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In a French hospital; notes of a nurse online

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Notes of a Nurse










Copyright, 1915, by Plon-Nourrit & Company
Copyright, 1915, by Duffield & Company

AW rights reserved

Press of J. J. Little & Ives Co., New York

JUL 23 1915





The only merit of these notes is their profound sin-
cerity. They give only impressions of things actually
seen and heard, reveal only the wonderful courage and
devotion that exist to-day in a French provincial hos-



Our Patients i

Sister Gabrielle 8

One Night 15

From One to Another 20

Our Orderlies 25

When They Talk 30

How They Love in War Time .... 36

Their Pride 38

The Death of a Soldier 40

The Funeral 46

A Just Reflection 49

A Simple Story 51

Comrades 53

Engaged 60

Seen at the Railway Station 67

A First Communion 71

Conversation As It Is To,-day .... 74

A Soldier's Compliment and Song ... 78

Always Suffering 83

Young Recruits and Territorials ... 84



Under Martial Law 87

Our Priests 88

The Little Frenchmen 91

What We Receive from the Front . . 92

Correspondence in War Time .... 93

A Little Refugee 101

A Modest Little Soldier 106

Officers and Men 109

Sister Gabrielle's Office 112

The Company of the Audacious . . .114

Memories 118

News from the Mèchins 139

A Lament 142

Some Letters 143

Sister Gabrielle's Christmas Tree . . .159



On October sixth, last, I received a mes-
sage from the directress of the Hospital of
Saint Dominic, reading as follows:

"A large number of wounded have just
arrived. We can't take care of any more
ourselves, and the moment has come to call
for volunteers. I shall expect your help."

One hour later, as you can easily imagine,
I was at Saint Dominic. This specially
privileged hospital is under the gentle man-
agement of the Sisters of St. Vincent de
Paul. Several years ago some of its de-
voted trustees made one effort after another
on its behalf in Paris, and, after overcoming
many difficulties, reestablished the Sisters of
Charity amongst us once again. They had
not a doubt even then that they were work-


ing in the interests of France's soldiers, those
same soldiers whose faces light up now with
such a special joy when they lie on their
painful stretchers, and catch sight, near the
large entrance porch, of the good white cor-
nettes of the Sisters waiting for them.

With my heart beating fast I entered the
room to which I had been assigned. There
they all were before me, these lads that had
undergone that terrible and fierce adventur-
ing into war. I remember how they went
away in our wonderful mobilisation trains,
those make-shift, flower-bedecked trains that
sped all of them to the same destination, the
same region of glory and bloodshed. One
long war cry seemed to rise up from them
over all our land. Our young soldiers who
went away in them had acquired an en-
tirely new way of shouting "Vive la
France." It was no longer as if they were
on parade, notwithstanding all the flowers
that people tossed to them: it was already
the cry of men who were to lead in war's


assaults, and make the supreme sacrifice of
their lives. I remember one little infantry-
man of twenty years, standing erect with
folded arms in the back of his compartment,
his eyes flashing, and all the muscles of his
pale face taut. He kept repeating threat-
eningly, "Vive la France — vive la France,"
without a look toward any one; saying it just
to himself and for his country. And I felt
that it was as if he said: "We shall get
them : we must get them, no matter what it
costs. As for me, well, you see, to begin
with, my life doesn't count any more."
This very fellow is the one, perhaps, who
has come back now and sleeps here in this
first cot, where a face both energetic and in-
fantile shows in the midst of the blood-
stained linen.

