Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton.

The living present : the work of French women in war time online

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The duchess trots about indefatigably, assists at
every operation, assumes personal charge of infec-
tious cases, takes temperatures, waits on the table,
and prays all night by the dying. Mr. Van Husen, a
young American who was helping her at that time,
told me that if a boy died in the hospital and was a
devout Catholic, and friendless in Paris, she arranged
to have a high mass for his funeral service at a church
in the neighborhood.

The last time I saw her she was feeling very happy
because her youngest son, who had been missing for
several weeks, had suddenly appeared at the hotel and


spent a few days with her. A week later the Due de
Rohan, one of the most brilliant soldiers in France,
was killed; and since my return I have heard of the
death of her youngest. Such is life for the Mothers
of France to-day.


The Countess Greffulhe (born Princesse de Chimay
and consequently a Belgian, although no stretch
of fancy could picture her as anything but a
Parisian) offered her assistance at once to the Gov-
ernment and corresponded with hundreds of Mayors
in the provinces in order to have deserted hotels made
over into hospitals with as little delay as possible. She
also established a depot to which women could come
privately and sell their laces, jewels, bibelots, etc.
Her next enterprise was to form a powerful committee
which responsible men and women of the allied coun-
tries could ask to get up benefits when the need for
money was pressing.

Upon one occasion when a British Committee made
this appeal she induced Russia to send a ballet for a
single performance; and she also persuaded the man-
ager of the Opera House to open it for a gala perform-
ance for another organization. There is a romantic
flavor about all the countess's work, and just how
practical it was or how long it was pursued along any
given line I was unable to learn.



Madame Paquin, better known to Americans, I
fancy, than any of the great dressmakers of Europe,
offered her beautiful home in Neuilly to the Govern-
ment to be used as a hospital, and it had accom-
modated up to the summer of 1916 eight thousand,
nine hundred soldiers.

She also kept all her girls at work from the first.
As no one ordered a gown for something like eighteen
months they made garments for the soldiers, or badges
for the numerous appeal days we all decorated our-
selves, within ten minutes after leaving the house, like
heroes and heroines on the field, about three times a
week and upon one occasion this work involved a
three months' correspondence with all the Mayors of
France. It further involved the fastening of ribbons
and pins (furnished by herself) upon fifteen million
medallions. Madame Paquin is also on many im-
portant committees, including "L'Orphelinat des
Armees," so well known to us.


Madame Dupuy was also an American girl, born
in New York and now married to the owner of
Le Petit Parisien and son of one of the wealthiest
men in France. She opened in the first days of the


war an organization which she called "CEuvre du
Soldat Blesse ou Malade," and from her offices in the
Hotel de Crillon and her baraque out at the Depot des
Dons (where we all have warehouses), she supplies
surgeons at the Front with wheeling-chairs, surgical
dressings, bed garments, rubber for operating tables,
instruments, slippers, pillows, blankets, and a hundred
and one other things that harassed surgeons at the
Front are always demanding. The ceuvre of the Mar-
quise de Noailles, with which a daughter of Mrs.
Henry Seligmen, Madame Henri van Heukelom, is
closely associated, is run on similar lines.

I have alluded frequently in the course of these
reminiscences to Madame Dupuy, who was of the
greatest assistance to me, and more than kind and
willing. I wish I could have returned it by collecting
money for her ceuvre when I returned to New York,
but I found that Le Bien-fitre du Blesse was all I
could manage. Moreover, it is impossible to get money
these days without a powerful committee behind you.
To go to one wealthy and generous person or another
as during the first days of the war and ask for a dona-
tion for the president of an ceuvre unrepresented in
this country is out of the question. It is no longer
done, as the English say.



VERSAILLES frames in my memory the most
tragic of the war-time pictures I collected dur-
ing my visit to France. That romantic and lovely city
which has framed in turn the pomp and glory of
France, the iconic simplicities of Marie Antoinette, the
odious passions of a French mob, screeching for bread
and blood, and the creation of a German Empire, will
for long be associated in my mind with a sad and
isolated little picture that will find no niche in history,
but, as a symbol, is as diagnostic as the storming of
the palace gates in 1789.

