The next letter from Norman was published in October 1917. However it is clear from the content that Norman wrote this letter much earlier in the year as she talks about picking bluebells and makes reference to events that occurred in July that year. This letter was first published in a Philadelphia newspaper (date unknown) and was then reprinted in October in the Atlanta Constitution.
Mademoiselle Miss writes from the French War Front
October 7. 1917
How she stoops to gather bluebells in order to shut out for a moment from her sight the intensity of an airplane bombardment of a hospital in a chateau just back of the front in France is one dramatic detail in an intensely interesting letter by Miss Norman Derr, resident of East Lake, where her brother, Dr. John S. Derr, now lives, until she went to France as Red Cross nurse the author of ‘Mademoiselle Miss,’ the well known war book which is a compilation of her letters from the scene of her services.
Excerpts from the letter, which are taken from a recent edition of The Philadelphia Public Ledger, are of a simple narration of unconscious heroism, which is scarcely surpassed in impressiveness in the best of the war literature.
Miss Derr’s Letter
Miss Derr says:
“It is a bit surprising to arrive within two miles of the station to which you have been ordered and to encounter section after section of motorcars, tearing at full speed, laden with the ‘blesses’ you are on your way to take care of, and to learn that shells are dropping all over the very spot you are headed for. Of course, you won’t hear of turning back, and you only prod the chauffeur to get there as fast as he can. We did stop at the last hill though, just to calculate our chances on the down grade into the hospital park. One could not have chosen a scene more tragically splendid. The distances were vast, laid in great masses of golden light and shade, and all the lovely woods and fields were barred with wavering, plumy lines of smoke that belched red flames here and there.
“Just in front of us lay a town whose name you often read and whose twin ruined towers are theory and the grief of all who love the work of the middle ages. How terribly beautiful they looked then, with the rosy light glinting on their torn windows, rising calm and regnant out of a furious sea of exploding shells! For three years they have withstood the shock. Their flowers and jewels are scattered, but their symmetry is yet unspoiled- symbol of the soul of France.
“Airplanes swooped about nervously, bombarding each other; captive balloons bobbed up against the clouds and another shell dropped in the park of the hospital at our feet. All the air trembled with explosions. It seemed more like the composition of a master war artist than anything real, and one seemed to be looking at the biograph of the story of the last three years. It was too intense, and I instinctively stooped to gather the tender bluebells swaying at my feet. En route again, and we slid down the hill. Just a minute after we passed a big shell hit the roadside.
Slept Like Babies
“When we pulled up at the hospital steps all the medical corps met us. The chief medical officer gravely advanced and informed me that the last ‘blesse’ had been sent away on account of the bombardment and that he left me free to return to my former situation if I preferred. Perhaps he would not have made the offer if he had seen the papers I carried in my pocket. At all events, he made no other effort to gainsay my decision to remain than to point silently to an enormous hole, with rays running out like craters in the moon, a few feet from the steps. My three companions greeted me charmingly- all sweet, fine women- and after dining on a great table in the basement where the provisions are kept we stretched our mattresses on the same table and slept like babes. I must explain here, lest you think me too phlegmatic, that I had not been to bed for several nights, the care of the wounded at Epernay rendering it impossible.
“That takes me back to my last post and some interesting news. I wonder if, on Friday evening the sixth of July, at 10:30, you had a vision of me crossing a moonlit town under such a rain of bombs and shrapnel as made the most gorgeous pyrotechnic display you can imagine? I had just undressed when the first bomb fell.
“I dressed at once, and had I stopped to parley with my good landlady who barred the doorway, declaring that I would be killed if I went out, I should have been caught in the Rue Donyon for after I passed a bomb fell, destroying four houses. I admit it gave me a queer feeling — there’s a crash of colliding planets and a gush of gas that isn’t pleasant–but somehow I felt that I was being protected, so I didn’t run nor swerve though one of the Bosches was humming just above my head and all the air was filled with flying balls of fire from our brave little seventy five. When I reached my service, on the second floor of the hospital I found a lot of men nurses with helmets on their heads, and with stretchers too confused to act, and my poor ‘blesses’ lying very frightened in the dark.
New “Blesses” Arrive
“As soon as possible I got all who could be moved down into the basement and by the time I had lined them up as comfortably as possible on their stretchers the new ‘blesses’ began to arrive– soldiers, old men, women and children–several dead when they arrived. By this time some of the surgeons appeared, and there being enough to attend to the dressings downstairs and none above, I went back to my floor with two ‘blesses’ — one, a brigadier with both legs blown off, or, to speak more accurately, hanging by a few shreds of tendon. I gave him serum in floods, and other things, but the shock was too great: he died toward morning, amid unearthly thunders, begging me to comfort his “pauvre femme et les gosses”.
“And so I passed that terrible night, all alone up there under the roof, with only a wounded man to help me. When the first thrush sang out among the poplars and the town siren shrieked that there was no more danger,I trotted home for my cold bath before beginning another day. The Bosches had left 300 visiting cards. Imagine the havoc wrought upon the tiny town of Epernay!
“Now that I have a little spare time and nothing to do but watch the airplanes and listen to the big guns off there behind the trees and muse over the enchanting loveliness of my surroundings, I can send you a sketch of my experience. Such is the spell of the beauty of the chateau and it’s environment that it seems as if no death or danger could ever enter. I have been wonderfully protected, and here, although we are only six miles from the German lines, I believe there is less danger than at Epernay. They have bombarded this line only twice and may never do it again, there being no strategic reason”.
The Atlanta Constitution: October 7, 1917 with permission of ProQuest Historical Newspapers Atlanta Constitution (1868 -1945)