To commemorate the 100th anniversary of Norman Derr’s Christmas delivery of 15,000 gifts to French trenches on the front line I am reposting the letters she wrote home to her father which described the event.
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.
“The journey back to my post was distinguished by our nearly going off the rails – another miracle, for we didn’t. Then passed two days getting in biscuits and cigarettes from neighbouring magazines, at which both England and American sections helped. The socks had already arrived from Paris in a sealed car. With the assistance of some convalescent blesses, and English ambulance drivers we set to work to make 15,000 tri-colored parcels, with six biscuits and a package of cigarettes in each. As fast as we tied, Gallois placed each package beside its sock, and when the case was filled it was marked and piled out of the way. One might tell the story of this week and call it ‘the saving of Gallois’. This sturdy little ‘Joyeux’, who belonged to the regiment of criminals, and had never before known a higher ideal than to steal well and not be caught, was quite transformed by being trusted, and the consciousness that he was doing good to his comrades. I knew that he had been in the Galleys, and was considered a ‘Mauvais Sujet’ who would steal everything he could lay his hands on and sell it at a profit, but I believed he would find his soul packing tri-colored packages.
“It was breathless work to keep all the threads with the army, Paris, the direction, the store houses, and my workers going. Once the biscuits gave out and I had to borrow from the ambulance reserve. Another time, the paper, and we had to go on with compresses which made fearful inroads on my hospital supplies. But I felt like Benvenuto when he cast his Persens – no time could be lost -so adieu compresses, which didn’t look too surgical tied with tri-colored cord. Then the paper arrived, and on flew hands-blue with cold faster than ever, so that on Sunday night, while ‘Fritz’ was pelting bombs on the moonlit batteries nearby, the last bright package was laid beside its socks, and of all those 15,000 sacred little blue packets of cigarettes that had passed through so many hands, unknown and doubted, there were just three missing and they were found on the sandy floor afterward. What do you think of this as a recommendation for ‘Poilus’ and ‘Tommies’ taken at random, and one notorious ‘Joyeux’? I believe that Gallois has washed his slate for good, and I am unspeakably proud of my new convert.
“Such devotion I have rarely seen in all these wonderful three years. For one whole day he worked with a sprained wrist and made no sign because he was afraid it might worry me and retard the work.
“Christmas Eve afternoon was devoted to preparing a little fete for my own ward. Comfort bags were to be selected and filled, etc, and at half-past eight the little tree was lighted. A rather poor little tree, for all the brightest trimmings had gone off to gladden the front. There was a surprise for me too. All the week I had noticed ‘poilus’ going steadily off with fragments of ‘tric-colored papers from our factory, like birds at nesting time. Imagine my astonishment to see the long white ward grow gay as any carnival with garlands and festoons and wreaths, stars and little pines covered with tri-colored roses, growing out from the walls, and every conceivable device in paper and pine needles that an ingenious ‘poilu’ can invent. As I entered, a great acclaim went up, and the French and American flags, lifted by invisible hands, rose from behind two beds on either side of the ward and met overhead. It was a very perfect love feast, and Pere Noel- Gallois enchanted – was as merry as in past years.
“On Christmas morning at 11 o’clock a captain came with the general’s auto to take me to lunch at headquarters, and with us were carefully stowed our helmets and masks, the famous American flag Mr Keats gave me and several thousand tiny silk stars and stripes,o just arrived from Judge Buffington, of Pittsburg, in the nick of time.
“The commanding general of the army corps received me in his study. He thanked me with the inimitable grace that is French for what I had come to do for his soldiers, and then we sat down to a delightful lunch. Another general and several other officers being the invited guests. Lunch finished, the auto was ordered to carry us to the front lines. Our host put me into the auto with the regret that his occupations prevented him accompanying us, and sent his chief ordnance officer instead, and thus the first stage of this unforgettable campaign was finished.
