As it happened, Madelon was home on leave April 6, 1917, the day the US entered the Great War.
She wondered about the reaction of her fellow nurses in the field hospital just behind the front lines in Belgium. Elation, perhaps, at the idea that this might finally be the turning point in this never-ending war. And at the idea that now the American Red Cross would be sending staff and supplies. Madelon herself had joined the war effort with the British Red Cross barely two weeks after the war began, three long years ago. “No, I’m not British,” she got used to telling folks who asked. “But my husband and son are.”
Don, her husband, had immediately been called up and sent to Cairo as an officer of the Royal Fusiliers. And what was Madelon to do then? Stay at home and let her husband have all the adventures? Not a chance.
Though looking back at it now, she’d had no idea, really, the adventures she was signing herself up for. She’d spent much of the last three years within earshot of the shells blasting—even had to run from them herself a time or two. Within her first few months in Belgium she’d had to escape the siege of Antwerp, packed into borrowed double-decker London buses with the rest of the hospital staff, 60 wounded patients, and as much of the medical equipment as they could save. They’d fled the advancing Hun as the city burned around them, and spent a long, harrowing night driving across the dark Belgian countryside, praying their entourage of bright red buses would go unnoticed, and that the next city hadn’t already fallen into German hands.
Madelon’s trip to Asheville had come just at the right time. After three years at the bedside behind the trenches, she was just about worn out. Every year since the beginning of the war, they’d been told the whole affair would be over by Christmas. She’d begun to doubt that the war would ever end. And she just didn’t know how much longer she could keep going. She needed to visit home—her real home, not the flat she and Don had in London—and see her family, the places she loved most.
She’d thought, on this bright April morning, that she’d take a long walk by herself around town. That had turned out to be impossible, however. A parade to send off the troops had been arranged in Pack Square, and Asheville was already bustling with people making their way toward the center of downtown. She might have skipped the whole thing if her own beloved father wasn’t serving as the grand marshal.
Madelon pushed her way through the crowds, past the Coca-Cola Bottling plant, the grocer’s, and Flora Sorrell’s Boarding House where she was staying, a modest, brick and stone building, not dissimilar from one of the convent outbuildings she’d boarded in with the other hospital staff in Flanders. It was a far cry from the grand old Battery Park Hotel overlooking downtown Asheville where she’d grown up, though. It had given Madelon the sense of living in a kind of castle, with its foyers and marvelous dining rooms and ballrooms. Her father was still living at the Battery Park Hotel, had stayed ever since he’d moved there with Madelon and her brothers from their home on Beaucatcher Mountain after their mother died. Madelon always supposed he just couldn’t stand to stay in that house without her mother. Poor Favie; he spent his entire career treating patients with TB—even established a sanitorium in Asheville—and the one patient he couldn’t save was his beloved wife.
“Why, it’s Sister Glory!”
Madelon turned to find her father’s friend, Eugene Holcombe, a leader of the volunteer fire department, making his way towards her through the crowd. She wasn’t used to being called by her nursing title, Sister, or her nickname, Glory, anywhere other than the field hospitals. Her wounded soldiers had called her “Morning Glory” for her sunny disposition. At home she’d always been just Madelon. But perhaps even here she couldn’t be just Madelon anymore.
“Mr. Holcombe,” Madelon said, smiling. “How lovely to be able to thank you in person for the relief boxes you and your men in the fire department sent to us.”
Mr. Holcombe beamed. “Well, we wanted to do whatever bit we could, even if it was just boxes of cigarettes.”
“It was an enormous boost to the men’s morale,” Madelon said. “Many times the first thing an injured soldier will ask for is a smoke. It’s truly a luxury out there.”
“Well, we’ll soon be able to do more than send boxes, now that Wilson finally agreed to enter the fight,” Mr. Holcombe said. Madelon felt her smile falter.
“Will you be shipping out, then?” she asked. In her mind she saw Mr. Holcombe not as the strong, smiling man standing before her, but now a limp body of torn flesh borne in on a stretcher, lungs searing with poison gas, face contorted in pain. She’d seen men with mangled limbs and lost limbs, men with eyes weeping and blinded by the chlorine gas, men with their intestines dangling outside of their bodies after being torn open by shrapnel.
“I haven’t been called up yet, but I’m ready to serve when my number is called,” Mr. Holcombe said. “Maybe I’ll see you over there!”
“Well for your sake, I hope not,” Madelon said, and they laughed, but Madelon’s laugh sounded thin.
