- 'An Unknown Paris in the Night and Rain'
- by Henry Sheahan
- from his book 'A Volunteer Poilu' 1916
An American Ambulance Driver in a Paris Hospital
sunbathing wounded soldiers at Evian
It was Sunday morning, the bells were ringing to church, and I was strolling in the gardens of the Tuileries. A bright morning sun was drying the dewy lawns and the wet marble bodies of the gods and athletes, the leaves on the trees were falling, and the French autumn, so slow, so golden, and so melancholy, had begun. At the end of the mighty vista of the Champs Élysées, the Arc de Triomphe rose, brown and vaporous in the exhalations of the quiet city, and an aeroplane was maneuvering over the Place de la Concorde, a moving speck of white and silver in the soft, September blue. From a near-by Punch and Judy show the laughter of little children floated down the garden in outbursts of treble shrillness. "Villain, monster, scoundrel," squeaked a voice. Flopped across the base of the stage, the arms hanging downwards, was a prostrate doll which a fine manikin in a Zouave's uniform belabored with a stick; suddenly it stirred, and, with a comic effect, lifted its puzzled, wooden head to the laughing children. Beneath a little Prussian helmet was the head of William of Germany, caricatured with Parisian skill into a scowling, green fellow with a monster black mustache turned up to his eyes. "Lie down!" cried the Zouave doll imperiously. "Here is a love pat for thee from a French Zouave, my big Boche." And he struck him down again with his staff.
Soldiers walked in the garden, permissionnaires (men on furlough) out for an airing with their rejoicing families, smart young English subalterns, and rosy-fleshed, golden-haired Flemings of the type that Rubens drew. But neither their presence nor the sight of an occasional mutilé (soldier who has lost a limb), pathetically clumsy on his new crutches, quite sent home the presence of the war. The normal life of the city was powerful enough to engulf the disturbance, the theaters were open, there were the same crowds on the boulevards, and the same gossipy spectators in the sidewalk cafés. After a year of war the Parisians were accustomed to soldiers, cripples, and people in mourning. The strongest effect of the war was more subtle of definition, it was a change in the temper of the city. Since the outbreak of the war, the sham Paris that was "Gay Paree" had disappeared, and the real Paris, the Paris of tragic memories and great men, had taken its place. An old Parisian explained the change to me in saying, "Paris has become more French." Deprived of the foreigner, the city adapted itself to a taste more Gallic; faced with the realities of war, it exchanged its artificiality for that sober reasonableness which is the normal attitude of the nation.
At noon I left the garden and strolled down the Champs Élysées to the Porte Maillot. The great salesrooms of the German motor-car dealers had been given by the Government to a number of military charities who had covered the trade signs with swathes and rosettes of their national colors. Under the banner of the Belgians, in the quondam hop of the Mercedes, was an exhibition of leather knickknacks, baskets, and dolls made by the blind and mutilated soldiers. The articles children's toys for the most part, dwarfs that rolled over and over on a set of parallel bars, Alsatian lasses with flaxen hair, and gay tops were exposed on a row of tables a few feet back from the window. By the Porte Maillot, some of the iron saw- horses with sharpened points, which had formed part of the barricade built there in the days of the Great Retreat, lay, a villainous, rusty heap, in a grassy ditch of the city wall; a few stumps of the trees that had been then cut down were still visible, and from a railroad tie embedded in the sidewalk hung six links of a massive chain. Through this forgotten flotsam on the great shore of the war, the quiet crowds went in and out of the Maillot entrance to the Bois de Boulogne. There was a sense of order and security in the air. I took a seat on the terrace of a little restaurant. The garçon was a small man in the fifties, inclined to corpulence, with a large head, large, blue-gray eyes, purplish lips, and blue-black hair cut pompadour. As we watched the orderly, Sunday crowds going to the great park, we fell into conversation about the calmness of Paris. "Yes, it is calm," he said; "we are all waiting (nous attendons). We know that the victory will be ours at the finish. But all we can do is to wait. I have two sons at the front." He had struck the keynote. Paris is calmly waiting waiting for the end of the war, for victory, for the return of her children.
