme. Legat was electrical. For the first time in nearly two years she became oblivious to her immediate surroundings—shattered and bleeding war heroes and the gruesome accessories of a military hospital. In all those months she had hardly thought of the quarrelsome tenor who had shared her triumph at La Scala. Now, suddenly, he occupied her whole mental vision—the central innocent victim of an impending tragedy.

So intense was that vision that it overwhelmed her with the vividness of reality. She saw French soldiers dragging Arensen, her countryman, from his prison cell. She saw them place him with his back against a wall. She saw them blindfold him—and she could hear the tramp, tramp of the firing squad. Those grim human instruments of martial law! They turn face to face with the doomed prisoner—their musket butts ring upon the concrete pavement of the prison yard....
Suddenly another figure, that of a woman, rushes upon the scene and falls upon her knees before the commandant of the firing squad.

Mme. Legat recognized this figure as herself—and with the terrifying vision constantly before her eyes she rushed off to Paris to make her personal appeal to the Russian Ambassador.
In the quiet, severe, official atmosphere of the Russian Embassy Mme. Legat calmed herself, collected her wits and prepared to measure them with those of M. Isowsky, her country's chief representative at the French capital. The Russian Ambassador paid to her the homage due to a celebrated singer—and then resumed his frigid official aspect. At her mention of Arensen he froze.
"But, Monsieur Arensen is a fellow Russian—our countryman."

"Madame," said the Ambassador, curtly, "I am by no means positive that Arensen is a loyal Russian. For two years he has lived in Germany and Austria—our two most powerful enemies. He acquired hosts of German friends. He comes to France plastered over with German credentials. He bears the Kaiser's own signed permit to leave Germany. He—"

"Do you believe that I am a loyal Russian?" demanded Mme. Legat.

The Russian Ambassador smiled graciously. Ah, he had no doubt of Madame's loyalty.
That awful vision still obsessed her. She realized that there was nothing she would not do to save Arensen. She remembered that she was the daughter of a general in the Imperial Russian army. She drew herself up to her full height and looked the Russian Ambassador straight in the eyes. She said:
"I will vouch for M. Arensen. I will guarantee that he is a loyal Russian, and will remain so."

"Um——," pondered M. Isowsky. "Well, well—um—how can you be sure? How can you assure me?"

Right then and there Mme. Legat felt a sudden emotion, and knew what she was going to do—what she wanted to do—to dispel that tragic vision.

"I'll give you the assurance of a wife," she said. "I'll marry him!"

The Russian Ambassador was baffled—admitted it. He signed the papers that gave Arensen his freedom as a loyal Russian. The heroine herself relates the sequel:

"Like Tosca in the opera, I sped to him bearing freedom. I didn't have to tell him the whole story—not then. We found that our old acquaintance, begun at La Scala, had blossomed into love during our separation. So he did the proposing. We were married just an hour before the Lafayette sailed, bringing us to the United States."

Compiled from sources in the Public Domain

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Sunday, August 16, 2015

Shadows In A Timeless Myth Presents True Stories of A Nurse At The Front During WWI


An Englishwoman in the F. A. N. Y. Corps in France and Belgium

Told by Grace MacDougall

This is a vivid record of service by an English nurse. It is one of the first accounts of the systematic care of the wounded in modern war. She relates graphically her adventures with the field ambulances owned and driven by the woman; their heroic service to their country on the road to Lierre, at Malines, during the bombardment and flight at Antwerp. She tells how the corps came to Calais, life at the regimental camp, and the stories of the convalescents in the hospitals. The chapter here related is by permission of her American publishers, Robert M. McBride and Company.

One day in the spring of 1915 Chris and I started off for the front with "Flossie," the little Ford ambulance. It was a perfect day, a cold wind blowing but a blue sky overhead. The road between Calais and Dunkirk flew past; the walls of Gravelines and the narrow winding streets were left behind. Dunkirk itself was gay with zouaves in their baggy red trousers. Along by the canal we raced past ponderous convoys toiling up with their loads. Many a staff car and "ravitaillement" wagon met us and sped on their ways. And so to Furnes, no longer the busy centre of activity it had been earlier, but a desolate town with one or two large shell holes in the square. No shops, no cafés, except in the side streets—all was quiet and deserted. So we left Furnes, too, behind. Along the straight bare road we whizzed, and now not far off we heard the old familiar booming. We passed the picket at Pervyse, and there drew up to make inquiries.

As we halted we caught sight of two Englishmen pacing slowly along a side path, looking at the rows of damaged houses—the streets of ruin—and on recognising one as Major G——, a familiar figure in Belgian lines, we hailed him. He introduced his companion, Lord Curzon, and on learning our errand they made further inquiry, and let us know that the fighting was in the neighbourhood of Oostvleteren. We ran on past the field with its 300 shell holes that had formed our first landmark in November. Our old "poste" at the cross-roads was occupied by strangers, who hailed us with delight, and with them we left a few hundred cigarettes and some socks for the —— Division. A shell, mistaking its direction, came crashing to earth on the roadway near by, so we hastened our farewells and shot off past the little church that had been bombarded steadily for months. It was still standing, but the troops once quartered in the cottages round about had been withdrawn. The canal bridge, where the morning washing parade was held regularly in December, was deserted. No life seemed to exist in that once busy spot; and the shrapnel whizzing over us in the sky, directed against the railway to our right, was a sign of the times. We slowed up at Lampernisse, and sadness seized us. The church was down. I recalled its friendly tower—the throng of soldiers that had surrounded it, the gay faces of the little blue Belgians that had met one cheerily on every side. To-day there was quiet and stillness, and the outer walls of the church were represented by heaps of loose stones. Inside the pillars stood—broken wall, broken altar; fragments of glass and melted lead from the windows that had been. As we watched, the curé appeared, sad of face. He came to us simply, and at our few faltering words tears came to his eyes.

