Our Tent Hospitals in France





WE LEFT Paris early Saturday morning, in a jeep. There were four of us. Our driver was a small, dark American in his thirties who looks as Julius Caesar might have looked had he had the good fortune to have a GI sense of humor to crease his face with untidy lines. Gus comes from Arizona, where he drove a truck before the war, and he was one of the first American soldiers to land on the beaches of the far shore. Our escort was an Army nurse now acting as a Public Relations Officer in the office of the Chief Surgeon. Jane’s round, childish face and innocent mannerisms indicate a naïveté that is certainly present in her character but in no way precludes extreme intelligence. On the contrary.

Then there were two correspondents — Barbara and I. Barbara is a small, quiet South African with a husband serving in the Army in Italy, two small daughters in South Africa, and a large talent for sketching with accuracy and speed in apparently unpropitious circumstances: even with cold fingers she sketched our backs and heads as we sped along in the jeep — Gus, Jane, and I packed in the front, and Barbara sandwiched between our bed rolls and mess gear in the back.

In Paris no one any longer shows surprise at the sight of women in uniform. But as we got farther west, villagers exclaimed and waved at the femmes soldats, while GI’s grinned and shouted, “What do you know! Wacs!” Certainly we looked formidably military in our trousers, leggings, and tin hats.

Fortunately the weather was beautiful, and as we drove southeast through the lovely French countryside our spirits rose and we began to sing the “Marseillaise,” “California, Here I Come,” and “Lili Marlene,” which we were trying to learn in French — “devant la caserne, quand le jour finit.”

Soon the villages became smaller. There is something extremely pathetic about the grandiose title “Place de la République” when it is affixed to a cobbled square not appreciably larger than the kind of handkerchief one longs for when one has the grippe in Paris. Many of the black-overalled children playing in the squares had bare feet. Occasionally we saw a minuscule Rue Lafayette blocked up by a wagon drawn by tawny oxen; once as we swung round a corner two woods, dark and compact as armies, seemed to shiver apart: a graveyard, symmetrical with the crosses of 1914-1918 dead, had made a break-through.

Towards the middle of the morning we stopped at a village with a sloping, cobbled main street, and clambered out of the jeep to stretch our legs, numb to the knees. A little group of middle-aged women and hoppity children broke up to smile and cluck at us. When they found we could speak French, their good will became personal. One of them hustled us through a huge half-open wooden door into a yard of cobbled stone, up a tiny staircase with an iron handrail, and into a kitchen where a stove was burning, empty pots and pans were gleaming, and on the faded wallpaper were carefully pinned picture postcards of General de Gaulle, General Leclerc, Mr. Churchill, President Roosevelt, Stalin, and a boy whose dark-eyed fragility would have suggested Rimbaud to anyone unacquainted with that delicate poet’s robust appearance. He had killed five of the invaders before he was captured with a group of friends, all of whom were shot. His murder took place one day before his eighteenth birthday and four days before the Allies arrived.

Copyright 1945, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass. All rights reserved.

As she told us about him, his aunt insisted on preparing coffee for us. Naturally, she said, it was not true coffee, but grilled barley, but it would warm us and do us no harm. We were the first Allies she had talked to since the liberation, and hers was the first French cottage Barbara and I had visited in four years.

Around lunchtime we drew into a small village beside a large and muddy camp. A few weeks over here having made us as experienced as old character actresses, we made for the GI mess. This had just moved from a muddy tent to a building — unheated, grimy, but a building, and therefore, by the majority of 1944 European standards, the height of luxury; and in it we were given a meal even more luxurious by these standards: bacon and corn, bread and butter, chocolate cake and coffee.

A considerable number of the characters here came from Texas, and when they and a light-footed sergeant from Alabama, who was as soberly gay as a piece of Mozart, found that Jane was from Massachusetts and I was, as they put it, “in a Boston setup,” they teased us at length on our obvious inferiority.


BY THIS time Paris seemed a long way off. The devastation was greater and so was the cold, and towards the end of the afternoon we came to a town outside which we found our first tent hospital. Here I am in despair. However many pictures people have seen, however much they may have read, however much they have been told, I doubt if anyone other than a person with the imagination of a genius can, without having seen it, visualize the honor and gallantry that go to make a tent hospital in the present European winter.

