Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant.

Shadow-shapes; the journal of a wounded woman, October 1918-May 1919 online

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Elii^hefh Shepley Sergeant




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Date .c^.;lx.

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The Journal of a Wounded Woman
October 1918 -May 1919







"7 was wounded in the house of my friends "


A FEW pages of Shadow-Shapes — images and
memories of war-time Paris — were first published
as correspondence in The New Republic during
the years 1917-18. But the author owes the whole
background of her French war experience to the
paper and its Editors, and for their unfailing gen-
erosity here makes grateful acknowledgment.


This book belongs to the nurses, the doctors, the
friends who gathered about my hospital bed in
France. Their beautiful kindness was as healing
as their care, and I shall never be able to thank
them for the part they gave me in the chimerical
days which I saw reflected with such vividness
in their faces.

The best of what they shared and what they
were I have not even tried to set down. But where
their faces and their voices seemed symbolic of
certain human types and mysteries pondered by
all Americans in France in the period between
war and peace, I have ventured to quote them and
picture them. My wish has been not to change
what I saw and heard by a line or a feature, lest
the least alteration should do violence to a vast,
embracing, unseizable truth that was essentially
our common possession. The heightened glow cast
by danger and death on the faces of the young,
and its fading into the rather flat daylight of sur-
vival ; the psychological dislocation of the Armi-
stice ; the weariness of reconstruction ; the shift in
Franco-American relations that followed Presi-

[ ix ]


dent Wilson's intervention in European affairs;
the place of American women in the adventures
of the A.E.F. — all this and much more I groped
through my illness to understand, as my visitors
came and went, and noted on paper and in mem-
ory. The journal which has resulted does not pre-
tend to offer more than a marginal commentary.
For nobody knows better than an accidentally
wounded writer that the real story can only be
told by a soldier — perhaps by one of those limp-
ing privates whose shadows were always creeping
across the Neuilly windows to remind me that
in the damp tents where they were continuing the
Argonne and the Marne, not in my comfortable
gray room, was the substance of America in

August 1920


I. The Wing of Death , i

II. Pax in Bello 47

III. TuE City OF Confusion 159






October 20, 191 8

THEY have stretched a sheet around my cot
this morning. It does not shut out the per-
vasive poilii smell. And I can still see the young
French soldier directly across the ward. Day and
night he lies high against a back-rest. He has a
great hole in his abdomen, and a torturing thirst,
and cries faintly every tvvo or three minutes:
''Infirmier, infirmicr, d boire, d boire."

October 2 1

The poilu can't be more than twenty. His eyes
are caverns, dark wells of pain in a face blanched
and shrunk to the angles of the bones beneath.
They gaze out from under a shock of lank black
hair that seems to grow every hour longer; gaze
with the persistently hurt, surprised expression of
a child who has put his hand in the fire, and finds
tliat fire burns. When they first began to haunt

I 3 1


me, emerging from the murk of the tent and van-
ishing again, early yesterday morning, I thought
they were a sort of symbol. Ether bedazed me
and I could not quite grasp the meaning of the
symbol. I confused the poilu with a black-
haired Oklahoma boy whom I found last June in
a French hospital at Meaux; alone but for one
muttering Arab in a vast, dirty ward; bedbugs
crawling over him; blood soaking his shirt and
blankets. The most lost and miserable American
of all.

Now his face stared at me, gaunt and craggy,
from the French soldier's bed. I begged Mercier,
my orderly, to change the Oklahoman's blankets;
told him that my fellow-countryman could not
make his needs understood ; insisted eloquently —
and heard Mercier laugh — that he should take
the "houses" off my legs. I was unable to help so
long as their weight pressed me down. Mercier
explained that they were not to be removed. But
it was the poilu' s head, glooming clearer and
clearer like a tormented ascetic head in a Spanish
painting, that at last brought me to myself. I re-
membered exactly what had happened to me and
it seemed — seems now — altogether negligible
in the light of that suffering stare.

^^Infirmier, d boire — just one little drop?"
Valentin, the cross old orderly who passed just



then, tells him brutally to shut his mouth. It will
be wet in due time, not before. And Valentin
shuffles on, in his felt slippers, and his streaked
grey-blue clothes, which depend flabbily from a
loosely hinged backbone. Here comes Mercier,
taking temperatures. Mercier is a generation
younger than Valentin. He swings his muscular
hips as he walks, as if he belonged to the Breton
sea. But it seems that dajis le civil he is a coiffeur
at Le Mans. Mercier declares, after consulting his
wrist-watch, that le petit must wait exactly nine-
teen minutes for the next swallow of champagne.

