The final stop on this trip was the archives at the Château de Vincennes, an old fort which houses the Service Historique de la Défense. I was very confident I would find what I was looking for here – I had reserved the relevant documents related to the 137th regiment ahead of time and being directed here by the officer in Fontenay-le-Comte confirmed (in my mind) that this would be a successful mission. Well, long story short, it was and it wasn’t.
After arriving at the reading room, grabbing my reserved documents and setting up my station, I delved into the handwritten and typewritten stack of papers before me. I had expected something neatly organized and well documented so imagine my surprise when I opened the box to find a mixed up stash of torn out notebook pages, creased maps, and faded letters!
I quickly found that it was slightly more organized than the first glance would lead you to believe as everything was miraculously in chronological order. Some very careful page turning finally got me to the beginning of the time that Katharine Baker had been with the regiment. Some of the documents were illegible due to bad handwriting or the fact that they had become too faded, but I was able to read the majority of them. I just couldn’t believe they had handed me these documents. Some were falling apart and others were in danger of becoming too faded to read but they had handed them over with minimal concern and practically zero supervision to a 20 year old student.
The whole time, I was acutely aware of where these papers had been. These were letters and notices that had been carried in the pockets of people involved directly in the conflict. Some seemed to have been scribbled and hastily ripped out of some personal notebook while others had a crisp and proper heading that suggested a more administrative hand had written them, but they were all tied to the members of the 137th regiment. I was also aware of exactly what these documents were saying. I felt secondhand dread when I came across the letter with the orders to reach the top of the Chemin des Dames and relief when I saw the notice that the regiment was being relieved.
Though any mention of Katharine would have been a good find, my main goal was to find something confirming her status as a corporal in the regiment or a record of her awards. Unfortunately, a full morning of searching yielded no answers. I did find something that lends more credibility to our idea that Katharine’s illness was caused by gas inhalation – a letter warning that a gas attack may affect Cugny, the town she was stationed in as a nurse – but nothing concrete and no confirmation of her rank.
I spent the beginning of the afternoon working with one of the archivists trying to figure out other possible ways to find out what I needed to know but unfortunately the archives there didn’t contain anything else of use to me and his suggestions were mostly things that had already proved to be dead ends for me. Katharine’s rank seems to be this project’s white whale I’m going to have to start getting creative if I want to find my answers.