Doctor praises work- more photos from Bouleuse

I am very grateful to Norman’s family for their permission to share these precious few photos that have survived from her time working at Bouleuse during 1917-1918.

I have scanned both back and front of the photos as Norman’s inscriptions on the reverse side give tantalising glimpses of her life and work at the hospital.

Salve!at the door

doctor praises worka passing dr

Norman Derr x 5my first abdomen back

Dr Roux Berger was a dedicated surgical oncologist and one of the famous French surgeons working at H.O.E. Bouleuse.  After Armistice he took charge of outpatient and hospitilization facilities at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, working again with Dr Regaud.

ruined churchL'eglise


This may be Reims Cathedral.


H.O.E Bouleuse

In some of Norman’s letters of 1917/1918  she refers to her hospital being located at Bouleuse.

H.O.E Bouleuse was a large Evacuation Hospital of 3275 beds near Bouleuse, 12 kms south of Reims within sound of the guns at the front.  The hospital was also a school of War Surgery dubbed “L’ Universite de Bouleuse” and was of unprecedented size and sophistication of equipment.  It was directed by radiologist Claudius Regaud, Professor in the Pasteur Institute, Paris and some famous French surgeons such as Robert Proust,   Rene Lemaitre and Jean Roux-Berger participated in the running of the hospital. Another surgeon was Rene Leriche for whom Norman had great admiration and with whom she worked for a fairly long time.

Two photos obtained from Dr Richard Cabot’s archive which Norman had sent to him can now positively be identified as H.O.E Bouleuse because an online archive about Rene Leriche’s work at Bouleuse contained the exact same photographs.

under avions wing-2

Scanned Image

Courtesy of Harvard University Archives 


Alcazar d’Ete

Many thanks to one of my readers who was able to help solve the mystery of who  Alcazar d’Ete was.  It was the name of a former Parisian Music Hall that was taken over during the war by the American Fund for French Wounded. There is a link pasted below that includes a wonderful photo from New York Times, March 1917 illustrating the type of boxes that were sent to Norman which she described receiving in her last letter of 7th February 1918.

One blessing so often gives birth to another.

[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




Xmas 1917-continuing her letter published last Sunday

Miss Norman Derr’s Story of Xmas in French Hospitals – Part 2

Miss Norman Derr (Mlle Miss), now a noted writer, and giving her services as a nurse  in the French military hospitals, describes her purchase of gifts for the soldiers at Christmas (continuing her letter published in last Sunday’s Constitution), as follows:

“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.

Ambulance Reserve.

“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.

“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.

The Morning.

“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 Music.

“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 Light.

“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.

The Atlanta Constitution: February 17, 1918 with permission of ProQuest Historical Newspapers Atlanta Constitution (1868 -1945)





As Norman Derr saw Christmas -1917

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.

Many Letters.

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.

 The Helpers

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)

Miracle was wrought for our Christmas

Ambulance 12/1

Secteur 223


Dear Dr Cabot

Surely you must have prayed and God heard, for a Miracle was wrought for our  Christmas.  Humanly speaking the difficulties were too many to be mastered —-far greater even than I had foreseen —- but from the evening when I saw you and everything looked so impossible, and there was no tobacco and no transport (nothing even packed) and no one apparently alive to the gravity to the situation, it seemed divines spirit began to work all along the line.  The hearts of the Red Cross and the Army and the Railway people at Noisy le See were all changed, everybody did exactly as he promised from the General-en-Chef to the little joyeux who nailed up cases morning noon and night (and never stole a thing, to the utter surprise of everyone but me – I trusted him) everything arrived in the nick of time, when a single delay might have been fatal, and there wasn’t one weak link in all that interminable chain.

That good Mr Patten, you possibly know, gave money for the tobacco which I ordered from the army, and I added biscuits from my own little fund, and from Monday until Sunday I and a few valid blesses and any stray American or English ambulance driver that I could inveigle, made tri-colored packages in a freezing barrack, and as fast as we tied, Gallois packed each chausette with it’s accompanying package.  Breathless work!  Fifteen thousand packages to make and only six days! Once the paper gave out because the train de ravitaillement that was to bring it was delayed: and on we went with compresses — ( May the Peter Bent Bringham Hospital forgive me!  For I think just once it was quite as useful as doing pansements, don’t you?) Just when there were no more compresses the paper arrived, and hands all blue with the cold flew faster than ever, and by eleven o’clock on Sunday while “Fritz” was pelting the moon lit batteries near by, the last bright package was tucked beside its sock, and the fifteen thousand were completed!

