RED CROSS WORK OVERSEAS
AN ADDRESS BY MRS. AUGUST BELMONT
Before the Empire Club of Canada, Toronto,
April 17, 1918
MR. CHAIRMAN, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN,--I am sorry to be a little late. I feel a little bit like the American army today, a little late, rather hurried, and a slight feeling of unpreparedness. But I am here and, I hope, in time. (Loud applause.)
I have had the most wonderful and interesting five months in Europe, and during the time I was over there I cannot tell you how many were the occasions on which I heard the praises of Canada's sons, and sung in so many ways that it seemed to me as if it were part of my own country,-as if it really mattered tremendously to me what was happening to the Canadians. I had such a sense of real pride in your achievements that I am glad to be here today to tell you what, perhaps, you cannot say yourselves,-how perfectly splendid you have been, -and to voice that very deep respect I have for you.
I had the pleasure of meeting a relative of Sir Julien Byng, and we talked confidentially about the Canadians. This relative had heard him say the Canadians had one fault, a very real fault which he was afraid it would be impossible for them to overcome, and that was that they did not know fear. I thought it was a very nice compliment
Mrs. Belmont had, at the time of this address, just returned from France, having been commissioned by the American Red Cross Society to investigate the needs and advise methods for Red Cross activities planned by the United States.
Mrs. Belmont's charming personality and stage presence will be recalled by all who remember the delightful way in which, as Eleanor Robson, she endeared herself to the public of America.
from one who must know so very much about the l Canadians, and know them in action.
I had been working for three and a half years in war work, but devoting my attention absolutely to the French and Belgians, and when I went over to Europe in September, I decided to go to England and find out what was being done there. I had heard little things but nothing that in any way prepared me for what I was to find when I landed in Great Britain. I cannot adequately describe the atmosphere that greeted me. In the first place, the trip over was the greatest surprise I have ever experienced; the wonderful calmness with which everyone behaved was amazing. The ship had been attacked and had been in dry dock for four months with a hole in -her side large enough for two tram cars to go through, so the steward told me. When we left New York I was utterly astonished at the camouflage over the ship itself. It was painted in squares of green, pink, yellow and blue, and seemed to me to be most horribly conspicuous. We tried not to talk of these things but hopelessly failed, and they were the principal subject of discussion at every meal. The old ways seemed to be forgotten and when we sighted a ship on the horizon, instead of the usual feeling of gladness at the sight of a passing ship and the customary whistling and waving, we all hoped and prayed it would not see us, and we would have a few nerve-racking moments when a "tramp" ship that we saw would develop greater speed than we could and cross our bows and then drop down alongside. But we arrived very quietly without mishap at our destination, and the atmosphere into which we then entered made me think that I was "Alice" and that this was the new "Wonderland."
I was totally unprepared for London. Of course, you all know about the raids and what it has done to the sentiment of the people, but London at night is one of the most beautiful sights imaginable and reminds you of a dimly lighted cathedral, while the searchlights playing all over give you the impression of beautiful fountains as they bathe the city with their brilliance.
When I asked about the effect of the raids on the lives of the people over there, the only comment I received was that they felt very tired. "We work very hard all day and if we have to get up in the night and go down into a cellar we feel very, very tired"; they were tired but not terrified. I found that wonderful sense of calm everywhere I went, and there was almost a religious earnestness in the manner in which they performed the work that is being done.
When I came away I tried to sum up for myself what I had seen in the five months and I was especially impressed by three facts that stood out more prominently than the rest. One was the spirit of the French soldier for which it is impossible not to have the deepest admiration. (Applause.) A second was the work of the American Red Cross. They seem to have performed wonders. And thirdly, the women of England and what they are doing. I asked a surgeon over there what he thought was the most splendid thing in connection with the war as he had seen it. I expected him to tell me something about a battle he had witnessed or something of that kind, or the heroism or valor of some individual, but instead of that he said he thought the glory of the war had been the English women. (Applause.) I had not seen very much of the work in England at that time and I was rather amazed, but, at the same time I thought it was a very nice compliment indeed and that English women would like to hear it although, of course, no matter what the men may say they think is the glory of the war, we know it is the men themselves.
My tour kept me in a state of constant amazement and I finally felt I had employed all the exclamation points at my command, and whenever I would say "How perfectly magnificent your organizations are" or "What wonderful things you are doing!" I was always greeted with the same modest answer "We have had three years to do it in," and I always had the feeling that we were going to benefit by their mistakes.
I went into the canteens and the hospitals for the blind and the mutilated, and all that I could possibly see in gone to their work with the usual magnificnt spirit and it did not matter what they did or where they were put, they were there to be useful. That was the spirit I found all through the British zone when I got there.
Then the little "Waacs",--the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps-which, in the war zone are usually running around in twos and threes looking rather frightened until they have been nicknamed the "Women's arm in arm corps," cannot fail to excite the very highest admiration when you see them "doing their bit," which, let me assure you, is a very big "bit" indeed.