"There were 40 wounded inside," he said gently; "we saved all we could." A grave at my feet was churned up—broken bits of wood stuck upright in the earth; a heavy stone monument had turned sideways and lurched forward like a drunken man; and something else lay near, thrown out of the earth to which in happier days the priest had committed it. I shuddered involuntarily. The curé asked if we could take one of his remaining parishioners to safety: she was old and bedridden; her cottage was there in the shadow of the church. Shells came daily and at any time one might strike the roof that sheltered her. We took a stretcher up the tiny path, and in at the little door. There on the floor on a mattress lay an old withered woman. We carried her out gently, the curé helping. General J—— passed—a brave and kindly man, adored by the soldiers. He remembered us, and approved our action. Then he asked us to lunch with him on our return journey.

We started off slowly and evenly and reached Alveringhem, where the curé had told us a convent of nuns took in such old and helpless peasants. Alas! the mother superior refused. Nothing would shake her decision; she would have no more—her hands were full. I looked round the large waiting-room, and begged her to let the poor old thing lie there. But it could not be. So we went on several miles farther, and were directed to a home kept by an Englishwoman for refugees. We sent messengers on every side to find her—unsuccessfully—so we left the old woman in the house in charge of the other refugees, as we could find no one with authority. We left full particulars and departed. We were late, as the difficulty in finding shelter for our charge had been greater than we anticipated.
We lunched off sandwiches en route, and explained our non-appearance for lunch at Divisional Headquarters. General J—— was very charming, and gave us tea and invited us to lunch for another day.

We had arranged to dine at an artillery mess at Ramscappelle, and so hurried on there. Things were fairly lively, and after a wonderful dinner we had some music, and then in the darkness went up to the trenches. The rockets and flares were fascinating. Viewed from afar they are strangely remote, but very friendly here, when one crouched down amongst all these gallant men—soldiers and heroes whose country had been torn from them, whose wrongs cry out for vengeance, whose simple response to honour saved the whole of Europe from being overrun by the barbarous Boches.
We made sure the doctors had no cases to dispose of, and returned to the brickyard, where "Flossie" waited patiently. The flares and a pocket flashlight were all the light we had, and we got off across bumpy roads—in and out of shell holes. Once we nearly had a nasty smash, but that was near Furnes. A convoy of great heavy wagons had been left on the wrong side of the road, and as lights were not permitted and the night very dark Chris was driving slowly and warily—peering into the shadows. She brought "Flossie" to a violent halt, our bonnet touching the first of these unwieldy monsters!


Three days later General J—— sent his motor cyclist to bring us out to lunch. The courtesy was indeed great, as the lad had 50 miles to come, if not more. Unluckily he had a smash, and rode back on the step of our car. He was a type of the modern Belgian youth. Well-bred, clever, with frank, humourous eyes, and the adorable smile of a "Parisian gamin," he kept us amused all the way. His comments were racy, and always gallant.

"I am no longer a simple soldier; I am corporal. The General has done that—because of you others, there is no doubt."

And his merry eyes challenged us to disbelieve that a simple soldier would not be good enough as escort.

"Yes, we are all gay," he would say; "yes, but it is sad too. I am fiancé, and I have no letter from her—no, not from the day the war broke out. I have written, yes, but she does not answer. It is gay the war, n'est-ce pas, madame?"

And a little later, with his childish pout: "I have had a letter from my mother. She is in Brussels; she does not find the war gay. She cannot see me, and she loves me."

His shrill whistle, prolonged on a certain note, took us past sentries and barricades.

"You see, the Belges are musical. There, hear me whistle like a bird, and say 'Passez! passez! les oiseaux!'"

The wind was keen and the roads greasy, but Chris sat steady as a rock, her great grey eyes fixed on the future, her mobile face calm and tranquil. Jean was piqued.

"Look, mam'selle, Chris is absorbed. She drives, yes; but she will not listen to our chatter. She has no time to smile then. Oh, these ladies who drive cars!"

Chris (who had danced and skated in peaceful days with the little cyclist) turned her ready smile in his direction, and he forgave.

We arrived at length at the farmhouse where Divisional Headquarters were. The General was busy, but greeted us warmly. He sent for liqueurs, at the appearance of which Chris edged diplomatically nearer the coal-scuttle. The General produced his mascot, a woolly dog sent by a lady from England. He showed us also his grand chain and Order of Leopold Premier given him for his gallantry at Dixmude. Then we had lunch—and such a luncheon as any London restaurant would have been proud to serve. Suddenly the telephone rang. Taubes were bombarding a village near at hand. Even as the adjutant rang off and reported to the General we heard the engine throbbing overhead. We all ran out to the yard to watch the graceful death-dealing machine circling in the clear sky. Then it flew on and glided out of sight. The General showed me his two horses lying down in a little shed near.
I forgot to mention that before lunch he took us up to his bedroom to wash, and displayed with simple pride the bed he shared with his major and the other bed which two captains occupied.

