What I thought of while watching “Wonder Woman”

A version of this post was originally created as for the June 10 newsletter for the Universalist Christian Initiative.

I don’t think it is a spoiler to state the the film Wonder Woman (link plays audio) has been re-set to take place in World War One, and that is has scenes of wartime fighting. (She’s been around seventy-five years as a heroic Amazon warrior-princess and was introduced in the Second World War.)

I like the film very much, and if you like action films you should see it; it includes themes that I can’t discuss without giving away the plot. It was it in mind that I afterwards started reading John van Schaick’s The Little Corner Never Conquered, an account of the work of the American Red Cross in Belgium in World War One, and immediately thereafter. It’s available at Archive.org here.

Picture of Red Cross officers including John van Schaick

The “little corner” refers to that part of northwest Belgium unoccupied by the Germans, west of the Western Front, but though unoccupied was still atacked, creating refugees, and maiming and killing countless numbers of people. Van Schaick (pronounced “van skoik”) was a Universalist minister, and indeed a ministerial predecessor of mine in the Washington parish, known since 1930 as Universalist National Memorial Church. Even now, the parish parlor is named for him, his wife Julia and her parents. But van Schaick was not there in a ministerial role — he took a leave of absence — serving with the American Red Cross; he and Julia and the others were there to help those who could not help themselves, and did so with humility worth emulating. They accepted constraints (still not universally held); they did what was needed by taking the lead and cue from Belgians. They were there to support, not to control. All of this starting a hundred years a few weeks ago…

It’s a thrilling read, but not an adventure story; understatement hides horrors. John repeats Julia’s work as a nurse’s aide — a matter-of-fact list, from a day book? — caring for wounded American soldiers behind the lines:

Took down records of the wounded American soldiers, four papers for each. Collected patients’ letters, took them to censor, who was a wounded officer on top floor. Translated a letter written in Italian into English, so censor could pass on it. Got the passes for the slightly wounded going out. Fed soldiers helpless through wounds in hands or arms, or very ill. Gave out newspapers, fruit, matches, cigarettes and writing paper. Handed out uniforms for men going out for the day and other clothing like socks and underwear. Washed feet. Prepared special soup on alcohol lamp. Bathed very ill men on head and hands with cologne. Put into English lists of surgical appliances and material the French surgeons were asking of the American Red Cross. Attended funerals of the boys who died and was the only woman at the grave of some of them. Got the wreaths for these funerals, tied them with our colors and put them on the casket. Brought back the American flag from the grave. Wrote to families of the dead boys. Prepared little boxes in which boys could keep bullets or pieces of shell taken out of them. Helped an American sergeant entertain his French sweet-heart and her mother who had come to visit him. Telephoned. Sorted, counted and sent out dirty linen. Got men ready to take motor rides. Wrote letters for men. Interpreted for doctors, nurses and patients. Mended clothes. Picked up trash. (p. 52)

How horribly maimed must have the “very ill” been? The thought of Julia Romaine van Schaick’s care, as an stand-in for all those who risked health, safety and life humbles me. She was not there in a religious capacity, but her humanitarian care looks a lot like the soul of ministry to me. Remember them, too, in these centennial years — and remember those who put themselves at risk today in your charitable giving and, if the opportunity opens, with your talents. And remember: stories like these call us to higher service, if we would listen.

Want more? Yesterday I visited the National Postal Museum. A new exhibit on World War One opened. If you can’t make it to Washington, D.C., see highlights on their website.

My Fellow Soldiers: Letters from World War I

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