The Pacific Northwest Forum
Second Series, Volume I, Number 1, Pages 21-26
Winter, 1988

Red Cross Nurse From Oregon:
A Letter From France, 12 December 1918

by William E. Duvall

William Duvall is a Professor of History at Willamette University. A student of his brought him this letter, found by his mother in a bureau purchased at a garage sale. Duvall tried to find more letters by Amatta Burch, but apparently this is the only one that survives. He did learn, however, that Burch was born in 1893 and lived most of her life in Albany, Oregon. She joined the red cross ''for something to do" and served in France from November, 1917, until July, 1919. Overseas she worked in hospital huts as a hostess, serving cookies and punch. Returning to Albany she became a school teacher and housewife. She died in 1984 at the age of 95. Written shortly after the Armistace, her letter reminds us that thousands of American women went to France during the Great War.

Early on in Louis-Ferdinand Celine's Voyage au bout de la nuit there is a section where the reader finds Ferdinand Bardamu, the central character, hospitalized and convalescing in Paris from a wound suffered at the front in World War I. Having received a military medal, Bardamu decides to parade it before an appreciative public, and so he heads off to mingle with the crowds at the Opera Comique. There he runs into a "little American, Lola." 1 Through her, Bardamu says, he becomes curious about the United States and vows to travel there one day.

Lola is in France as a nurse with the American Expeditionar Forces; though Bardamu (Celine) is not specific about whether Lola is with the Red Cross, he does describe her uniform as having red crosses on the sleeves and the little cap. Celine offers Lola as a rather harsh caricature, a stereotype of the American abroad, at once naive and arrogant. She is stationed comfortably at the Hotel Paritz where her primary function is to supervise the production of thousands of apple fritters which are distributed each morning to the hospitals of Paris. Lola, Bardamu tells us, "had come to help us save France ... and though she couldn't hope to do much, she was ready to do what she could with all her (22) heart. "2 She regards her culinary task as a "charitable duty" and a "sacred trust,"3 because for her "France was a sort of chivalrous entity, not very clearly defined either in space or time, but at present grievously wounded and for that very reason extremely exciting. "4

This section of Celine's novel is one which has remained exceptionally vivid for me, so the following letter, found curiously enough in a garage sale, immediately drew me back into the world Celine had created and described. The letter was written by Anatta Burch of Albany, Oregon, who was thirty years old when she was in France as a Red Cross nurse and who most probably shared nothing more with Celine's Lola than her occupation and the fact that she was in France at the time of the Great War.

Ms. Burch was assigned to the American Base Hospital at Savenay near Nantes; the envelope was stamped "A.E.F. Passed as Censored." In addition to its human interest and charm, the letter offers insight into the conditions in the weeks immediately following the Armistice and exhibits an American perception of France and the French.S

Paris, France Dec. 12, 1918

Dear Mamma-

Tomorrow I'll celebrate my birthday, if plans work out, by travelling from 7:53 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. on my way to Savenay. My trunk and one suitcase are already at the station, and I'm supposed to get there about seven o'clock. It takes a long time to get there in this country. This evening I got a taxi to the station, and when we arrived the chauffeur just sat there; finally I got out and asked him as best I could if that was Gare d'Orsay, and he replied yes. Then as usual an American came to the rescue and made the driver help get my trunk out and summoned a porter who ushered me around to the various ticket windows and m.p. (military police) till I dismissed him at the window where I wanted to get my suitcase checked. There I couldn't get waited on, till finally a sergeant came along and "threw" some English at them which resulted in getting it put on a check with a Y.M.C.A. girl's two bags. The girl's knowledge of French couldn't get the agent to change them till a wise Am. [eric an] lad said, "slip her a dime and see what she will do." You may be sure she thanked, and thanked, and soon made the change. It is disgusting the way you can't get a thing done without a tip, but I guess it is our fault for tipping to begin with. (23)

I have heard some interesting things about the place and country around Savenay and believe I'll like it there. Am sent for six months but do not know how long I'll get to stay. Some of the girls are assigned for only three months and many who have been here some months are going home. Saw some Am.'s just from the front-You may be sure they are all glad to be going home. Perhaps those going on into Germany are just as enthusiastic about that.