Yet in this great, calm city, with its vaporous browns and slaty blues, and its characteristic acrid smell of gasoline fumes, was another Paris, a terrible Paris, which I was that night to see. Early in the afternoon a dull haze of leaden clouds rose in the southwest. It began to rain.
in a French hospital ward outside of Paris in Nogent-sur-Marne
In a great garret of the hospital, under a high French roof, was the dormitory of the volunteers attached to the Paris Ambulance Section. At night, this great space was lit by only one light, a battered electric reading-lamp standing on a kind of laboratory table in the center of the floor, and window curtains of dark-blue cambric, waving mysteriously in the night wind, were supposed to hide even this glimmer from the eyes of raiding Zeppelins. Looking down, early in the evening, into the great quadrangle of the institution, one saw the windows of the opposite wing veiled with this mysterious blue, and heard all the feverish unrest of a hospital, the steps on the tiled corridors, the running of water in the bathroom taps, the hard clatter of surgical vessels, and sometimes the cry of a patient having a painful wound dressed. But late at night the confused murmur of the battle between life and death had subsided, the lights in the wards were extinguished, and only the candle of the night nurse, seen behind a screen, and the stertorous breathing of the many sleepers, brought back the consciousness of human life. I have often looked into the wards as I returned from night calls to the station where we received the wounded, and been conscious, as I peered silently into that flickering obscurity, of the vague unrest of sleepers, of the various attitudes assumed, the arms outstretched, the upturned throats, and felt, too, in the still room, the mystic presence of the Angel of Pain.
It was late at night, and I stood looking out of my window over the roofs of Neuilly to the great, darkened city just beyond. From somewhere along the tracks of the "Little Belt" railway came a series of piercing shrieks from a locomotive whistle. It was raining hard, drumming on the slate roof of the dormitory, and somewhere below a gutter gurgled foolishly. Far away in the corridor a gleam of yellow light shone from the open door of an isolation room where a nurse was watching by a patient dying of gangrene. Two comrades who had been to the movies at the Gaumont Palace near the Place Clichy began to talk in sibilant whispers of the evening's entertainment, and one of them said, "That war film was a corker; did you spot the big cuss throwing the grenades?" "Yuh, damn good," answered the other pulling his shirt over his head. It was a strange crew that inhabited these quarters; there were idealists, dreamers, men out of work, simple rascals and adventurers of all kinds. To my right slept a big, young Westerner, from some totally unknown college in Idaho, who was a humanitarian enthusiast to the point of imbecility, and to the left a middle-aged rogue who indulged in secret debauches of alcohol and water he cajoled from the hospital orderlies. Yet this obscure and motley community was America's contribution to France. I fell asleep.
The lieutenant of the Paris Section, a mining engineer with a picturesque vocabulary of Nevadan profanity, was standing in his pajama trousers at the head of the room, holding a lantern in his hand. "Up, birds!" he called again. "Call's come in for Lah Chapelle." There were uneasy movements under the blankets, inmates of adjoining beds began to talk to each other, and some lit their bedside candles. The chief went down both sides of the dormitory, flashing his lantern before each bed, ragging the sleepy. "Get up, So-and-So. Well, I must say, Pete, you have a hell of a nerve." There were glimpses of candle flames, bare bodies shivering in the damp cold, and men sitting on beds, winding on their puttees. "Gee! listen to it rain," said somebody. "What time is it?" "Twenty minutes past two." Soon the humming and drumming of the motors in the yard sounded through the roaring of the downpour.