There is a small but powerful reuvre in Paris, com-
posed with one exception of Americans devoted to the
cause of France. It was founded by its treasurer, Mr.
Frederic Coudert. Mr. August Jaccaci, of New York,
is President; Mrs. Cooper Hewett, Honorary Presi-
dent; Mrs. Robert Bliss, Vice-President ; and the
Committee consists of the Comtesse de Viel Castel,
Mrs. Francis G. Shaw, and Mrs. William H. Hill, of
Boston. It is called "The Franco-American Commit-
tee for the Protection of the Children of the Frontier."

This Committee, which in May, 1916, had already
rescued twelve hundred children, was born of one of



those imperative needs of the moment when the
French civilians and their American friends, working
behind the lines, responded to the needs of the unfor-
tunate, with no time for foresight and prospective

In August, 1914, M. Cruppi, a former Minister of
State, told Mr. Coudert that in the neighborhood of
Belfort there were about eighty homeless children,
driven before the first great wind of the war, the battle
of Metz; separated from their mothers (their fathers
and big brothers were fighting) they had wandered,
with other refugees, down below the area of battle
and were huddled homeless and almost starving in
and near the distracted town of Belfort.

Mr. Coudert immediately asked his friends in Paris
to collect funds, and started with M. Cruppi for Bel-
fort. There they found not eighty but two hundred
and five children, shelterless, hungry, some of them
half imbecile from shock, and all physically disor-

To leave any of these wretched waifs behind, when
Belfort itself might fall at any moment, was out of
the question, and M. Cruppi and Mr. Coudert crowded
them all into the military cars allotted by the Govern-
ment and took them to Paris. Some money had been
raised. Mr. Coudert cabled to friends in America,
Mrs. Bliss (wife of the First Secretary of the Amer-
ican Embassy) and Mrs. Cooper Hewett contributed
generously, Valentine Thompson gave her help and
advice for a time, and Madame Pietre, wife of the


sous-prefet of Yvetot, installed the children in an
old seminary near her home and gave them her per-
sonal attention. Later, one hundred were returned to
their parents and the rest placed in a beautiful chateau
surrounded by a park.

Every day of those first terrible weeks of the war
proved that more and more children must be cared
for by those whom fortune had so far spared. It was
then that Mr. Jaccaci renounced all private work and
interests, and that Mrs. Hill, Mrs. Shaw and the
Comtesse de Viel Castel volunteered. The organiza-
tion was formed and christened, Mrs. Bliss provided
Relief Depots in Paris, and Mr. Coudert returned to
New York for a brief visit in search of funds.

During the bombardment of the Belgian and French
towns these children came into Paris on every train.
They were tagged like post-ofHce packages, and it was
as well they were, not only because some were too
little to know or to pronounce their names correctly,
but even the older ones were often too dazed to give
a coherent account of themselves; although the more
robust quickly recovered. The first thing to do with
this human flotsam was to wash and disinfect and
feed it, clip its hair to the skull, and then, having
burned the rags of arrival, dress it in clean substantial
clothes. While I was in Paris Mr. Jaccaci and Mrs.
Hill were meeting these trains ; and, when the smaller
children arrived frightened and tearful they took
them in their arms and consoled them all the way to


the Relief Depots. The result was that they needed
the same treatment as the children.

It was generally the Cure or the Mayor of the
bombarded towns that had rounded up each little par-
entless army and headed it toward Paris. When the
larger children were themselves again they all told the
same bitter monotonous stories. Suddenly a rain of
shrapnel fell on their village or town. They fled to
the cellars, perhaps to the one Cave Voutee (a stone
cellar with vaulted roof) and there herded in inde-
scribable filth, darkness, fear, hunger for weeks and
even months at a time. The shelling of a village soon
stopped, but in the larger towns, strategic points de-
sired of the enemy, the bombarding would be inces-
sant. Mothers, or older children, would venture out
for food, returning perhaps with enough to keep the
pale flame of life alive, as often as not falling a
huddled mass a few feet from the exit of the cellar.
Mothers died of typhoid, pneumonia, in childbirth;
others never had reached the cellar with their own
children in the panic; one way or another these chil-
dren arrived in Paris in a state of orphanhood, al-
though later investigations proved them to have been
hiding close to their mother (and sometimes father;
for all men are not physically fit for war) by the
width of a street, in a town where the long roar of
guns dulled the senses and the affections, and the con-
stant hail of shrapnel precluded all search for anything
but food.