Well, I have been too busy with various things to see much of real interest in Paris, but will get to do so on my way back as we all come here to be released.

The girl who was to bring on my package you sent from New York said the woman at the mail desk wouldn't let her have it. That woman is the only despisable one I have ever met at R. C. [Red Cross] Headquarters, and she surely is a crab anyway. I'm so sorry after all the trouble you had to get it off, but perhaps I won't really need them. I had a lovely blue jersey dress given me at headquarters here.

I'm feeling fine now--eat too much all the time. Tonight for eighty cents (4 francs) we had the best meal yet, and cheapest. Good beef and rice soup--next some cold sliced meat mixture, then roast beef and spaghetti, so good, then little stewed plums and nuts and fruit. The salads--Iettuce and celery here are good, so are other vegetables, but potatoes seem scarce. I'm used to going without butter twice a day. One of the girls gave me two pounds of sugar today, but I think I'll have plenty at the hospital hut. We are to eat and sleep there they tell us. I'll be glad for the Am. cooking. Say, we had real American pie, made by one of the boys at a gas fl1ling station here. Someone swiped a piece one of our girls had cached out there at a dance last night, so she said she [would] like to meet the cook. He was brought forth, and today brought a whole real raisin pie to headquarters here--and it was divided in five portions. People in England] or France do not know what real pie is.

No letters for me today---but they will be sent on to my new address when they come. If I happen to get placed in a compartment with French folks whom I can't converse with very much I may finish this letter on the way. One of our party who speaks French well will be going part way with me. Will have dinner on the train and it is so funny, they stop the train, a porter or something trots along beside it saying "dinner" in French. Then those who have tickets for first service all get out at the side doors and trot along to the "diner." After about an hour the train stops again, and if you hurry you can get back to your own compartment, and those for the second tables all pile out--so on till all are served. (24)

I'm sorry to miss the demonstration when Pres. Wilson arrives Sat., I want to see just how the mobs take it. It was wonderful when King Albert was here--but I wouldn't miss my assignment for anything, or wait any longer.

I hope you all and grandpa and Aunt Mat are at least as well as usual, still. I was very glad to get your letter with all the news--have seen only three people from Oregon, one girl in our party to whom none of us took at all kindly, and two soldiers from Portland.

I wish I could hear from Sam, perhaps I'll hear through you in a few days. I wonder if I could get John's and Linn's address if they are still here--by chance I might get to see them--a mere chance though.

Dec. 13--On the train to Savenay--

I'm on my way O.K. The country we are passing thru is lovely, reminds me very much of what I saw of England; the trees and ivy, but houses are different of course. There are the same pretty bridges across the tracks too.

There are more women than usual on the train but none in my compartment. Here two Am. engineers (Lieutenants); a Canadian, a French, and a Belgian officer, and I. Some crowd. The Frenchman beside me and I do not talk much of course---but the Canadian on the other side is interesting as usual. The Americans are homeward bound, so what do they care. In the aisle 'longside are several of all nations, growling because no seats were reserved for them. I'm getting mighty hungry, and am glad I have a seat for first service at noon.

Just now we are passing acres of vineyards. The vines are all kept trimmed so close to the ground. It is wonderful how neat everything is kept. All stone or concrete houses and some are very beautiful. --Call to lunch--

After lunch-- feel much better now after a good meal. Have just passed a wonderfu1little village with its pretty tiled houses.

Mistletoe galore on queer looking trees elm or something like that I guess.

Just stopped at a station where an Am. troop train had also stopped and the band gave us a few lively tunes--"You're in the Army now" etc.

Dec. 14-- I feel sometimes that it is almost a sin to say that I have really enjoyed my first day's work here so much, but I really have even if I did see those who are terribly wounded. Now I'll give an outline of my first day, for I may not have time to do so later. Was met at the station last night by a R.C. delegation, brought up to my temporary place of abode, (which I wouldn't have missed for anything) the landlady or madam brought out a little candle so the boys could see the way up the steps with my suitcases--steps that (25) are little musty winding ones like some in the old tower of London. Everything about the house is quaint as can be. This morning when I de[s]cended the stairs there stood the row of wooden shoes, such as they go clicking thru the mud with.