Accommodation was limited! He also produced a bottle of scent for our use!

Then he sent for his car, and with Major —— we set off for the nearest battery. The chauffeur cared not for speed limits, and a wild rush landed us in a very short time at the corner of a field. We walked across this to inspect a battery of small guns. Then we went on, carefully avoiding the wire of a field telephone to an advanced gun position. As we neared what looked like a ridge of trees we saw that these also were cunningly contrived to conceal the guns. This was a new battery of which the officer in charge was very proud. He told us what good work they had done within the last ten days. They had only been sent up then. In another hour he suggested we might judge for ourselves; but General J—— did not deem it prudent, so we thanked the officer and the cheery gunners for all the trouble they had taken. Here, too, the dug-outs were beautifully finished off—even little panes of glass were let in as windows.


The General then took us to a bridge on the canal where fishing was occasionally indulged in. The doctor who had lunched with us appeared, and with great glee produced a hand grenade which he flung in the water. The explosion was followed by a geyser-like rising of the water, and then hundreds of dead fishes floated to the surface and were caught in a net and safely landed!

Just then an officer joined us to ask if we could take away from the nearest village four little children and their mother, who was shortly expecting another baby. The village was being bombarded, and the little family were in terror. We gladly acquiesced, and the General took us back in his car; we got "Le Petit Camerade" (our second Ford ambulance) into action and departed, Jean, the motor cyclist, being sent by the General to see us on our way. We collected the poor little mother and her four sturdy little boys, wrapped them well up in scarves and balaclavas, and took them to the English lady's refugees' home. Again, unluckily, we failed to find her. Jean ran round himself to look for her, and at last, after waiting for an hour, we left the little family there and departed.

The relief of the good woman was touching. She was not like the other woman with nine children, a husband, and a pig, whom we tried in vain to rescue. The doctors of a certain division were perturbed by the danger run by the nine children (whose ages were from two to eleven), who had to lie in a damp trench for four hours every day whilst their village was bombarded. After much argument, the woman consented to leave, and we arranged with the Refugee Committee in Calais to take them over, and we sent a big car out to fetch them. However, when it came to the point, the mother refused to leave the pig; all persuasion was useless, and the car took the father and the nine to Calais. Two days later he got permission to take his nine children for a walk; and they never returned. News was heard of them walking back the 50 miles to rejoin their mother and the pig!

Having left the four little fellows waving to us from the doorstep, we retraced the road and arrived at Pervyse. Here we said good-bye to Jean and took the road to Ramscappelle. The sentries at first refused to let us pass, as the road was being shelled, but we were in a hurry, so they yielded. We left the car at one point and took shelter in the ruins of a cottage, but a shell also landed there, knocking one of the shattered walls to pieces, and so we deemed it more prudent to rejoin the "Petit Camerade" and race for our lives. A burst of derisive laughter followed us. Unknowingly we had been on the edge of a Belgian trench!

As we neared Ramscappelle a soldier leapt towards us with a warning cry. We heard the cold shriek above our heads that denoted trouble coming; and Chris set her mouth a trifle sternly, rammed her foot on the accelerator, and we were past just as the house staggered towards us and fell, blocking the road behind us. We glanced round; the soldier who had shouted waved reassuringly, and we turned into the old brickyard. A few fresh shells had fallen, and beside the path were two little graves marked with wooden crosses that had not been there last time we passed. We found a suitable place to leave the "Petit Camerade" against a wall of bricks piled high. The ground was rough and greasy. We hurried to the cottage where the artillery mess was, and the whizzing and whistling overhead denoted "activity on the front." In fact we ran at top speed up that garden path and hammered on the door. Friendly faces greeted us, and we were soon inside and the table was being laid.


Our hosts got us a jug of cold water and a basin, and we proceeded to wash on a chair in the corner of the room, the commandant and three other officers being interested spectators. Then we sat down to dinner and had soup and fish and meat; and then, ye gods! asparagus and cheese and fruit—a right noble repast. The windows were barred and shuttered, but all around we heard the heavy boom of big guns, the angry screaming of shells. As the meal drew to an end the two telephones in the room got busy. There were, I think, fifteen officers and ourselves, and two of the subalterns were at the receivers:

"Yes, my wife is in England. She is so happy there; she loves the English, and there is no sign of war." The commandant was interrupted in his peaceful picture by the sharp voices of the telephonists.
"'Allo, 'allo, 'allo! Find the trench major. 'Allo! What? No, the major, find the major; I would speak with the major. No—the major...."

The wild glare of the exasperated man who wanted the major met the equally ferocious stare of the man who held the other wire, and whose voice had all this time been cutting through his.
"'Allo, 'allo! Yes, this is the Artillery; yes, he is here. 'Allo! What? When? At what hour? What? Speak up! Cré nom de Dieu, speak clearly! Pardon, mon Colonel. To-night towards eleven hours.

Yes, mon Colonel. It is understood."