Miss Bullard, meanwhile, briskly reminds
Mercier — who continues to stand poised, twisting
waxed blond moustaches — that it is nearly ten;
only half the temperatures taken; no dressings
done; several stimulations to be given men who
are very low; the surgeons due on rounds at any
moment. Mercier looks crestfallen. Murmurs,
with a half glance in my direction:

"Je n'ai pas V esprit au travail ce matin —
my mind is n't on my w^ork this morning."

Miss Bullard, as she hurries on, gives the little
soldier a smile from under her white veil that
brings a momentary look of peace into his be-
wildered eyes. But soon the monotonous whim-
per begins again :

"A drink, a drink" — he is wanly beseeching



me now, as If I ought to be able to rise on my two
splints and "slip" him a few drops from the bot-
tle on the shelf over his bed. A woman — not
nursing — in an evacuation hospital — during
an attack. . . .

Have I said anything else to myself these two
endless days and nights? Raw flesh — shat-
tered bones — pain — fever — thirst — disability
— death. Why should I be caught up into this
revelation of the ultimate of war unless I can turn
my understanding to some service?

There is one unbearable sound. A dull, pierced,
animal plaint, nothing like the usual moan of
pain, or the cries of the wounded who are being
dressed. A sort of sigh went up from the whole
ward when it began. Miss Bullard dropped every-
thing and ran, though the man she left is only a
little less in need. Her look is fixed as she pre-
pares her hypodermic in the alcove beyond my bed.

She works so swiftly, so gallantly. Did she
realize when she put me in this corner near her
table of supplies, the satisfaction I should get
from the perfection of her technique? From
simply seeing her, single-handed, single-hearted,
direct a whole hospital and meet the outstanding
needs of her twenty-four grands blesses? She must
have known it would be a spiritual substitute for
the nursing she would be giving me under other



circumstances. She can do only the essential now.
Racked and lacerated as I feel, I am yet one of the
least serious cases. Two thirds of the patients are
just barely being kept alive. She literally does
not stop one second in the twelve hours she is
here. Even so, she is consumed (as I have seen
Lucinda consumed at Dr. Blake's hospital this
last sLx months) by the desperate need to do more.
IMiss Bullard sleeps a mile away, in a ruined vil-
lage, in a room with no window-glass and no stove.
She has to walk there again for lunch. Only a
sort of exaltation keeps tlie human machine go-
ing through such stress. She must have been
drawing for months on springs far deeper than the
normal springs of human energy and endurance.
She sends Mercier to tell me, as her fingers fit
rubber tubes together, that she will make me
comfortable for the day before long. I am ashamed
that I do want to have my face washed, that I do
want to feel her soothing touch at my feet. The
soldier she had to desert is two beds away from
me. His face was considerably shot to pieces,
lie has to be fed through a tube. But he lies
there dumbly patient and quiescent.


Yes, only those who cannot help themselves ask
for anything here — at least by day. I believe I

[ 7 ]


was conscious of it even those first irresponsible
hours. For when I heard my own voice calHng
Mercier — as it did so often — I was amazed
and repentant. Extraordinary how quickly one
becomes part of the mechanism; how one can
bear anything in company. Just because it is war,
and must be borne. C'est la fatalite. Inevitable.
Irrevocable. Immutable. Interminable. Nothing
exists, or ever will exist but this khaki tent
pitched in the mud; this rain that drips, drips
through the roof; these two blind rows of closed
window-squares ; this stove that smokes ; this back-
breaking cot; these grimed and stuffy blankets;
this clinging smell of damp, and coal-smoke, and
iodine, and disinfectant, and suppurating wounds,
and human sweat and dirt. Yet to name the ob-
vious discomforts is to exaggerate them. They be-
come submerged in a more profound initiation —
an initiation which is almost a compensation.

A visitor has made this clear to me. The
medecin-chef, full of apologies for not having him-
self visited me sooner, ushered him in. They came
mincing down the ward together, between des-
perately sick men of whom they seemed quite un-
aware; the medecin-chef, in his unsullied horizon
blue, looking a sort of operatic tenor after the
hard-pressed, shabby surgeons I have so far seen ;
the visitor an elongated, dapper personage from



the Maison de la Pressc. He had journej'cd all
the way from Paris, in his best rue Fran^-ois l^^
uniform, to bring me "tlie condolences of tJie
French Government."