Before seven o’clock on Christmas day, fifteen thousand poilus had had their greeting from America plus a quart de oin for good measure.  I went myself in the General’s auto and saw on three different points of the front such scenes as were worth one’s life to have witnessed, and yet I never wanted to live so much as now, in order to have more like them.  If only you could have been there too!  What would I have not given to make you feel the glow of that baraque at G—– that had never been bright before, with it’s tree grown refulgent out of the careful savings from last year at Troyes, and Miss Strawbridge’s generosity last week: to make you see the joy in the faces of the men as they filed forward to take their package, each decked with a tiny American flag while the musiciens du regiment played the “Star. Spangled Banner”!

We left with a feeling of glad sound and warmth and color and safety and light hearts behind us, that quite crowded out the war. On thru the swift-driving snow to the ruined village of C—– just on the lines– There all was dead and silent,white and grey, and the only touch of tenderness was the snow, that clung shieldingly about those ghostly ruins and muffled the steps of helmeted figures that passed soundlessly as shadows thru a dream.  Not a gun-shot nor a bird-note nor a human voice to break the spell. In a covered alcove of a ruined wall, the grave old Commandant with a handful of men received us- The only light came from two sputtering wicks and a dying fire-brand (for the day was nearly done,) but it was enough to show clusters of mistletoe hanging about overhead, two wee flags crossed on the wall, and oh, those unforgettable faces!  They took their little packages, each with such a touching word or look of thanks, and went away into the snow.  Had you been there you would have said the proper things to them.  As for me my voice, already husky with laryngitis almost choked with the intensity of it all; but I managed to murmur something about the meaning of the gift and whence it came,and how we all loved and looked to them.  Then I was taken to the entrance of a boyau, and back to the village again and down to the caves where I pinned little flags on those whose packages had been delayed on account of the snow.  Some of them spoke to me in English, but of all this my pen is too feeble to give you an impression—— We had scarcely left the village when a violent tir de barrage began—-Another miracle, for despite all my supplications my “suite” would have never let me go, had it come a little sooner—–Another festa somewhat like the first two or three kilometres back, then tea with the General of that Division (I had lunched with the General of the Corps d’Amiens) and home again with many pauses on the snowy upgrades to B—–.

There are a thousand anecdotes and pictures that I long to share with you and will some day.  Forgive this bare and untidy skeleton.  But I have rather a bad cough, orders from the   Medecin-Chef to lie still-do nothing, and such an appalling mass of bills and business letters to attend to in two languages.

This is just to let you know how my heart is overflowing with gratitude, and how I pray that all the brightness you have shed may be reflected fifteen thousand-fold upon your coming year.

Faithfully – Norman Derr

(written along the side of the letter – I omitted to say that yesterday I had a beautiful letter from the General du Corps d’ Armee, in which he gives our little fete a military national recognition, which cannot but be gratifying to the Red Cross.

“Heart singing tonight”

Ambulance 12/1

Section 22


Dear Dr Cabot

My heart is fairly singing tonight with a thankfulness I cannot express; the sun seems shining everywhere, though it is gloomily, icily raining and some irritating local difficulties that loomed pretty big a few moments ago, seem to have vanished like mist since I read your letter.

It is such a blessedly, incredibly beautiful thing —-this enthusiasm of yours over our Christmas that it seems as if a whole army of angels must prepare the way, and make the trenches bright that day.

Indeed every man I see shall hear of the US Major, and the message shall go with the bearer of every package into those far boyaux where I am not allowed.

It is all too wonderful to believe and my heart is too full to speak, but from the very bottom of it I thank you.


Norman Derr


Courtesy of Harvard University Archives


Unforgettable evening in Paris, November 1917

The next four letters were from Norman to Dr Richard Cabot whom she had written to before in 1916 (see 9 Nov 2013 posting for the background to the correspondence between them).

In 1916 Dr Richard Cabot with Ella his wife toured the United States to rouse Americans to support the Allies in World War I (possibly using Norman’s book ‘Mademoiselle Miss’ for fundraising). Dr Richard Cabot’s younger brother Hugh, also a doctor, enlisted in the British medical service before the United States entered the war.   Dr Richard Cabot himself joined the United States Army Medical Reserve Corps and served in France, 1917-19.  He served as chief of medicine at U.S. Base Hospital No. 6 at Bordeaux.

It appears from Norman’s letters that she was on leave in Paris in November 1917 and met Dr Richard Cabot there.  Her letters convey her enthusiasm for the ambitious task she decided to take upon herself and the support she received from Dr Richard Cabot in achieving it.


Ambulance 12/1

Sector. 233



Dear Dr Cabot

I have a long story to tell you, and the hearty, helping hand you stretched out to me on that unforgettable evening in Paris, makes me feel sure you will lend it your sympathy. What a boon it was– that visit! You can never know, and if there should come a moment of ‘defaillences’ and my heart should sink amidst the difficulties that beset this remote path I have chosen, I will think of it and it will give me courage.

