Alice Hamilton to Hamilton Family, May 1, 1919

Hotel Continental, Paris
May 1, 1919.

Dear Family,

We came home last night after five days of motoring through the devastated regions and for almost all of that time we hardly saw a town that was not "devastated", as the phrase is here. We saw villages pounded to dust and great towns reduced to ruins and miles and miles of battle fields. One can't possibly imagine it, one has to see it and even then it is hard to believe. We went in two Red Cross cars, driven by nice young soldiers who have signed up for work since they were demobilized. One had been building the docks at Brest, the other fighting in the Argonne. Miss Rankin came in the car with J. A. and me for part of the time. Miss Wald for the rest. The other two were Red Cross women who had arranged the whole trip. We left on a clear day, early Saturday morning, and went north, striking the Battle of [Nesone at Loulis?]. From there up to the region around the Aisne where we stopped to see Miss Morgan's group, it was all devastated. I can't tell you how tragic it is. The villages especially. One feels that these humble little stone houses weren't the sort of thing that artillery ought to attack. It is like killing kittens with machine guns, they are so small and helpless. One was just what we had always read about, a little place of gray stone houses, pounded into a dreadful mess and in one house only in the cellar, a red-cheeked old woman living, and in a dug-out under the hill an old couple. The vitality of the old is so amazing. All over there are old women where there is nobody else. We found Miss Morgan's people installed in a chateau which had been shelled but was still usable. They gave us an abundant lunch -- nobody saves food here -- it takes Anglo Saxons to do that -- and showed us their work. It is very direct personal work, maintaining little stores to sell supplies, carrying ↑supplies↓ to far off villages, keeping a medical and dental dispensary, but dear me, it is like a little raft floating on a sea of misery. They spoke with envy of the Quakers, who have men to go and really help the people get back to their homes. We went on to Amiens, through a real battlefield stretching for miles. It was the Australians who saved Amiens in 1918 and held back the Germans. Their trenches were right up to the city and already they have repaired the road and, with the help of German prisoners, have piled barbed wire and shells on the roadsides so that the fields are under cultivation. British soldiers fill Amiens and we had to go to a queer little hotel but the dining room was warm and we had a wonderful dinner and Miss Addams and I had a single bed in a queer little room, but clean. It was so cold we didn't mind sleeping together. The next [illegible] ↑morning↓ we went up to the Cathedral. I sent you a postal to show you it is unhurt, though lots of houses are destroyed. The woman in the hotel was driven out of her home on the frontier, it was burned, she went to Paris and her tenement there was blow up by an air plane bomb, and she came to Amiens and was under bombardment for more than a year. From Amiens we drove through Albert and [Bapaume?], big industrial towns of brick all destroyed. One motor broke down and we got out at B. and lunched in the ruins. Then we reached Vimy Ridge, the place where the Canadians fell in such numbers. That was terrible. A tire blew out and we climbed out and walked a way, finally taking shelter in a bit of ruin from the cold rain that had begun to fall. All around stretched a flat plain, falling abruptly on all four sides, covered with great masses of rusty barbed wire, heaps of ammunition boxes, three great tanks looking like dead monsters and worst of all the graveyards of Canadian soldiers. Anything more desolate cannot be imagined, these little wooden crosses at the head of a pile of mud, barrenness all around, gray skies, cold rain, crazy skeletons of trees sticking up like scare crows. Later I saw worse desolation but Vimy will always remain clearest in my mind because it was the first. Lens came after Vimy, much the worst complete destruction we saw, for the Germans mined it on leaving and it is powdered, not even the walls standing. That was because of the coal mines and the factories. I simply can't imagine its ever being rebuilt and American engineers are not sure it will pay to try to put the mines in order again. [page 2]

It was pouring rain, and we were sopping and cold when we reached Lille and went to a hotel which was for four years the headquarters of the German army. We had luxurious quarters and a wonderful table d'hote for as always people who can pay are richly fed here in France. In England they say money simply cannot buy more than the permitted amount of food. Mabel Kittridge appeared in the morning, thin but energetic. She took me off to her house, an old aristocratic house with a charming little walled garden and great mirrors and high ceilings but no furniture except cots and army table and chairs. But she has an open fire and a nice femme de menage who keeps her comfortable and she is happy in this chance to do her own work, though she says French city politics are quite like Tammany and the muddle between Catholics and non-Catholic is most confusing. We walked through the poor quarters to her school kitchen or rather one of them. It was a nice big kitchen and the [soup good], and the under developed children trouping in for bowls of soup, a piece of bread and two sweet crackers with American jam spread over them. Mabel does the same thing in the little towns around Lillie. She has talked to lots of the women about the German occupation which lasted four years. They told her that women were not violated. If a soldier was drunk and insulted a woman she could go to the officer and he would remove the soldier from that house. There are plenty of boche babies but the women say quite simply that they let themselves go, the Germans paid well, their husbands were gone and they forgot themselves. On the other hand the Germans were very harsh masters. The deportations and the forced [labor] were the worst of the outrages. She talked to a physician's wife who had never worked in her life and who was set to laying rails on the railway and fed insufficiently. An old woman told her that [illegible] she and her two daughters were taken and sent to different places, knowing nothing of each other till the war was over. Even if they did not take them the Germans forced them to work. In one small village two thousand soldiers were quartered and the women had to live in the cellars and ↑the↓ Germans made them go out each night and clean the streets which would be inches deep in mud.