Down in the yard I found Oiler, my orderly, and our little Ford ambulance, number fifty-three. One electric light, of that sickly yellow color universal in France, was burning over the principal entrance to the hospital, just giving us light enough to see our way out of the gates. Down the narrow, dark Boulevard Inkerman we turned, and then out on to a great street which led into the "outer" boulevard of De Batignolles and Clichy. To that darkness with which the city, in fear of raiding aircraft, has hidden itself, was added the continuous, pouring rain. In the light of our lamps, the wet, golden trees of the black, silent boulevards shone strangely, and the illuminated advertising kiosks which we passed, one after the other at the corners of great streets, stood lonely and drenched, in the swift, white touch of our radiance. Black and shiny, the asphalt roadway appeared to go on in a straight line forever and forever.
Neither in residential, suburban Neuilly nor in deserted Montmartre was there a light to be seen, but when we drew into the working quarter of La Chapelle, lights appeared in the windows, as if some toiler of the night was expected home or starting for his labor, and vague forms, battling with the rain or in refuge under the awning of a café, were now and then visible. From the end of the great, mean rue de La Chapelle the sounds of the unrest of the railroad yards began to be heard, for this street leads to the freight-houses near the fortifications. Our objective was a great freight station which the Government, some months before, had turned into a receiving-post for the wounded; it lay on the edge of the yard, some distance in from the street, behind a huddle of smaller sheds and outbuildings. To our surprise the rue de La Chapelle was strewn with ambulances rushing from the station, and along two sides of the great yard, where the merchandise trucks had formerly turned in, six or seven hundred more ambulances were waiting. We turned out of the dark, rain-swept city into this hurly-burly of shouts, snorting of engines, clashing of gears, and whining of brakes, illuminated with a thousand inter- neshing beams of headlights across whose brilliance the rain fell in sloping, liquid rods. "Quick, a small car this way!" cried some one in an authoritative tone, and number fifty-three ran up an inclined plane into the enormous shed which had been reserved for the loading of the wounded into the ambulances.
We entered a great, high, white-washed, warehouse kind of place, about four hundred feet long by four hundred feet wide, built of wood evidently years before. In the middle of this shed was an open space, and along the walls were rows of ambulances. Brancardiers (stretcher-bearers; from brancard, a stretcher) were loading wounded into these cars, and as soon as one car was filled, it would go out of the hall and another would take its place. There was an infernal din; the place smelled like a stuffy garage, and was full of blue gasoline fumes; and across this hurly-burly, which was increasing every minute, were carried the wounded, often nothing but human bundles of dirty blue cloth and fouled bandages. Every one of these wounded soldiers was saturated with mud, a gray-white mud that clung moistly to their overcoats, or, fully dry, colored every part of the uniform with its powder. One saw men that appeared to have rolled over and over in a puddle bath of this whitish mud, and sometimes there was seen a sinister mixture of blood and mire. There is nothing romantic about a wounded soldier, for his condition brings a special emphasis on our human relation to ordinary meat. Dirty, exhausted, unshaven, smelling of the trenches, of his wounds, and of the antiseptics on his wounds, the soldier comes from the train a sight for which only the great heart of Francis of Assisi could have adequate pity.
Oiler and I went through an opening in a canvas partition into that part of the great shed where the wounded were being unloaded from the trains. In width, this part measured four hundred feet, but in length it ran to eight hundred. In two rows of six each, separated by an aisle about eight feet wide, were twelve little houses, about forty feet square, built of stucco, each one painted a different color. The woodwork of the exterior was displayed through the plaster in the Elizabethan fashion, and the little sheds were clean, solidly built, and solidly roofed. In one of these constructions was the bureau of the staff which assigned the wounded to the hospitals, in another was a fully equipped operating-room, and in the others, rows of stretcher- horses, twenty-five to a side, on which the wounded were laid until a hospital number had been assigned them. A slip, with these hospital numbers on it, the names of the patients, and the color of the little house in which they were to be found, was then given to the chauffeur of an ambulance, who, with this slip in hand and followed by a number of stretcher-bearers, immediately gathered his patients. A specimen slip might run thus "To Hospital 32, avenue de Iéna, Paul Chaubard, red barraque, Jules Adamy, green barraque, and Alphonse Fort, ochre barraque."