“As we proceeded on toward the front lines great snow flakes fell swiftly, cleaning all the soiled spots left by the early morning rain. At ———-, where 900 men were gathered, another general met us, and there were more compliments and more formalities. Then we passed into the ‘baraque,’ where the battalion lined up, and the musicians of the regiment struck up the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ as we walked through those bright-eyed ranks to where a laden tree dazzled at the farther end. I had sent a great box of pretty things on ahead with the gifts, partly new, partly saved from last year, and among them those joyous scarlet Atlanta bells saved from last Christmas. They had know how to use everything to the best advantaged. Where to place the great star, with its silken trophy, and how to make the snow fall naturally among the tinsel garlands. The commandant spoke a few warm words, and I wanted to follow with a little address, but my throat was too husky from a recent attack of laryngitis and emotion to say more than how we loved and looked to them. And then, one by one, they came forward to take their packages, each with its tiny American flag stuck into the sock and all piled on Mr Keats’ banner which made a right noble altar cloth.
“The musicians played on so that giving and taking were set to rhythm and though the tears were running down my cheeks all the time, none of us was the sadder for that.
“My escort was uneasy lest the distribution should take too long, so I asked the commandant standing beside me, if he, too, would hand out to the men. “Mlle” he replied gallantly, “It would mean so much more from you”. But all the same he did hand out the next two packages. The little chasseur who received them looked fixedly at his officer, laid down the packages and then glanced at me eloquently enough. We all three understood. “Mlle”, said the commandant no longer the officer, but the man with an imagination, ‘you see I was right, “Bravo” petit Jeune.’
“There was such a glow and warmth, and gladness of glance and sound in that poor ‘baraque’ that I longed to linger there.
“Now I must tell you of other scenes. Taking our departure, on, on our auto went in the driving snow, through woods and over crests to a ruined village on the lines. No warmth nor color here: all white and gray and still: no sound, not even a gun shot, no touch of tenderness save the snow that clung shieldingly to those ghastly ruins, and muffled the steps of those helmeted figures that passed through as shadows through a dream.
“It was the war in all it’s grimness. We descended at the entrance of the village and walked along through gashed and crumbling walls under the strips of dingy ‘camouflage’ that hung in wan mockery of bygone festivals, to mask any movement in the streets. At the center of the village the commandant, in beetling helmet, stepped out from the angle of the wall and bade us a grave and martial welcome, and led us into a covered alcove, where a company of silent figures were drawn up in the shadow.
“The only light came from two sputtering wicks and a dying brand on the hearth, for the day was nearly done, but it was enough to show the boughs of mistletoe hung from the ceiling, two tiny flags crossed on the wall, and, oh, those unforgettable faces. Oratory, the finest, would have been out of place, and I had lost my voice. All I could do was to put my heart in each package as I gave it. Ah, how poor and small they seemed lying there on the rough table, and there were not enough to go around, the last instalment having been delayed by the snow. But they understood, and I felt it as I took their hands. When they had all filed away to their posts, we went to the mouth of one of the trenches, and then down, down underground where men with eyes like cave men sat in the shadows on their billets of straw. I saw that look that I had seen in the drawings of Lelee. I saw that, but I saw another take its place as I murmured a word of greeting and held out my little American flag, and that other was worth living, yes, dying for. Oh, to have lingered there, to have talked to and comforted them, but there was my suite on tenter hooks to be off.
“One more glimpse of crime and atonement – the shattered church – and at its base a broken wheel, and over all the merciful, shielding pardoning snow.
“We had scarcely left the village when a violent barrage began, which would have effectively checked our progress had we been going the other way.
“At ————–, two kilometres back, we had another festa much like the first, if anything more touching and the strains of the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ mingled majestically with the cannonade.
“After this, tea with another general, and then home over glittering roads, past woods and chateaux, ancient and eery under the moon, and the 15,000 had had their Christmas.
“Faith steps out upon the seeming void and finds the rock beneath. What wonders can be wrought by earnest effort to alleviate and cheer.
“Of all the things heralded from the United States the princely package of Judge Buffington, of Pittsburg, alone reached me. The cases from Atlanta, New York, Philadelphia, Hartford and other places if not lost will undoubtedly arrive later.
“It will be a great disappointment to the donors as well, that their precious bounty failed to arrive for Christmas, but the belated gifts will warm and cheer these war- stricken hearts all the same.