Friday, March 12, 2010

The Fiftieth Anniversary of the Armistice, A Testimony from Beyond the Atlantic by Rebecca Goethe DeVries

Mars-sur-Allier American Hospital, France, WWI
Postcard collection - Lucy DeVries Duffy

An article published in La Montagne, Nevers, France, Sunday, November 24, 1968
by  Rebecca  Goethe DeVries
translated by Lucy DeVries Duffy

Approaching the Fiftieth Anniversary 
of the Armistice of 1918

A Testimony from Beyond the Atlantic about the Former American Hospital Installed at Mars -sur-Allier

In the framework of a “promenade between the Loire and the Allier,’’ we have written, last August 11th, that there was this hospital. One former inhabitant of a little village situated near  this hospital, having had knowledge of this article in our newspaper, wrote us a letter which we have the pleasure to publish now.  It comes from Mrs. DeVries. Originally from Moiry, where she lived before and during the First World War, she made the acquaintance of an American minister (Correction:  Charles DeVries was not yet minister. He was a medic at the Base Hospital.) whom she married.  Since 1921, she lived in America with her husband in Harwich, Massachusetts.  ( Correction:  Charles  and Rebecca DeVries lived in different communities. Their last home was in Harwich, MA.)

Here is her letter.

Dear Monsieur, I regret to be so late in thanking you for the Montagne-Sunday of August 11th.  We were on vacation when the journal arrived, and since I have not had the time to tell you how much the reading of your article entitled, “Visite du Souvenir à l’ancien hôpital américain de Mars-sur-Allier’’ “A Visit to the Memory of the former American Hospital of Mars-sur-Allier’’ gave us pleasure.   You have presented in a manner exact and precise a resumé of what was, for those who were witnesses of it, a grand event.  Permit me to offer you some personal memories.

The Beginnings and the Life of the Camp

At first, there were rumors without end. The war was going badly for us in 1917.  We heard with anguish the tales, perhaps exaggerated, of the atrocities, of the pillaging, of the debacle.  Some refugees in a group, miserable, had passed by our village.  A Belgian family, the Verstraetes, had established themselves at a café at the corner of the route to Mars-Sur- Allier.  We liked them.  They stayed until the end of the war.

One morning, while watching my cows in the field, I saw with amazement  five  soldiers in khaki uniforms putting up a tent in the middle of the field.  Frightened, I returned home, bringing my cows to the stable.  Never having seen the American uniform, I told myself, “It is over.  The Germans are here.’’...But  war or not, the cows had to eat.  My mother accompanying me, we took them back to the field.  These soldiers, some engineers, tried to explain to us their projects.  They laughed at our fear and gave us big pieces of chocolate.  Mama said to me, “Little stupid one, don’t you see that these are soldiers, Americans, come to save us!’’  And the soldiers, understanding that it was necessary to let the cows graze put up their tent on the far side of the field.  Following this initial contact, the presence of the Americans became very familiar.  They measured our  houses.  They surveyed our villages.  Not understanding, we found them strange and a bit arrogant.  They walked in our streets as if they were the proprietors.  The plans for the hospital completed, the village of Moiry was invaded, mostly by the workers from Madrid and Barcelona.

An American Soldier, Rebecca Goethe, M and Mme Soupet and Maurice Gauchon, Rebecca's foster brother, Moiry, France, 1918, Photo from Rebecca's album, photographer unknown

The First Trains of the Wounded

Many workers, having brought their families, found lodging in the village.  It was an occasion to make some “sous’’, and I remember having been very angry when my mother gave my room to two Spaniards.   The wives of the workers, naturally, used the communal lavoir ( washing place).  There was much resentment, and even some explosions, for their manner of washing did not at all please the housekeepers of Moiry.  During their stay, I took care of  two children of a Spanish family.  No one spoke French in this house, it was I who learned easily their language.  When the   worked  stopped, they all left, leaving us the souvenirs of many things which we did not like, but also their songs and their joie de vivre.  