Another significant incident is worthy of mention. I went to the Ritz Hotel to take some American officers to tea, and I thought I would just give them as good a treat as I could before they crossed to France and so I ordered everything I could think of and the waiter looked rather amazed and finally said, "What do you want?" and when I suggested two kinds of things he said, "Which will you have? You cannot have both." I found as I went into various places the lack of tea and jam and bacon and meat. I found black bread everywhere. But when I got over to the British war zone I found all the things I have mentioned in enormous quantities and I realized they were doing without the things at home in order that the boys in the trenches might have them.
Prior to entering the British war zone I had spent some time in the French war zone and the American war zone, going into the various types of work the American Red Cross is doing over there, and I had seen so much suffering that I was beginning to feel a little bit crushed, but the five days I spent with the British swept it all away and renewed my hope and faith and spirits.
I find we have been talking about the length of the line over here, but not of the depth of the line. The length of the line can only be valuable in proportion to its depth. They asked me what I thought of the British war zone and I said that only one word could describe it, solidity. And so in these days when our hearts are torn with the news in the papers I think of the days -when I had the privilege of going over that very territory on which they are now fighting, and the anxiety and uncertainty of it all becomes exhausting. Still, deep down in my heart I know that anxiety is only on account of the desperate fighting I know they are going through in holding that line. I have the greatest confidence in our Allies and I wish to impart this feeling to you, too, although I feel sure you have enough of your own. I know they are suffering horribly over there just now, and they may he forced to retreat a little bit more and yet a little bit more, but I feel with all my heart and soul that the Germans will never break through. (Loud applause.) I don't say that because I want you to live in a fool's paradise, because I think real courage compels us .to look the worst in the face, and we should face the worst and then go forward. (Loud applause.)
I visited five of the Base towns in order to see the operations therein and I was totally unprepared for what I saw. In one base, there were 42,000 beds and what they were doing to economize in every possible way was a revelation to me and the last word in efficiency. For instance, in the early days bandages that had been used for the dressing of bad wounds were always burnt, but now they are sterilizing that horrible stuff and when it comes out it is used for gun cotton, and millions of pounds of cotton will probably be saved in that way. The disposal of waste products too, was wonderful. These waste products are put into an incinerator which burns day and night and through which water pipes run which are connected with baths and thus hot water baths are provided for the men by the consumption of the waste. In the quartermaster's department everything is being done to economize material. Old uniforms are being renewed and old shoe nails are being made new again, everything from an old shoe nail to a Howitzer gun is carefully restored. And then the wonderful optimism of the soldiers themselves! I arrived in a certain town at sunset just as the British and French soldiers were departing for Italy, and I felt very unhappy because I thought they would be rather sorrowful about going to Italy but there was no evidence of any such feeling on their part. I arrived in this little town where I don't suppose more than three houses were left standing and, as I say, I was amazed at the cheerfulness the soldiers displayed and at the way in which they tried to make themselves comfortable by putting pieces of corrugated tin across the top of what is left of the walls and making dugouts in the cellars, end if you offered them cigarettes, they always received them with a sort of shyness, with an air of "Don't deprive yourself" sort of thing. The canteen there had holes in the side of it from a recent bombardment and somewhere in the interior was a little Victor talking machine grinding out, "Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag," and when I went in and looked at the horn of the machine, I saw a hole in it which had been made by a piece of flying shell, and the hole was covered with a piece of red white and blue ribbons as a decoration. I thought that at the front there might be some vindictive feeling among the men against the enemy but when I asked them what they thought of the Germans, the Tommies just said, "Oh, Fritzie is a naughty boy."
One of the things that England will be proud of when this war is over is the manner in which England has fought the war. In England I found that the German prisoners had cheese while the English people had none, and the German officer prisoners had just as comfortable huts as your own soldiers. One thing I would say, too, and that is that there should be no side issues in this war. The one and only thing to do now is to win the war. If any people say they cannot fight under the British, flag let them go and fight under the flag of some other ally. We, in the United States, tried to be neutral -we did our best to steer a middle course but it was impossible. We could not be neutral. We are our brothers' keepers. If we are saving a little or doing a little work and we say we are doing all we can, we are making a great mistake. We lack a sense of time, and it is essential that we should get into the procession right now, and do all we can. I used to think we had outgrown the age of chivalry, that chivalry belonged to the middle ages and that romance was gone out of the world, but I have discovered that all we read, imagined or dreamed cannot come up to the splendid valor and chivalry of the modern soldier. I can recall only one case of a soldier breaking down. I found a little nurse crying and asked her what was the matter and she said, "Oh, I just cannot help it. My heart has been touched so a moment ago by the sight of a dear boy only 20 years old, who has been a year and a half in the service, and who has suffered terribly. We have tried to save his leg but it had to be amputated and I found him crying a little while ago and when I scolded him he said, 'Oh, it is not the pain, but I cannot go back now to my old regiment'." (Applause.) Don't you feel there is not anything in the world you would not go through to help such men?
When I returned to America I was asked: "Are you going around to ask for money to help the war along?" and I said "No, I am just going to ask the workers to give more, to add to their numbers, and if when they asked anyone to do something they were told it would be done next week or next month or later on, to take them by the coat collar and make them do it right now. (Applause.)
In conclusion let me again congratulate you on the wonderful work you have done over there, and to say how happy I am to have had the privilege of addressing you. (Loud and continued applause.)