First there is the omnipresent sea of mud. The expression is conventional but entirely accurate. When a field of grass is occupied by human beings, they seem to have, at first, the same effect upon it as pigs; later the churned-up mud takes the form of waves — soft, adhesive waves lapping the rims of the gray-green tents in which small groups of young girls are fighting painful death in its most repulsive forms. During the course of the war I have often heard the observation that it is the people in the rear, the people at home in factories, the people in “unglamorous” work, who need the fillip that is, I am told, provided by publicity; and I have supposed there was some truth in this. Having seen the American field hospitals and the men and women who work in them, I no longer have any sympathy with this point of view.

Soon after dark we reached a large town near the French frontier and found the office of the Chief Surgeon, a large building still decorated with German moralizing in large Gothic lettering: “Schweiss spart Blut — Sweat saves blood.” (Wherever two or three Germans are gathered together, there is an obsession with blood in the midst of them.) We were billeted in an old-fashioned house known locally as the Seminary — during the latter part of the war the Germans occupying it had made way for German chaplains. It was large, dark, and abounded in dim aspidistras and highly colored religious pictures. My room contained, among other things, an outsize wardrobe whose greenish mirrors increased the dimensions of the room with eerie effect.

I had thought I was tired, but once I had piled my GI blankets onto the bed and climbed in under them I became very wakeful. For four years the alien enemy had lived in this room, and I remembered a cartoon that recently appeared in a London paper; it was called “The War Correspondent’s Nightmare” and showed a small figure crouching uneasily in a large hotel bedroom in every corner of which lurked a ghostly German exclaiming, “We will return.” I was convinced they would not return, but the rents in the threadbare green carpet which our hostess had pointed out to me as an illustration of German rowdiness inspired reflection rather than sleep.

Before we left the town I had the privilege of meeting Major Bernice Sinclair, the Chief Nurse for the Third Army. I had been told she was remarkable; I was not misinformed. What most impressed me about her was her attitude toward the young nurses in her charge. I have often met nurses of high rank who are technically brilliant, morally correct; but never one more excellently disposed towards young nurses than this Massachusetts woman in whose good looks austerity is beautifully controlled by benevolence. Major Sinclair is entirely free from the suspicion that unpleasantness may have an intrinsic moral value — the thesis so brilliantly denigrated by Rebecca West in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon — an obsession that appears to constitute the major temptation of all persons holding high rank in institutional life.

One thing she said, slight in itself, I particularly liked. She was describing a field hospital she had visited on Thanksgiving Day. The hospital had just moved into a building with no windows, heat, or light, and a roof whose value was mainly symbolic; a particularly luscious sea of mud lapped the walls. How anyone could give thanks for this particular situation, Major Sinclair said, was beyond her. Then, looking round, she saw one of the youngest of the nurses, a girl who had beautiful hair and had managed (with inadequate spare time, and far from any hairdresser) to dress it as it deserved. “That,” said Major Sinclair, “was admirable, and gave us all so much pleasure.” I thought it admirable too — almost as admirable as the pleasure it aroused.

There are many women whose exemplary professional conduct is marred by the wish to keep their young subordinates neat but not attractive, clean but not, if it can be helped, pretty; who delight in battening down the hatches of private life in the name of discipline. The fact that a woman in Major Sinclair’s position can appreciate the frivolous virtues is of extreme moral importance. To have courage, ability, and integrity is a fine thing; to have these qualities knit together by charm of disposition is a great one. Major Sinclair is a great woman, and in consequence is saving not only the lives of soldiers but the souls of nurses. When, on leaving, I said I was from a Boston magazine, she sighed and laughed, together, and said: “Next time you go down Tremont Street, look in Slattery’s window and tell me what they’re wearing.”

Inexperience, and the fact that memory is apt to translate the chaos of 1940 in terms of noise, made us marvel at the stillness as we drove towards the front next day. Every now and again we passed truckloads of prisoners. One particularly haughtyfaced band was watched over by cheerful Negro troops whom we saluted with an enthusiasm which would, we hoped, show the Germans how we felt about racial discrimination.


THE first place we visited at the field hospital was the receiving tent. It was small, dim, warm, and guarded by strikingly young and pretty nurses. To maintain even a semblance of grooming under frontline conditions implies physical heroism of a kind scarcely less admirable than that involved in the actual nursing.

