I hadn’t read anything by Dorothy Canfield (Fisher) before I read this one, which is a collection of short stories, obviously inspired by her experiences in France during World War I. She didn’t actually go to France until 1916 but she did great work, amongst other things, setting up a Braille press to help the many soldiers who had been blinded.
There seem to have been quite a lot of American women who were keen to do their bit from the very beginning of the war. Some just did the knitting, which might not seem like much but I’m sure the men in freezing trenches were grateful for the socks, balaclavas and scarves. But there were also high profile women like Edith Wharton and Dorothy Canfield who wrote articles on the subject of the war and generally seemed to feel shame that the US government was not doing anything to help. The US was busy profiteering and doing brisk business with all concerned. Looking at it from this distance and thinking of the futility and waste of the war, it would have been nice if we could all have stayed out of it.
Anyway, I downloaded this book from Project Gutenberg, have a look here if you’re interested. I’ve been reading books on World War I since I studied it at school when I was about 14, but I had never read anything like these stories,and they were a bit of an eye-opener, in parts.
I just hadn’t thought that the French people had been so badly treated by the Germans, but they had a terrible time. The first story is about a French soldier who has not had leave for ages and when he eventually gets leave he decides to go home to the north of France. Everyone he meets tells him not to go, including the man he buys his train ticket from. They all tell him that there is nobody there, everyone has been killed or they have been taken to Germany to be used as slave labour, or worse if they were a young woman. It had just never dawned on me that not all French civilians had managed to get to safety, but obviously there were the usual people who didn’t want to believe what might happen or were too old to move, or had young children, were pregnant or ill.
All in all, according to these stories, it was grim up north, and it makes me all the more sure that France cosies up to Germany so much nowadays in the European Community just because they are absolutely terrified of them, and no wonder!
Not all of the stories are about the battle regions. There’s one about an American businessman who buys hats in Paris, life goes on and women must have their new models.
Other stories are about the society Americans who are in France, supposedly to help but really only interested in getting the red ribbon of the Legion d’Honneur, and young women who only want to nurse soldiers despite the fact that they have no nursing experience and they would be much more useful helping the thousands of refugees. Then there is the very wealthy couple who are incredibly generous with their money but careful to make sure that it is being used for the best and aren’t interested in themselves at all, just want to alleviate suffering.
I’m now wondering how Dorothy Canfield would have viewed Edith Wharton, was she just another high society type or did she actually help?