triage room in an evacuation post
To give a French touch to the scene, this great space, rapidly filling with human beings in an appalling state of misery, as the aftermath of the offensive broke on us, was decorated with evergreen trees and shrubs so that the effect was that of an indoor fair or exhibition; you felt as if you might get samples of something at each barraque, as the French termed the little houses. To the side of these there was a platform, and a sunken track running along the wall, and behind, a great open space set with benches for those of the wounded able to walk. Some fifty great, cylindrical braziers, which added a strange bit of rosy, fiery color to the scene, warmed this space. When the wounded had begun to arrive at about midnight, a regiment of Zouaves was at hand to help the regular stretcher-bearers; these Zouaves were all young, "husky" men dressed in the baggy red trousers and short blue jacket of their classic uniform, and their strength was in as much of a contrast to the weakness of those whom they handled as their gay uniform was in contrast to the miry, horizon blue of the combatants. There was something grotesque in seeing two of these powerful fellows carrying to the wagons a dirty blue bundle of a human being.
With a piercing shriek, that cut like a gash through the uproar of the ambulance engines, a sanitary train, the seventh since midnight, came into the station, and so smoothly did it run by, its floors on a level with the main floor, that it seemed an illusion, like a stage train. On the platform stood some Zouaves waiting to unload the passengers, while others cleared the barraques and helped the feeble to the ambulances. There was a steady line of stretchers going out, yet the station was so full that hardly a bit of the vast floor space was unoccupied. One walked down a narrow path between a sea of bandaged bodies. Shouldering what baggage they had, those able to walk plodded in a strange, slow tempo to the waiting automobiles. All by themselves were about a hundred poor, ragged Germans, wounded prisoners, brothers of the French in this terrible fraternity of pain.
About four or five hundred assis (those able to sit up) were waiting on benches at the end of the hall. Huddled round the rosy, flickering braziers, they sat profoundly silent in the storm and din that moved about them, rarely conversing with each other. I imagine that the stupefaction, which is the physiological reaction of an intense emotional and muscular effort, had not yet worn away. There were fine heads here and there. Forgetful of his shattered arm, an old fellow, with the face of Henri Quatre, eagle nose, beard, and all, sat with his head sunken on his chest in mournful contemplation, and a fine-looking, black-haired, dragoon kind of youth with the wildest of eyes clung like grim death to a German helmet. The same expression of resigned fatalism was common to all.
Sometimes the chauffeurs who were waiting for their clients got a chance to talk to one of the soldiers. Eager for news, they clustered round the wounded man, bombarding him with questions.
"Are the Boches retreating?"
"When did it begin?"
"Just where is the attack located?"
"Are things going well for us?"
The soldier, a big young fellow with a tanned face, somewhat pale from the shock of a ripped-up forearm, answered the questions good- naturedly, though the struggle had been on so great a scale that he could only tell about his own hundred feet of trench. Indeed the substance of his information was that there had been a terrible bombardment of the German lines, and then an attack by the French which was still in progress.
"Are we going to break clear through the lines?"
The soldier shrugged his shoulders. "They hope to," he replied.
Just beyond us, in one of the thousand stretchers on the floor, a small bearded man had died. With his left leg and groin swathed in bandages, he lay flat on his back, his mouth open, muddy, dirty, and dead. From time to time the living on each side stole curious, timid glances at him. Then, suddenly, some one noticed the body, and two stretcher-bearers carried it away, and two more brought a living man there in its place.
The turmoil continued to increase. At least a thousand motor- ambulances, mobilized from all over the region of Paris, were now on hand to carry away the human wreckage of the great offensive. Ignorant of the ghastly army at its doors, Paris slept. The rain continued to fall heavily.
