Before Norman left Atlanta to return to the war the local paper wrote a small feature about her.
Miss Derr has French Passport
‘Through the acting French consul here, Dr E.E. May, Miss Norman Derr has been given a passport by the French government, a privilege rarely extended to foreigners. As told in The Constitution Saturday, Miss Derr has the rank of lieutenant in the French army, for service rendered in the French military hospitals. She returns to France in a few weeks. She is the author of the now famous little book “Mademoiselle Miss”’.
In a 7 page typed letter to Dr Cabot Norman asked him to share with all the people back in Atlanta how the wonderful contributions they had entrusted her to take back to France had brought such happiness to the “blesses”, the wounded Poilu in the hospital at Troyes. Norman also explained some of the unexpected problems she faced on her return to the front which tested her resolve. Whether the new French passport she held helped or hindered her in her progress she did not say.
“Courtesy of the Harvard University Archives”
Letter about Christmas 1916 in Troyes to Dr Cabot
January 8th, 1917
There are all those kindly generous folk without whom the late bright festa would have been impossible, -Won’t you share with them the contents of this? It is out of the question to write an individual letter to each as I should wish.
You saw me sat in Paris fuming most petulantly over orders that didn’t arrive. After two years of soldiering one should learn to treat pityingly and with equanimity the blunders of the military system, but after such an effort to prepare a bright Christmas for somewhere, it was rather awful to see one’s self getting hopelessly staled in a Paris hotel. The censor and common discretion forbid me to explain now the absurd and melodramatic why of those five weeks of waiting. Let your fancy have a try at it and then be glad I am no longer a credulous lamb. Suffice it that having made Herculean efforts in half a dozen different directions, striven as only condemned men strive to free themselves, to get to my children the Thursday before Christmas the truth suddenly dawned upon me. I flew into a righteous rage and said that if I wasn’t given a post within twenty-four hours, I would leave the country and go where my help and my material would be better appreciated. How I ever had the moral courage to mean this, with my affection rooted here among these splendid poilus, deeper than the trenches I don’t know, but I did, and it carried conviction. Before night I was told that while waiting for a post on the front, which would be forthcoming, I might come to Troyes where an ambulance of 1400 blesses was much in need of my bon secours. Certainly not a poste de choix, at more than 100 km from the front, but still it was the zone des armees, Christmas was at hand, and beggars mustn’t be choosers. Two days collecting oranges, bon-bons, cigarettes for the 1400, gathering together my cases from the Quai d’Orsays Clearing House etc, remarking them all myself, arranging for transportation Grande Vitesse, (no easy matter over crowded rails with agencies that promise faster than they fulfil,) -I was off at dawn, Dec. 24th. It was a radiant morning after weeks of freezing rain and mist, and I felt something like a victor from the Marne, as we wended along through the silent woods and pastures of the Aube country. It seemed so good to feel the harness again and it looked like a fair road. Errant Knights are apt for surprises!