By this time the table talk had risen—something was under discussion.... Our voices rose; the two telephonists' voices rose also. My eyes met Chris's; we could not help laughing—this was like a scene from a pantomime.

"Sapristi!" The man who still wanted the major could not forbear longer.

"Silence—I beg of you. Silence. Be quiet, you with that telephone. 'Allo, 'allo! Find the trench major."

From the other side of the room the other man spoke:

"Be quiet with your own telephone. 'Allo, 'allo! Yes—yes. Gentlemen—ladies—I pray you be silent. 'Allo! Yes—mon Colonel. Oh, what is then—Lieutenant who?"

And so on! We were asked to write our names in the pocket-books of all our hosts. Then someone said "Music," and in a moment we were all round the piano that had been brought from a shelled farmhouse in our honour. The telephones were still busy, and one young lieutenant got orders to go to the top of a very tall chimney that remained standing "to observe, as there was a certain movement along the front." His comrades mocked him, crisping their fingers, as if climbing hand over hand up the long iron ladders.

"You make a good target, George," one wit said soothingly.

George bade us good-night, looking annoyed. We heard him in the passage directing his sergeant to go up the chimney and waken him if necessary!

Chris played and sang song after song; every chorus caught up and re-echoed. Then in a lull we heard steps outside and a heavy banging on the shutter, and as we listened a pure tenor voice lilted:

"Good-bye, Piccadilly,

Good-bye, Leicester Square;

It's a long, long way to Tipperary,

But my heart's right there."

"De —— de ——!" everyone shouted, and Captain de —— entered, smiling.

"Where have you come from?" we asked, for we had last seen him at Calais.

"My battery is seven miles from here, and they telephoned to me you ladies were here, so behold me!"

We had more songs, and then the Belgian National Anthem. It was a fine and inspiring thing to hear—sung from their hearts by these big, strong men who were offering their lives daily for their king and country, and sung as it was to the tune played by Chris, with her lovely girlish face, and the deep booming of the guns to render it still more effective. I shall never forget it.

Then out in the darkness we groped our way to our car, thinking the day's adventures were ended. Along the sky the rockets and star shells blazed and spluttered, lighting us for the moment, and then leaving the darkness still more oppressive around us. It took much pushing and shoving to get the "Petit Camerade" on to the roadway, and our hosts bade us good-bye heartily, though in whispers, as we were very near the "movement along the front."

 Compiled From Sources In The Public Domain.

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Smiles & Good Fortune,
It is not wealth one asks for, but just enough to preserve one’s dignity, to work unhampered, to be generous, frank and independent. W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) Of Human Bondage, 1915

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Shadows In A Timeless Present War Memories From An American Girl In Europe During WWI


By Carita Spencer, Appointed Delegate Extraordinary by Minister Justin Godart, Under-Secretary of State and Head of French Service de Santé

Miss Spencer is an American girl who has been working heroically to relieve suffering in France through various American Committees, including the National Surgical Dressings Committee and also the "Food For France Fund," of which she acted as chairman. She recently collected her experiences under a little volume, the sale of which is devoted to War Relief. "The scenes and occurrences which are recorded in these pages," relates Miss Spencer, "made such a deep impression upon me and remained so vivid that I hope the recital of them may be found interesting to others. If any one is interested in sending assistance to a particular class of war sufferers suggested by the reading of these sketches, he or she may communicate with me at 10 East 58th Street, New York City." Copyrighted, 1916, by Carita Spencer.
Paris, April, 1916.

"La Légation de Belgique a l'honneur de faire connaître à Miss Spencer que Sa Majesté la Reine la recevra Vendredi prochain, 28 avril, à La Panne, à 2 heures et demie. Miss Spencer est priée de vouloir bien prevenir La Légation, du lieu et de l'heure ou on pourrait la faire prendre à Dunkerque ou à Calais."
For six weeks I had wondered where and how the door to the war zone would open, and here at last came the answer. "The Belgian Legation has the honour to inform Miss Spencer that Her Majesty, the Queen, will receive her on Friday at La Panne at half past two."... It was midnight when the letter came, too late to do anything until the morrow, when I must find the way to break all rules for civilians and get out of Paris in three hours instead of eight days.

My official invitation was certainly a wonderful gate-opener. Legations, embassy and war office armed me with the necessary papers in less time than it usually took to reach the sub-clerk in the commissaire's office. Dressed in my khaki suit and my little brown hat with the laurel leaves,—funny little hat, since become famous because so many officers thought I wore the leaves as a presage of victory in honour of the Allies,—with my small handbag, heavy coat and an umbrella, I reached the Gare St. Lazare with twenty minutes to spare. Ahead of me were two English officers, shiny and polished from head to foot, with their elaborate hand luggage all neatly marked. One might think they were running down for a week-end at the Casino. On all sides crowded sky-blue coated poilus, the faded dull looking sky-blue which blends into the horizon and helps to hide the French soldier from the keen-sighted Boche.

Have you ever stood by the gate to the trains and watched the men come up to go back to the front? Some come slowly, slouching along in their stiff boots under the weight of their heavy knapsacks and equipment, tired-eyed but determined. Others come running up in twos and threes, cheerful and carefree. Others come with their wives and children, their mothers, their sweethearts; and these do not talk, unless it be the tiny tots, too small to know what it is all about. Nor do they weep. They just walk up to the gate, kiss him good-by and stand aside, and look as long as their eyes can follow him. Sometimes he turns back, but not often. I watched a while, then I too went through, showing my papers to several inquisitive officials in succession.

