Letters from Oregon Boys in France
Compiled by Mrs. Frank Wilmot 1918
Sgt. W.H. Gerrard
163rd Field Hospital, A.E.F.,
A.P.O. 745 France, July 1, 1918.
Dear Miss Lang:
If you'll excuse a letter written on a typewriter I'll try and make up for neglect and tell you all the news.
You've no doubt heard at second hand more or less of my adventures from people in The Dalles to whom I have written. So I will just very briefly touch on it.
We arrived in England on Christmas Day on the Tuscania, which was sunk on her next trip. While the church bells were ringing the message of peace, we sailed up the great river in flagrant contradiction. We lay at anchor in the stream all that day and it was very provoking, I can assure you, to be within a stones throw of my home and not be able to get to it. However, next day, due to the happy circumstance, I managed to get to the shore. I had contrived to let my father know where I was the day before [due to the judicious placing of a few schillings in the hand of a lighterman]. My father, acting on a chance, came down to the landing stage [the police wouldn't let me off the stage] and I got to see him. I am proud to add that my father, in spite of his nearly seventy years, got up out of the sick bed on this cold, winter day to see the prodigal. I also saw some of the other members of the family. There were two other boys from the same place with me from our company and we all managed to see our folks that day for a few minutes.
After a few days spent in the south of England we left on a cattle boat for France. It was quite uninviting, I can assure you, the boat with its rude accommodations and its dirty Hindu crew to say nothing of the darkness and cold. But we were bound for France, and that was everything. We spent the better part of three days on the boat. Then another three days in our camp at the French port; then a cold railway journey for another three days halfway through France to a little old town on the top of a hill. I must say that our first impressions of France, conceived as they were in the darkness, cold and discomfort, were not extremely flattering. Since then long association with the French people, sojourn in their land in the bright days of spring, and summer, has changed all that.
The town where we found ourselves was a headquarters of a great school for officers and would be officers of the American Army. All branches of the service were represented here in such a place a good deal of sickness and a not inconsiderable number of accidents occur. Our company set to work to run hospitals - two of them, one for officers and one for men - to take care of these cases. The places which we were given to take care of were very dirty, desolate and indeed the last place one would ordinarily pick out for a hospital. But good American sanitary measures and well applied American elbow grease brightened them up considerably, and within three months after our arrival we were complimented by the Commandant of the schools upon having the best hospital in France - and he was in a position to know, having visited all of them on all fronts; and during this period of cleaning and brightening we had been running our two hospitals, taking care of many patients. I say this in no bragging spirit but ours is an exclusively Western organization.
Personally, I enjoyed myself immensely at this place. The work was quite interesting and at the same time we had considerable liberty. The country around and indeed the town itself presented a world of interest from an historical standpoint, and many's a Sunday afternoon I have spent there fishing around in dark corners and places which existed long before Columbus, and indeed some of them reaching back to the time of Julius Caesar and even further. I used to sing in a Cathedral which was built in the Thirteenth Century to the accompaniment of an organ installed in the sixteenth. On one occasion I sang a song of Dudley Buck's - "Judica me Deus" - and I believe it was the first time they had had any thing more modern then Handle, excepting their own beloved Courtourier - a composer of rare ability who was once organist at the Cathedral. His works are mostly grand contrapuntal affairs, very dignified and elevated, but I have learned that his great modesty prevented him from having them published and thus they are used exclusively by this Cathedral. Certainly this was the first time the work of an American composer had been sung there.
But one day the ax fell and we lost our happy home. From a steady, more or less sober organization we became over night a traveling hospital carrying ourselves and our equipment around the country on eleven motor trucks, one delivery car and a motorcycle. We have at last arrived in a beautiful little city in the Vosges Mountains not far from the line and are busily engaged taking care of wounded and gassed cases direct from the front. We don't expect to stay long as we're one of very few mobile organizations of our kind and our liable to be shipped anywhere at an hours notice. However, we've been here two weeks now and have had a good opportunity to see the country roundabout. The other day, with two friends, I took a trip to the front to look over a dressing station run by the Chasseurs Alpins [the famous Blue Devils]. On the way we had to go over the old battle ground evacuated by the Germans in the retreat of 1914. The trenches, wire entanglements, etc; were there just as the Boche had left them. By the way I think that I can perhaps justly claim to being the first Dalles man - perhaps the first Oregon man - to set foot in German territory, for this I certainly did. In fact, after the first hour of our trip, which lasted all day, we were all the time Alsace which is, of course, actually German, though held by the French at present. In fact, at one place we were on the side of a hill directly looking over a village with a German name, and half of which is still held by the Boche, the trenches running right through the center of the place.