Moreover, many families had fled from villages


lying in the path of the advancing hordes to the
neighboring towns, and there separated, crowding into
the nearest Caves Voutees. Most of these poor women
carried a baby and were distraught with fear besides ;
the older children must cling to the mother's skirts
or become lost in the melee.

When one considers that many of these children, in
Rheims or Verdun, for instance, were in cellars not
for weeks but for months, without seeing the light
of day, with their hunger never satisfied, with corpses
unburied for days until a momentary lull encouraged
the elders to remove the sand bags at the exit and
thrust them out, with their refuge rocking constantly
and their ear-drums splitting with raucous sounds,
where the stenches were enough to poison what red
blood they had left and there were no medicines to
care for the afflicted little bodies, one pities anew those
mentally afflicted people who assert at automatic
intervals, "I can't see any difference between the
cruelty of the British blockade and the German sub-
marines." The resistant powers of the human body,
given the bare chance of remaining alive, are little
short of phenomenal. But then, when Nature com-
pounded the human frame it was to fling it into a new-
born world far more difficult to survive than even the
awful conditions of modern warfare.

Some of these children were wounded before they
reached the cellars. In many cases the families re-
mained in their homes until the walls, at first pierced
by the shrapnel, began to tumble about their ears.


Then they would run to the homes of friends on
the other side of the town, staying there until the
guns, aided by the air scouts, raked such houses as
had escaped the first assault. Often there were no
Caves Voutees in the villages. The mothers cowered
with their children under the tottering walls or lay
flat on the ground until the German guns turned else-
where; then they ran for the nearest town. But dur-
ing these distracted transfers many received wounds
whose scars they are likely to carry through life. The
most seriously wounded were taken to the military
hospitals, where they either died, or, if merely in need
of bandages, were quickly turned out to make room
for some poilu arriving in the everlasting procession
of stretchers.

Sometimes, flat on their stomachs, the more curious
and intelligent of the children watched the shells sail-
ing overhead to drop upon some beautiful villa or
chateau and transpose it into a heap of stones. Where
there were English or Americans in these bombarded
towns, or where the Cures or the Mayors of those
invaded had not been shot or imprisoned, the children
were sent as quickly as possible to Paris, the mothers,
when there were any, only too content to let them go
and to remain behind and take their chances with the

One little Belgian named Bonduelle, who, with two
brothers, reached Paris in safety, is very graphic:
"We are three orphans," he replied in answer to the
usual questions. "Our uncle and aunt took the place


of our dear parents, so soon taken from us. ... It
was towards the evening of Wednesday, 6th Septem-
ber, 1914, that I was coming back to my uncle's house
from Ypres, when all at once I heard shrieks and
yells in the distance. I stopped, for I was like one
stunned. On hearing behind me, on the highway, Ger-
man cavalry, I ran into a house where I spent the
night. I could not close my eyes when I thought of
the anxiety of my uncle and aunt and of the fate of
my two small brothers, Michael and Roger. Early
the following day I rushed to our house. Everybody
was in the cellar. We shed tears on meeting again.
I found two of my cousins wounded by a shell which
had exploded outside our door. Soon another shell
comes and smashes our house. I was wounded. Dazed
with fear, my cousin and myself got out through a
window from the cellar, we ran across fields and
meadows to another uncle, where the rest of the
family followed us soon. We remained there the
whole winter, but what a sad winter! We have not
taken off our clothes, for at every moment we feared
to have to run away again.

''The big guns rumbled very much and the shells
whistled over our heads. Every one heard : 'So-and-
so is killed' or 'wounded, by a shell.' 'Such-and-such-
a-house is ruined by a shell.'