The railway linked the hospital to the station at Mars-sur-Allier crossing a part of our garden, and it happened that the train all loaded, stopped there and the water of our well refreshed the wounded.  Little by little, surely among the young people, the young girls of the country and the American soldiers, the strange barrier of language disappeared.  The American learned very quickly to ask for omelettes and pommes de terre frites and Mademoiselle, voulez-vous promenade avec moi ce soir?   And we learned the the mostordinary words in English.  They were so generous... and during the horrible epidemic of flu, our good Dr. Turpin having died, it was the American doctors who helped us.  One of them  took out my tonsils free of charge, on the table  of our kitchen!!!  They loved our good bread and gave us conserves in exchange.  Certain of them were interested in our mores, wishing to understand our way of life, and trying to make us understand the difference between our country and theirs.  For the most part they were bored,  like all soldiers.   They wanted only to return home.  Having made the acquaintance of two American nurses, I had had the occasion to visit the hospital many times.  Passing near the lines of barbed wire, behind which were the German prisoners, also wounded, I said to myself, “ the poor boys..., they are like all the other soldiers.  You see the effect of propaganda.....I had believed them to be monsters.
The Annamites, Lost Children

I saw also the Annamites,who seemed like lost children.  They had always the appearance of trembling from cold and from fear.  I had noticed at the cemetery, situated opposite the border of  Route National 7 a board marking their common grave.  There was no name -  simply a word Annamite- and a number.  Very often I visited this cemetery.  From our house, I heard many times a day, especially during the epidemic, the piercing sound of the trumpet playing Taps, the very sad goodbye to the soldier.
Even the donkey Martin
Tomorrow, will be the 50th anniversary of the Armistice, 50 years!  Soon, all those who remember this memorable day will be no more.  I have not forgotten any of it.  The Americans tumbled out of  the hospital barracks, acting like fools, embarrassing us, one of them embracing even our donkey Martin and crying, La Guerre est finie, la guerre est finie! - The war is over!  The war is over! 

There had been so much false hope.  One could scarcely believe it.  But it was  true, the tears of joy drowned those of mourning.

       Little by little, the base hospitals emptied.  After the departure of one of them, leaving during the night, I found the next morning, in our garden, one last gift, one of those little sacks full of good things by the ladies of the Red Cross and of which the soldiers had no more need. 

Yes, effectively, for many of the people of the villages of St Parize-le Châtel,  Magny-Cours, Moiry, these more than two years of the presence of the Americans was a godsend.  I believe that certain people of these villages had never had so much money or things of all sorts.  When I returned to Moiry in 1937, for the first time in 16 years, I found an inhabitant who still had a bag full of American  socks and pullovers.
Wars are all the same... For certain, they bring unhappiness, misery, mourning....for others, fortune and alas, profit...and, again for others, a love so strong as to overcome time and distance,  the differences of  mores and of language,  between two beings  who could not live without each other.  It is for this reason  that I left my pretty village, my dear country.  I had returned there three times since the Armistice of 1918 and I hope to do it at least one more time.

Many times, during the 47 years in which I lived in America, I had had the great pleasure to see again many of the occupants of the base hospital.   All have a good memory of Moiry and its people.

Memorial Day

       At the end of your article, dear Monsieur you write: “ How shall we commemorate this anniversary.’’

Permit me to offer you this suggestion:  Each year in America we celebrate Memorial Day, that is, the Day of Remembrance. I would be happy if someone would put flowers on the little monument. (monument to the Americans who died for France, the Right and Liberty.)

It would be good, also, if  the school children participate, learning by this what has happened in this little corner of  France.  Someone could also put there a little American flag.  A barrier around the  monument would  protect it.  In the beginning there was one, wasn’t there?  If anyone is interested, I would be happy to contribute to this project.

The politics of a country changes; those who were our enemies become our friends, but the great individual sacrifice of the soldier never changes.  He has given his life. This supreme act demands an act of remembrance.

I did not have the intention in beginning this letter, in thanking you for the newspaper, La Montagne-Dimanche, to make it such a long commentary, but your captivating article having evoked in me so many memories, I could not stop myself.  I ask your indulgence, for, speaking and writing English for 47 years, I believe that my French is mixed up.
Thanks you again for so many things remembered.

Mme Rebecca De Vries
née Goethe
Villa - Chez Nous
Harwich, MA,  USA

 translation and  copyright: Lucy DeVries Duffy 3/10/01, Brewster, MA 02631

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