The scenery hereabouts is very, very much like the Coast. Not so rugged, perhaps but still quite mountainous and full of pine forests. It differs from Oregon, however, in the fact that everything is man made. The forests were planted by Frenchmen; over yonder by a lake, is a house which was built before the trees which surround it. You can't tell where nature leaves off and man begins - or vice versa. That is the charm of the country.
In times of peace this part of France is a very gay place. It is a mountain summer resort for the rich, and in winter time is headquarters for winter sports. But now, of course, all its peace-time activities have vanished; the civilian population has fled for the most part; the beautiful summer houses which belong to the Germans have been either closed or turned over, like many of their French counterparts, to the military authorities for hospitals, offices or billets. The beautiful large hotel of the place has been turned into a great military hospital, of which our company has one floor. The largest school has been turned into a hospital of which our company has another floor. Another hotel in this division headquarters and so on; everything is military.
One never sees a man without a uniform unless he is quite gray-haired or a mere boy; the women work in the fields, the offices, sell newspapers and so on. But, of course you know all about this. The women of France are doing as much as the men to win this war. Before closing I want to tell you a couple of incidents which have come to my notice which will illustrate the attitude of the French women and also show you the kind of stuff they are made of. The first happened in one of the hospitals where our company is working in association with the French. A case came in - a wounded man from the field - which required an immediate operation. Due to unforeseen circumstances there was no anaesthetic to be had. The surgeon was put out, as the operation was a serious one. There was a female nurse in the hospital and she took in the situation at once. She bent over and kissed the wounded man, placed her cheek against his dirty, bearded one, with her arm around his head. The man smiled gratefully, and, understanding, submitted to the operation with great grit.
The other occurred at a town where we stationed some time ago. The wounded were busy being brought in from the front by train and the station was full of relatives and friends to meet their heroes. Among the bunch was a young woman with a baby. She had come to meet her husband who, she had been told, would be on the train. When finally the train came and she made inquiries, she was kindly told that the man had died on the train. She was nearly stunned by grief, but as the friends came up to sympathize she held the baby above them and choking with sobs, cried, "Viva la France".
In some of discussions that take place regarding German brutality it is often said that all men have their vices, and any other army in the same situation would be likely to commit the same or similar crimes. One night, with a friend, I was invited out to dinner at the house of a French priest. Besides ourselves, the priest and his housekeeper, there was another lady and a French aviator, home on leave. The conversation turned on the German rottenness in general and the cutting off of Belgian hands in particular. My friend, more to make conversation than because he believed it, made a remark similar to the one quoted above. Immediately the aviator's eyes flashed fire. He laid down his knife and fork, stood up in his place, and leaning over to my friend, said slowly, and as emphatically as he could, "Sir, that is not true. I know that all men have their faults, and I know my people have their short comings; but understand this, there is not a single French soldier anywhere, who, at any time, under any circumstances whatever, would be guilty of such atrocities as these."
And now I must close this rather belated letter. I don't know where I'll be by the time you get it. As stated above we are apt to leave any time, going we know not whither. But you may be sure that wherever it is I shall often think of my Dalles friends and look forward to the time when I can see you all again. After all, they say the first ten years of the war is the hardest and after that it is plain sailing!
My kindest regards to yourself and Miss Anne and hoping you are enjoying life as much as possible in these sad days, I remain.
Your Sincere Friend
Sgt. W.H. Gerrard
163rd Field Hospital,
American Exped. Forces,
A.P.O. 745, France