Author Archives: Alexa

A Belgian-American Wartime Friendship Recalled

It has been barely a month since the terror in Belgium and we send our continued thoughts and prayers their way, I am reminded of the incredible connection I recently made with one of their own over a poem written nearly 100 years ago.

I have been working on the letters of my great-aunt Marion Otis Mitchell sent from the back of the front from 1917 to 1918 for over a year now and created a website to share my progress with whoever might be interested. Just over a month ago, I got an email through the website from a Jacques Van Melle who said he had found the site, after searching for Marion Mitchell. He said:

“I am the grandson of Georges Van Melle (1888-1944) Belgian soldier at the 9 ième régiment de ligne of the Belgian army and poet (poète-soldat) at the front near the river the Yser (in Flanders Fields). He went regularly to Nancy to visit his brother Joseph Van Melle who was during the war a publisher of books for the Belgian government.”

Georges and Joseph

Georges and Joseph Van Melle, July 25, 1916

“I made a study of my grandfather during the war years and discovered some letters where he speaks of a Miss Marion Mitchell working for the American Red Cross in the neighborhood of Nancy. Via his brother my grandfather Georges knew Marion Mitchell. According to the notes my grandfather made, it is possible they met for the first time the 16th of July 1918 during an excursion with his brother Joseph at Liverdun near Nancy.”


Liverdun Van Melle 016v2Boating at Liverdun: unknown, unknown, Joseph, Georges, Marion (L-R), July 16, 1918

“Marion translated a poem of George “La mort Rode” around September 1918. It could be translated as “Death seeketh whom he may devour”. This translation that I do not possess was strongly appreciated by Georges in his letters to his brother. Is it possible for you to confirm this is really the woman my grandfather met and is there a trace of him in writings of Miss Mitchell, and possibly do you possess the manuscript of the famous translation of his poem? It would be very important for me to know if I’m right and I would be very grateful if you could react to this mail.”

I had seen Joseph Van Melle (1884-1970) director of Berger-Levrault, a publishing house in Nancy, France, mentioned in some of Marion’s letters and in fact Marion translated a guidebook to Nancy for Joseph towards the end of the war, of which I have a copy. I went to the scrapbooks I inherited from Marion and found not only pictures of the Van Melles but I found a typed transcription of the poem that George so liked and that Jacques had been searching for.

“Thank you very much for these unique documents. I didn’t know Marion translated some other poems and writings of my grandfather such as Nuits d’hiver (Winter Nights) which is in my view his most patriotic poem, “apparition” is a beautiful hymn addressed to the Belgian soldier and homing thoughts (la pensée du retour) was the reality of these soldiers during four long years; their parents and loved ones lived in occupied Belgium only some 50 kilometers from the trenches but they did not see each other for four long years.”

Marion wrote on the top of this clipping:

“Geo. Van Melle is “our” Van Melle’s brother. I am translating a long poem by him, which I am going to send to the Atlantic if it is good enough. The original is splendid. “

Van Melle 003

“Georges was certainly not an adorer of the war, he was influenced by Romain Roland the great pacifist author and this you can read in La mort Rôde so well translated by Marion as “Death is abroad” but more intensely in some other poems like “le tourment dominical” (not publicized during the war…too dangerous…). Georges died during the second war in 1944 due to the permanent illness (cardiac problems) directly caused by the very hard conditions at the Yser front in the winter of 1915 and 1916. He left his wife with 5 young children…” 

Georeges Van Melle

Georges Van Melle

In correspondence with Jacques a couple of days after the bombing, after making sure he and his family were safe, Jacques responded with this:

“This barbarism shows we have to fight every day for keeping our values of tolerance, democracy, values our grandparents always kept in mind even during la Grande Guerre…”

This project of finding ways to share the story of my grandmother and great-aunt in France during the Great War has been an amazing journey and has brought me many new friends united by what happened one hundred years ago. I look forward to the next serendipitous connection and discovery.

The photos of Georges Van Melle in uniform and with his brother are courtesy of Jacques Van Melle. Other photos are from the Mitchell Sisters collection.

This blog post first appeared here. 

President Wilson addresses Congress – April 19, 1916

On April 18, 1916 President Wilson sent an ultimatum to Germany saying:

“Unless the Imperial Government should now immediately declare and effect an abandonment of its present methods of submarine warfare against passenger and freight-carrying vessels, the Government of the United States can have no choice but to sever diplomatic relations with the German Empire altogether.” Read the full text here.

The next day President Wilson addressed congress and Marion Mitchell was in the gallery. You can read a transcript of his speech here.



The following is from a letter she sent home to her parents on April 20th, 1916, exactly one hundred years ago today.

“No sooner had Cousin Peak got downtown than she telephoned for me to come down post-haste for Wilson was going to address Congress on the submarine issue at one o’clock. I put on my things and flew, and there at that hour, 10:30, a line was forming outside the Capitol. Of course everyone had to have special tickets to get in with, and they were selling at $5.00 apiece, people were so anxious to get in. Congressman Patten of New York was out of town so I luckily got in on his ticket, through his private secretary, a chum of Cousin Peak’s.