Everything was quite like ordinary times until we passed E——, where we lost the last of the civilians on the train except myself. My compartment was quite empty, and as I stuck my head into the corridor it seemed as if the rest of the car were also empty. But no, there was a turkey gobbler in a wooden cage and in a moment a French officer bending over him with a cup of water. It seemed the gobbler, poor innocent bird, was on his way to make gay an officer's mess.

Soon we came to what still remains one of the most impressive sights of my trip, the miles of English reserve camp. Sand dunes, setting sun and distant sea, and tents, and barracks and tent, and men in khaki never ending! These bright, happy, healthy faces! Why, as the train crawled through them, so close I could shake hands out of the window, I fairly thrilled with the conviction that they could never be beaten. I wanted to shout at them: "Boys, I'm from over the water too, God bless you all!" But it choked in my throat, for they came from Canada and Australia and New Zealand to give their lives for a principle, while I came from the land "too proud to fight." (To-day, Aug., 1917, thank God, proudest of all to fight.)

There were the shooting ranges and the bayonet targets, burlaps the size of a man's torso stuffed with straw, hanging on a clothesline in a row. The boys stand off a hundred yards and with fixed bayonets charge the bursting burlap. But now, at sunset, they are sitting around in groups or playing games, waiting for their evening meal. They have not faced fire yet, but their turn is coming and they are keen for it.

The officer and the turkey descended at Boulogne and darkness closed down about the same time. There was only a shaded night lamp in the car, and the lonesomeness of the unknown began to take hold of me. The train crawled on about as fast as a horse would jog. I was hungry, as with civilian-like lack of forethought I had provided myself with no lunch or dinner. I sat close to the window, looking for the lights of Calais which never came. The train stopped and a kindly conductor with a white badge on his arm, which shows that he is mobilized, helped me to stumble out in the dark. There had been a "Zep" alarm, and not a single light was visible in the overcast night. I pushed along with groups of soldiers into the station, where, in an inner room, an officer sat at a small table with a small shaded safety lamp and examined passports. He was duly suspicious of me until I showed him the Legation paper. Stumbling and groping like the blind man in Blind Man's Buff, I was finally rescued by a small boy who piloted me across the bridge to a door which he said was the G—— hotel. They refused to give me food because not even a candle was permitted. In the dark I went to bed.

Early next morning I looked from the window on an animated square. Tommies, Tommies everywhere. Was it England after all instead of France? The Belgian réformé who will carry a limp to his dying day as his ever-present memory of the great war, and who acted as my chamberman, could not do enough for me when he heard that I was going to see his Queen. He spoke of her as of the dearest loved member of his family. She was a real Queen, he said. She loved and cared for the poor and suffering. He had even seen her once and she had smiled at him when he wore his uniform with his croix de guerre.

The palace motor came promptly at 12:30 and into it I got with my little bag, wondering whether I was going into Belgium to remain two hours, two days or two weeks. I noticed that the car had seen service. The glass was cracked even where protected by wire netting and the upholstering was threadbare in spots, but there was nothing the matter with the engine, and we whizzed along at a goodly pace....

We passed in and out of towns with guards at attention. Even at the frontier we were not stopped. The country was flat and the roads fearfully dusty. The heavy motor lorries and trucks which were constantly traveling with supplies from the base to the front interested me greatly, as they were the first I had seen in action. They came in groups of three to thirty, and the boys on the drivers' seats were so caked with dust I could hardly distinguish their features. My official motor carried a special horn which cleared the road of man and beast. The fields on all sides were tilled. I wondered who the workers were, when what do you think I saw? Forty children in a row, boys and girls, all ages, from the little tot to the boy who would next year be in the army, each with a hoe. In front of them stood an old man who beat time with a stick while the children plied the hoe, and I warrant they had a happy time doing it.

At last I knew we must be nearing La Panne, for soldiers became more numerous. There is always one division of the Belgian Army en repos at La Panne. The motor made several sharp turns, and as long as I live I shall never forget the scene. Warm sunshine, a sandy beach over an eighth of a mile wide—small breakers—a line of brightly coloured seaside houses and villas—little sloops on the sea and warships in the distance—cavalry manœuvering on the sands—the dunes at either end and behind neat white veiled nurses and brightly clad convalescent soldiers on the walk and in the sands—the distant booming of big guns, probably English—and the nearer sounds of practice rifle and machine gun firing.

In a small villa I met the Queen, pretty, charming and gracious, with wonderful eyes that seemed to look straight through me and beyond. We talked for quite a long time and she asked me what would interest me most to see in the little corner of Belgian Belgium. I replied that I should like to see everything that was being done in a constructive way for the soldiers, civilians, children. With the promise that my wish would be gratified I took my leave and was then escorted to the villa of the famous Dr. Depage, where I remained for a week as his guest. The hospital is a wonder of excellence in every way. Charming ladies efficiently shoulder the burdens of the trained nurse, and they and doctors work hours on end when the wounded come in crowds from the nearby trenches.

