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Ch. 10: The Countess D'Haussonville

THE COUNTESS D'HAUSSONVILLE

[D]

I

 

 

Madame la Comtesse d'Haussonville, it is generally conceded, is not only the greatest lady in France but stands at the very head of all women working for the public welfare in her country. That is saying a great deal, particularly at this moment.

[D] Naturally this should have been the first chapter, both on account of the importance of the work and the position of Madame d'Haussonville among the women of France, but unfortunately the necessary details did not come until the book was almost ready for press.

Madame d'Haussonville is President of the first, or noblesse, division of the Red Cross, which, like the two others, has a title as distinct as the social status of the ladies who command, with diminishing degrees of pomp and power.

Société Française de Secours aux Blessés Militaires is the name of the crack regiment.

The second division, presided over by Madame Carnot, leader of the grande bourgeoisie, calls itself Association des Dames Françaises, and embraces all the charitably disposed of that haughty and powerful body.

The third, operated by Madame Perouse, and composed of able and useful women whom fate has planted in a somewhat inferior social sphere--in many social spheres, for that matter--has been named (note the significance of the differentiating noun) Union des Femmes de France.

Between these three useful and admirable organizations there is no love lost whatever. That is to say, in reasonably normal conditions. No doubt in that terrible region just behind the lines they sink all differences and pull together for the common purpose.

The Red Cross was too old and too taken-for-granted an organization, and too like our own, for all I knew to the contrary, to tempt me to give it any of the limited time at my disposal in France; so, as it happened, of these three distinguished chiefs the only one I met was Madame d'Haussonville.

She interested me intensely, not only because she stood at the head of the greatest relief organization in the world, but because she is one of the very few women, of her age, at least, who not only is a great lady but looks the rôle.

European women tend to coarseness, not to say commonness, as they advance in age, no matter what their rank; their cheeks sag and broaden, and their stomachs contract a fatal and permanent entente with their busts. Too busy or too indifferent to charge spiteful nature with the daily counter-attacks of art, they put on a red-brown wig (generally sideways) and let it go at that. Sometimes they smudge their eyebrows with a pomade which gives that extinct member the look of being neither hair, skin, nor art, but they contemptuously reject rouge or even powder. When they have not altogether discarded the follies or the ennui of dress, but patronize their modiste conscientiously, they have that "built up look" peculiar to those uncompromisingly respectable women of the first society in our own land, who frown upon the merely smart.

It is only the young women of fashion in France who make up lips, brows, and cheeks, as well as hair and earlobes, who often look like young clowns, and whose years give them no excuse for making up beyond subservience to the mode of the hour.

It is even sadder when they are emulated by ambitious ladies in the provinces. I went one day to a great concert--given for charity, of course--in a town not far from Paris. The Mayor presided and his wife was with him. As I had been taken out from Paris by one of the Patrons I sat in the box with this very well-dressed and important young woman, and she fascinated me so that I should have feared to appear rude if she had not been far too taken up with the titled women from Paris, whom she was meeting for the first time in her life, to pay any attention to a mere American.

She may have been twenty-eight, certainly not over thirty, but she had only one front tooth. It was a very large tooth and it stuck straight out. Her lips were painted an energetic vermillion. Her mouth too was large, and it spread across her dead white (and homely) face like a malignant sore. She smiled constantly--it was her rôle to be gracious to all these duchesses and ambassadresses--and that solitary tooth darted forward like a sentinel on a bridge in the War Zone. But I envied her. She was so happy. So important. I never met anybody who made me feel so insignificant.

 

 

 

 

II

 

 

Madame d'Haussonville naturally suggests to the chronicler the sharpest sort of contrasts.

I am told that she devoted herself to the world until the age of fifty, and she wielded a power and received a measure of adulation from both sexes that made her the most formidable social power in France. But the De Broglies are a serious family, as their record in history proves. Madame d'Haussonville, without renouncing her place in the world of fashion, devoted herself more and more to good works, her superior brain and executive abilities forcing her from year to year into positions of heavier responsibility.