"After having spent more than seven months in
incredible fear, my brothers and myself have left the
village, at the order of the gendarmes, and the Eng-


lish took us to Hazebrouck, from where we went to

In some cases the parents, or, as was most generally
the case, the mother, after many terrifying experi-
ences in her village, passed and repassed by the Ger-
mans, having heard of the relief stations in Paris, sent
their children, properly tagged, to be cared for in a
place of comparative safety until the end of the war.
Young Bruno Van Wonterghem told his experience in
characteristically simple words:

"Towards the evening of September 6th, 1914, the
Germans arrived at our. village with their ammuni-
tion. One would have thought the Last Judgment was
about to begin. All the inhabitants were hiding in
their houses. I was hiding in the attic, but, desirous
to see a German, I was looking through a little window
in the roof. Nobody in the house dared to go to bed.
It was already very late when we heard knocks at the
door of our shop. It was some Germans who wanted
to buy chocolate. Some paid but the majority did not.
They left saying, 'Let us kill the French.' The fol-
lowing morning they marched away toward France.
In the evening one heard already the big guns in the

"Turned out of France the Germans came to St.
Eloi, where they remained very long. Then they ad-
vanced to Ypres. The whole winter I heard the
rumbling of the big guns, and the whistling of the
shells. I learned also every day of the sad deaths of
the victims of that awful war. I was often very


frightened and I have been very happy to leave for
France with my companions."

While I was in Paris the refugee children, of course,
were from the invaded districts of France; the Bel-
gian stream had long since ceased. Already twelve
hundred little victims of the first months of the war,
both Belgian and French, either had been returned to
their mothers or relatives by the Franco-American
Committee, or placed for the educational period of
their lives in families, convents, or boys' schools. The
more recent were still in the various colonies estab-
lished by Mrs. Hill and the other members of the
Committee, where they received instruction until such
time as their parents could be found, or some kind
people were willing to adopt them.

It was on my first Sunday in Paris that Mr. Jaccaci
and Mrs. Hill asked me to drive out with them to
Versailles and visit a sanitorium for the children
whose primary need was restoration to health. It was
on the estate of Madame Philip Berard, who had con-
tributed the building, while the entire funds for its
upkeep, including a trained nurse, were provided by
Mrs. Bliss.

Versailles was as green and peaceful as if a few
miles away the shells were not ripping up a field a
shot. After lunch in the famous hotel ordinarily one
of the gayest in France at that time of the year, we
first visited the rest hospital of Miss Morgan, Miss
Marbury and Miss de Wolfe, and then drove out into
the country to Madame Berard's historical estate.


Here, in the courtyard of a good-sized building, we
were greeted by about forty children in pink-and-
white gingham aprons, and heads either shaved or
finished off with tightly braided pigtails. It seemed
to me then that they were all smiling, and for they
had been there some weeks that most of them looked
round and healthy. But I soon found that some were
still too languid to play. One lying in a long chair
on the terrace at the back of the house and gazing
vacantly out at the beautiful woods was tubercular,
the victim of months in a damp cellar. Another, al-
though so excessively cheerful that I suspect she was
not "all there" was also confined to a long chair, with
a hip affection of some sort, but she was much petted,
and surrounded by all the little luxuries that the vic-
tims of her smile had remembered to send her. One
beautiful child had the rickets, and several suffered
from intestinal prolapsus and other internal com-
plaints, but were on the road to recovery.

While their Swedish nurse was putting them
through their gymnastic exercises I studied their faces.
At first my impression was one of prevailing homeli-
ness; scrubbed, flat, peasant faces, for the most part,
without the features or the mental apparatus that pro-
vides expression. But soon I singled out two or three
pretty and engaging children, and rarely one whose
face was devoid of character. And they stood well
and went through their exercises with precision and

It was just before we left that my wandering atten-



tion was directed toward the scene to which I alluded
in my first paragraph. The greater number of the
children were shouting at play in a neighboring field.
The preternaturally happy invalid was smiling at the
lovely woods beyond the terrace, woods where little
princes had frolicked, and older princes had wooed
and won. Mr. Jaccaci was still petting the beautiful
little boy who looked like the bambino on the cele-
brated fresco of Florence; Mrs. Hill was kissing and
hugging several little girls who had clung to her skirts.
It was, in spite of its origin, a happy scene.

