In remembrance of Armistice Day – A letter from France 08/06/1918

My great-uncle Wendell Garretson, a doctor and a Quaker, spent much of World War I working in military hospitals in Europe. The following is a letter he wrote to his parents back on their Iowa farm after he joined the French Red Cross. He didn’t want to worry his parents, and in reading this letter, it is clear he was glossing over aspects of war just for that reason. In later letters, he never mentioned that a few months later he and another doctor volunteered to set up a small tent hospital in the field to care for six hundred soldiers with influenza. I hope to post more of these in the future. 

Dear Parents:

“I suppose you have received my letters stating that I have joined the French Red Cross and was shortly to leave for France. I am at my destination at this writing, having had an uneventful journey across the channel, on Saturday night last. Spent a day in Paris, arriving at 11 p.m. and leaving at 6:10p.m. on Monday. I think Paris is a beautiful city and in fact, the most beautiful I have seen in my travels. I had an opportunity of seeing the effects of ‘Big Bertha,’ the long range German gun which is firing on Paris at 745 miles distance. While I was walking, on Monday morning, along a well-know thoroughfare, I had the novelty of seeing and hearing one of the shells explode, at a distance of two hundred yards. The shells are comparatively small and do only slight damage compared with the airplane bombs which were dropped n London during the numerous raids last summer.

I was in my hotel when the explosion of the first occurred, and the porter, unconcerned, announced to me in French, that it was ‘Big Bertha.’ I thought of remaining under shelter in an airplane raid, but I noticed from the doorway that the people on the street went about as usual as if nothing had or was likely to occur, thereby treating the shelling with the utmost contempt, a remarkable attitude to one unaccustomed to it, though I soon saw the wisdom of ignoring the danger, which is almost neglible, mathematically speaking.

Ris-Orangis is only 15 miles from Paris, up the Seine, in a a beautiful situation overlooking it. The “hospital” (the French for hospital) is situated in an old monastery, which had been abandoned some ten years ago, presumably at the time of the separation of the church and state in France. It has been easily rearranged into a first class hospital the addition of sanitary arrangements and enlarging the “carsine’ department, and is able to accommodate about 200 patients all or nearly all from the French army.

Though essentially a French Hospital, it is staffed by American doctors and financed by New York people.

Rural France is beautiful just now, especially the foliage on the shrubbery and the trees; the latter are quite numerous, much more so than in Iowa, thereby resembling England in that respect. The farms are very small, to our way of thinking, but the crops look well. One observes oats and wheat being harvested with the scythe, and the sheafs bound by the straw; though I did observe several binders of the International Harvesting Co. type at work in the larger fields I wish that I knew more French that what I do, which would make it less difficult to get about.. I was alone in Paris, and when I couldn’t make them (the French) understand my French,  I usually could find some Britisher or Yankee who was bilingual enough to enable them to interpret for  me.

The French people, so I am informed , have lately been more helpful than during the March offensive of the Germans.

I hope you are in the best of health, and the harvest have realized your previous expectations .

I will write you a more elaborate letter of Paris and the French in general when I know them better.

I am very truly,


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