After receiving news that her brother – and only relative – has been killed in action during the Great War, 21-year-old Charlotte Zielinski enlists as a medical volunteer. She eventually begins working in the death ward of the field hospital near Soissons, France, holding dying men’s hands and singing them into eternity.
Dr. Paul Kilgallen is a Canadian surgeon working at the field hospital. During a siege by the enemy, everyone evacuates except for Paul and Charlotte, who volunteer to remain in the basement of the chateau to care for the critically ill soldiers.
During those three days, Charlotte sees a side of Paul that very few have seen and finds herself falling in love with him. Before Paul leaves for the front, he abruptly tells her that he cannot love her, and it would be best to “forget him.”
Just when the war is coming to a close, Charlotte is surprised by two events that are destined to change her life forever.
Vauxbuin Field Hospital
Near Soissons, France
The air was thick with the mineral stench of blood. Inside the canvas tent that served as Barrack Number 48, Charlotte searched for a place in the unconscious soldier’s body to insert the hypodermic. The poor gentleman had burns and wounds everywhere, but she managed to find a one-inch diameter spot on his thigh in which to plunge the needle. The man didn’t flinch, and Charlotte suspected that his injuries were too grave for him to survive. She recited a silent prayer for this man’s soul, then moved onto the next soldier.
The large canvas tents that were part of the field hospital covered the lawn in front of the chateau. Most volunteers referred to it as a chateau because it looked the part with its high ceilings, plentiful rooms and marble floors. However, it wasn’t a castle. It was a 19th century country manor.
A tendril of dark brown hair slipped from her headscarf, and she tucked it back in. Charlotte Patricia Zielinski didn’t care much whether her unruly hair was tame, but she did care about keeping healthy. She wasn’t a large girl, nor was she small. However, roughhousing with her brother Ian for so many years made her strong.
After preparing another soldier for the operating theater, she took a short break and sat on a bench near the tent.
She glanced up at the dark sky, enjoying the quiet. After the sunrise, she’d hear the distant booming that came with being ten miles from the front.
After her bout with influenza last month, she’d felt fatigued for weeks. In the past few days, she had enough energy to move a mountain.
Sister Betty, the medical volunteers’ middle-aged supervisor, called to her from the barrack beside her, Number 49. She was a big-boned woman who seemed taller because she always stood so straight. Charlotte wasn’t sure whether it was because she was British or because she was a big woman, but she also had a booming personality and a loud voice.
Charlotte stood up to speak with Sister.
“How many more men have to be prepared for the O.R., Miss Zielinski?”
“Maybe you’d be of more use in this barrack.” She pointed toward Number 49.
“Certainly.” She turned to alert her co-worker in 48, when Sister yelled, “Wait.”
Charlotte stopped. “Yes?”
“Perhaps you’d better stay where you are. If there are only four left to prepare, finish that duty, then report to this barrack.”
It took a bit of getting used to, but here in Europe, nurses were referred to as sisters. And all sisters – and most medical volunteers – wore headscarves that looked like habits.
She approached a soldier on a cot, noticing the maple leaf on his collar. Canadians tended to be an agreeable bunch. He pursed his lips as she stripped his clothes, wincing as bits of skin came off with his pants. The poor fellow tensed, but Charlotte could only offer, “I’m so sorry. I am doing my best not to hurt you.”
The dark-haired man attempted a smile.
An ear-piercing explosion caused the world around Charlotte to vanish, and she reflexively collapsed on the cot, falling across the soldier lying in front of her. Ears ringing, she remained still for what seemed like an hour but was likely a few minutes. Blinking, she opened her eyes and stared at the metal side of the cot in front of her and felt the soldier moving underneath her.
As she lifted herself up, not one but three large drops of blood splattered the white sheet below her. Her head seared in a flash of pain.
When the Canadian soldier took hold of her hand, he said something she couldn’t hear.
His warbling soon became words. “Are you all right, Miss?”
Her mouth was open, but she couldn’t speak. Nodding, she raised her hand to her headscarf. When she pulled her hand to her face, it was covered in blood. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.
“Are…you all right, sir?” Charlotte asked the man.
“Yes, no worse than I was. Thanks to you, Miss. You shielded my body with yours.” He paused. “You have a bad shrapnel wound on your head.”
“Y…yes.” Charlotte winced but forced a smile. She turned and picked up a bandage from the side of the overturned cart. She pressed it to her head.
By this time, the entire ward was awake and bustling with moaning soldiers.
Standing up, her surroundings seemed to shift and sway, so she reached for the soldier’s hand. “I’m so sorry.”
“Think nothing of it. I’m happy to reciprocate.”
Glancing just above the soldier’s head, she spotted five or six holes the size of watermelons blown through the side of the barrack’s canvas wall and hundreds dotting the rest of the walls. Following the holes from the side wall to the ceiling, she stared upwards at the roof of the tent, now shredded in many places.
A few soldiers near the wall had sustained minor injuries, but no one appeared to be mortally wounded.
Panicked and fearing the worst, Charlotte rushed outside, the bandage still to her head. As she turned toward the adjacent barrack, she stopped and gasped. The influenza ward was no longer there. Body parts, blood, torn-apart furniture, and bits and pieces of the barrack were all that remained. The realization that she had escaped death made her knees buckle.