A camp-stool was provided. The stove was
belching saffron clouds tliat rose and hung under
the floppy canvas. The attention of the blesses
was glumly superior. The visitor sat there shiver-
ing, coughing, fondling an imperceptible mous-
tache with one ner\'ous hand, blinking away
smoky tears, as he made polite conversation.
Drops trickled down his neck. His reddened eyes
took in my bandages, the "cradle" that raised
the bedclothes over my feet. But what they
dwelt on with fascinated commiseration were the
fragment of my skirt that Miss Bullard had
pinned about my shoulders and the pillow she
had improvised, — Gertrude's coon-coat, which
luckily came through intact. (The hospital has
no bed-pillows, and only three back-rests.)

"How uncomfortable you must be. Mademoi-

Poor Monsieur, not nearly so uncomfortable
as you, though I tried hard to make your half-
hour as easy as I could.

One thing I do mind — greasy old tin plates.
I can swallow sickish tea, and limonade that
never saw a lemon, and gratefully, when Mercier



holds the china "duck" to my lips. But when he
brings me onion-scented soup, full of vague, float-
ing vegetables, in an ancient, ancient tin recepta-
cle. . . . He was very proud at lunch-time. He had
succeeded in finding an egg, a very round and
orange fried egg which skated madly over that
dubious black surface. It was perfectly cold.
But I choked it down with a humble fear that I
was being pampered.

I am pampered. I have sheets. Miss Bullard,
of course, produced them. And though she had
been up all my first night, she went the long dis-
tance to her room and brought back a nightgown
and comb of her own. Even a new toothbrush, and
a box of " Dorin Rose." (Dorin Rose! The visitor
should have noted that pathetic effort to be faith-
ful to feminine tradition.) As my cot is curtained
off, she keeps the window in tlie Bessano tent open
over my head. The French surgeons allow no air
to blow through the ward, and as soon as she is
gone at night the orderly zealously shuts my port-
hole from the outside.

I dread the moment when Miss Bullard goes
for a good many reasons — the moment when I
am left alone in this world of anguished men. It
is then that it is most intolerable to be helpless.
If only I could do the small things the orderlies
neglect once the nurse's eye is off them. Even

[ 10 ]


during Miss Bullard's lunch-hour — if she takes a
lunch-hour — there is a more restless spirit among
the blesses. They talk of her from bed to bed.
Her drole de fran^ais, her funny French, which
they delight in; her capacity; her sympathy; her
well-earned Croix de Guerre. After all, they say,
why should an American woman be nursing
Frenchmen? There are no French nurses here.
''Elle a bien du merite." But soon they begin to
wonder why she isn't back; begin to fuss. And
at night, when she has given the last hypodermic,
and put on her cape and stolen out, black desola-
tion settles down over the tent.

October 22

Last night the ward was like a sombre tunnel,
full of smoke and noxious gas ; monstrous moving
shadows; painful reverberation. Feet, feet, tram-
pling, trampling; brancardiers, shuffling into the
tent with new burdens. Shall I ever forget how
their feet are sucked into the glutinous mud of
the Mame? It is as if the mud were insatiable.
And it gives out, in tlie dark and silence, the muted
sound of all those other stretcher-bearing feet
which it has sucked and strained at for four years.
Mont-Notre-Dame was an important French
hospital centre until the Germans took it last
spring. On the recovered ground a French hos-

[ II J


pital has been planted again. And yet again come
the brancardiers bearing still, horizontal shapes
on their shoulders, shapes once vivid, earth-
loving; now writhen, agonized, indifferent. War is
a doom, trampling, shuffling itself out to eternity.

And the orderly on duty last night was a dod-
dering old fellow who let the men get completely
out of hand. It is no kindness, as I have discovered.
The least serious cases make the worst row. The
"thigh" began it:

"(5 m, Id, Id, Id, O Id, Id, Id, Id'' — each "6" a
note higher in the scale and the "Id's'' running
down in Tetrazzini's manner.

** C'est-il-mal-heur-eux, c' est-il-mal-heur-eux," re-
sponds the *'arm" in the next bed, who has no
intention of being outdone.

"Damnee guerre, damme guerre," echoes the
"shoulder blade."