Arrived at Troyes and all my 26 cases safely deposited en gare , I proceeded by train to the military hospital of the Lycée de jeunes Filles, where I was affected. It was some distance off and I had a chance to note that the town was ugly, with beautiful churches, (Since, I’ve had a peep into fascinating middle aged streets-). At the gate of the Lycée marked Ambulance 10/13, the sentry tried to stop me from passing. I explained that I wished to see the Infirmieres-majore, it being the office of that enviable person to introduce Infirmieres to the Medecin-Chef. “Il n’y a pas de femmes ici Madame, Il n’y a que des Infirmieres. Vous vous trompez d’addresse”‘, That was a poser. I hadn’t mistaken the address at all. Well then, I said, I want to see the Medecin-Chef, and I showed him my badge with such a determined air that he had to let me thru. I found myself in a vast enclosure with a continuous myriad-windowed building running around three sides, a chapel at the other and crowds of blesses in white caps and pathetic thin, queer coats, crawling and limping about the stiff paths like monks in a modern Certosa. After some searching I found the Bureau des Entrees, and asked for the Medecin-Chef. “Which Medecin-Chef? There are two for the time, one for the Army and one for the Region”- You doubtless don’t understand the delicate but bitter distinction that separates these two groups of the Military. Suffice it that when you find the Army and the Region together it is a case of Montague and Capulet on a formidable scale. It didn’t matter to me much which, but both of these gentlemen happened to be at lunch, and I was invited to return at two. There was nothing for it but to take refuge in a little Buvette I had seen down the street, where I regaled myself with a glass of piquet and a thigh of ancient rooster made into some sort of stew, and I made up my mind to be game, for the situation looked anything but promising less of a “Merrie Christmas”. Still anything was better than Paris, and after exhausting all the local gossip of the old bar-women, I stole into St Martin near by, and knelt in the pure ivory nave, irised all over from the beautiful windows, and arrived at a certain tranquility that stood me in good stead thereafter. At two precisely I found the M.C of the Ambulance in his bureau. He received me politely but somewhat askance looked at my Ordre de Service and said that didn’t concern him. It was a matter for the Region to handle, that was destined to take over the hospital when the Ambulance should depart. “Would I have the obligeance to wait for the other M.C?” When that dignity arrived, carrying his four galons and his legion d’Honneur, he seemed to know even less than his confrere. He didn’t expect me, he didn’t need me, he didn’t know what to do with me; the only thing he could suggest was that I go to the Direction, let them decide what should be done. The situation was becoming comic. After much wandering thru the muddy streets of Troyes, I found the Direction, and a sub-director who thought it advisable to send me back to the Lycée with a “mot” for the M.C and orders to return at five. All the fortitude and all the Christian soldiers needn’t be proved on the front! I obeyed instructions- determined to find the situation amusing, tho by this time, all hopes of a Christmas tree had faded, and it was getting cold and dark, and I kept losing my way in the winding streets. Finally after such a series of bureaucratic bunglings as I haven’t the time to describe, I was told to go to the Hotel des Courriers – was then past seven and I had been on the war-path since twelve! – because there was no available lodging elsewhere, and present myself in uniform the next morning. It was clear the poor things were seriously embarrassed for they didn’t dare question the orders of the minister whose stamp my papers bore, and they didn’t know what to do with a solitary infirmiere who was doubtless there only for looks! ( Since, they’ve learned things!!!).
It was certainly not the kind of Christmas Eve I had been dreaming all through that stormy voyage,and I thought of Vitry, with a choke in my throat. Had I been a Poilu I’d have said to my comrade, ” Il ne faut pas t’en faire, mon vieux” so I went to sleep to the sound of Christmas bells, repeating the formula, — and one or two others. The next morning before light I was at my post in the Salle de pansements, – and a scene to turn any conscientious infirmiere gray- no adequate material- no steriliser, no oil-cloth, no space, hundreds of blesses, two or three bored looking doctors, boxes of dressings strewn around open anywhere, and infirmiers who had evidently never heard of asepsie. The only thing to do was to make a little order without anybody’s realising, and help around generally, for to assume something like authority would have been fatal-. You may have some notion of the delicate position of an infirmiere in a military hospital, especially where they are not used to women. At midday I shared the Christmas dinner of the Medecin de Garde, and that’s worth a whole letter by itself. An arrangement of boiled meat, dried beans, sour wine, on a bare table in a disordered guard room and Medecin de Garde put for the first time probably in his place without quite knowing how he got there- to rejoice the humorist’s heart. In the afternoon one of the high officers came to apologise for the “gaffee” that had been made in not inviting me to the popote in the town ( ” the sallee Garde being no place for a lady of refinement”, which was quite exact.) and insisting that I join the mess that evening. I had some compunctions, about being alone among so many warriors, but fifteen well-bred ones are better than one who isn’t, – and I had no desire to pay for my food and lodging at the expense of the poilus. ( You know I am pretty straightened; I am rigorous about investing the funds entrusted to me, for important things only, and when I must pay for my living it means many little luxuries the less for them. Besides those weeks in Paris nearly ruined me!). So I joined the mess, and no queen could have been treated with greater deference and consideration. I am glad, after a unique test, to be able to pay this tribute to the chivalry of the French officer.