Sister Gabrielle made a tour with me of
all the patients. The memory of certain of
them particularly is fixed in my mind.
There is number 3, here, who got a bullet
wound in the region of the liver, and has


to lie absolutely still, lest an internal hemor-
rhage may occur at any moment. A war-
rior of twenty-three he is, with cheeks as
rosy as a girl's, and clear blue eyes. He
fought like a lion, they say, but here noth-
ing could be gentler. His appreciation for
the least thing that is done for him is touch-
ing. Number 8, little eight, as they call
him, a volunteer, who seems about fifteen,
and who has to live week after week propped
on his right side, on a hard hospital bed, on
account of an abscess following his wound.
Number 12, an infantryman, who got a bul-
let in the left temple; it was extracted from
his right maxillary, and in passing cut his
tongue in two. "Everything has been put
back," said the Sister, "but he can't talk
yet, and he'll have to learn to talk all over
again, like a little child. In taking care of
him you must come every once in a while
and see if you can guess what he wants."
Number 17, a brave among the braves, who,
under the enemy's fire, crawled ten kilo-


metres on his hands and knees, dragging his
twice wounded foot behind him, to deliver
an order that he had been charged with. His
wounds cause him cruel suffering, and yet
he seems illuminated as with some strange
inward joy. Number 24, nicknamed the
little sieve, because of his fifteen wounds.
Number 32, who suffers like a real martyr.
His leg was literally shattered by the frag-
ments of a shell. It was a question whether
it could be saved at all, but following the
directions of the war surgeon, we are keep-
ing up the attempt. Antiseptic injections
are made twice a day as deep as the bone.
Number 30, who has lost an eye and has
two open fractures in his right arm. When
I said to him : "You have given a good deal
for France," he answered, "It's the least I
could do." And he added, laughing, "I was
so clumsy with my hands. This will teach
me to be clever even with my left one."

Eloquent pens write every day of the hero-
ism shown by our wounded soldiers, but


shall we ever grow tired of hearing this
ever recurring leit motif, which in everything
that touches on the tragic developments of
1914, sounds its incomparable song in praise
of the moral qualities of France? One can-
not repeat too often or too admiringly, "Our
wounded." Our wounded, that is to say,
those men who have come back from that
hell, "whose horrors," they say themselves,
"are indescribable" ; those who have marched
beneath "that terrible, moving curtain of
iron," to which an officer compared the mass
of balls and shells in battle, a mass so com-
pact that it obscured the very daylight on
the firing line. Our wounded! Those, in
a word, who have brought back in their very
flesh the frightful scars of the enemy's iron,
those who have cemented with their own
blood the human wall that is now our
frontier. They have come back, not with
their courage drained, broken down, horror-
stricken, stunned — not at all. They forget
themselves to talk smilingly of the great


hope in which we all share. They are
touched, deeply touched, by the few hours
of fatigue we undergo for them each day —
for them who have given almost their lives.

My tasks were laid out for me, and I be-
gan work at once, thanked by the soldiers
almost in advance for my trouble.

"It's a bit too much to see you work like
this for us."

"All the same, no one has ever been served
like this."

They are not a bit difficult, but pleased
with everything, these men who suffer so
much, who have such a right to every care.
Alas, there are too many of them (this hos-
pital alone has as many as a thousand) to
permit of all the little comforting things that
we should like to do for them without stint.
The Sister who cooks is sorely driven, and
even the prescribed dishes that she sends up
for the sickest ones are often far from appe-
tising. For instance, I have just taken Num-
ber 13, who is consumed by a lingering


fever (a bullet passed through his lung), a
milk soup that smelt badly burned, and in
which pieces of half-cooked rice floated
round. I sighed a little about it as I put
the napkin on the bed. Did he understand
what worried me? In any case, he shows no
distaste, and a quarter of an hour later, when
I pass by him, he motions to me, and says
gently, "It was delicious, madame."

That's the way they all are — all of them.


I study with emotion the admirable vi-
sion of the human soul which the Sister of
Charity and the wounded soldier set before
me. It is a vision which has intervened al-
ways, as with an element of the supernatural,
in our war-time pictures, and, behold, now
we find it again, almost miraculously, in the
supreme struggle of 1914.

Sister Gabrielle, who has charge of my
room, her identity quite hidden as it is by


her archangel's name, is the daughter of a
general, as I know. She has three brothers
that have served beneath the colours. The
oldest, a quite young captain, has just met
his death on the field of honour. I happen
to have learned the circumstances : how, cov-
ered with blood already flowing from three
different wounds, Captain X nevertheless
struggled on bravely at the head of his men,
and after several hours of conflict was struck
by a bullet full in the breast. He fell, cry-
ing: "Don't fall back! That's my last
order !"