The enthusiastic way in which you spoke of Christmas makes me hope– a most ambitious hope– that  you will want to help me now in a task far vaster than any I have before tackled. It almost takes my breath away, when I think what I have undertaken all by myself; and yet it is such a wonderful opportunity, so much greater than anything that could have come to me by just my trying for it, that it seems it couldn’t fail just because I am a frail instrument.

Does Christmas in the trenches interest you as much as Christmas in a hospital?—–It has always seemed to me that if I could be allowed to carry a ray of loving cheer into that frozen gloom, where men wait almost longing to be wounded, it would be worth everything—–everything, almost more than helping to alleviate them when they are.  Their spirits are too often wounded these days, and that’s worse——-for every reason.  When I went into the American Red Cross the other day and asked Mrs Denny who is head of that Department what could be done for a poor infirmiere, who due to the Regulations of the R.C couldn’t hope to receive any cases from America, she said she wasn’t interested in hospitals, all her Christmas fund being for the fighting man.  Now it has been my dream ever since I came to this front to stimulate my friends to give me so much that after my own hospital was supplied I would have enough to make a few yards of trench happier, off yonder over the hill.  The summer’s furious work that made writing impossible and then my illness and finally these drastic (tho’ doubtless necessary) measure of the R.C had given the death blow to all my hopes.  I told her this, and she replied that if I would undertake to see that a division of the Army got it’s packages she would turn over 15,000 to me!——-I answered that I could undertake nothing until I had seen my General, and went away hardly daring to believe I had heard the truth.

A few days ago I saw my General, who seemed really touched and diverted by the scheme (if you knew him you would understand what a Triumph!) and promised to interview de suite the General of the Division.  The upshot of all these “audiences” is that every facility is to be given me in the shape of carrions, escort etc to carry my treasures to the nearest cantonments to  the trenches, where I shall see several thousand men on their way to or coming from the relives, and whence I can organise the big distribution there (in) the trenches themselves.  The one point where I have been so far unsuccessful is in getting permission to “prendre pied dans la tranche” myself.  To my great chagrin they just wouldn’t cede there, on the ground that it was far too dangerous, that I might walk for a morning and not see a hundred men, while one or two kil. behind I would find thousands who just as much needed encouraging, who were nearly as much as exposed, and where there I could much better direct the distribution.  Force majeur! and nothing to do but accept their conditions, tho they were denying the special blessedness I wanted most—–After all, for the crusty, unimaginative old veterans that they are, they’ve really done a wonderful thing, and I must make the most of it.——–

There must be some charm, some setting–one can’t just deal packages out of an auto.  I want a tree (ssh, it’s just as well to keep that dark from the General until it’s lighted: he’d be sure to think that childish, and afterward he’ll be sure to be delighted) that means accessories; and of course a great deal of money must be spent independent of R.C packages.  But don’t you think it’s worth it? And don’t you think hot, sweet coffee and cakes will be grateful after cold soup and ‘singer’?

I have between three and four thousand francs that I can spend for this but that isn’t much over 15,000.

Then today I had a letter from dear Mrs Denny which is somewhat disappointing. I had hoped the packets were going to be handsome as everything we have done these past years.  But it appears funds failed at the last moment, and they are only to contain a package of cigarettes, a pair of socks and two or three pieces of bon-bons–Not much, is it? when one thinks of the distance they are to travel and the mission they are to fill.——-If this wholesale way of doing things doesn’t altogether terrify you, and you really think you can get us some money, which would be rather do——help improve Mrs Denny’s packages, or buy a supplement of tobacco, or chocolate etc which would be distinct? Perhaps you can see better than I which would be wiser and either would make me equally happy.  With what I have, I think I can manage the tree and cakes & coffee and sugar. I hope to get cheaper thru the Service de Sante.  Somehow, it just must be a success; it’s too blessed an opportunity to be missed and then there’s that point of National pride too, because it’s America’s gift.

O, if you will only help!

Everything must be sent grande vitesse as I am writing Mrs Denny. It should be addressed:

Mlle Norman Derr (Infirmiere Militaire)

H.O.E de Bouleuse

en Gare de Mery Prancy, Marne


Forgive this too lengthy letter.  The chatter of my “sisters” gets more hilarious as midnight approaches- I am writing in our baraque where we are all shivering around one rusty impotent stove- and it’s almost impossible to concentrate.

A little American ambulance driver who has been so wretched here with articular rhumatisme and no comrades and no knowledge of French, and who, thanks to my manoeuvres is to be evacuated to the American hospital tomorrow, will mail this in Paris, that you may get it sooner.

How eagerly I await your answer, perhaps you may guess—–

Hopefully and faithfully

Norman Derr

Don’t think I’m abandoning my own ward.  That is arranged for; for the moment it is empty, as for the rest of the hospital there are far fewer blesses than I expected.

 Courtesy of the Harvard University Archives