We eat at the nurses mess room have fine American meals. Later will sleep in new barracks that are about finished for us. After dinner last eve. went to the entertainment at the base hut, given by the blind men here. Isn't it wonderful that they can be entertaining others so soon. Really good too. This morning Miss Fabian, my roommate, and I shortened our new dresses to put on, then this p.m. I visited five wards with another girl, and with aid of two convalescents passed around hot chocolate and wafers. There I got the first real glimpse of what the war has done to some of the poor fellows, and how cheerful most of them are in spite of the fact that they are crazy to go home, those who are able to care at all. You should see the wonderful camelias, a little like rhododendrons, but more beautiful. A French woman brought a lovely bunch to the hut, and had given us each one to wear to the wards, but as soon as I entered a lad asked for mine, and I hadn't the nerve to refuse, and soon Miss Cook had given hers up. Of course the woman missed them when we returned, but when we explained she sent some youngsters after more for us. This evening I went out with four other girls to the opening of the engineers hut. Perfectly well fellows there with lots of pep left but crazy to return home; they spent most of the evening singing and talking. We were brought back in a big army truck, lots of fun. Went out in a R.C. Ford. I may be stationed there, or at a new convalescent hut near it. I prefer the latter. They are really anxious for us there, said it was more like home then. Of course there is work to do too. I wonder if I'll soon learn the way around--rows and rows of huts and barracks-such a large base hospital. The girls are lovely, and the nurses too are so friendly. They are busy getting ready for Christmas and some of the boys are so interested in helping. They have little state parties and as some will probably leave soon and so few Oregonians are here one of them got anxious today so the R.C. woman in charge said we may have ours tomorrow night. So far I have found four from Ore. and as we were posting the Webfoot notice one fellow came up and said "I'm from Oregon and so is the fellow next to me." We may get a crowd yet. They say one from Albany is here, I'm going to look him up tomorrow. The boys do like the huts--say they would go crazy without the entertainment there. We have one base hut, and several smaller ones. (26)

I must get a man's raincoat at the commissary here, and boots too if they will fit, the mud is fierce--but they always take us where it is worst, or [if] we have any distance to go. All the boys are fine to the girls, and the R.c. cars are kept busy. Haven't seen much of the village of Savenay, a few houses with living room and stables joined. It is all very interesting, but my pen is dry and the candle about burned out so I'll quit now.

Let me know soon as you get this and here's hoping you are all well as usual.

Love to all, Anatta

Address: c/o American Red

Cross Recreation Hut

Base Hopital #8 Savenay, France

Next day—I just didn't get this letter off today. This being Sunday we had forenoon off so two of us started out into the country. A marine camion picked us up and we rode a few miles, then got out at a quaint old village with thatched roofs, started back and found some holly and shrubs with beautiful big red berries; got arm loads and on the return a U.S. Ford picked us up. Really the country is grandn real old windmills etc. Spent afternoon at a convalescent hut out a ways from here. Then best of all our little Oregon gathering this eve.

None I ever knew, but they, and one especially, a University of Oregon man knows several folks I know. Roomed with Sevant Pease of Jefferson at U. of O. - knows several Albany folks. Saw some more Oregon boys in wards who are not able to get out.

Really, in a way we have to work very hard, but the work is wonderful and interesting all the time.

Will surely get this letter sent tomorrow before it grows longer.

Love to all of you Anatta.

Notes

1. Louis-Ferdinand C6line, Journey to the End o/the Night, translated from the French by John H.P. Marks, New York: New Directions, 1960, p. 45.

2. C6line, p. 45.

3. C6line, pp. 46-47.

4. C6line, pp. 47-48.

5. I looked for other letters, but none apparently has survived. Ms. Burch died three years ago, and her family possesses nothing else related to her sojourn in France. Items in brackets are my additions.