Sister Gabrielle was told only last week
of the glorious grief that had been thrust
upon her, but no one around her would have
guessed her sorrow. Possibly her smile for
the patients that day was a little more com-
passionate and tender than usual, when she
thought of her brother enduring his moment
of supreme agony alone down there in the
forests of the Vosges. But no matter how
compassionate Sister Gabrielle may be, she


never carries it to the point of feebleness or
softness. Her bearing with the soldiers is
an indefinable mingling of something an-
gelic, maternal and virile, all at once. These
men brought in from all points of the im-
mense and terrible battlefield become at once
her children (and never was a mother more
watchfully solicitous and devoted), but
never does she forget their sacred title of
soldier. She must not stir up their feelings,
she knows. She sets herself, on the con-
trary, the essential, secret task of keeping up
their moral strength, of helping them, after
the enemy's fire, to meet the ordeal of the
operating room, the wearing suffering, per-
haps at last even death; for death is always
watching for its prey in this room of the
twenty-four beds reserved for the most se-
verely wounded.

Sister Gabrielle would like to save them
all. What a task! What a struggle! She
is on her feet night and day. The orderlies
are told to call her at the least disturbing


symptom, and when they do, with true
motherly enthusiasm, she who is always
helping others to bear their heavy burdens,
herself awakens, tireless, to her own sad
duties. In the semi-darkness of the room
she prepares hastily the serum that may pro-
long a life; she utters the sweet words that
are dear to souls who suffer thus at
night. It may be one o'clock, two o'clock
in the morning, but when four o'clock sounds
her night is over. Lost in the long line of
white cornettes, she takes her way to the
chapel, and there stores up for another twen-
ty-four hours the strength to go on with this
superhuman mode of living. Behold in her
"a soul that is truly the mistress of the body
which it animates."

She is thin and frail — mortally ill herself,
they say; she was quite ill one month ago.
But if you speak to her of her health she
interrupts you a little impatiently:

"We have given ourselves, body and soul,
according to our vows. To last a little


longer or a little less doesn't matter. The
main thing is to fulfil our tasks. Besides,"
she adds, indicating her patients, "they have
given their lives for France. It is quite
right, if it must be so, that our lives be sacri-
ficed to save them."

And, in truth, from living in this atmos-
phere one comes to think this mutual hero-
ism the natural thing. These two kinds of
heroes, the French soldier and the Sister of
Charity, need make no explanations, coin no
phrases to understand each other. There
really exists between them, over and above
the differences in class and lives, a real and
touching intimacy of the soul. When Sister
Gabrielle goes quietly and rapidly past the
long rows of beds where they suffer so un-
complainingly, they know perfectly well
that she hasn't time to stop before each one
of them. She has not time to say the words
which suffering seems so easily to call forth,
but which may make it worse and cause it
to be less nobly borne. They know, too,


that she will be there if her presence is nec-
essary, and that if, in secret, her woman's
heart weeps over them, weeps incessantly, in
their presence her French woman's heart
beats with pride.

To us, when they can't hear, she talks
about "her children" freely, quite full of
admiration and pity for them:

"Ah, if you knew how full of courage
they are," she says. "You must be with
them night and day, like me, to do them
justice; to see them coming into the operat-
ing room so bravely, a smile on their lips, as
they lie on their stretchers. You must see
them die, too."

Sister Gabrielle's eyes filled with tears at
the thought of so many young lives that
have gone out — of so many yet to pass out,
in her arms. This woman, young and frail
as she is, truly must have some supernatural
source of energy in herself, thus to bear up
and never falter under the terrible weight of
suffering that crushes her silent heart, this


suffering that tortures her soldiers in the
flesh incessantly all about her.