I was told that she was now seventy; but she is a woman whose personality is so compelling that she rouses none of the usual vulgar curiosity as to the number of years she may have lingered on this planet. You see Madame d'Haussonville as she is and take not the least interest in what she may have been during the years before you happened to meet her.

Very tall and slender and round and straight, her figure could hardly have been more perfect at the age of thirty. The poise of her head is very haughty and the nostril of her fine French nose is arched and thin. She wears no make-up whatever, and, however plainly she may feel it her duty to dress in these days, her clothes are cut by a master and an excessively modern one at that; there is none of the Victorian built-up effect, to which our own grandes dames cling as to the rock of ages, about Madame d'Haussonville. Her waist line is in its proper place--she does not go to the opposite extreme and drag it down to her knees--and one feels reasonably sure that it will be there at the age of ninety--presupposing that the unthinkable amount of hard work she accomplishes daily during this period of her country's crucifixion shall not have devoured the last of her energies long before she is able to enter the peaceful haven of old age.

She is in her offices at the Red Cross headquarters in the Rue François I'er early and late, leaving them only to visit hospitals or sit on some one of the innumerable committees where her advice is imperative, during the organizing period at least.

Some time ago I wrote to Madame d'Haussonville, asking her if she would dictate a few notes about her work in the Red Cross, and as she wrote a very full letter in reply, I cannot do better than quote it, particularly as it gives a far more comprehensive idea of her personality than any words of mine.

 

 

"Paris, March 28th, 1917.

"DEAR MRS. ATHERTON:

"I am very much touched by your gracious letter and very happy if I can serve you.

"Here are some notes about our work, and about what I have seen since August, 1914. All our thoughts and all our strength are in the great task, that of all French women, to aid the wounded, the ill, those who remain invalids, the refugees of the invaded districts, all the sufferings actually due to these cruel days.

"Some weeks before the war, I was called to the ministry, where they asked me to have two hundred infirmaries ready for all possible happenings. We had already established a great number, of which many had gone to Morocco and into the Colonies. To-day there are fifteen or sixteen thousand volunteer nurses to whom are added about eleven thousand auxiliaries used in accessory service (kitchen, bandages, sterilization, etc.) and also assisting in the wards of the ill and the wounded.

"To the hospitals there have been added since the month of August, 1914, the infirmaries and station cantines where our soldiers receive the nourishment and hot drinks which are necessary for their long journeys.

"At Amiens, for instance, the cantine, an annex of the station infirmary began with the distribution of slices of bread and drinks made by our women as the trains arrived. Then a big room used for baggage was given to us. A dormitory was made of it for tired soldiers, also a reading-room. At any hour French, English or Belgians may receive a good meal--soup, one kind of meat and vegetables, coffee or tea. Civil refugees are received there and constantly aided and fed.

"Our nurses attend to all wants, and above everything they believe in putting their hearts into their work administering to those who suffer with the tenderness of a mother. In the hospital wards nothing touched me more than to see the thousand little kindnesses which they gave to the wounded, the distractions which they sought to procure for them each day.

"In our great work of organization at the Bureau on Rue François I'er, I have met the most beautiful devotion. Our nurses do not hesitate at contagion, nor at bombardments, and I know some of your compatriots (that I can never admire enough), who expose themselves to the same dangers with hearts full of courage.

"I have visited the hospitals nearest the Front, Dunkerque, so cruelly shelled. I have been to Alsace, to Lorraine, then to Verdun from where I brought back the most beautiful impression of calm courage.

"Here are some details which may interest your compatriots:

"June 1916. My first stop was at Châlons, where with Mme. Terneaux-Compans our devoted senior nurse, I visited the hospital Corbineau, former quarters for the cavalry, very well reconstructed by the Service de Santé, for sick soldiers; our nurses are doing service there; generous gifts have enabled us to procure a small motor which carries water to the three stories, and we have been able to install baths for the typhoid patients.

"At the hospital Forgeot (for the officers) I admired the ingeniousness with which our nurses have arranged for their wounded a quite charming assembly-room with a piano, some growing plants and several games.