Lying on litters were two wounded men — one American, one German. The American, a young boy, had been hit at one o’clock and was in the receiving tent at two o’clock. I despair of being able to convey the impressiveness of these miraculous hospitals. To say that our medics are wonderful, our wounded magnificent, is entirely conventional, entirely true, and entirely inadequate. From what I saw I should say that the American medics are solving insoluble problems by the application of principles for the right to act on which we are all of us ostensibly, many of us sincerely, fighting the war.

To appreciate what they are doing we need to remember with care the summer of 1940. At that time there were some people who despised France because, unaware of the lack of equipment which was at the root of her temporary overthrow, they chose to attribute the debacle to moral causes: the French lived too good a life; French persons had been observed taking pleasure not only in their work but in their recreation, a deplorable state of affairs. People who argued on these lines have since had more than an adequate opportunity to learn what Nurse Cavell told us twenty years ago — that patriotism is not enough. But if there is still anyone so ignorant of the mechanism of contemporary history as to be unaware that the most courageous fighter is partially dependent on material, he should visit these front-line hospitals, where nurses and doctors in muddy tents and half-wrecked buildings neglect their own comfort but never the machinery, the material, upon which the comfort and well-being of their patients depend.

“Of course, our setup is pretty primitive,” said a doctor, apologetically pointing to the light over the operating table, a naked bulb sheltered by half an evaporated milk tin. It was primitive — primitive as a native kraal, but a kraal where the sound that means a gasoline-operated X-ray generator was more constant than that of distant artillery; a kraal whose dimness was lightened by a beautiful refrigerator packed with bottles of the kind used for preserving fruit, but which in this case were full of blood provided not only by the devotion of the donors but by men who found a way of preserving it, the men who built planes in which to fly it, the men who did the flying. The amazing thing about the American setup in this sphere is neither the courage of medics and patients nor the quality of the equipment, but the fine sense that juxtaposes them.

The faint, persistent smell inside the hospital made one, for the first time, understand with nerves as well as brain why horses show panic at the smell of fire. Numerous casualties had come in during the night, but they were in no state to be disturbed by conversation. Field hospitals take only non-transportable cases. Seeing these semi-conscious, mutilated boys I became filled with rage that anyone, anywhere, under any circumstances should criticize adversely the rowdiness of soldiers on leave — the alleviation, puerile no doubt, but alleviation nonetheless, of young people enduring an unendurable existence. As we left the building, a heap of small packets in silvery paper caught my eye. On them was printed “Army Expendable Blood Recipient Set.” The medics have certainly proved expendable. I hope they will eventually be appreciated at home.


WE WERE very near the front now. Artillery fire (our own) rumbled over the fields, and at intervals the telegraph poles were heeled over like weeping willows. Some of the villages we passed through were ghost villages; not a civilian left among the battered ruins. In one of them a shop had survived the destruction of the rest of the building. Pools of mending silks were scattered along its pale-green counter. There was a chair too, set at a convenient angle for a customer, and on the wall a large cardboard calendar with a colored picture under the figures 1944. Through the battered slats of the adjoining shutters protruded the already rusty muzzle of a gun.

The last village we passed before reaching the hospital was one that had been liberated only four days earlier, and unfaded tricolors hung from every semblance of a window. The village was badly damaged, its cobbled side streets choked with piles of bricks and stones on which small boys who had already managed to secure khaki garrison caps interrupted their macabre games to jump up and down and squeak and wave.

Two nuns were hurrying across what had been the village square. The uncontemporary air that, to Protestant eyes at any rate, used to attach to nuns was now absent: the cruelty, the highly colored violence, that the popular imagination associates with medieval Europe no longer seems remote from the present. The two nuns looked, if anything, less anachronistic than the underfed French boys wearing American caps and struggling to find a few words of their own language to replace the German which was all they had been allowed to learn since they were three, and no more anachronistic than did we in our helmets and greatcoats.

Our second field hospital was in what had a few days before been a German settlement — rows of widely separated whitewashed houses that now looked like an old-fashioned film set left there because the company director absconded with the inadequate funds. We drove along and stopped outside an American hospital.

