The next two letters were written to Norman’s father and explained in more detail the distribution of 15,000 gifts to soldiers at Christmas 1917. As the newspaper headline noted she had built up a reputation as a writer of unique letters. These letters went on to describe the unique event Norman orchestrated to personally bring comfort to 15,000 soldiers on the front line in addition to those on her own ward.
“As Norman Derr saw Christmas
“Mlle-Miss”, Well Known Here, Describes Holiday Season In France
Has Built Up Reputation As Writer Of Unique Letters
Describes The Distribution Of 15,000 Christmas Gifts In A Unique Manner
Doctor E. Z. Derr has received several letters lately from his daughter, Miss Norman Derr, distinguished now as the writer of “Mlle Miss” letters, as well as her noble service in the military hospitals of France.
Miss Derr is well known here, being the niece of E. L. Derr, near Frederick.
In Miss Derr’s last letter she describes the distribution of 15,000 Christmas gifts as follows:
“Ambulance 12-1, December 23, 1917.
A royal snowstorm is raging through the valley, bearding the bright fringe of icicles above the doorway, and painting all the little brown barracks white and cosy like a Christmas village. It’s a perfect setting for a Christmas story.
During a recent visit to Paris to recuperate from a severe attack of bronchitis I paid a visit to the head-quarters of the Red Cross to ask them what they could or would do in the event of my Christmas cases, expected from home, being delayed or sequestrated. I was referred to a dear little lady, Mrs Denny, a much more powerful person than her size and sex would indicate. She was cordial enough, but firm on the point that she could only provide for soldiers in the trenches, and not in hospitals. That drew from me a confession of my dream of three years, and before I left it was promised that if I could get right of way with the army, I could have control of 15,000 pairs of filled socks.
How did I suppose I could wield such vast numbers? I didn’t; I just took it on faith that such an opportunity it should not be missed, and that there would be miracles.
As soon as I could, on my return to my post, I had an audience with the medical inspector general. That august personage looked first incredulous, then amused, and said I had no notion of numbers, that it was attempting the impossible, but that if I liked he would speak to the general in command of the division of the army. Twenty-four hours later I was summoned to meet the medical inspector general at the office of the chief medical officer of the ambulance. With a quite altered manner he informed me that the commanding general was much touched by my generous intention on behalf of his soldiers, and that if I really thought I could handle the matter he would give me all possible facilities. Then I set to work in earnest to get my scheme of operations in shape, and writing supplications for help on behalf of my ambulance that it might not be neglected while I went afield.
Having received masses of letters from the United States heralding cases from Atlanta, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Hartford and other places and knowing that there might be delay in getting them, I got an order on the 10th of December, with permission to go wherever I thought I would find my cases- a great mark of esteem to show a nurse. I went off with many misgivings, for I wasn’t at all sure of finding anything, and if I did, there would be all the transportation system of the interior to wrestle with. It was a still, star light morning when I started. The east was still deep violet, and a pale crescent moon was slipping down to the west- too pale to light my way, and I lost it several times lugging my bag across the frozen fields. The little train kept whistling impatiently, and I couldn’t see it for there was no light on account of enemy aviators.
Altogether I felt breathless and uneasy, when suddenly, clear and sweet as clarion, as if rung down from the stars, came these words – I think they are St Theresa’s – ” Let nothing disturb thee, nothing affright thee, all things are passing: God never changeth. Patient endurance attaineth to all things: alone God sufficeth”. And then a great quiet descended on my heart, and it has never left me through all this stormy time. I had need of all my sangfroid in Paris. After telegraphing all the ports to try to place my cases before starting off on a wild goose chase after them, I paid a courtesy call at the Red Cross and that which should have been en route weeks before we not even filled, much less packed. The dear people had apparently forgotten that, in war time, cases don’t arrive like letters.
All I saw of preparations were three open cases in the court of the packing department, with my name on them, and a little ambulance driver in khaki struggling with an unaccustomed saw. All praise to William Barber, who took his carpentry job quite as seriously as saving life on the battlefield, for which he received the “Croix de Guerre” and “Medaislle Militaire”. I am not going to bewilder you with the peripatetics, telephoning, interviewing, auto chasing and money- spending of those days. Suffice it that some heavenly ministrant took me by the hand and led me to do just the right thing at the right time.
That austere-colonel at the railroad station for the armies of the west telephoned to my army and got permission to put my cases on the train that makes the run in twenty four hours instead of four to five weeks. The Red Cross gave the auto trucks to deliver them; little Barber hammering and managing like a Trojan all the while.
Dr Richard Cabot of Boston, whom I have had at last the great pleasure of meeting, had given ten thousand francs that the socks might be plumper, but at the very last I discovered that, because of the famine, they had not been able to give tobacco. A poilu Christmas without a smoke- impossible.
That blessed M. Patten, director of military affairs said he wanted to help but that tobacco was not to be had. I telegraphed to the army, got permission to buy from reserves and M Patten gave the funds. Every one’s heart seemed softened, changed; everyone kept his promise. There was not one weak link in all the interminable chain, and four days later the impossible had been accomplished. On the last day of my stay in Paris I secured funds from an old French gentleman for the purchase of 1,200 pounds of biscuits – my own funds were low, and I had 15,000 glasses of wine to supply out of my own savings.
The story of the biscuits is worth telling you. A gentleman, who had done his part, gave me his card to present to a wealthy friend of his, which would obtain me an audience and the biscuits. I followed instructions, and stood at the door of the gentleman’s library waiting summons to enter. The door opened and there stood the expected Pere Noel in dishabille. He had understood that his friend was there himself. Recognizing my Red Cross uniform as an appeal for aid, he waived embarrassment, smiling benignly under his wreath of silver hair, and bade me tell what I wanted. I remembered Joffre’s words about ‘ never retreating’ and was I not campaigning for biscuits? There were a few interchanges about the war and our mutual desire to help, and I went away with the biscuits assured, and a deepened sense of God’s goodness and human kindness. He was a naturalised American and left his orange groves in California at the outbreak of war to help his beloved France, and was expecting to enter Metz with the victorious allied Armies.
(To Be Continued Next Sunday)
The Atlanta Constitution: February 10, 1918 with permission of ProQuest Historical Newspapers Atlanta Constitution (1868 – 1945)