Nearly 50 years ago my cousin, Vicki, and I (Alexa) sat in my bedroom in Berkeley, California, pouring through the trunk that I had just inherited from my great-aunt. We were young (high school teens), but amazed at the plethora of scrapbooks, photo albums, diaries, journals and
memorabilia from all of her worldwide travels. We decided that someday we would take some of her fabulous stories and share them. Our futures included college educations, mine in history and Vicki’s in English and Library Science. A year ago we ‘catalogued’ the 80-piece collection and re-discovered her World War I journal with the scrapbook of well-preserved photographs, along with a scrapbook of newspaper clippings that my great-grandmother kept during the war years. With the approach of the WWI centennial, we decided that now was the time to bring them out of the trunk and into the light so that others may read about her journey.
Before America joined the WWI war effort, women in the U. S. became actively involved in organizations to support the French wounded and the displaced. Marion Mitchell, along with her sister Alexine (my grandmother), volunteered to go to France to work for the Motor Services division of American Fund for the French Wounded (AFFW). They drove, and repaired, their military supply vehicles and ambulances along the Western Front.
Their story was captured in letters sent home to their mother Lily (von Schmidt) Mitchell Tilden. Their accounts detailed riveting adventures and gave vivid descriptions of what WWI must have sounded, felt and looked like near the front. Many of the American ambulance drivers were young college men from Yale, Princeton and Stanford whose stories are well documented. They included Ernest Hemingway and Walt Disney. Very little has been written about the 35,000 American women who went over, especially before the American forces joined the war.
Anne Morgan, youngest daughter of John Pierpont Morgan, along with Isabel Lathrop, of San Francisco and New York, had founded the American Fund for the French Wounded (AFFW) in December 1915. They quickly organized women all over the United States to prepare bandages and various other supplies to be sent to France to support France’s war efforts and help their women and children. After the Americans joined the war, the AFFW combined forces with the American Red Cross to transport goods and medical services behind the front lines. The roster of Motor Service drivers in the AFFW publication from July – August 1917 listed the Mitchell sisters along with Miss Gertrude Stein and a visitor, Miss Alice Toklas.
Alexine went over first in December 1916, after having trained in June at the National Service School at The Presidio of San Francisco, which had enrolled 250 women for training in first aid work. Marion followed in May 1917, with certificates in auto mechanics from Heald’s School and first aid from the American Red Cross.
Alexine Mitchell Gregory (1886 – 1958), for whom I am named, died when I was five. Marion Mitchell (1888 – 1966) died just two days before my fourteenth birthday. They were both born in San Francisco and grew up in Alameda, California. They came from a long line of adventurers and early California pioneers. They had traveled extensively and spoke French. Alexine later taught French at Bowdoin College and UC Berkeley.
When Marion died she left detailed lists of which items from her years of worldwide travel should go to whom. She had decided that I would be the next genealogist in the family. (She had traced the family back to the Mayflower.) With these lists in hand we went on a treasure hunt through her lifeless house, gathering the items she had so carefully recorded. On my list were the letters, albums, pictures, and diaries of several generations of Mitchells stretching back to my great-great-grandfather, Captain Josiah Angier Mitchell of Maine, whose disaster at sea as captain of the Clipper Ship Hornet was first recorded by Mark Twain in 1866. Also included were letters and diaries from my great-grandmother Lily along with nearly eighty of Marion’s journals, albums and scrapbooks. Among the many items we brought home were their helmets, bits of disintegrating German bread, etched shell casings and a few unexploded shells and grenades. Imagine our surprise as the movers unloaded the boxes and we peaked inside. Those weapons had come home from France by ship and had been stored in Marion’s basement for fifty years! We immediately called the police to dispose of them.
These two intrepid adventurers bring new insight to the story of American women’s involvement in WWI as you follow them delivering supplies, comfort bags, and tending to the wounded when they visited field hospitals and dispensaries throughout Alsace-Lorraine on the Western Front. You will be surprised at their courage and resourcefulness.
“When I think of the bridge parties and pink teas of other days, I sighed, it seems incredible that we ever lived complacently through such an era. Shall we ever go back to it again? I wonder… If this war has done nothing else for us, it has jogged a good many of us out of the futile, self-satisfied little ruts we so snugly occupied. And jogged us out, thank God, for all time, I think.”
Lily’s father, Alexis Von Schmidt, was a ‘49er and prominent San Francisco engineer. Lily’s first husband, Harrison Whitman Mitchell, died when the girls were two and four years old and Lily later married Major Charles Lee Tilden in 1892 who is well-known for his contribution to the East Bay Regional Park District.
“Burning of the Clipper ship Hornet at Sea,” The Sacramento Daily Union (Sacramento, California), 19 July 1866, at: http://www.twainquotes.com/18660719u.html.