At sunset descended an English aeroplane on the beach. In a few minutes it was surrounded by a couple of hundred men in khaki, just as if they had sprung out of the ground. Then off it went, gracefully dipping in a low sweeping curve in front of the "palace," then soaring high as it struck out to sea. Then the beach guard changed, and suddenly over the front only a few miles away appeared a Belgian plane with German shrapnel bursting in little black puffs around it. I went with Dr. Depage to see the wounded arriving in the ambulances, and I took a thirty second peep at a leg operation in the doing. At dinner—a very frugal but good one—we talked of everything except war. And this was my first day at the front.


Trenches La Panne, May, 1916.

Seven o'clock in the morning and I had just returned from the trenches, fairly well-behaved trenches, but real ones nevertheless, for several German bullets had sought us as a target in the early morning mist. It was all unreal, for I saw nothing. Yet I had to believe it, for I heard.

Thanks to the courtesy of a gallant staff captain and a charming grey-haired general, I made this unique expedition. The captain and I started before daylight in the cold of a grey morning and rode to the trenches in a comfortable limousine. The fields about were desolate, even the trees destroyed. Here and there a heap of stones, the remains of a thrifty farm, sheltered a small company of soldiers. The roads were unspeakable, so deep the holes and ruts. We passed through P——. There were still a few walls standing, and there we picked up a piece of marble to make me a paper weight. I knew the Germans were not far off, for the cannonading was continuous about three miles down on our right. But for all I could see I might as well have been on the western prairies.

"What in the world is straw fixed up that way for?" I asked.

"That is a curtain of straw which stretches for miles along the road behind the trenches to hide our motors from the enemy. A motor means an officer, and if they could see us we would not be here long."

We stopped behind the straw screen and got out, crawling under it into a communication trench. I had better call them ramparts, for this district, you know, was the inundated land of the Yser. One hundred yards in this winding alley of concrete and sandbag wall and we reached the main trench, a solid substantial rampart of concrete, sandbags and earth, with the grass growing on the side facing the enemy. Here the soldiers on duty lived in their little cubby-holes in the wall. They slept in groups of fours, stretched out on clean straw with their guns beside them ready for sudden call. And, if you please, do not suppose that these domiciles went unnamed or unadorned. By the irony of fate the first wooden door we came to was thus inscribed, all in French, of course:

Villa "Ne T'en Fai pas"!

War with Notes!
Hurry up, you Neutrals!

How commonplace trench life has become after these two long years of habit! Nowadays men do not go to the office and the shop. They go up to the trenches for daily duties. These trenches we were in were main-line, where the enemy was not supposed to penetrate unless rude enough actually to break through. So the soldiers portioned off the rough earth beside the board walk that ran parallel to the rampart, and first they had a little vegetable garden, and next to it for beauty's sake a little flower garden, and next to that a little graveyard, and then the succession repeated. Five hundred yards beyond the main lines, across the inundated fields streaked with barbed wire sticking up out of the water, was the front line trench, a rougher rampart, mostly of earth, and when it rained, oh mud! Under cover of darkness the boys went out and returned, walking across a rickety board walk.
Bang! Bang! Bang! Those were sharp shots and sounded like business. They might become more personal than the steady heavy roar of guns sending up their smoke at D—— on our right. We dared not tarry, for the sun was coming up.

The Major of the line was waiting to greet us and offered us early morning refreshment in his dug-out. His dug-out was a cozy, comfy little place, two boarded rooms in the rampart wall, high enough to stand up in, and furnished with a cot and blankets and some chairs and a stove and a mirror and some pictures, and, yes, a latch on the door to enter by. If I had had no ears it would have been difficult to persuade me that there were men not far off who, without personal animosity, would gladly have landed a shell in our midst.

The war as I glimpsed it in the many phases I was able at last to touch upon always gave me the impression of running up against a blank wall of contradiction. To people who live week in and week out in the range of shell fire, life and death take on a new relationship. Death may come at any moment, and yet meantime life must be lived, and one can't live all the time at high pressure. Perhaps no more vivid instance of this came to me than when I was sitting in barracks near F—— as the guest of that wonderful woman, Mrs. I—— T——. Up with the dawn, she and her fellow worker slaved without intermission, caring for the poor civilians of F——. They taught and fed the kiddies, dispensed medical and even surgical help, going out across the fields through the darkness at any call; gave out food and clothing to the women who came daily to claim their portion. Then, the day's hard work over, came dinner, at which an officer or two, French, Belgian, English, even American, might drop in, and afterwards my hostess would sit at the piano and sing Debussy with a voice of beauty and volume, while all the time the guns would thunder, the aeros might be overhead, and men were being killed on all sides. One's mind hardly grasped it, but one's emotions ran high.


P——, May, 1916.

P—— was close by the famous Ypres and had the honour at the moment of being a bombarded town. Hardly a day passed that shells did not fall here in greater or less quantity. Have you ever been in a bombarded town? Gloom? You could cut it with a knife, and yet I could not make out why the gloom was so oppressive. The streets were full of soldiers—Tommies, Canadians, Australians—bustling about, cheerfully whistling, talking in groups or going about their individual duties. Peasant women were in evidence too, and the little shops had window displays; but oh the gloom! Many of the houses were destroyed and in some sections there was no such thing as a pane of glass left. The noise of the guns was almost constant.