The receiving tent was very similar to the last one, but the hospital was slightly more palatial: nearly all the windows were present and the roof appeared to be intact. I was eager to see any French people who were receiving American care, and had been told of a French child, injured by a German shell, who on waking up in the hospital said, “From today I am French.” She did not have long in which to be French. When I asked if I might see her, I was told she had just died. Her mother had been killed by the same shell.

Most of the men here were gravely hurt, but in the room that we visited first, one boy was both conscious and cheerful. He had a couple of ribs exposed and when the doctor teased him on his good spirits, and said there was obviously nothing wrong with him, he grinned and said he guessed he felt sore at that. When he looked at my uniform and expressed pleasure at seeing American girls, I lacked the heart to explain I was a British-American correspondent and said I was from Boston. “Arlington Street,” I added with caution, remembering a friendly sergeant who had once said, “Gee, ma’am, I thought you talked like you was a limey.” But the boy who felt sore was a Texan and thought Massachusetts on the limey side anyway.

Across the room an operation was in progress. Someone gave me a mask and cap and led me near-by. I had never seen an operation before; I thought of the American girl who took valuable photographs under shell fire, and of the suffragettes who were willing to appear ridiculous to secure us the chance to do responsible work, and then I stopped being self-conscious, because to see death being thwarted is beautiful. The tall white figures were bending over the big wound and tying knots in it with something that looked like garden bast. They were working rapidly but without febrility. This freedom from febrility was what most impressed me in the medics; all overworked, all under a strain so fantastic one would not suppose the human organism could support it, and all — all those I can speak for — unflurried morally.

Presently the quiet became more tense. There was something familiar in the atmosphere. Suddenly I remembered the Cirque Médrano in Paris. It was in a similar silence that, as children, we craned our necks to look at the family of pinktighted acrobats when their swinging from trapeze to trapeze became slower and their birdlike cries to each other less frequent, when the moment came for the big jump, when they brushed cheeks with death. The surgeon’s movements became quicker and quicker. Suddenly an instrument plunged in and out — and a rubber-gloved assistant caught the slug that had entered the boy’s abdomen.

Because it was the easiest part of the building to heat, the basement was being used as the main ward. It was dim and gloomy, the lighting tinged with green, the litters close to each other. The semiconscious men, most of them with piping through their nostrils, made it impossible for one to believe that Hitler really saw anything of the front in the last war.

As we went down the passage, some litter bearers were coming along in the opposite direction. We flattened ourselves against the wall and looked anxiously at the man on the litter. But he was no longer a subject for anxiety. His face as well as his body was carefully enveloped. I found myself visualizing part of a map of the world: America, the three million square miles of America, and three thousand miles of sea between the nearest beach of it and this little corner of France marked by a village, and I thought, “Isolationism is one of the synonyms for imbecility, is symptomatic of deficiency not only in neighborliness but in sense of history.” Isolationism is one of the synonyms for imbecility, but today for the first time I understood that its roots are not entirely ignoble.

In this hospital, as in the other one, the nurses were young and attractive. But they looked very tired. When we left, some of them were lining up in the muddy yard for food. Had I seen nurses of this kind in a Hollywood film, even a few months ago, I should have reproached that film with glamorizing. These were tall and slight; their green twill fatigues and muddy four-buckle overshoes well became them. The nurse at their head had the neat, delicate profile that is one of the foundations of a film star. When she turned her face she showed clear skin that exhaustion was pulling tight over fine bones, and large eyes that seemed much darker than they were because the pupils were dilated almost to the rim of the iris. When someone commented on her tiredness, she shifted her mess kit from her left hand to her right and said she guessed she hadn’t got around to putting any lipstick on for quite a while. We told her she looked fine. She did. In the pedantic sense of the word.

Early next morning we set off north. All around here the country has suffered considerably — big numbers of French people, often whole families, having been deported to make room for Germans doing an ineffectual Cook’s tour to avoid Allied bombers. Soon after we got out into open country we passed a dead horse. It had been white. Now it was the color of the neglected statues that doze in a thousand provincial cities. Lying on its back, its legs petrified in a curvet, it looked like an animal in a fairy story, with whom sorcery had been busy.

There were rusted cars and tanks, some of which looked as if they had been deposited there by the chaotic waves of 1940. The tanks looked ugly but not incongruous: they had been committed to violent ends from their inception. What did look horrible were the decaying tractors, the beautiful machines that are on the side of life. To see them rotting in deserted fields, to know that the majority of the men who should be driving them were dead or losing wits and health in German prisons, was to place one’s finger on the pulse of insanity — and to find it very hard to take a tender view of the “good German” whom, like the poor, we have always with us.