This had been going on perhaps fifteen minutes
when the little poilu opposite me tore off his
bandages. Patience is a terrible virtue. Would not
wars end if ten thousand wounded men tore off
their bandages and bled to death? But the process
is hideous. The vieux, badly scared, called Mercier,
and with much stifled gasping and cursing they
together bound him up again in the flicker of a

Can it be that only forty or fifty miles from here

[ 12 ]


people are discussing, over partridge and f raises
des bois, whether it would be better for Foch to
accept an armistice or to push the Germans to a
complete debacle? Better give a few months more,
and several thousands more men, say some. I
wish they could spend a night in my cot. Can it
be that in Paris I, too, believed in the end of the
war? The very evening before my accident, the
evening of the day when the French army entered
Lille, I came out of the Castiglione, after dinner,
into light. Light in Paris at eleven o'clock at
night. Light after nearly four years of war-dark-
ness! Those great torches, flaring brazenly from
the Tuileries terrace, on brazen enemy guns
strewn over the place de la Concorde, conveyed,
as they were intended to do, a sort of shout of
triumph. The enemy had been driven so far, so
far, that not the boldest or fleetest of his bombers
could any longer threaten the heart of France.

Yet here the fear of air raids is not conjured.
I shall not soon forget the whirring pulse that
throbbed and burrowed into our tent tunnel in
the small hours of last night. Ominous, discom-
posing. Airplanes, squadron after squadron, pass-
ing just overhead. Boche or our own? The com-
plete defcncclessness I felt so long as the uncer-
tainty lasted made me aware that what I had
hitherto taken for moral courage during raids was

( 13 1


purely physical; a pair of good legs and a con-
venient mediaeval cellar had sustained me. I know
something about the psychology of the bomber,
too. Great to drop off your load on a group of
tents ; to get a direct hit, a tongue of flame. (Lord,
it was a hospital!)

After all, I am just as bad as the men at night
but for New England pride. My soul also escapes
from what Jules Romains would call the tinafii-
misme of the ward ; from the bonds of a common
fate which enjoin a decent patience. I become an
impotent, aching creature, full of unpleasant
holes, lost in a corner of devastated France infi-
nitely remote from every one I care for. The
hospital unit had moved up from Chateau-
Thierry the night before I got here. No telephone
connection with Paris yet. So I cannot get cables
through to my family in America; or to the N.R,
I can't even telegraph my brother-in-law, Ernest,
at Dijon; or Colonel Lambert at the Red Cross;
or Rick, who has just lost his brother, on top of
losing almost his entire squadron in the Argonne,
and is due in Paris on leave. He wired me the
night before my accident to cable his mother ; and
there should be an answer by now — and I of
no use.

I ask for tea. The orderly comes running. (" Ca
change, unefemme,'' thinks he. And I — *' I can't

[ 14 1


see his dirty hands in the dark.") But tea is no
sedative. I hug my stone jar of hot water tight
but I can't escape from memory. The memory
that my work has come to a fortuitous end just as
the war approaches its final crisis. The memory
of the accident itself. These tlirce nights, which
have dragged like as many centuries, I have
relived it, step by step, image by image: a series
of sharp, visual images strung together by blindly
logical circumstance.

Four American women, with a Frenchwoman
in nurse's uniform, tlicir guide, are descending
from the train at Epernay, where they are met by
a French officer. Plump, pink, smiling, the officer.
They have come for an afternoon's drive to
Rheims and the American battle-fields of the
INIarne, and will return to Paris via Chateau-
Thierry in the evening.

Ravaged fields, shapeless villages, . . . Soon
the Lieutenant has stopped tlie motor by a steep
hillside. The battle-field of Mont-Bligny, very
important in the defence of Rheims. He warns
us that it has not been "cleaned up"; that we
must touch nothing unless we are sure of its

The ladies stream up and across the field, lit-
tered indeed with all sorts of obscene rubbish.
Some one fmds a German prayer-book. Some one

[ 15 1


else an Italian helmet. There may be a skull in it,
warns the Lieutenant ; but hangs a French one on
his own arm for me. Mademoiselle has a queer-
looking object — a series of perpendicular tubes
set in a half-circle, with a white string hanging
down at either end. The inside of a German gas-
mask, she says. We all walk across the hilltop as
far as the holes dug in the ground by the forward
French sentries ; we look toward the German lines
beyond — then turn back along the crest of the
hill, where it drops off sheer to a wide valley. The
Lieutenant, Mademoiselle, and I are ahead, the
others some fifteen yards behind. Suddenly the
officer notes what Mademoiselle is carrying:

"Put that on the ground, please," he says
curtly. "I am not sure what it is."