I had been waiting by the door for these ceremonies
of affection to finish, when I happened to glance at
the far end of the wide stone terrace. There, by the
balustrade, in the shadow of the leafy woods, stood
a girl of perhaps eight or ten. Her arms hung at her
sides and she was staring straight before her while she
cried as I never have seen a child cry ; silently, bitterly,
with her heavy plain face hardly twisted in its tragic
silent woe.

I called Mrs. Hill's attention to her, for I, a stranger,
could not intrude upon a grief like that, and the idol
of all those children immediately ran over to the deso-
late figure. She questioned her, she put her arms
about her. She might as well have addressed one of
the broken stone nymphs in the woods. That young
mind, startled from the present, it may be, by witness-
ing the endearments lavished upon prettier and smaller
children, had traveled far. She was in the past, a
past that anteceded even that past of death and thun-


dering guns and rocking walls and empty stomachs;
a past when the war, of whose like she had never
heard, was still in the sleepless brains of the monster
criminals of history, when she lived in a home in a
quiet village with the fields beyond ; where she had a
mother, a father, sisters, brothers; where her tears
had been over childish disappointments, and her
mother had dried them. Small and homely and in-
significant she stood there in her tragic detachment the
symbol of all the woe of France, and of the depraved
brutality of a handful of ambitious men who had
broken the heart of the world.


IT is hardly too much to say that every woman in
France, from noblesse to peasant, has her filleul
(godson) in the trenches; in many cases, when she
still has a considerable income in spite of taxes,
moratoriums, and all the rest of it, she is a marraine
on the grand scale and has several hundred. Chil-
dren have their filleul, correspond with him, send him
little presents several times a month and weep bitterly
when word comes that he is deep in his last trench.

Servants save their wages so that when the filleuls
of their mistresses come home on their six days' leave
they at least can provide the afternoon wine and en-
tertain them royally in the kitchen. Old maids, stil!
sewing in their attic for a few sous a day, have found
a gleam of brightness for the first time in their somber
lives in the knowledge that they give a mite of com-
fort or pleasure to some unknown man, offering hi?
life in the defence of France, and whose letters, sen-
timental, effusive, playful, almost resign these poor
stranded women to the crucifixion of their country.

Busy women like Madame d'Andigne sit up until
two in the morning writing to their grateful filleuls.
Girls, who once dreamed only of marrying and living



the brilliant life of the fcmme du monde spend hours
daily not only on cheerful letters, but knitting, sew-
ing, embroidering, purchasing for humble men who
will mean nothing to their future, beyond the growth
of spirit they unconsciously induced. Poor women
far from Paris, where, at least, thousands of these
permissionnaires linger for a few hours on their way
home, toil all night over their letters to men for whom
they conceive a profound sentiment but never can
hope to see. Shop girls save their wages and lady's
maids pilfer in a noble cause.

It was Madame Berard (who was a Miss Dana of
Boston) who organized this magnificent spirit into a
great ceuvre, so that thousands of men could be made
happy whom no kindly woman so far had been able
to discover.

Madame Berard, who has three sons in the army
herself, nursed at the Front for several months after
the war broke out. Even officers told her that they
used to go off by themselves and cry because they
never received a letter, or any sort of reminder that
they were anything but part of a machine defending
France. These officers, of course, were from the in-
vaded district, and in addition to their isolation, were
haunted by fears for their women now in the power
of men who were as cruel as they were sensual and

When she returned to her home she immediately
entered upon the career of marraine, corresponding
with several hundred of the men she either had known


or whose names were given to her by their com-
manding officers. Naturally the work progressed be-
yond her capacity and she called upon friends to help
her out. Out of this initial and purely personal de-
votion grew the great ceuvre, Mon Soldat, which has
met with such a warm response in this country.

Madame Berard's headquarters are in a villa in

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Online LibraryGertrude Franklin Horn AthertonThe living present : the work of French women in war time → online text (page 11 of 19)