"I also visited our auxiliary hospital at Sainte-Croix. It would be impossible to find a more beautiful location, a better organization. I have not had, to my great regret, the time to visit the other hospitals, which, however, I already know. That will be, I hope, for another time.

"The same day I went to Revigny. Oh, never shall I forget the impressions that I received there. First, the passage through that poor village in ruins, then the visit to the hospital situated near the station through which most of the wounded from Verdun pass.

"What was, several months ago, a field at the edge of the road, has become one big hospital of more than a thousand beds, divided into baraques. We have twenty-five nurses there. Since the beginning of the battle they have been subjected to frightful work; every one has to care for a number of critically wounded--those who have need of operations and who are not able to travel further. What moved me above everything was to find our nurses so simple and so modest in their courage. Not a single complaint about their terrible fatigue--their one desire is to hold out to the end. When I expressed my admiration, one of them answered: 'We have only one regret: it is that we have too much work to give special attention to each of the wounded, and then above all it is terrible to see so many die.'

"I visited some of the baraques, and I observed that, in spite of the excessive work, they were not only clean but well cared for, and flowers everywhere! I also saw a tent where there were about ten Germans; one of our nurses who spoke their language was in charge; they seemed to me very well taken care of--'well,' because they were wounded, not 'too well' because--we cannot forget.

"I tore myself away from Revigny, where I should have liked to remain longer, and I arrived that night at Jeans d'Heurs, which seemed to me a small paradise. The wounded were admirably cared for in beautiful rooms, with windows opening on a ravishing park; the nurses housed with the greatest care.

"The next day I was at Bar-le-Duc, first at the Central, which is an immense hospital of three thousand beds. Before the war it was a caserne (barrack). They reconstructed the buildings and in the courts they put up sheds; our nurses are at work there--among them the beloved President of our Association--the Mutual Association of Nurses. All these buildings seemed to me perfect. I visited specially the splendidly conducted surgical pavilion and the typhoid pavilion.

"The white-washed walls have been decorated by direction of the nurses with great friezes of color, producing a charming effect which ought to please the eyes of our beloved sick.

"I visited also the laboratory where they showed me the chart of the typhoid patients--the loss so high in 1914--so low in 1915. I noted down some figures which I give here for those who are interested in the question of anti-typhoid vaccine: In November 1914, 379 deaths. In November 1915, 22! What a new and wonderful victory for French science! I must add that three of our nurses have contracted typhoid fever; none of them was inoculated; twenty who were inoculated caught nothing.

"While we were making this visit, we heard the whistle which announced the arrival of taubes--we wanted very much to remain outside to see, but we were ordered to go in; I observed that our nurses obeyed the order because of discipline, not on account of fear. 'We can only die once!' one of them said to me, shrugging her shoulders. Their chief concern is for the poor wounded. Many of them now that they are in bed, powerless to defend themselves, become nervous at the approach of danger. They have to be reassured. If the shelling becomes too heavy, they carry them down into the cellars.

"These taubes having gone back this time without causing any damage, we set off for Savonnières, a field hospital of about three hundred beds, established in a little park. It is charming in summer, it may be a little damp in winter, but the nurses do not complain; the nurses never complain!

"Saturday was the most interesting day of my trip. I saw two field hospitals between Bar-le-Duc and Verdun. Oh! those who have not been in the War Zone cannot imagine the impression that I received on the route which leads 'out there,' toward the place where the greatest, the most atrocious struggle that has ever been is going on. All those trucks by hundreds going and coming from Verdun; those poor men breaking stones, ceaselessly repairing the roads, the aeroplane bases, the dépôts of munitions, above all the villages filled with troops, all those dear little soldiers, some of them fresh and clean, going, the others yellow with mud returning--all this spectacle grips and thrills you.

"We breakfasted at Chaumont-sur-Aire; I cannot say how happy I was to share, if only for an hour, the life of our dear nurses! Life here is hard. They are lodged among the natives more or less well. They live in a little peasant's room near a stable; they eat the food of the wounded, not very varied--'boule' every two weeks. How they welcomed the good fresh bread that I brought!

