The next stop on the path in Katharine’s footsteps was the Porte Rouge farm. Just behind this farm, which still exists today, was the base of “Auto-chir” 7 (“ambulance chirurgicale automobile” or mobile surgical ambulance) in which Katharine was involved from roughly August through November 1917. These auto-chirs were a sort of midway point between the front lines and the distant convalescence hospitals. Wounded men who could afford to wait long enough to be taken to safety but could not necessarily wait long enough for a true evacuation were brought here.
Despite the deceivingly implied mobility, these hospitals were quite well established. The “mobile” aspect was reflected in the ambulances and trains which transported the men directly from the front lines to the hospital and the fact that it could be packed up and moved if necessary. The ambulances themselves could fit approximately 250 wounded while the base hospital held around 3,000 beds- this was no small place. In addition to the halls of beds full of the wounded, the hospital also included surgical rooms, sterilization zones, and even a radiology wing.
Today, there is nothing left of the hospital complex but a dirt path and the two farms that it was situated between. The current owners of the Porte Rouge farm generously agreed to let me walk around the site of autochir 7 and see their farm. A local historian, Evelyne Dusanter, also came to meet me and brought a stack of photos of the autochir around 1917, a copy of a letter written by a nurse there, and the book published by the historical society – essentially the jackpot for a researcher like me! Many of the photos included the second farm, Ferme de l’Ancien Chateau, in the background and though it burned down and was rebuilt, it was rebuilt in the same structural form so it has roughly the same appearance. You can see the same square shaped side room, the more pointed roof section behind it, and the short garage-like structure behind the farmhouse in the original photos and the photos I took while there.
The Dufours, the current owners, graciously invited me in for coffee to discuss the work I’m doing and get to know each other. Despite the fact that the farm has been in Mrs. Dufour’s family since before the war, she knew practically nothing about what happened there during that time. As is so often the case, once the conflict ended, it was rarely, if ever, spoken of. Even for everyday citizens, this was a traumatizing conflict. Cugny, the town where the farm is located, was occupied by German soldiers for nearly all of the war until 1918 when every building except the farm was blown to pieces with dynamite. The placement of the autochir was the only thing that saved the Porte Rouge farm from explosion like the rest of the town. Once the war ended, people simply wanted to forget about it and move forward.
This was probably one of the most exciting days in my time on this project! This was the first time I could truly envision Katharine and the place she was. I had a definite location and a wealth of photos to put the pieces of the puzzle into place. Katharine’s status was always a bit fuzzy for me until now – Did she serve with the French army? The sanitary service? The red cross? – and while it’s still unclear exactly what her associations were at what time, I can finally envision her place in the greater picture.