Not a moment yesterday and all of today I’ve gone like a steam engine and left earlier than usual in order to finish this and more concisely lest it assume Arabian night proportions. It’s Christmas you want to hear about, and I have spent too much time on the introduction.
You’ve seen that the day wasn’t any too festive. After the pansements, not being then affected to a special service, I wandered thru the great building that seemed to my bewildered fancy vaster than the Vatican,trying to bring a little cheer into those fire less rooms where the poor children who were well enough to drag about, huddled in groups on the cold floors; ( Thank Heaven they don’t try to take Grands Blesses!) but I hadn’t even a bonbon to offer them. I had a hard time keeping back the tears. There seemed no prospect whatsoever of getting my cases from the station. When there are two chiefs, no one commands; to send the Ambulance Camion required a signed order, and tho’ these worthy gentlemen were polite enough, they seemed in no hurry to take my material seriously. This lasted three days. Meanwhile I bought a blue-flame kerosene lamp to sterilise the instruments, some basins and oil-cloth, prepared drains and serum, and got the Salle de pansements in better shape. Finally I went to the officier gestionnaire who is a man of action and explained to him that I couldn’t bother with red tape any longer,- that I had come on a special mission and that it wasn’t at all the kind of Ambulance or work I wanted. I was prepared to give a fete for all the 1400 if he’d only get my cases and find me a tree and a locale. “Mlle.you shall have your cases and the tree tomorrow morning. I will put the end of the long refectory and three men at your disposal,” he answered in the tone of one who should say,- ” here are the stones; now build a cathedral!” – and he kept his word.
In the day I did my work as usual, but Friday and Saturday I sat up nearly all night in the “parloir ” next the chapel where ” the owl for all his feathers” would have frozen, sorting out my gifts to make 1440 packages by the light of two smoky lamps. Then there were 1440 blue and white and red corncupias to make and fill with candy. Without your sumptuous sixty boxes I shouldn’t have had enough. I had three bonnie poilus to help, and we did execution I can tell you. It hurt to have to pillage the comfort bags, but I had only 350 and many were so generously filled that I could afford to remove several articles from each, and then tied up, in handkerchiefs with a bright ribbon, (how I did bless the thoughtful hand from Atlanta that put in several bobbins) helped to eke out the quantity. There was Mrs Bolton’s box of loose gifts, charmingly ticketed with holly clad cards, and dear little Jean Gove’s contribution with such charming surprises. She had thought of every possible contingency, from cigarettes and malted milk tablets to candles and tinsel for the tree. (She might be pleased to know that the latter being especially fresh and brilliant, added to the splendor of the “Star of Bethlehem”at the top). Finally there was the magnificent Hartford case loaded with puzzles which have literally given life and occupation to the whole hospital, and the 56 pairs of bulging socks, flaunting star spangled banners and sprigs of holly, which I jealously guarded for the scattered cases of badly frozen feet which are mostly our plus grand blesses. Madame Eames’ bags,as you know, arrived too late to go with me, but they’ll be just as welcome now. I am sure those dear Atlanta people won’t mind my taking liberties with their bags. It was better to despoil their loving handiwork than leave hundreds of poilus with no present at all, and I was not equipped to cope with any such number. Moreover each bag still held its address with several giftlets and judging from the eager way I have been pursued since to “translate” addresses, Atlanta’s foreign mail will be considerably heavier.