The wounded soldiers are not clever at
expressing their appreciation. But they
know quite well that Sister Gabrielle can
guess what they feel for her, just from the
timid way in which they say, "Thank you,"
so many times, or the confiding way in which
they give her their letters, or tell the news
they've had from their families, or from the
fervour with which they try to do a thousand
little services for her as soon as they begin
to get better; and especially from the respect,
a very touching kind of respect, surprisingly
full of delicacy, which they invariably show
for her, even in the midst of their cruellest

In speaking to Sister Gabrielle they never
use the trite phrases that they use to the
other nurses, such as, "You'll tire yourself
out; you're doing too much."

No, Sister Gabrielle is an immaterial
being, to whom they don't dare attribute the


common feebleness of humanity. But
watching her passing by, her clear eyes
deeply ringed with fatigue, her step tired,
but her bearing invariably gentle, I often
hear them murmur, "She deserves a decora-


Better than all the newspapers and of-
ficial communications on the war, the hos-
pital keeps one in touch with matters at the
front. In the lot of wounded that were sent
in yesterday, forty came to Sister Gabrielle
directly from the Aisne. They arrived to-
ward the close of the day, and I shall never
forget the spectacle of that room. One
stretcher succeeded another, all borne slowly
by the litter-men and set down near the hast-
ily prepared beds. Here and there you
caught a cry of pain that could not be kept
in, though there were no complaints, no con-
tinued groanings. Yet now, when you lean
over those glorious and lamentable blue bon-


nets, cut as they are by bullets and stained
with the mud of the trenches, when you take
off the caps that have grown stiff with the
dampness of the long rains, you perceive
their suffering by the glittering look in their
fevered eyes, their poor, worn faces and
ravaged features, sunken and hollow with
suffering. Then, all at once, at the least
word, the old gallantry that we know so well
reasserts itself. For example, they ask the
most touching and childish favours of us.
Thus if a limb that hurts too much must be
lifted, or a piece of clothing that binds a
wound eased up, they all ask :

"Not the orderly, not the orderly, please;
the Sister or the lady."

One must have given in little enough to
suffering, have treated oneself rather roughly,
after all, not to deserve now the gentle min-
istrations of women's hands. And certainly
it is the least of our duties to be here and
ready with this gentleness, as long as there
is one wounded soldier left to look after, the


least of our duties to serve them till the
final hush of victory descends at last on
our terrible battlefields.

The first words that the newcomers ex-
change with their cot neighbours are not
about their own hardships; they speak first,
and before anything else, of France.

"How are things going down there?"

"All right. We'll get them."

Then the newcomers, worn out as they are,
sink into feverish sleep, struggling some-
times for days between realities and the per-
sistent nightmare of the visions that pursue
them. That night in the room that was al-
ways so still, but that now seemed more
feverish than usual, I heard a sound of
smothered sobs. It was Number 25, a big,
good-looking soldier, whom each day I had
seen having his wound dressed, a real torture,
without a word, and who was sobbing now
with his head in his pillow, ashamed of his
tears, but powerless to keep them back. I
went to him and tried to question him, but


the soldiers don't readily speak to you of
the sorrows that touch their hearts the deep-
est and most nearly.

"Thank you, lady; don't bother yourself
about me. I don't need anything."

"Is your pain worse, maybe 1 ?"

"I'm in pain, yes, terribly, but it isn't

"What is it, then? Won't you tell me?"

He denied me still, then, all at once, un-
der the pressure of his grief, he said:

"Oh, yes, I do feel like confiding in you.
I'll tell you what it is. The comrade who
was waiting next to me till his bed was
ready brought me news of the death of my
best friend. He was in his regiment and
was killed by his side. Oh, madame, he was
such a fine fellow, so devoted and full of
courage. We were brought up together. He
was more than my chum; he was my friend."

He cried and cried. He had borne every-
thing without giving way — the continual
nearness of death, the so hard life in the


trenches, the incessant physical suffering;
but the death of his friend crushed him and
brought him down to earth. And while I
murmured words that, alas, were futile for
any change they made in his sorrow, but
which did some good, just the same, I heard
him sobbing in his pillow :

"My friend was killed. My friend was

His friend — when one knows what the
word comrade means to them, one divines all
that word friend may mean, too.