A stunning report, a blinding flash, and I am
precipitated down the bank, hearing, it seems, as
I go the Lieutenant's shriek of horror:

"My arm, my arm has been carried away!"

I lift my head at once: two women cowering
with pale faces, then running toward the road;
the third standing quiet by a stark, swollen fig-
ure — the Frenchwoman, stretched on her back,
with her blue veils tossed about her. Great gashes
of red in the blue.

^'Macabre of the movies" c . . and aloud I hear
a voice, which is mine, add :

[ 16 ]


"She is dead."

"Yes. . . .Terrible."

I seem oddly unable to get up. Ringing In my
ears. Faintness. The effect of the explosion.
\'ery tiresome, not to be able to help. I crawl
farther down the hill to get away from blood.
But something warm Is running down my own
face. Blood! I sit up and take out of the hand-
bag still on my arm a pocket-mirror. Half a
dozen small wounds In my left cheek. Unimpor-
tant. But my eyes fall casually on my feet, ex-
tended before me. Blood! Thick and purplish,
oozing slowly out of jagged holes in my heavy
English shoes and gaiters. I seem to be w^ounded.
Queer, because no pain. I call to one of the women.
She makes a meteoric appearance, tells me I am
splashed with blood from the dead; is gone again.
I must, I think, lie down. The chauffeurs seem to
be above me on the hill now, carrying the officer
away. A long interval. They are bending over me.

"Can you walk?"


It does n't work. So they make a chair with
their arms. One of them Is grumbling tliat the
otlier women aren't on hand.

" L<75 blesses sont plus intcressanls que les morts —
the wounded are more interesting than tlic dead, "
he remarks.

I 17 1


From my "chair" I note more objects, innu-
merable objects similar to the one that exploded,
straggling like octopi in different parts of the
field. The soldiers grin when, in a voice of warn-
ing, I point them out. Hand-grenades, they say.
Now we have reached the first limousine. The
officer is propped on the right half of the back
seat, his bloody sleeve (not empty yet) hanging at
his side. I am lifted in beside him, my shoes re-
moved, my feet placed on the folding seat. Those
nice, expensive brown wool stockings from "Old
England" ruined. . . .

The chauffeurs refuse to wait for the other
ladies. Must find hospital at once. Unpleasant
sensation of severing all connections with the
friendly world. Inhuman country. Badly rutted
roads. The officer, quite conscious, desperately
worried :

" I did tell them not to touch anything, did n't
I, Mademoiselle? They'll break me for this."
Repeated again and again. Also the reply, "It
was n't your fault, Monsieur."

A bleak barrack at last. An amazed "major,"
who sticks his head into the bloody car. But can
do nothing for us. Gas hospital, this. Surgeons
eight kilometres farther on. I feel pain at last and
the Lieutenant is suffering. But we talk a little — •
about his wife, and his profession of teacher.

[ i8 ]


Will I write to his wife to-night for him? Say he
is not so badly hurt. . . .

Dusk already. Two more dreary barracks in a
plain, lean and grey. Another French doctor,
black-bearded and dour. Very displeased to see
both of us, especially the woman. Two stretchers.
The Lieutenant disappears in one direction while
I am carried into the triage and dumped on the
ground. To be tagged, I suppose, like the wounded
I have seen in the attacks of the last year. At
least twenty Frenchmen lounging in this bam-
like place. Orderlies, stretcher-bearers, wounded
soldiers, all pleasantly thrilled.

"We must cut off your clothes, Madame."

^^Bicn, monsieur. ''

I can be dry too. But if there were the least
kindness in his grim eyes, I should tell him how
desolated I feel to be gi\'ing so much trouble in a
place where — I know it as well as he — women
are superfluous.

Compound fracture of both ankles. Flesh
wounds from eclats. A little soldier writes out a
fiche in a deliberate hand while I am being ban-
daged, and given ante-tetanus serum. The ficlie
goes in a brown envelope, pinned on my breast as
I lie on the stretcher.

"Is it serious. Monsieur?"

"The left foot, yes, very."

[ 19]


"Can I not make connections with the rest of

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Online LibraryElizabeth Shepley SergeantShadow-shapes; the journal of a wounded woman, October 1918-May 1919 → online text (page 1 of 13)