I was staying in a hospital with the Countess V——, a front line ambulance in this section where fighting had been heavy. It was an old red brick building, probably the home of one of P——'s wealthier residents. The high-ceilinged rooms were bare of furniture and in its place were rows of cheap iron cots with a wounded man in each. The Countess was one of those charming, dainty feminine creatures with a will of iron and a courage beyond words. The story of her life during the first invasion of Belgium and her escape from German territory was thrilling. She came to P——, where she cared not only for this house full of wounded soldiers, but worked and planned with others the support and care of civilian wounded, men, women and little children, and of hundreds of little orphan boys and girls. My room was on the ground floor. It had half a window pane, one boarded-up window and some heavy blankets to hang up at night to hide the candle light from a prying aero. I simply can't describe the gloom. The Countess said that when she felt that she could not go on another minute, she just hunted out the box her husband had sent her when she got word to him that she had no more clothes and to send on some of her old ones. The box contained three filmy negligees, the ones he loved her best in. She got them out and spread them about the dismal room, and then she stood in the middle and laughed and cried until she felt better.

I sat outside on a bench one morning talking to a young Belgian officer who was so badly wounded the first year of the war that he will probably never go back to the front. We were talking of beautiful things, music, painting and such like. One of the ambulances drove in. He paid no attention, it was such a common occurrence, but I was all eyes. You have seen the ice wagon dripping on a warm day? The ambulance was dripping too, but the drops were red! One stretcher was lifted out and an orderly standing by raised the cover at one end. I saw something that had once been a head with a human face on it. The next stretcher contained a man wounded in the legs. One of the nurses spoke to him and he tried to smile. The next was carried without comment to the tiny stone hut in the fast-growing little graveyard just back of the house. These kind folk would find time to bury him and send a picture of his grave with a few words of how bravely he had died, together with the number of the chain at his wrist, to Headquarters to be forwarded to his family. And he was a cook who had never held a gun or seen an enemy. So they emptied the ambulance to the number of six and then they turned the hose on it and started it back for its next load. And may I tell you how the ever-present contrast came in here? Upstairs in the convalescent ward a boy, to cheer his comrades, was banging the jolliest kind of music on an old tin piano, impatiently waiting the day when he would be declared well enough to go back to be wounded again....


Orphelinats, P——, May, 1916.

We went on a long ride over the hills to visit the little Belgian orphans and see how they were being cared for on French soil. As there was no military motor available, and as, for the one and only time in my war travels, I was unarmed with papers to get me across the frontier, we decided to go the eighty miles in an ambulance, where I could hide in the back as we whizzed past the familiar sentries. Mlle. M——, in her well-worn khaki suit with the Red Cross badge, sat in front with the chauffeur. Within the ambulance, on the hard wooden bench, was I with that wonderful hero of Ypres, the Abbé of St. Pierre. What a face of strength and poise and thoughtfulness he had! To the people of that country he was a saint, specially protected by heaven. He seemed to have led a charmed life. He was the last to leave the battered ruins of the once beautiful Ypres. They say he saved even the cats before he would depart, and still the longing to return to his beloved town came over him so strongly that at times his friends had great difficulty in restraining him. He loved every stone and he godfathered every poor child of the village. Shells have burst all around him, killing those at his side, but, by some wonder of fate, have left him untouched. His smile was a delight, his conversation a charm.

Along the white, dusty road we flew, for we had many miles to cover and several stops to make. Every one is familiar with the beautiful rolling country of this part of France, the cultivated fields, the neat little villages, the white ribbon of road between the well-ordered rows of trees. I could not resist waving a triumphant salute at the astonished sentries when they realized they had let pass an ambulance with a civilian in it, and a woman at that! But the clouds of dust hid us from view before they could do anything about it. We passed through B——, a lovely little town way up on a hilltop, from which we could look down over the distant valley in whose heart the hostile lines of trenchmen fought for supremacy. We stopped here to leave a message with an officer and learned that nearly every one in the town was ill with a touch of asphyxiating gas. It seemed that the fumes had penetrated this far during the night, but were not strong enough to awaken people. So they had inhaled unconsciously. Every one sleeps with a gas mask at the head of his bed in these parts.
We coasted down the long hill on the other side of the town, glorying in the beauty of the extended view before us. How could there be anything but happiness in the world that brilliant morning! The Abbé and I talked of many things and he told me how he and the Countess planned and worked to get enough money and clothing for the hundreds of orphans in their care. If only some of the discarded but still useful warm clothing of my little friends in America could be sent! And think of the untold joy some of their superfluous toys would give!

Our first stop was to see the boys, and certainly for me it was a unique experience. The Abbé announced that a great treat was in store for us, as we were to lunch with the priests of W——, who ran the orphelinat. He told me to be sure to ask Father ——, the jolly, fat, old fellow, to sing and recite for us. He said it would please him enormously and would give us untold amusement, and he was right. We entered the courtyard of an old stone house, and after shaking off several layers of the white dust, went in to the bounteous feast prepared in our honour. The welcome was simple and cordial. We washed our hands in an old tin basin and used the coarsest towel I have ever seen. I am sure it will never wear out. Then we sat down to enough food for twenty instead of six, and how they did enjoy it! I don't wonder Father —— was almost as broad as he was long, if he enjoyed every meal as much as he did this one. He ordered up the wine from the cellar, the last precious bottle he had carried away from Ypres, and then, after much persuasion, he rose at his end of the table and in a dear, gentle, cracked old voice, mouthing his words so that his apparently one remaining front tooth was much in evidence, he sang the favourite songs of his youth. I am sure they were funny because he laughed at them so heartily himself.

