CHAPTER TWENTY-tWO recovery by the Sea
19th October 1918
When the train arrived in Étretat a long line of women dressed like chauffeurs greeted us and transported us to the hospital in their ambulances. The soldiers that could walk made their way on foot. The town was bustling with soldiers and nurses. The hospital was a converted seaside hotel right on the boardwalk with a fine view of the white cliffs on the coastline. After four years of slogging in the fields of Flanders, I had forgotten what the ocean looked like.
The hotel is called Roches Blanches which means “white rocks”, but most of the American patients can’t speak French and refer to it as “The Hotel of Roaches”. I don’t bother correcting them.
They don’t know how good they have it.
I was immediately taken into surgery.
The bone was reset and my leg was wrapped. They gave me morphine for the pain, but after a few days, the pain began to subside. The nurses were kind and did not ask too many questions.
They fit me with crutches and encouraged me to spend time on the boardwalk to get the benefit of the fresh sea air. The doctors said I would always walk with a limp but should be able to get around well enough with a cane before too long.
They set me up with a chair and a table and were encouraged when I spent time writing in my journal. If anyone asked about the journal, I told them that it was a war souvenir.
The sea air was a relief and having time to think and write was a luxury I had not had in a long time, but there was no relaxing for me.
I was in constant fear of being discovered. I was older than most of the other soldiers, so I could play the salty old veteran and avoid much conversation but I could not sleep at night. This ruse was wearing me down.
I only survived this long because Étretat was far removed from my French squadron. I would be immediately exposed if any of my “squad mates” came to visit. Every time I was approached by someone I braced myself for disaster.
My good luck was not going to last forever.
I now have access to newspapers and the news of my homeland is not good. Cambrai was taken by the Americans earlier this month. Germany is especially suffering now. Families are starving and every scrap of metal is being salvaged for the war effort. Germany has no counter to the huge influx of men and supplies from America. Rumors are circulating that President Wilson is having secret negotiations with German leaders to end the war.
Étretat is located half way between the two main ports. To the north is Dunkirk, with ships arriving regularly from England. To the south is St. Nazaire, bringing Yanks in from New York. Word came in from my squadron. Considering the seriousness of my injury and the state of the war, they are giving me the option to return home to America on a ship leaving from St. Nazaire.
This was not exactly part of my plan.
26th October 1918
They came by today and lined us up for some group photos, a sad portrait of damaged young men. They take these photos for soldiers to send home to their loved ones so they will know they are healing and will be home soon.
Home? Where is that for me now?
I let them know that I would take the option to return to America. It was the only choice that got me out of Étretat right away. A train was leaving next week and I should be getting around well enough with a cane by then to travel. The doctors cleared me for the trip.
Years ago my Mutter had the dream of taking her family to America to avoid the war that was brewing around us. I’m sure she never envisioned that dream being realized this way.
First row, second one on the left.
When the photographer asked me how many copies I wanted, I looked away and just shook my head.
This war has wrung me dry and there is no one out there waiting for me any more.