Doing the route step, the goose step

It was an unfathomable moment.

At 11:00 a.m. on November 11, 2018, as we stood on the steps of a 12th century Romanesque church in the little French town of Chatillon-sur-Seine, we felt that my grandmother was there, too. Just as she had been, 100 years before. 

A young American nurse serving in France with the Allied Expeditionary Forces (AEF), Edith Simpson Cooke Rogers had briefly stepped away from her gassed and broken patients on that November morning in 1918 to watch the celebration of the armistice that marked the end of La Grande Guerre, The Great War. She would later write about that moment: “Down the narrow street that yesterday was lined with trucks and English lorries came lines of gay young soldiers marching in squad formation, their arms about each others’ shoulders, doing the route step, the goose step, any step that would bring them into town for a day of rejoicing, for, ‘The war was over!’”

I can picture Nana doing her own little celebratory dance as she looked up: “Above our heads the sky was filled with planes, every ‘can’ that could fly was up there, machine guns wide open, and crazy young pilots swooping down to the house-tops.”  

One hundred years later, in 2018, the mayor of Chatillon-sur-Seine read aloud Nana’s letter, translated into French, to the hundreds of townspeople who had gathered in a memorial park. My three-year-old grandson was the only American youngster to join the children’s parade and our new friends had brought a small U.S. flag for him to carry. 

Three generations of our family made the trip to honor Nana’s service—my son and his son, as well as my cousin and his wife. We had tracked Nana’s wartime postings to four base hospitals and two camp hospitals, and we had shared a giggle at the discovery we made in her wartime records. The AEF was accepting only single women as nurses and Nana was quite married at the time to my grandfather, who was driving ambulances along the front lines in the Argonne. Because Nana was incapable of telling a lie, she had simply left blank the marital status question on her application. As a result, it was “Miss Edith Rogers” who was appointed to active duty by the Office of the Surgeon General in the U.S. War Department. 

In another letter home, Nana recounted a “scrappy little fight” between her convoy of transport ships and a German submarine. She also pondered “much night duty when pain and death seemed to control and govern our world, and peace and home seemed very far away.” 

On her return voyage to the States, Nana wrote, they had to bury “one of our boys” at sea. She and her nurse colleagues wrote to his mother “during that brief, quiet interlude and told of his bravery, and the things he said of her. And when that mother later wrote back to thank us she mentioned that we did not say which son it was, and that she had three over there.”



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