Mr. Holcombe returned to the crowd, all pushing their way towards Pack Square. Madelon allowed herself to be carried along by the crowd, all excitement and anticipation. She’d been to parades like this in London in the early years of the war. But London had seen too many of its sons die to celebrate anymore. Now it was simply grim determination, a refusal to surrender, that kept them going.
Could Madelon keep going? She wasn’t sure. It seemed no one was certain what they were fighting for anymore, or even who they were fighting. Last month Madelon had been assigned to the bedside of a German prisoner; for a moment she had recoiled, but in caring for him discovered just another frightened young man, polite as any of the British or Belgian or French soldiers she’d treated. After so many long weeks, months, years, envisioning the brutal Hun, here was this boy, hardly more than a child, longing for comfort and safety and home just as they all were.
And now they’d be sending boys from Asheville to the trenches, too. She and Don had already lost friends—it was inevitable, so many of them were in the Royal Fusiliers, like Don, or other divisions deployed across Europe and the Dardanelles. Don had nearly died himself. Shrapnel had gone clear through him, an injury bad enough to send him all the way back to Blighty, to the hospital in London, and to send Madelon hurrying home to his bedside. He’d recovered and been sent back to the front to fight the Turks at Gallipoli—a campaign that ended in disaster for the Allies, although no one liked to say it. Now Don had been placed in charge of an officer’s training school. It was an assignment under which Don chafed, but for which Madelon was secretly grateful.
Madelon finally arrived at Pack Square, and found herself a spot in front of the Singer Sewing Machine Company. Men in their unblemished uniforms stood starched and tall in neat rows across the square, the shadow of the Vance Monument stretching across them. Young boys in suspenders and caps waved excitedly, eager to get just a little closer. Children clung to their mothers’ gingham skirts, staring wide-eyed as the soldiers began to march in time. How many of those children were looking for their fathers among the men in the square? How old would these children be when their fathers came back—if they came back?
There was her own father, Dr. Samuel Westray Battle, leading the parade, dressed in his old Navy uniform and riding his favorite horse, Perseus. A marching band followed, and a division of boys from the local schools.
“Oh, aren’t they pretty!” a young girl in front of Madelon cried, pointing down the road. Nurses, all wearing pristine white uniforms and caps, came marching towards them, each waving a small American flag. Those aprons had never seen a blood stain, Madelon could tell. Men from the field hospital corps marched behind them carrying stretchers. Several officials rode in a car with the Red Cross emblazoned on it, followed by a motor-ambulance draped in the flag. Madelon tried to read the faces of the nurses as they went by—had any of them seen an injury that would even come close to what they would find on the front lines? Could any of them possibly be ready to work unending shifts, slogging through the mud between hospital tents, all reeking with the smell of gangrene and rot? Had they thought about how they would write their letters to the families of the soldiers they lost? How they would tell them their beloved husband or son had died peacefully, comfortable and warm and safe, even though it was almost certainly not true?
Madelon turned away and broke free from the crowd, cheering and waving their flags. She found herself hurrying down the sidewalk away from Pack Square, away from downtown completely. She walked for nearly two miles, all the way down Charlotte Street, to the bottom of Beaucatcher Mountain. She was out of breath, and her shoes, which were not made for this kind of long walk, were pinching, but there was something she wanted to see. She set out, winding up Sunset Trail, cutting back and forth across the mountain where she used to run with her brothers and ride horses with her father until she came to Buncombe Lodge. Her family home.
The beautiful old bungalow hadn’t belonged to her family in years, though Madelon couldn’t help but still think of it as hers. But it wasn’t the house she had come to see. Just a little farther up, on the very ridge of Beaucatcher, she finally stopped. From there she could see everything—all of downtown Asheville, the spreading Biltmore Estate, Mount Mitchell, the blue and green mountains rolling on and on and into beyond.
In the streets below her the parade was finally ending, the crowds breaking up, the new soldiers having completed their first march. Not one of these men, these boys, would return to this place unscathed. If they should survive at all, the scars on their bodies and souls would be carried for the rest of their lives. They would fight, and many of them would fall. Madelon knew it. And when they did, Madelon knew she had to be there, to save the ones she could, to heal the injuries that could be healed, to bear witness to the ones that could not. There was still work to be done. She had to go back.
This is a work of fiction, based on the life and work of Madelon “Glory” Hancock 1881-1930
Further info at https://www.ncmuseumofhistory.org/blog/madelon-glory-hancock