"Their work is not easy, scattered over a wide field; tents, and barns here and there, and then they have been deprived of an 'autocher,' which had to leave for some other destination.

"Many of the wounded from Verdun come there; and what wounded! Never shall I forget the frightful plight of one unfortunate, upon whom they were going to operate without much chance of success alas. He had remained nearly four days without aid, and gangrene had done its work.

"I had tears in my eyes watching the sleep of our heroes who had arrived that morning overcome and wornout, all covered with dust; I would have liked to put them in good beds, all white with soft pillows under their heads. Alas in these hospitals at the front, one cannot give them the comfort of our hospitals in the rear.

"After having assisted at the great spectacle of a procession of taubes going toward Bar-le-Duc, I was obliged to leave Chaumont to go to Vadelaincourt, which is thirteen kilometres from Verdun, the nearest point of our infirmaries. I was there in March at the beginning of the battle.

"What wonderful work has been accomplished! It is not for me to judge the Service de Santé, but I cannot help observing that a hospital like that of Vadelaincourt does honor to the head doctor who organized it in full battle in the midst of a thousand difficulties. It is very simple, very practical, very complete. I found nurses there who for the most part have not been out of the region of Verdun since the beginning of the war. Their task is especially hard. How many wounded have passed through their hands; how have they been able to overcome all their weariness? It is a pleasure to find them always alert and watchful; I admired and envied them.

"It was not without regret that I turned my back on this region whose close proximity to the Front makes one thrill with emotion; I went to calmer places, I saw less thrilling things, but nevertheless, interesting: the charming layout at Void, that at Sorcy, in process of organizing, the grand hospital of Toul which was shelled by taubes. I was able to see the enormous hole dug by the bomb which fell very near the building that sheltered our nurses, who had but one idea, to run to their wounded and reassure them.

"I visited at Nancy a very beautiful hospital, the Malgrange, which is almost unique; it is the Red Cross which houses the military hospital. At the instant of bombardment, most of the hospitals were vacated; ours, situated outside of the city, gathered in the wounded and all the personnel of the military hospital, and it goes very well.

"I finished my journey with the Vosges, Épinal, Belfort, Gerardmer, Bussang, Morvillars; all these hospitals which were filled for a long time with the wounded from the battles of the Vosges (especially our brave Alpines) are quiet now.

"If I congratulated the nurses of the region of Verdun upon their endurance, I do not congratulate less those of the Vosges upon their constancy; Gerardmer has had very full days--days when one could not take a thought to one's self. There is something painful, in a way, in seeing great happenings receding from you. We do not hear the cannon any longer, the wounded arrive more rarely, we have no longer enough to do, we are easily discouraged, we should like to be elsewhere and yet one must remain there at his post ready in case of need, which may come perhaps when it is least expected.

"I shall have many things still to tell you, but I am going to resume my impressions of this little trip in a few words.

"I have been filled with admiration. The word has, I believe, fallen many times from my pen, and it will fall again and again. I have admired our dear wounded, so courageous in their suffering, so gracious to all those who visit them; I have admired the doctors who are making and have made every day, such great efforts to organize and to better conditions; and our nurses I have never ceased to admire. When I see them I find them just as I hoped, very courageous and also very simple. They speak very little of themselves, and a great deal of their wounded; they complain very little of their fatigue, sometimes of not having enough to do. They always meet cheerfully the material difficulties of their existence as they do almost always the moral difficulties which are even more difficult. Self-abnegation, attention to their duty, seem to them so natural that one scarcely dares to praise them.

"There is one thing that I must praise them for particularly--that they always seem to keep the beautiful charming coquetry that belongs to every woman. I often arrived without warning. I never saw hair disarranged or dress neglected. This exterior perfection is, I may say, a distinctive mark of our nurses.

"And then I like the care with which they decorate and beautify their hospital. Everywhere flowers, pictures, bits of stuff to drape their rooms. At Revigny in one of the baraques I saw flowers, simple flowers gathered in the neighboring field, so prettily arranged, portraits of our generals framed in green. When I complimented a nurse, she answered: 'Ah, no; it is not well done; but I hadn't the time to do better.'

