Author Archives: Vicki Rondeau

The Camionette

You_drive_a_car_here_Why_not_a_transport_in_FranceMarion studied auto mechanics at the Heald Engineering and Automobile School in San Francisco before heading over to France to help with the war effort. She was awarded a certificate on April 25, 1917 from the Repair Department of the school.* She had learned how to tear down and assemble cars, including Starting, Lighting and Ignition work, driving on the road and troubleshooting and it was written that she “is qualified to keep a car in first-class working order”.

Many of her journal entries are about her adventures driving during the war. She delivered supplies for the AFFW, American Red Cross and at times the military units. She also delivered doctors and nurses to their assigned field hospitals. She moved refugees to safe territory, at times being the target of enemy fire.

She and Alexine drove Ford automobiles as well as Overlands (manufactured in the US from 1903-1926). 200Henry Ford (1863-1947), founder of the Ford Motor Company, started making Model T’s in 1908 and with his invention of assembly-line production of automobiles, he had produced half of the cars in the US by 1918. Marion took great pride in keeping her Ford camionette running smoothly and ready to hit the road as needed. At times she referred to her car as Henry. The French term camion or camionette denotes delivery van or small truck. In Nancy, where they were stationed most of the time, the cars were kept in a large garage. Marion put out a fire one night in the garage and the town proclaimed her a ‘h133ero’.

Alexine is in the middle of this picture on the left and Marion is standing by ‘her brown camionette’ in the picture above. We do know that the family in Alameda had traded in their horses and carriage for an automobile before the war started so both ladies were more than familiar with cars and knew how to drive.

Henry Ford quote – “Any customer can have a car painted any color he wants so long as it is black”. With his emphasis on efficiency in his assembly-line factory he discovered that black paint dried the fastest.


Horses of WWI and the Blue Cross

212Marion put this picture into her photo album of WWI with her caption “French troops coming down from Pont-à-Mousson”. We love the corners that she used to mount the photos in the album and we have preserved them. Her journal doesn’t include information about the horses of WWI, probably because she was so busy taking care of the vehicle that she was driving.

We do know now that in 1914 the British had 25,000 horses ‘serving’ on the battlefields. TheWWI horsey were needed to pull the wagons loaded with supplies, artillery, wounded and dying men as well as mounts for their cavalry charges. The War Office tasked the military units to send 500,000 more horses to help with the war effort. From 1914-17 the US sent 1,000 horses on each ship heading to England from the harbors. It is estimated that 6 million horses were used in WWI.

The soldiers considered these horses part of the military and they did the best they could to take care of them. However, the majority of them were either killed in battle or died of disease and starvation. The Blue Cross stepped in to help. They began in 1897 in Britain as an animal charity. By Armistice in 1918 they had raised £170,000 to care for the sick and injured animals of WWI. Over 50,000 horses were treated in hospitals in France. The charity organization still exists and in 2012 put together the War Horse Collection of photos from both world wars.

Blue Cross postersThis may have been done in part by the 2012 release of the movie War Horse.


Kodak and Aerial Photography

Alexine by Lt. Hoyt_WWI001v2While Marion was busy journaling their experiences during WWI, Alexine, Marion’s sister, was taking photographs as they traveled about doing their work. Alexine first mentions ‘investing’ in a Kodak in a letter home from Paris (April, 1917) and actually writes about taking pictures in a letter dated May, 1917. In the photo at left she is holding the Kodak that she used. While we don’t have her original camera, we have many photographs that she took, most with outstanding clarity and detail. So many of the pictures are the exact size of the film, making us think that the developers made ‘contact’ sheets of the negatives.

Kodak introduced film as we know it today in 1885, with the folding pocket Kodak camera coming to the public in 1898. We know the family had one at the turn of the century because of all the camping pictures  of Yosemite in 1901-1906. This ad is from a National Geographic magazine dated April, 1917 when Kodak started producing this particular model. We think it is very similar to the one that Alexine used, perhaps even the same ad 01

Also, in 1917, Kodak developed aerial cameras and trained aerial photographers for the US Signal Corps to help in France during the war. Some recommended books to read about this time period in photography’s history are: The Last Summer of the World by Emily Mitchell (no relation), a novel about Edward Steichen; and Terry Finnegan’s book Shooting the Front: Allied Aerial Reconnaissance in the First World War;

Alexa and I both had fathers that enjoyed photography as a hobby, each of them using high-end camera equipment with fantastic results. My father went so far as to take me up in his airplane and teach me how to do aerial photography. You never know when that special skill may come in handy! He also constructed a darkroom in the house I lived in as a teenager and I learned the fine craftsmanship of every phase of photography while in high school and later after college I worked in a camera store for three years. It’s no wonder we feel a special affinity to the photographs and equipment that was used by the Mitchell sisters.