At midday we reached an evacuation hospital: tents to accommodate 525 patients, and the usual sea of mud in the midst of which a couple of nurses in battle dress were shoveling coal. They were in excellent spirits. The coal had just arrived. Before that they had had to get along with coke. The fumes of coke are not generally liked.

There was an air of hurry about this hospital, a justifiable one. Three hundred patients had been brought in during the previous night, a hundred of them had been operated on, two hundred had been sent on that morning. During the last war 50 to 60 per cent of the field hospital patients died; in this war 18 per cent die. As the Germans remark: “Schweiss spart Blut.”


WE HAD lunch in a tent that was still decorated with paper flags and bunting from Thanksgiving Day, and afterwards were taken round the hospital. One of the tents near the entrance had a reception desk which suggested a macabre cross between a hotel and a school. I was told there was a French girl in one of the wards who would be glad to meet someone who could speak her language: they were doing all they could for her but had no way to prevent her feeling lonely.

Jacqueline was a small, dark girl of twenty-two and, like many persons in this tormented region, had a German-sounding surname, a French face — and entirely French feelings. She was taken ill a few days after the liberation of her home town, and her young brother went to the American Army for help, which was immediately forthcoming.

All Jacqueline’s family, and most of her relations, were hairdressers. They hated the Germans, had the minimum of truck with them, but were not members of an organized group. (It was almost impossible to organize groups in this area, so near Germany and so entirely covered not only by the German Army but by the Gestapo. Whenever young men were discovered to have escaped to join the resistance in other parts of France, their families were deported.) Despite their relative innocuity Jacqueline and her husband were arrested in November, 1942, for “political activity.” She had never had any idea why they were arrested — nor why, a few weeks later, she was released and her husband sent to a destination whose name she was not to know until March, 1943, when she was told that he had died of typhoid fever in Dachau.

During the same month her brother went to Germany. He was twenty-two, and the Germans one day came to the house and said that if he did not volunteer for the German Navy his mother and father, aged respectively fifty-three and sixty-three, his 21-year-old sister, and his 15-year-old twin brothers would be deported. After a family consultation the boy went into hiding. But he kept in touch with his parents, and when at the end of three weeks the Germans came to say that the family was to be deported next day he gave himself up. Here, as in many frontier towns, the Germans behaved with great cruelty just before they left. Jacqueline and her family spent a week hiding in a cellar. One morning her young brothers crept upstairs and peeped through the shutters. They came rushing down, crying, “They’re here! The Americans are here! The Allies have arrived.”

In the Red Cross tent men were writing letters at little desks that obviously came from a village school; others were doing leather work, their foreheads puckered, and in some cases their tongues stuck out; some were reading the special services books or playing dominoes; many were gathered round a board over which was spread a white cloth on which were sewn Army insignia given to the hospital by patients.

A French badge had just been put among the American, that of a French battalion now serving with the Third Army. Its colors reminded me of the statues of last-war poilus that decorate French villages, small and conventional, never more pathetic than when they are lifting a bugle to their lips in the classic gesture of gallantry, their pedestals riddled with the names of dead young men who ought to be living, middle-aged ones, their arms holding, slightly askew, the already faded flags of the summer of 1944.


TOWARDS the end of the afternoon we reached a town where there were several evacuation hospitals. One of the most serious problems in this district was flooding. In one of the hospitals the river had just entered the basement. The one in which we stayed had been a big school in which French children were, with surprising lack of success, turned into Germans. In its entrance hall uncomplaining American boys were lying on litters beneath a notice board where Gothic lettering commemorated in fulsome terms the names of French boys whose deaths as a consequence of being press-ganged were referred to as Falling for the Fatherland. And under these was the remark that Germany must live. Never have I felt nearer in spirit to Rosa Dartle.

In the first room a semi-conscious American boy was at intervals quietly humming snatches of the “Penny Serenade,” while a delirious French peasant boy shouted for his father. Both had been injured in action — the American fighting, the French boy working in a field where a mine blew his foot off. I do not know which was the more harrowing, but I do know that neither made me friendly towards the young German-prisoner aides who were eager to explain, possibly with truth, that not all Germans were members of the Nazi Party.

