9] On the battlefields
In 1638 Louise was hesitant to send some of the Sisters, who had not completed their period of formation, to Richelieu but in 1650 she raised no questions about sending some Sisters to the areas that were devastated by the war, to the battlefields themselves and to Poland. After the Treaty of Westphalia was signed (1648), a treaty that weakened Austria in a permanent manner, Mazarin decided to proceed with the war against Spain. For nine years the war created havoc in the area of Marne and the Ardennes and this same suffering was experienced in places as far away as Dunkirk. The year 1650 was disastrous for the inhabitants of Rethel and the surrounding area which had fallen into the hands of the Spanish and then on December 15th of the same year was retaken by the French army. The authorities of Rethel, in a petition that they sent to Vincent, described the horrible situation of this region. More than 1,500 people had died and their bodies had still not been buried. The survivors were in such a state that no pen, regardless of how prolific it may be, could portray adequately the pitiful state to which the cruelty and the unbridled disorder of the soldiers have reduced this unfortunate region (CCD:IV:200). Hunger was so prevalent that the poor eat grass like animals and devour dead dogs and horses (CCD:IV:200, note #3).
At the beginning of 1651 Vincent sent Missionaries to this area. The work there was incredible; the Sisters spread themselves out to assist people in different villages and often they found themselves separated from one another and ministering in places that were also distant from one another. Louise wanted to have frequent news from the Sisters but they did not have much time to write. Letters from Paris arrived on a regular basis and were very solicitous: All our Sisters praise God for the courage his goodness gives you to serve these poor afflicted people. Oh what a grace, my dear Sister, to have been chosen for this holy employment! It is true that it is extremely difficult but it is because of this that the grace of God acting in you is more evident (SWLM:354 [L.347]).
In September, 1653, Anne of Austria and the fifteen year old king were in Chalons-sur-Marne at the time when the royal army initiated the siege of Saint-Menehould. The battle was fierce and many were wounded. The Queen, who saw the deplorable situation of the people (people who very often received no assistance or comfort), appealed to Vincent. It was decided to send four Sisters whom Louise had chosen very carefully: Anne Hardemont and Barbe Angiboust, both 40 years old, prudent and very capable women who were able to deal with unexpected situations; Perrette Chefdeville and Marie Poulet who had spent several years in the Company. How did these sisters deal with all those men who had been hardened by the harsh realities of life? Louise invited them to not become discouraged when listening to the various conversations of people of that class (Translator’s Note: unable to find the reference that is cited as: E.431). Like everyone else who cared for these people the Sisters were to treat the soldiers with tenderness and compassion, imitating our Lord who acted in this way toward those who had experienced some difficulty (Translators Note: unable to find the reference that is cited as: E.433). Two of the Sisters went to the battlefield where Anne was wounded as she assisted a dying soldier.
The soldiers wounded at Saint-Menehould were greatly appreciative of the care that they received from the Daughters of Charity. The Queen requested the Sisters to serve the soldiers as they engaged in different battles. Thus, in July 1654, four Sisters went to Sedan during the siege of Stenay; in 1656 two other Sisters went to the hospital in Le Fѐre where many wounded were being admitted (the French army had just been defeated at Valenciennes and was in retreat). In 1657 the Daughters were sent to the area of Montmédy and in 1658 to Calais where the soldiers were engaged in battle at Dunes near Dunkirk. The four Sisters were very soon infected with the plague that was creating havoc among the many soldiers who were wounded. Within a few days two of the Sisters died and the other two Sisters were transferred to the hospital in the city where they prepared for death. When Louise received this news she announced this to the Sisters, who admired the courage of their companions: I do not know if you heard of the deaths of Sister Françoise Manceau and Sister Marguerite Ménage. They died arms in hand, because God called them while they were serving the poor sick and wounded at Calais (SWLM:609 [L.590]).
In Paris several sisters, enthused by the glorious death of their companions, volunteered to relieve them. Four Sisters left immediately for this mission. During the journey one of them wrote: We are anxious to arrive in order to the help the remaining Sisters. Today we are 24 leagues from Calais. There are many people who have been abandoned, cast aside and sitting on straw … it is sad to see people in this condition (Translator’s Note: Unable to find the reference which is cited as: document 832).
When the Sisters arrived there they immediately began their ministry. Fatigue overcame them and they were unable to resist infection. Three of these sisters became ill and it was considered to be in their best interest to have them return to Paris. The trip was made on stretchers, in very uncomfortable conditions. These events in Calais were the last ones to take place on the battlefields since on November 7, 1659 the Treaty of the Pyrenees was signed, bringing to a conclusion the war between France and Spain.