Words fail me to tell you how, but at two o’clock on New Year’s Eve, the hour bulletins, everything was accomplished and the last snow flake drifted on Santa Claus’s beard. The regal pine, heavy with cones, that towered to the lofty rafters in a corner of the refectory, was brilliant with icicles, and spider webs and festoons of tinsel and flowers and shining fruits and candles in profusion; at its base was a splendid big trophy of Allied flags. France in the centre with a tiny American atop illuminated by a wee Santa Claus with candle. Winding back among it’s hindmost branches was Mr Keate’s historic American flag, that has ever flown for righteousness, which he gave me the day I sailed. (I know he’d have been glad to see it there,) way up above the Star with another tiny trophy at it’s heart; and highest of all a pair of angels. Beside the tree an impromptu stage hung at the back with white and festoons of little red bells from Atlanta and Bonne Armee, A la victoire, painted in big blue letters, with big bells all about overhead where sat Santa Claus and the Artists. (I never thought of the concert until ten o’clock and it was not indifferent luck that, one of our Secretaires, Gauthier Premier prix du conservatoire, should find Delmas of the Opera Comique to help us out.) In front two immensely long tables, one laden with gifts, the other with cigarettes, and favors and cakes, with a giant tricolor in the centre, made of blue, white and red cornucopias. The passage-way between the two which led in front of the stage and out into a side door, was flanked by two huge pyramids of oranges. Two o’clock struck-(Métier militaire, you know!) and in came the poilus, – 1150 of them that had been seething outside for an hour or more, every man that could crawl was there and some that shouldn’t have, all with bandaged heads, or hands or feet, or arms in slings, and squeezed themselves good naturedly along the narrow benches, the white peaked caps all nodding together. Then Delmas began a fine repertoire, and Flemant from the theatre of Geneva made us all laugh, and Massis fiddled superbly, and Ganthier brought music out of the worst of pianos; and theAdministration that occupied the front row applauded and looked as pleased as anybody. But our own poilus from out their bandages brought the best notes of the afternoon, and the simple Breton songs of some of my patients were worth all the operatic tricks in the world. As the early twilight gathered, Delmas gave the signal and 1150 voices joined in the Marseillaise,-a point I had especially made, for his comrades wanted him to sing it alone,- and at that moment the “Etoile du Berger” beamed out overhead and one by one the lesser stars grew among the branches.
To me, half hidden among them too, it seemed as if an angel presence filled the vast hall, as if every poilu must feel it, and I lifted up my heart to take the blessing of Her who had made all this possible. And there are those who doubt, you say? Ah, if they could have had my vision there in the candle light! It was like being called back from Paradise when I heard the Medecin Chef, pedestalled on a chair, pouring forth eulogies on America and her representative in particular, and then he led the poilus, – You see they all come by it naturally since he couldn’t have heard it before, in three thundering cheers for “Mademoiselle Miss”! and Vitry echoed faintly back from last year. How I did long to get up and tell them of Her who was the true spirit of their festival! Instead I motioned to Santa Claus, who gave a quite enchanting little discourse, nearly as good as Grand-pere last year. And then began the distribution. The poilus came up in “waves” against the barricade of goodies, which swiftly melted before the onslaught, but not before everyone had a packet, a cake, an orange, a cornucopia, 6 cigarettes and a favor. I had asked Madame Lauth, wife of the M.C. of the region, to assist and that lady was greatly gratified. When the last poilu had gone limping gleefully away, the tables were put back, and the first soup served, and that sacred military regime had not been jostled by a delay of so much as five minutes. All credit to the Officier Gestionnaire! It was no Lilliputian party!
After that, having extinguished some smouldering forest fires! Pere Noel and I made the tour of the Salles and the barracks to make the “couches” happy as well, and when I left late that night, I think not a Poilu in all that pathetic little world of ours had been neglected.
The general opinion is that it was a dazzling success. The enclosed clipping of which I have already sent you the newspaper, shows you what the Administration thought, and the editor has since written me that he had the substance of it telegraphed to all the French papers abroad! As a result of this overwhelming honor, I have been the recipient ever since en riche Americiane! of supplications from all kinds of rouges and refugees, to buy instruments, microscopes, oil paintings, to give clues and advice, so that I need several secretaries if I replied to them all. Now the Ambulance wants to take me and the Region wants to keep me! So much for two week’s trial.
Here ends the 1st phase of my experiences at Troyes. I hope you’ll find the best way to share it with those who are interested.