The unself-conscious docility of the Germans’ attitude, the strained look in their eyes, composed a manner that compared very unfavorably with that of the tough little Lorrainers of whom a team were working here as voluntary litter bearers. I know the Germans were prisoners, the French allies, but I think the comparison is just — the strain under which the Germans were now working was no severer than that borne by the French boys for the past four years; they were of the same age, and their minds had suffered comparable violations. But whereas the Germans were visibly hagridden, the French boys were toughly independent.

One of them, a stocky boy with a round, composed face, told me, neither boastfully nor overmodestly, but with that steady application to fact that makes the best French thought supremely endearing, that he got to the factory where he worked at seven in the morning and stayed there till five-thirty, when he left for the hospital, where he worked from six until midnight with Americans whom he described as “des chics types.” This boy’s best friend had tried in 1942 to get farther into France to join a resistance group. He was caught by the Germans, and after being kept in prison for two months was drafted into the German Army. Then his luck changed. He lost a leg and was sent home. That was good luck, in occupied Europe, in 1943.

One of the wards contained a seven-year-old French boy whose homely parents sat beside him stupefied by the miracle that was forcing life back into him, by the miraculous care for lack of which his little sister had died from a German shell.

In the operating theater six operations were under way. I doubt if anything has more funereal consequences than the extent to which the average human being lacks imagination. Walking through the theater, whose dimness was lit at regular intervals by bulbs hanging over unconscious men from whose bodies, from whose faces, from whose arms and legs, supremely conscious men were expulsing death, I thought with guilt of the nights when I had gone to bed without visualizing this terrible scene the continuous performance of which represents the good side of what is going on here — this terrible scene which is the opposite of the scene in which Germans who are not good, Germans whom we must conclude belong to the Nazi Party, are bending over unconscious men into whose bodies, into whose faces, into whose arms and legs, they are propulsing death.

The nurses in this hospital seemed to feel themselves unduly lucky — because they were working in a building. When we lined up for supper that evening the kitchen was partially under water. A gangway of slats had been laid from the steps and round in front of the stoves and serving tables. But by the next morning the water had subsided and the nurses still felt diffident about the luxury of their present situation.

In the nurses’ quarters that evening everyone was tired but cheerful, indeed excited, because the hot water was on — one by one we disappeared dirty and returned clean, exuding the complacency, the air of conscious skill, daring, and cunning, produced by a hot bath in this area. People squatted on beds, wrote letters, showed snapshots, ate crackers. I wanted to hear some of their personal stories, to know what had driven the tall girl with the Katharine Hepburn face away from her comfortable home to this, what conviction maintained the spirits of the little dark girl whom they called the live wire, what was the history of the motherly girl who came from Chihuahua, Mexico.

But the only reminiscences I could extract from them concerned patients — there was a boy who had had his arm off, and said he felt badly, being sent home for a thing like that — or personal mishaps over which we giggled in a manner I had supposed lost with schooldays. Indeed, the atmosphere was uncannily like that of the dormitory of an agreeable school; uncannily because it contained no suggestion of the gigantic responsibilities daily, nightly, successfully, borne by these fine women momentarily translated into giggling schoolgirls in blue striped flannel pajamas.

Next day we came home through country that was the concrete of the nightmare that haunted the schooldays of so many of us who are too young to remember the last war but old enough to have had our adolescence appalled by All Quiet on the Western Front, Death of a Hero, The Case of Sergeant Grischa, The Road Back: Verdun country, desolate and desolating.

The last view I had of it was a sloping stretch of green-brown countryside neatly parted by a road the color of milky coffee. On one side, green and beautifully ordered, was a cemetery closely packed with young men who died nearly thirty years ago; on the other the familiar, the almost stylized brown sea of mud, the little tents in which daughters of men who died in the last war were endeavoring to prevent the sons of such men from repeating their fathers’ sacrifice.

Having just seen Americans limbless and eyeless; having just seen a French child who, when dying from a German shell, had only German words in which to mutter to her French parents; having seen this, I do not want to see Germans tortured, I do not want to see done to them what they have done to others; but I do want to see their interests put absolutely last at the peace conference. We have no right to forgive those who trespass against our neighbors.