"Eh la, comrade."
A soldier in the late thirties, with a pale, refined face, hailed me from his stretcher.
"You speak French?"
"I am going to ask you to do me a favor write to my wife who is here in Paris, and tell her that I am safe and shall let her know at once what hospital I am sent to. I shall be very grateful."
He let his shoulders sink to the stretcher again and I saw him now and then looking for me in the crowd. Catching my eye, he smiled.
several views of the evacuation of wounded and their treatment at hospital
A train full of Algerian troops came puffing into the station, the uproar hardly rising above the general hubbub. The passengers who were able to walk got out first, some limping, some walking firmly with a splendid Eastern dignity. These men were Arabs and Moors from Algeria and Tunisia, who had enlisted in the colonial armies. There was a great diversity of size and racial type among them, some being splendid, big men of the type one imagines Othello to have been, some chunkier and more bullet-headed, and others tall and lean with interesting aquiline features. I fancy that the shorter, rounder-skulled ones were those with a dash of black blood. The uniform, of khaki- colored woolen, consisted of a simple, short-waisted jacket, big baggy trousers, puttees, and a red fez or a steel helmet with the lunar crescent and "R.F." for its device. We heard rumors about their having attacked a village. Advancing in the same curious tempo as the French, they passed to the braziers and the wooden benches. Last of all from the train, holding his bandaged arm against his chest, a native corporal with the features of a desert tribesman advanced with superb, unconscious stateliness. As the Algerians sat round the braziers, their uniforms and brown skins presented a contrast to the pallor of the French in their bedraggled blue, but there was a marked similarity of facial expression. A certain racial odor rose from the Orientals.
My first assignment, two Algerians and two Frenchmen, took me to an ancient Catholic high school which had just been improvised into a hospital for the Oriental troops. It lay, dirty, lonely, and grim, just to one side of a great street on the edge of Paris, and had not been occupied since its seizure by the State. Turning in through an enormous door, lit by a gas globe flaring and flickering in the torrents of rain, we found ourselves in an enormous, dark courtyard, where a half-dozen ambulances were already waiting to discharge their clients. Along one wall there was a flight of steps, and from somewhere beyond the door at the end of this stair shone the faintest glow of yellow light.
It came from the door of a long-disused schoolroom, now turned into the receiving-hall of this strange hospital. The big, high room was lit by one light only, a kerosene hand lamp standing on the teacher's desk, and so smoked was the chimney that the wick gave hardly more light than a candle. There was just enough illumination to see about thirty Algerians sitting at the school desks, their big bodies crammed into the little seats, and to distinguish others lying in stretchers here and there upon the floor. At the teacher's table a little French adjutant with a trim, black mustache and a soldier interpreter were trying to discover the identity of their visitors.
"Number 2215," (numéro deux mille deux cent quinze), the officer cried; and the interpreter, leaning over the adjutant's shoulder to read the name, shouted, "Méhémet Ali."
There was no answer, and the Algerians looked round at each other, for all the world like children in a school. It was very curious to see these dark, heavy, wild faces bent over these disused desks.
"Number 2168" (numéro deux mille cent soixante huit), cried the adjutant.
"Abdullah Taleb," cried the interpreter.
"Moi," answered a voice from a stretcher in the shadows of the floor.
"Take him to room six," said the adjutant, indicating the speaker to a pair of stretcher-bearers. In the quieter pauses the rain was heard beating on the panes.
There are certain streets in Paris, equally unknown to tourist and Parisian obscure, narrow, cobble-stoned lanes, lined by walls concealing little orchards and gardens. So provincial is their atmosphere that it would be the easiest thing in the world to believe one's self on the fringe of an old town, just where little bourgeois villas begin to overlook the fields; but to consider one's self just beyond the heart of Paris is almost incredible. Down such a street, in a great garden, lay the institution to which our two Frenchmen were assigned. We had a hard time finding it in the night and rain, but at length, discovering the concierge's bell, we sent a vigorous peal clanging through the darkness. Oiler lifted the canvas flap of the ambulance to see about our patients.
