[I have typed in brackets the translation of a French word that some readers may not be familiar with in the text below. I have also been unable to establish who ‘Alenzar d’Ete’ were.  If any reader can help shed light on this I would be delighted to hear from them.]


Ambulance 12/1

Sector 223


Dear Dr Cabot

It was indeed good of you to send me the record of that wonderful work of yours and Mrs Cabot’s.  I shall treasure it among the archives of the period–in other words the letters that still keep coming to me from commanding officers and poilus in trenches far and near all echoing their delight in the Christmas that you helped to make possible.

A soldier in that ruined village on the lines of which I wrote you, is making a little souvenir for you (it is all his own idea which makes it precious).  As soon as I receive it, I shall forward it to you, and I am sure you will treasure and understand it as perhaps no one else could.  Ah! if you could only have been there that day to see their faces shine and all the grey, desolate places glow!

One blessing so often gives birth to another and so Christmas Day opened for me a whole series of doors and privileges–opportunities for making otherwise inaccessible poilus happy–Several times since I have gone forward in the General’s auto with gifts—alas! the only way of being perfectly sure that they reach the right hands intact (this is a confidence perhaps better left between us).  You would have been amused as well as touched by an expedition Lieutenant Dumas and I made to two ambulances divisionnaires- You can’t load cases into a luxurious staff car, so all those marvellous comfort bags largesse of the Alenzar d’Ete had to be unpacked there before the triage– a scene that drew every occupant from every baraque in the vicinity—–and piled in upon us pell-mell until we were buried nearly up to the shoulders in masses of fragrant cretonne flowers.

The Lieutenant (decor de la Legion d’Honneur, Croix de Guerre with I don’t know how many palms and stars, and an amputated fore-arm which however doesn’t prevent him from making the liaison with the trenches nearly every day) laughingly declared he had never made such a perilous journey.  We were so tightly pinioned by our precious burden that if anything had happened to the car we could never in the world have gotten out unassisted: and the compound aroma of all sorts of soaps and paste and powder was almost overpowering. Behold to what dangers one may be exposed on the front!!  Never were blesses more delighted or responsive, never have I seen them listen more rapt to tales of how there were marraines [Godmother’s] waiting all ready made in America to send other bags just as beautiful just as soon as the little ‘bleu’ wrote his letter of thanks; and then too I tried to make them understand how these marraines stood for the big, brave heart of a whole country, that is ready to give of it’s best to the last.  I know these trips of mine have done good, not only in the way of bringing cheer, but also in interpreting our real American spirit among people who have an all-too-false idea.  At ———-where the Medecine Chef had announced our coming beforehand, one of the blesses scarcely able to be propped up in bed, had worked nearly all night to make me an amazing cane carved with flowers and spirals from tip to tip and “Honneur a Nos Allies Americains” resplendent on the handle.  He was only a simple peasant from the Creuse without much idea of art or self- expression; but the tribute was no idle flattery.  He was awfully timid when he proffered his gift, but seeing I was no “grande dame” to be awed by, he explained he had known Americans in his pays and they were “des bien braves gens” — followed by a dissertation upon our qualities and the hopes they inspired that would have touched you.  This 2nd class understood us far better than his superiors- I’m sure it was a liberal education for the M.C as well as his comrades.

As if already I had not had supreme compensations, the General de Mondesir crowned the whole series of happy adventures by taking me himself to Reims.  Before such an illustrious guide all barriers were down; and there was neither battery or gendarmes to say us nay.   It was one of those lustrous windless days that belongs to no season, and yet has the first charm of all of them: the shattered streets were filled with sunshine, but empty of all life save a straggly cat or two, and a few old women gathering kindling among the ruins, as unconcerned as though a shell might not burst upon them at any minute.  They are astonishing —these white- capped veterans of “la ville martyre” and they’ve won their Croix de Guerre a hundred times over!  In the open place an inspired little Jeanne d’Arc mounts a miraculous guard, –not so much as an éclat [fragment (of bomb)] has marred her thru all these stormy years — and above her those tragic, victorious towers rose like altar- flame in the setting sun-rays.  I cannot and for certain reasons dare not describe the interior where more and more blue sky breaks thru.   I have a fragment of glass for you which is worth more than the ring of long ago ( for I saw  from whence it came).   And for me a vision of valour, and deathless beauty and triumphant promises that should sustain me whenever the days seem long and grey.

On leaving the interior of the cathedral, we came upon a company of Americans in casques and masques– Colonel Ashford and his doctors.  They had been making a stage of two weeks here in Bouleuse but since I have a service at present that is decidedly trying and not apt to attract illustrious visitors I had never met him or any of them tho’ that famous flag of mine- so old in sacred association, flew over the H.O.E to greet their arrival.

General de Mondesir introduced us, there at the feet of Jeanne d’Arc, and the Colonel promised to come to see me, which he did the night before leaving.  If I were a medieval I should say that the statue worked a miracle for me, in thus bringing that strong, inspiring presence into my little Salle de Pensements.  I needed badly that visit and every one of the ideas it brought me, and when he left, after having thoroughly captivated the children because he played the gramophone with them,  I was all aglow with a new confidence in the situation, — my own and the world’s in general.  If you see him, won’t you tell him please how much good his visit did me? ( You also will be glad to know that he did the flag much honour every way, before the critical eyes here).

I do hope you are entirely recovered and doing work of your own choosing.  The choir of Bordeaux must desperately miss their leader, but I can’t help wishing that you won’t go back!

Forgive these disconnected pages, scrawled with various pens in various moments of a pretty difficult day. I am now going to try to write Mrs Cabot – she must hear from me too of the success of her cables.

Yours in loyal gratitude

Norman Derr

Now it is they of the front who must agonise for the safety of the interior.  What a night it must have been!

Courtesy of Harvard University Archives