Mabel goes home May 29th, as then Lille itself takes the work over. She can't come to Berne and I am so disappointed. We drove all day through destruction, [Douai], Cambrai, La Fere, St. Quentin, and then a great [ploughed] up battle field nearing Laon. Here is where one wonders if the soil can be planted for the shells were dropped here during more than three years and it is all ploughed up with shell holes. Everywhere German soldiers were working in gangs under a French soldier. They do little work, less than any men I ever saw, but we are told that the French do not feed them enough to leave them any energy. They are well clothed, though the road was full of shell holes; very bad indeed. Laon was beautiful. The rain had stopped and the sun came out, a deep red light. Laon cathedral is unhurt and for a little way on both sides of the town the trees still line the road and their trunks are a deep green. The rosy light on the trees and the background of dark purple clouds was very beautiful. That was the only beauty, though, we plunged very soon into another battlefield with shell holes everywhere and as it grew dark the driving [illegible] was pretty perilous. After dark we reached Reims. It seemed hopeless at first, street after street of empty shells of houses, not a light, not a soul. Then we found a friendly Y.M.C.A. hut with lights and there we were told of a semi-ruined hotel which would take us in. I got out to hunt for it and I assure you it was the ghostliest thing, the gray sky and dripping rain, the deadly silence, the staring skeletons of houses. The hotel was squalid. A tiny room had been turned into an office and here was a ↑dame du comptoir↓ with a single candle and two American soldiers shivering over a stove [illegible] the size of a soup tureen and telling each other how nice and warm Germany was, which seemed a bit unfair. Our room had two beds, one of which Miss Rankin took, we two the other. The windows were filled with sheets of oiled yellow paper which is used all over the devastated regions. There were no towels and we had to use our pillow cases in the morning. Of course, it was freezing cold and you may be sure we did little washing. Breakfast too was weird, but later we went to the Y.M.C.A hut and friendly soldiers gave us big bowls of almost real coffee.

The cathedral is tragic much worse, than I had expected. We have sent you [page 3] photographs of it. Yet I can't believe that the Germans used it as a target because it is far less injured than many other parts, [illegible] of the town hardly at all, yet they ↑it is↓ [illegible] so conspicuous. From Reims one gets at once into the [Champagne] front and there all is destruction, scare crow trees, wasted fields, hideous barbed wire, trenches not yet filled, [heaps] of tin cans, fields of barbed wire entanglements, scattered graves and dreadful little desolate cemeteries. And every village in ruins, every single one, and there are so many. We went toward the Argonne and stopped for lunch on the edge of the forest. At Ste Menehould and then out through the forest. It is really only a little wood, with newly grown trees. The road has not been touched and is almost impossible because of the shell holes. The villages too were more completely destroyed than any we had seen, sometimes almost invisible. This is because they were bombarded by our army and our artillery was the most powerful of all, a gun each thirty feet, while the others had one each seventy feet only. It was very cold and dreary as we reached the Quaker villages on the other side but here we found the first really cheering sight, the Quaker centers, with their little shops of supplies, [illegible] the big hearty-looking boys who are working there and the [illegible] the ↑restored↓ houses and the little wooden cottages with red tiled roofs which they put up for the refugees. They have been here for four years, first chiefly English, now chiefly American and they number over five hundred. We spent the night at their head quarters, in a great French farmhouse Grange-leComte. Life there is very [primitive], quite as it would be in a military cantonment. We ate at large wooden tables and our food was abundant and very poor, our table ware of the cheapest, no napkins, no change of plates. The Rhoads were there, the son of old Dr. Rhoads of Bryn Mawr, and some lovely English people and Anna Scattergood's brother. I slept in a tiny cell, freezing cold and got up to find a snowstorm in full blast. We started soon after breakfast to hunt up John Linn's grave, up near the northern part of the forest Mr. Scattergood took us and as we reached the road that turned off from the highway to the Chaudrun farm where he is buried, our car sank deep in mud. The snow stopped and we climbed out and started off on foot. It was a muddy road winding up over the ridge with desolate stretches on either side covered with all sorts of debris from the army and dug up to make the "fox holes" [illegible] where the soldiers sheltered themselves. It was on his return from a trip to take food to the boys in their holes that the shell struck John. We found the graves in a hollow below the second ridge, down near a half ruined farm. There are two rows of little crosses, about forty each, John's is in between an Italian name and a Slavic name. Soon all will be moved to the great American cemetery in the forest which is now making and which will have more than 24,000 graves, of ↑as↓ almost half our total losses were in the Argonne. As we came back a bitter cold rain began to fall with a pitiless wind and we toiled on through the sticky mud feeling that we could imagine pretty well what our men had to endure there. The car was still stuck so we sheltered in a half ruined house which had one good room and here a quiet patient man and his wife and his young daughter had established themselves after living four years under German occupation. They had a tiny stove and beds and said the "Societe des Amis" was helping them. We saw the last of the Quakers at another tiny village two English girls live in a wonderful German dug-out in the hillside, as strong and warm and comfortable as can be. Then there was a bitterly cold drive to Chalons where ↑we↓ caught a warm and fast express for Paris and last night we felt like soldiers on leave from front. We got off our mud-caked clothes and had hot baths and slept twelve hours. I found a telegram from Quint [saying] he will be here Saturday morning.

This letter has taken all my muscular strength [illegible] so you will have to pass it along to Agnes and to Mary Smith and Miss Addams wants Mary to let Esther read it. I'll write again when I have seen Quint.

Yours A. H.