I sat from 10:30 until one in the gallery, which was packed. Alice Roosevelt Longworth sat quite near me next to Champ Clark’s wife, she acted in a most undignified manner, waving to friends and calling down over the railing to Nicholas, who was on the floor of the House.

Well, at quarter to one the Senate filed in and took seats. At five minutes to one Speaker Clark appointed an equal number of Congressmen and Senators headed by Mann, leader of the minority, to wait on the President. Then at one sharp he whacked on the desk with his gavel and everybody rose. At the same moment, the doorkeeper bellowed out “The President of the United States;” and Wilson came in amid cheers and handclapping. It was terribly ex citing. He shook hands with Champ Clark and Vice President Mar shall, both of whom sat side by side in the chairs, and at once began to read his message.

You could have heard a pin drop, it was so still. You know it is most unusual for the President to address Congress in per son and I think he has only done it three or four times before, and they say no other President has ever done it since Thomas Jefferson. At any rate it was very impressive.

Wilson’s whole manner was exceedingly dignified and impressive and refined, and his message was beautifully worded. He out lined our relations with Germany from the Lusitania affair down through the Sussex and ended with the ultimatum that if Germany did not immediately abandon her submarine warfare against passenger and freight boats we should sever diplomatic relations. Everybody clapped furiously when he had finished. He only spoke about fifteen minutes and I suppose, of course, you have read it in the papers. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. They say it is one of the biggest things that has happened in the administration.

Today the Washington papers are full of it, some criticisms, a rather bitter one from Mann, but mostly upholding the President. My impression of him was certainly one of strength and dignity and forcefulness. He didn’t indulge in any wild gestures or shoutings, but every word was distinct and emphatic. And he looked so infinitely a gentleman and a real aristocrat, whereas any number of the Senators and Congressmen look as if they had just stepped off the farm, hair waving on their coat collars and regular “store clothes.” I wouldn’t touch some of them with a ten-foot pole.

Cousin Peak says Huddleson of Alabama, what time he isn’t cleaning his finger-nails with his penknife, while dictating to her, is picking his teeth with a “carpet-tack,” and lots of them sit in their shirtsleeves with their feet on the table, smoking. Well, lets hope their brains are in the right pew if their manners are not.”

It would be another full year before America entered the war but by that time Alexine and Marion would have already decided it was their duty to their French friends to go and help.

Marion’s letter is from the Mitchell Sisters archive in my possession.

Image is from the Library of Congress.


Alexine Mitchell’s training in San Francisco


Alexine at the Presidio Page-from-79-LMT-Scrapbook-WWI-1917-1918

Alexine, my grandmother, sailed for France at the end of December. Cables home say she reached London on January 20th, 1917 and Le Havre on January 30th. Her mother, Lily Von Schmidt Mitchell Tilden kept a scrapbook of war clippings including anything that mentioned her daughters. Clippings from the same period say such things as “Liners held as U-boats lie in Wait”. I can only imagine how she waited for those telegrams. 

I hope to find out more about her training in San Francisco before she left. She did first aid training at Lane Hospital. I have not yet been able to find anything out about the “pioneer soldierettes at the Presidio national training school.”

A later post will cover what we have learned about her traveling companion, Dorothy Gerberding. 


Newspaper clipping – paper unknown – found in Lily Tilden’s scrapbook of war clippings – transcribed here so it is searchable.


December 29, 1916

Miss Alexine Mitchell Will Leave Tomorrow For Paris to Take Up Her Work

Miss Alexine Mitchell, who with her sister, Miss Marion Mitchell, is widely traveled and who has enjoyed many interesting adventures, will leave tomorrow morning for Paris, to take up the work under Mrs. Lathrop, who is head of the American women in charge of the American Fund for French wounded. Miss Mitchell, who had a cable from Mrs. Lathrop about a month ago, notifying her of a vacancy in the hospital at Toulouse, will go there immediately on her arrival and will later return to headquarters at Paris and from there take part in the distribution of supplies to the different hospital stations with the supply machines, which is the work of the women.

Miss Mitchell said in answer to questions regarding her going: “It is hard work, I know, but I intend to do what I can. I have been intending to go for three months, and have been taking a course in the men’s surgical work at Lane hospital and was rushed through in order to complete the course to leave tomorrow.”

Miss Mitchell will have a companion in Miss Dorothy Gerberding, who will take up the same work, and who is a niece of Mrs. Elizabeth Gerberding of San Francisco, well-known through her efforts for woman’s suffrage.

That Miss Marion Mitchell may develop the same enthusiasm is possible as the interest in the woman’s work in the war countries is great in their home. Miss Mitchell has had interesting experiences with her sister in Alaska, the Hawaiian Islands and the Orient, and both are quick-witted, resourceful and adventurous which are qualities that are much in demand for the work that the Alameda girl has pledged herself to.