Luncheon over, we walked to the boys' dormitories. How they did love the jolly old priest, and how glad they were to see the Abbé! From all corners of the courtyard they dropped their play or their fight, as the case was, and came running with all the joy of a pack of little tail-wiggling fox terriers, to throw themselves upon the two men. Where he carried it, I do not know, but the Abbé produced cake after cake of chocolate and every boy had a bite.

The boys are taught all the simple studies and always to sing. The Belgian peasant children really sing beautifully. Even the little tots can take parts. We went up through the dormitories. There were closely filled rows of cots graduated in size, and over the foot of each one the sisters in charge had neatly laid out the boy's other suit, for to-morrow would be Sunday and they would all be dressed up. The lavatories consisted of wooden benches, again graduated in height, with tin basins and towels on them, about one to every three boys. It made me shiver to think how cold that place must be during the long damp winter, but then the peasant is used to such hardships. Finally we came to the schoolroom, where the older boys were already hard at work, learning in both Flemish and French. And of all the cute sights I ever saw, here happened the very cutest. The tiny tots, three and four years old, had finished their lunch and their playtime, and must have their noon-day nap. Were they put to bed like ordinary babies? Oh, no. They tumbled into the schoolroom, their big eyes staring out of their chubby, round, little faces, full of wonder as to who the strange lady was. Somewhat abashed and very quietly they slid along their baby bench, snuggling up to each other as close as they could. Then at a word from the teacher all the little right arms went up on the long bench table in front of them, the perfectly round little heads flopped over into the crook of the row of little elbows, three blinks and all the little eyelids closed, and like peas in a pod they were asleep. How I wished for a moving picture of that scene!


Last we visited the chapel, of which Father —— was so proud. A little musty-smelling chapel with a crude figure of the Madonna in a high window niche at one end. Father —— had placed above it a pane of blue glass, of a blue which turned the sunlight into a wonderfully cool, pure colour. He said it was the emblem of hope to him, and that when his heart was heavy behind his cheerful smile, he would come in there alone to think and to pray.

We were in no hurry to go, but there was still a long stretch to be covered before we reached Wisques, where the girls were housed. So we said good-by to Father —, his priests, and his children. I only hope I may see them again some day.

Our ride was now enlivened by the presence of many aeroplanes, friendly ones, maneuvering now near the earth, now so high that they were almost lost to sight. They were probably indulging in preliminary exercises before scouting over the German lines.

Arrived at Wisques, we were welcomed by the nuns into the beautiful old château, now an orphan asylum. The Queen had recently paid a visit here and the whole place was decorated in her honour with coloured papers and garlands of leaves and branches. It had been a very great and wonderful occasion for the motherless little girls. Coffee was served us out of a brilliantly shining kettle from the huge old-fashioned stove in the great open fireplace. Everything was so spotlessly clean! The nuns certainly took good care of the children. The girls' dormitories were neat, here and there brightened by a piece of coloured cloth or a picture or a bit of ribbon. There were only the barest necessities, and none too many of them. The girls were taught to do the housework and to sew, in addition to their regular school studies. They were all dressed in black and the Mother Superior bemoaned the fact that the Abbé simply could not keep them in shoes. Several classes were assembled to sing for us, Belgian and French songs, and finally in my honour the nearest they could come to anything American, "God Save the King"—at least that was in the "strange lady's" language—English.

I wandered away from the others and out of doors into the garden. There were the real babies, most of them just big enough to walk. They were digging and playing, twenty-five or more of them, in charge of a couple of the older girls and one nurse. I sat down on a broken stump and tried to make love to one of the little boys. He was awfully shy at first and would just look at me out of his big blue eyes. All of a sudden he toddled over to the other side of the yard and after him toddled the whole bunch. He was certainly a coming leader. In the far corner was a perfect carpet of dandelions. Each baby picked one or two and, like a flock of little chicks, they came tumbling back again to present me with the flowers. It was too sweet for words and the tears came to my eyes. I wanted to hug them all.... If only all the little war orphans were cared for as well as these in charge of the good Abbé! May money and supplies never fail to come to him for this good work.

(Miss Spencer then describes her visit to the military depots where the soldiers receive the comfort packets sent to the soldiers by our American women; she tells of the gratitude of the soldiers and how they idolize the women in far away America who are thinking of them and working for them. She then narrates her experiences in the Italian war zone, with this appeal to Americans: "Is there really one of us with a heart and mind who dares to let twenty-four hours pass without dropping his mite of time, sympathy or money into the brave hand of suffering Europe! Men, women and children, they need us! If we do all we can, then we are not doing half enough! The horror of their suffering is hideous! The magnificence of their sacrifice is sublime!")

  Compiled From Sources In The Public Domain.

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Smiles & Good Fortune,
It is not wealth one asks for, but just enough to preserve one’s dignity, to work unhampered, to be generous, frank and independent. W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) Of Human Bondage, 1915