"All right in there, boys?"
"Yes," answered a voice.
"Non. Are we at the hospital?"
"Yes; we are trying to wake up the concierge."
There was a sound of a key in a lock, and a small, dark woman opened the door. She was somewhat spinstery in type, her thin, black hair was neatly parted in the middle, and her face was shrewd, but not unkindly.
"Deux blessés (two wounded), madame," said I.
The woman pulled a wire loop inside the door, and a far-off bell tinkled.
"Come in," she said. "The porter will be here immediately."
We stepped into a little room with a kind of English look to it, and a carbon print of the Sistine Madonna on the wall.
"Are they seriously wounded?" she asked.
"I cannot say."
A sound of shuffling, slippered feet was heard, and the porter, a small, beefy, gray-haired man in the fifties, wearing a pair of rubber boots, and a rain-coat over a woolen night-dress, came into the room.
"Two wounded have arrived," said the lady. "You are to help these messieurs get out the stretchers."
The porter looked out of the door at the tail-light of the ambulance, glowing red behind its curtain of rain.
"Mon Dieu, what a deluge! " he exclaimed, and followed us forth. With an "Easy there," and "Lift now," we soon had both of our clients out of the ambulance and indoors. They lay on the floor of the odd, stiff, little room, strange intruders of its primness; the first, a big, heavy, stolid, young peasant with enormous, flat feet, and the second a small, nervous, city lad, with his hair in a bang and bright, uneasy eyes. The mud-stained blue of the uniforms seemed very strange, indeed, beside the Victorian furniture upholstered in worn, cherry-red plush. A middle-aged servant a big-boned, docile-looking kind of creature, probably the porter's wife entered, followed by two other women, the last two wearing the same cut of prim black waist and skirt, and the same pattern of white wristlets and collar. We then carried the two soldiers upstairs to a back room, where the old servant had filled a kind of enamel dishpan with soapy water. Very gently and deftly the beefy old porter and his wife took off the fouled, blood-stained uniforms of the two fighting men, and washed their bodies, while she who had opened the door stood by and superintended all. The feverish, bright-eyed fellow seemed to be getting weaker, but the big peasant conversed with the old woman in a low, steady tone, and told her that there had been a big action.
When Oiler and I came downstairs, two little glasses of sherry and a plate of biscuits were hospitably waiting for us. There was something distinctly English in the atmosphere of the room and in the demeanor of the two prim ladies who stood by. It roused my curiosity. Finally one of them said:
"Are you English, gentlemen?"
"No," we replied; "Americans."
"I thought you might be English," she replied in that language, which she spoke very clearly and fluently. "Both of us have been many years in England. We are French Protestant deaconesses, and this is our home. It is not a hospital. But when the call for more accommodations for the wounded came in, we got ready our two best rooms. The soldiers upstairs are our first visitors."
The old porter came uneasily down the stair. "Mademoiselle Pierre says that the doctor must come at once," he murmured, "the little fellow (le petit) is not doing well."
We thanked the ladies gratefully for the refreshment, for we were cold and soaked to the skin. Then we went out again to the ambulance and the rain. A faint pallor of dawn was just beginning. Later in the morning, I saw a copy of the "Matin" attached to a kiosk; it said something about "Grande Victoire."
Thus did the great offensive in Champagne come to the city of Paris, bringing twenty thousand men a day to the station of La Chapelle. For three days and nights the Americans and all the other ambulance squads drove continuously. It was a terrible phase of the conflict to see, but he who neither sees nor understands it cannot realize the soul of the war. Later, at the trenches, I saw phases of the war that were spiritual, heroic, and close to the divine, but this phase was, in its essence, profoundly animal.
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