WWI Armistice Centennial, Part II

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I was also privileged to spend an academic year, plus another summer, abroad during my college years.  The influence of that summer in France on my World War quasi-obsession cannot be overstated.  Like the young ambulance drivers of the AAFS, I had “roughed it” in France, if not nearly so rough. While rehabbing a centuries-old maison, clearing brush and constructing fencing for sheep pastures, gutting a likewise centuries-old bâtiment, I, too, had become a bit more of a man in a foreign country; had worked with my hands, not my brain, for once, and thrived.

The pre-1917 American war volunteers were, for the most part, privileged men (and women) who felt a need to be needed for more than academic tasks.  Yes, they were drawn by ideologically-tinged appeals to Freedom and Democracy.  Yes, they responded to tribal attachments to British and French cultural “superiority.”  But they also compelled by the desire to see action, or at least get close to it.  Indeed, getting close but not-too-close was key to their experience.  Nurses, drivers, aviators, and Legionnaires all lived with hardship and privation and psychological trauma, but only aviators and Legionnaires put their lives at a high degree of risk.  Only Legionnaires lived with and in the soul-killing trenches.

Non-combatant service in France was to be this urbanized, industrialized generation’s “great adventure.”  Ella Mae Bongard felt it, as did Maud Mortimer and her fellow nurses: “War makes one conscious of a tremor of excitement tingeing the undertone of our quietest moments,–…the fascination of possible danger about which we have been told so much about.” Charles Codman, a recent Harvard graduate, was exhilarated to be “taking part in the greatest battle of history, in a front row seat, so to speak.”  He added, “Those who declare there is nothing picturesque about modern warfare are all off.  It is gorgeous.”  William Yorke Stevenson agreed.  The thrill of a nighttime artillery bombardment was “worth crossing the ocean to see.”  Despite the death and destruction, Yorke assured his readers, “It’s a great life. I wouldn’t miss it for worlds.”

Did these men (and women, though less so) think they were on a lark? The ambulance driver memoirs sometimes give that impression. Julien Bryan, who, after the war, would go on to Princeton and Union Theological Seminary and produce important documentary films, failed to appreciate the tragedy until a chance encounter that took place well back of the lines.  Bryan was billeted in an abandoned house in which he and his comrades had made themselves comfortable.  They had broken up the furniture for firewood and pilfered personal belongings for souvenirs.  But one day a young French couple appeared at the door, the original occupants of the house, it became clear.  The woman broke down, and the man tried to reassure her.

Bryan wrote, “War becomes a little sadder, a little more real now, after we see what the civilian population has suffered.”  As if hauling moaning, shell-torn poilus hadn’t been sad enough.

Kate Norman Derr was studying art in Lausanne, chaperoned by her great aunt, when war first broke out.  She did not hesitate to drop her studies and go to France. She took a Red Cross nursing class, passed an exam, and was inducted into the French medical corps as a second lieutenant. Over the subsequent months and years this child of the American elite dirtied her clothes and calloused her hands for probably the first time. Derr wrote just two weeks into her stint at an Epernay hospital: “It is a marvelous life, and strangely enough, despite all the tragedy, I call it a healthy one.”  She thrilled to be learning from “experience” rather than “books and masters.”  During three years of war service, all for the French, Derr never shied away from hard, physical work and late nights caring for patients.

Many of Derr’s American counterparts did not reach the front until the final months of the war.  Elizabeth Lewis did not reach her post until August, less than three months before the signing of the armistice.  Furthermore, Lewis’s family background was in no way privileged, though neither was it dispossessed.  Lewis was firmly middle class, as were most of the ten thousand professional nurses who served in France with the Army Nurse Corps and Red Cross.  Fewer of these women, as a percentage, left written accounts of their war experiences, but Elizabeth Lewis did, in the form of letters home that were saved for posterity.  Like her predecessors from before 1917, Lewis was “crazy” to see action and “glad of the opportunity to go” to France.  Unlike them, she was not above grousing about discomforts along the way: about the food (margarine, no butter), the flies (“thick as hasty pudding”), and the weather (“I wouldn’t give thirty cents for the whole of this air [sic] country.”)

Still, as the casualties rolled in during the final push, Lewis put aside petty complaints and worked all-out to care for the American wounded. The pride in her accomplishment was evident in one of her last letters to her mother: “Now really aren’t you glad I insisted on coming over? …When you think of the people that have all kinds of money who would give anything to be just where I have been.  Haw!”

To these Americans on their Great Adventure, the Armistice came as joy and relief. One ambulance driver described the exuberance, using an analogy all his college-buddy readers would appreciate: “If you could imagine the jam after a Harvard-Yale game multiplied by about a million, you might have some idea of what we saw down the boulevard as far as the eye could reach.”

Yet the armistice ushered in a letdown, too, a “decline in enthusiasm and morale,” as Chief Nurse Julia Stimson described it. “Something broke inside of us,” Glenna Bigelow wrote, “but all we could say was, ‘The War is over,’ calmly, unemotionally.”  Helen Dore Boylston uttered the question that was on the minds of so many: “What are we all to do now?”

Each nurse had to answer it for herself; each ambulance volunteer and pilot had to answer it for himself.  For the most part, the privileged young people I read about had much to return to.  Their education and family connections would lead to jobs or a good marriage.  Their experiences in France which had made them both more worldly and empathetic could open up possibilities for a deeper, richer life. Yet not all were privileged; not all were young.

Esther Hasson, a fifty-year-old Nurse Corps nurse and administrator, enlisted to serve her country as a field hospital ward nurse.  She believed those twenty-two months in France were the most important in her life. They were “indeed ‘The great adventure’,” she wrote to Julia Stimson, adding, “I shall ever feel that it was a very great privilege to have served in France with the A.E.F. during the momentous and stirring days of the World War.”

Privilege, indeed.


Images from Wikimedia Commons, except










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