Sister Gabrielle, whose infallible instinct
brings her alway to the cots where the sickest
of her children are, passed near Number 25
and stopped a moment. She did not ask him
anything. She just put her hand caressingly
on his brown head, so young and virile, and
said in her firm, sweet voice :

"All right, my boy, all right. Courage.
Remember all this is for France."

Then turning to me, she said :

"Before night-time wouldn't you like to


play a game of dominoes with this good boy ?
He'll represent the French forces, and in the
morning he must be able to tell me that he
has won."

In the midst of his tears the young sol-
dier, his heart swelling in his distress, smiled
at finding himself thus treated like a child.
They have such need of it, the soldiers, after
having done so valiantly the work of men!


It is comforting to hear them talk about
their superior officers, as a soldier of the
149th Infantry has just talked to me about
his captain.

"Oh, I can tell you, my captain had plenty
of good blood in his veins. There was noth-
ing suspicious about him. I saw him stand-
ing straight up among the whistling bullets,
giving his orders without flinching, without
recoiling one inch, as if he were sitting at his
desk and only flies were buzzing round his


head. And so gentle, too. Good to the men
and always jolly. We were in luck to have
him over us."

I asked him questions about his campaign,
and he talked freely, having only good things
to tell. The taciturn ones are those who
have sad memories to conceal.

"We were the ones told off to take the vil-
lage of S ," he said, "where the enemy

was. My captain, who acted as chief of
battalion, got us all together, and said to

" 'There seem to be two or three Boches
down there. We must get them out, eh'?'

"Everybody knew very well what that
meant, but we laughed and went to it in
good part. What fights those were! Two
days of bloody battles in the streets. Fin-
ally the village was ours. We had one
night's rest in a farmhouse, three-quarters of
which had been destroyed. When we got
there we spied an unfortunate porker in a
corner. He had taken refuge there, fright-


ened by the firing. He came in very handy,
I can tell you, for our stomachs were

" 'Charge again on that Boche, there,' said
the Captain. When we had eaten and slept
and assembled again next day, he said:

" 'Well, well, my lads, we're in danger of
getting too soft here. Suppose we go on a
little further and see what's happening.'

"We marched on further, but the enemy,
who were in force, began to shoot at us all
at once from below. My Captain didn't ex-
pose us needlessly. He made us lie down
in the deserted trenches. There were corpses
there and dead horses, and water, water
everywhere. It rained without stopping.
We spent the night up to our waists in
water. It was enough to make one laugh."

To laugh — this word turns up all the time
in their recitals, and in the most unexpected
manner. Oh, this French courage, which
faces not only the bitter struggle with dan-
ger, but disdains and mocks it, too; that ele-


gant courage of our fathers that has been
born again amongst us.

My foot-soldier, Number 149, was seized
with quite a touching emotion when I told
him that I knew his Captain's lady.

"Tell her she may be proud," he said,
"and that I'd willingly go back down there;
for my country's sake, of course, but also
and a good deal, on my Captain's account."

Then I let him know something that I'd
kept till the end of our interview, that his
Captain, young as he was, had just been pro-
moted to the rank of battalion chief; that
the Cross of the Legion of Honour had been
given him, and that, thanks to him, no doubt,
the entire regiment had been mentioned in
the order of the day. I won't attempt to
picture the little soldier's moving and disin-
terested joy.

Near Number 3' s bed I caught sight of a
peasant woman from the Cher, in a white
headdress, and an old man, who wore a me-
dallion of 1870 on his breast.


"They are his parents," Sister Gabrielle
explained to me. "I had word sent to them.
The poor lad is in grave danger. Luckily
I've got the management's permission to let
the mother pass the nights here."

In this way I became acquainted with the
Mèchins, French peasants of the old order,
unalterably attached to the soil. They hope,
nay, they are sure, that their son is going to
get well. The sick man says nothing.
They're all like that, our soldiers — no fool-
ish tenderness, no pain given to their par-
ents. Who knows, besides, how much their

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