"At Vadelaincourt, a little room was set aside for dressings, all done in white with curtains of white and two little vases of flowers. What a smiling welcome for the poor wounded who come there! 'The arrangement of a room has a great deal of influence on the morale of the wounded,' a doctor said to me. All this delights me!

"I have finished, but I shall think for a long time of this journey which has left in my memory unforgettable sights and in my heart very tender impressions.

"In the Somme, also, our nurses have worked with indefatigable ardor, and they go on without relaxation. The poor refugees, which the Germans return to us often sick and destitute of everything, are received and comforted by our women of the Red Cross.

"The three societies of the Red Cross--our Society for the Relief of the Military Wounded, the Union of the Women of France, and the Association of the Ladies of France--work side by side under the direction of the Service de Santé.

"Our Society for the Relief of the Military Wounded has actually about seven hundred hospitals, which represent sixty thousand beds, where many nurses are occupied from morning until night, and many of them serve also at the military hospital at the Front, and in the Orient (three to four thousand nurses).

"Every day new needs make us create new oeuvres, which we organize quickly.

"The making of bandages and compresses has always been an important work with us. Yards of underclothing and linen are continually asked of us by our nurses for their sick. The workshops which we have opened since the beginning of the war assist with work a great number of women who have been left by the mobilization of their men without resources.

"The clubs for soldiers, in Paris especially, give to the convalescents and to the men on leave wholesome amusement and compensate somewhat for their absent families.

"Just now we are trying to establish an anti-tuberculosis organization to save those of our soldiers who have been infected or are menaced. Many hospitals are already opened for them. At Mentom, on the Mediterranean, for the blind tubercular; at Hauteville, in the Department of the Aisne, for the officers and soldiers; at La Rochelle, for bone-tuberculosis; but the task is enormous.

"We seek also, and the work is under way, to educate intelligently the mutilated, so that they may work and have an occupation in the sad life which remains to them, and I assure you, chère madame, that so many useful things to be done leave very few leisure hours. If a little weariness has in spite of everything slipped into our hearts, a visit to the hospitals, to the ambulances at the Front, the sight of suffering so bravely, I will even say so cheerfully, supported by our soldiers, very quickly revives our courage, and brings us back our strength and enthusiasm...."

 

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The Countess de Roussy de Sales (an American brought up in Paris) was one of the first of the infirmières to be mobilized by Madame d'Haussonville on the declaration of war. She went to Rheims with the troops, standing most of the time, but too much enthralled by the spirit of the men to notice fatigue. She told me that although they were very sober, even grim, she heard not a word of complaint, but constantly the ejaculation: "It is for France and our children. What if we die, so long as our children may live in peace?"

At Rheims, so impossible had it been to make adequate preparations with the Socialists holding up every projected budget, there were no installations in the hospitals but beds. The nurses and doctors were obliged to forage in the town for operating tables and the hundred and one other furnishings without which no hospital can be conducted. And they had little time. The wounded came pouring in at once. Madame de Roussy de Sales said they were so busy it was some time before it dawned on them, in spite of the guns, that the enemy was approaching. But when women and children and old people began to hurry through the streets in a constant procession they knew it was only a matter of time before they were ordered out. They had no time to think, however; much less to fear.

Finally the order came to evacuate the hospitals and leave the town, which at that time was in imminent danger of capture. There was little notice. The last train leaves at three o'clock. Be there. Madame de Roussy de Sales and several other nurses begged to go with those of their wounded impossible to transfer by trains, to the civilian hospitals and make them comfortable before leaving them in the hands of the local nurses; and obtained permission. The result was that when they reached the station they saw the train retreating in the distance. But they had received orders to report at a hospital in another town that same afternoon. No vehicles were to be had. There was nothing to do but walk. They walked. The distance was twenty-three kilometres. As they had barely sat down since their arrival in Rheims it may be imagined they would have been glad to rest when they reached their destination. But this hospital too was crowded with wounded. They went on duty at once. C'est la guerre! I never heard any one complain.

 

 

 

 

 

Gertrude Franklin Horn Atherton