Alexine and ‘Trench Dogs’

AM-dogs001Alexine Mitchell, Marion Mitchell’s sister, went to France in December, 1916 and did not return until the Spring of 1920; she was there for almost 3 1/2 years. When she did come back to the US, she brought with her two dogs, Takou and Basoche. Takou was given to her as a puppy by a wounded soldier recovering in the hospital in Nancy where she was stationed; he had found the puppy in a trench. She acquired Basoche while hiking through the Pyrenees after the war. Both dogs only understood French commands. She bred the dogs and sold their puppies after returning to Alameda.

A more famous ‘trench dog’ was found as a puppy in a bombed dog kennel by Lee Duncan who was serving in France as an American Gunnery Corporal. He named his dog Rinty, also known as Rin-Tin-Tin and brought the dog home to the US. Realizing how smart his dog was, he took him to the Warner Bros studios to see if he could get him into the movies.  Rin-Tin-Tin ended upRin Tin Tin IV starring in 26 WB silent movies before he was ‘let go’. At one point it was reported that he was receiving 50,000 fan letters each month. His descendants went on to star in the 1950’s-1960’s TV show The Adventures of Rin-Tin-Tin and today a Rin-Tin-Tin, reputed to be the 12th descendent of the first one, is the spokesdog for the American Humane Association. A recent book – Rin-Tin-Tin: The Life and the Legend by Susan Orlean has more information, if interested.

Every side fighting in WWI used dogs in the trenches; their jobs included being a sentry, scout, messenger, mascot, sniffing for explosives, finding the casualties and chasing the rats out of the trench. Sometimes they just helped boost the morale of the soldiers. It’s estimated that about 20,000 dogs were in the trenches with the British soldiers.

In Flanders Fields

Did you know?  100 years ago today (December 8, 1915) this poem was published in an English publication called Punch, anonymously.  The poem was so well received in Europe as well as the US, the poet was revealed and the poem became one of the most popular poems ever written.  The author, John McCrae, was an army field doctor, who wrote the poem during the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915 while tending to the wounded and burying the dead.  It captures the anguish of the tragic consequences of war.  He died in 1918 of pneumonia and meningitis.  He was 46.

In Flanders’ fields the poppies blow,
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky,
The larks still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below. 

We are the Dead. Shorts days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and Now we lie
In Flanders’ fields. 

Take up our quarrel with the foe;
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch, be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die,
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders’ Fields.


Cher Ami, the Carrier Pigeon

Cher_Ami_Carrier pigeons played a valuable role during WWI for carrying messages between units and troops in battle.  The most famous, Cher Ami, was a Black Check cock carrier pigeon, one of 600 pigeons owned and flown by the U.S. Army Signal Corps in France.  She saved the lives of 194 American soldiers (the “Lost Battalion” of the 77th division) by carrying a message across enemy lines on October 4, 1918. Cher Ami was shot in the chest and leg, blinded in one eye, losing most of the leg to which the message was attached, but continued the 25-mile flight avoiding shrapnel and poison gas to get the message home. Cher Ami was awarded the French Croix de Guerre with Palm for heroic service. She later died from the wounds received in battle and was enshrined in the Smithsonian Museum (Museum of American History) in Washington, DC.

Realia from WWI

2015-11-11 10.34.40Alexa and I have spent the past year organizing, cataloging, archiving and preserving all the memorabilia from the Mitchell sister’s travels and adventures.  Our process has made for our very own adventure as we learn how to preserve 100+ year old documents, clippings and photographs.  As time and money allows we are taking apart albums to scan the contents and store these treasures in acid-free sleeves and albums.  We have much to do, but are happy with the progress we have made so far.