Miss Mitchell was one of the pioneer soldierettes at the Presidio national training school, where she was the winner of an honor cockade for excellence in first aid and signaling and for constant attendance for the full six weeks’ term of encampment. Miss Mitchell is the second soldierette to go to the front, the first being Miss Emmeline Childs of Los Angeles, who has joined the Vanderbilt ambulance corps at the French capital.

Bears of WWI and Winnie-the-Pooh

Margaret and Bear

For over a year now Alexa and I have been sorting and ‘cataloguing’ the photographs, slides, glass negatives and lantern slides in this collection (we have 100’s) and one of the pictures that intrigued us was this one. The caption is ‘Margaret and Baloo, the bear.’  Margaret was a friend of Marion and Alexine’s  who went to France with them and served as a first aid worker with the Red Cross. I thought perhaps bear cubs during WWI were plentiful as there were many forests in France and perhaps the cub’s mothers were being killed. My research, however, did not support my theory.

However, I did come across something very interesting (at least to me; I have a great affection for children’s literature). In August, 1914, a train carrying Canadian troops was making it’s way from Manitoba to Ontario. Stopping at one of the stations, Lieutenant Harry Colebourn photo-2paid $20 to a hunter for a female bear cub that the Lieutenant named Winnie (for his hometown of Winnipeg, Manitoba). When Colebourn was being sent over to France to fight in December 1914, he left the bear at the London Zoo for safe-keeping. A.A. Milne took his young son, Christopher Robin, to the zoo and the bear and Christopher became good friends. There is a picture of the young boy actually in the enclosure feeding the bear. In 1924, A.A. Milne decided to put his son’s childhood ‘friends’ and stuffed animals into print with his first book and the Bear of Very Little Brain was introduced. His son had named the bear Winnie-the-Pooh after his friend at the zoo and a swan that he knew named Pooh. The real bear, Winnie, stayed at the London Zoo until she died in 1934. Lieutenant Colebourn did come back for her, but when he saw how popular she was with everyone, he decided to leave her there. We only have this one picture of Baloo, the bear, and the bear is not mentioned in Marion’s journal, so who knows the story behind this. What we do know is that Marion admired Rudyard Kipling so she was probably the one to name the bear and take the picture.  Posted by Vicki Rondeau

A Short History of the Magic Lantern

As I learn about lantern slides and how to preserve them, I came across this delightful little movie. Take a few minutes and enjoy. While the collection I am cataloging are black and white travel photos from about 1915 to 1930 taken by the family, having a working “magic lantern” opens all kinds of avenues to explore. This is really the beginning of film as we know it today.

Three + Two = Lantern slides

It took nearly fifty years, the invention of the Internet and social media plus three Alex’s and two librarians for the most surprising event to occur.

As a result, I am in the possession of hundreds of lantern slides along with the projector that belonged to my great grandmother Lily Von Schmidt Mitchell Tilden.

It is a complicated story and we are just now filling in the blanks. It started shortly after we rebooted this blog. I got a note through the contact form that said:

I believe my boyfriend and I have a journal written by your grandmother, Alexine Michell, during World War I with a set of glass lantern slides from the same time. There are also glass slides from a trip around the world that Alexine took, perhaps in the early 1920’s. We’d love to share these items with you.

This is the kind of serendipity genealogists and social historians dream of.

Jackie, who wrote this note, is a librarian. Vicki, my partner in crime, is a retired librarian. Thus the two librarians.

Jackie’s boyfriend is named Alex. I am Alexa and my grandmother was Alexine. Thus the three Alex’s.

Norma, Alex’s mother, bought these slides at auction in the sixties. Alex enjoyed looking at them growing up. Fifteen or twenty years ago they showed them to Jackie. She kept them in mind, determined to help the collection find their way back to the family of origin. Then on Sunday, two weeks ago, Jackie searches again for Alexine Mitchell and finds this site.

Norma writes:

Alex told you about my finding the slides/journal at an auction preview. I was struck with the conviction that I had to have the lot. We bid on it and since there were very few [none?] other bids, we won the lot. I did not know anything about the contents or the names or why this happened to me. This must have been @50 years ago. I have never understood what this matter was about.

Over the years my husband and I talked about donating everything to a local museum or historical society but I could never decide to actually do it. Just had to keep all. This has never happened to me before and has never happened since.

Now the mystery is resolved and I have closure and a peace about it. Alexine and Marion and the family are going home. I am sooo happy that you want them.

When my great-aunt Marion died in 1966, she left me the family photo albums and diaries. Apparently, some of the household items were auctioned off when the Tilden family home was sold.

It has taken nearly 50 years but the lantern slides, some from the Great War, and others from round the world trips taken by the family in the 1920s are back with the rest of the family archive.

The projector works. The slides need to be catalogued and digitized. It will take some time. As we make discoveries we will share them here.

Next year, as we build interest in Marion’s book, we hope to do slide shows using the old projector and the original lantern slides.

As I told Alex when he gave me the slides, I feel like I have found lost family. We will be forever grateful to Norma, her husband Leonard Gilbert, MD, Anthony, Alex and Jackie for their tenacity, perseverance, and generosity. Thank you!