She blessed herself and lowered her head. “Requiescants in pace.” Her hearing had not yet fully returned, but she could hear someone call her name.
Ellen Gable is an award-winning author of nine books, editor, self-publishing book coach, speaker, publisher, NFP teacher, book reviewer and instructor in the Theology of the Body for Teens. Her books have been downloaded nearly 700,000 times on Kindle and some of her books have been translated into Portuguese, Italian, Spanish, and French. The mother of five adult sons, Ellen (originally from New Jersey) now lives with her husband of 36 years, James Hrkach, in Pakenham, Ontario, Canada.
Find Ellen on:
- Blog: Plot Line and Sinker
- Full Quiver Publishing
- Amazon Author Page
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More about Ellen & Charlotte’s Honor
What was the inspiration for Charlotte’s Honor?
Since one of the themes of Charlotte’s Honor is preparing and being with soldiers who are close to death, the inspiration came from being with two close people in my life in the hours before their deaths. These experiences served as inspiration for Charlotte’s Honor.
Eleven years ago, when my mother was close to death, my sister called me in Canada and urged me to come right away (to New Jersey, my home state), that Mom didn’t have much time left. I arrived before she passed, but by the time I got there, she was unconscious. My sister and I prayed the Litany of the Saints (which she requested) as well as the Divine Mercy Chaplet. In the middle of the night, I got up to sit with her. I held her hand and prayed for her, talked to her and told her she was loved, and that it was okay to go. When she did pass away, I was grateful and honored that I was present at the moment of her passing. And an interesting experience happened. My stepdad, siblings, and I were all sitting by my mom’s bedside and all of a sudden, I felt like my mom was on the ceiling staring down. I lifted my head to look up, but at that point, my brother patted my arm and said, “Hey, El, I have this strange feeling that Mom is on the ceiling looking down at us.” I believe that we were given a great grace at that moment.
Last year, my mother-in-law passed away. She had both dementia and cancer. She was surrounded by those she loved and, although unconscious, we prayed the Rosary, the Divine Mercy Chaplet and other prayers for her in the last few days of her life. It was a good death, a holy death. It’s the kind of death I hope to have: others praying the Rosary and Divine Mercy Chaplet for me as I’m close to death.
Why World War 1?
I’ve always been interested in history and I knew very little about this war. I decided to focus the bulk of my research on the last year of the War (after the United States entered). Because I am American, and my husband is Canadian, the female protagonists in this series are American and the male protagonists are Canadian. So for Charlotte’s Honor, Charlotte is American, and Paul is Canadian.
Why is the name of the series Great War Great Love?
I owe my gratitude to the son of a friend of mine, Ian, for coming up with the title. The reason for the title is that World War 1 was called the “Great War” by the Allies before the USA entered the war, and is still often called the “Great War,” by the British, Canadians and Australians. And Great Love because there are many examples of how couples met and fell in love during times of war.
Can you tell us about the first book in the series and next book of the series, Ella’s Promise?
Julia’s Gifts (Book #1 Great War Great Love) As a young girl, Julia began buying gifts for her future spouse, a man whose likeness and personality she has conjured up in her mind, a man she calls her “beloved.” Soon after the United States enters the Great War, Julia impulsively volunteers as a medical aid worker, with no experience or training. Disheartened by the realities of war, will Julia abandon the pursuit of her beloved? Will Julia’s naïve ‘gift scheme’ distract her from recognizing her true “Great Love?” From Philadelphia to war-torn France, follow Julia as she transitions from unworldly young woman to compassionate volunteer. Julia’s Gifts is now available in Italian and French and will soon be available in Portuguese and Spanish.
Ella’s Promise (Book #3 Great War Great Love) The daughter of German immigrants, Ella is an American nurse who, because of the time period, was discouraged from continuing her studies to become a doctor. During the Great War, she travels to Le Treport, France, to work at the American-run hospital. She meets her own “Great Love” in the last place she would expect to meet him. Ella’s Promise will be released in mid-2019.
This is very different from some of your other books in that it is a very clean romance and can be read by young teens to elderly women to middle-aged men. Was that a conscious choice?
Yes, it is very different and no, it wasn’t a conscious choice at first. When I came up with the story and as I was gradually developing the characters and plotlines, it made the most sense to keep this a “sweet” and “clean” love story that anyone can enjoy. It is, however, a war novel, so there are descriptions of war injuries.
Are you working on any other writing projects?
I’m in the process of writing Ella’s Promise, which is book 3 in the Great War Great Love series.
I’m outlining another novel, tentatively entitled Where Angels Pass, based on my father’s life and experience as a clerical abuse survivor. Since he never saw justice in his lifetime, I’d like to create a story where there is justice for him, even if fictional.
I’m also working on a non-fiction project that will offer guidance in coping with loss (I’m still in the outline stages of that project).
Who are some of your favorite authors?
My favorite Catholic author is Dena Hunt (author of Treason and The Lion’s Heart), but I also enjoy reading Willa Cather’s books (Death Comes For the Archbishop, One of Ours). Dena’s books are incredibly well-written and moving. Cather’s books are well-written and rich in imagery and meaning.
One of my favorite secular authors is Nelson DeMille (author of the John Corey series). I also enjoy reading Kathleen Morgan’s Christian historical novels.