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, MitchellSisters.com 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.


Helmets of WWI

Marion went over to France before the troops arrived in 1917. She was given a French helmet to wear for protection as she drove her vehicles along the Western Front. So typically Marion, she named her helmet – Tin Derby.


“In June, 1917, the United States Army selected the standard British helmet design for its use. This was the British MK 1 steel helmet. There were three main reasons for the selection of the British MK 1 helmet design: “the immediate availability of 400,000 ready-made helmets from England, the simplicity of manufacture from hard metal, and the superior ballistic properties.” When the British MK 1 was selected by the United States Army, its United States production version was designated and standardized as the Helmet, M-1917. Until United States production of the M-1917 could begin, the United States purchased the 400,000 available British MK. 1 helmets in England and issued them to the American Expeditionary Forces already in Europe. Production was begun on the M-1917 helmets in the fall of 1917. By the end of November 1917, large quantities of M-1917 helmets became available for the United States Army.” (worldwar1.com)

Helmet Factory

Manufacturing helmets. Large power press for shaping helmets in the plant of Hale & Kilburn Corporation, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Hale & Kilburn Company., ca. 1918

(Photo credit: NARA https://catalog.archives.gov/id/533469)

Family Quilts

As the end of the month of March nears it also marks the end of National Quilt Month. I photographed the quilt that Alexa’s Great Grandmother, Lily Von Schmidt Mitchell Tilden, made a few years before her wedding. She and her friend Tillie Eggers made it in 1883 while living in San Francisco. Whoever married first got to keep it. Lily married Harrison W. Mitchell in 1885. She had two young daughters, Alexine (1886) and Marion (1888), when Harry died of Bright’s disease in 1890. She was not a single mother for long, marrying Charles Lee Tilden in 1892. The Tildens had one more child, a son, Charles Lee Tilden Jr. 

This pattern is called ‘crazy quilt’ as it uses a wide variety of fabrics and stitches in random patterns. This quilt was all done by hand and is in remarkable shape for being 133 years old. Lily's Quilt

I’m spending the day packing for my next quilt retreat, my fourth one. They remind me of the long history of sewing and quilting that exists in so many cultures around the world. We are all bound together by common threads; the camaraderie and friendship that grows strong among women (and sometimes men) who sit together and sew. At last August’s quilt retreat I learned how to make the Annie Arrowhead block and finished the quilt this spring. The fabric was designed and made by Aborigine fabric artists in Australia. The next retreat promises the beginning of a new quilt as well as the renewal of friendships from the past retreats. Women have been doing this for centuries.Aussie Quilt

Very few quilts still exist from World War I; most were made in 1917 and 1918 and were used in fundraising events for the Red Cross. Most of the ones that do exist are commemorative quilts honoring the soldiers killed in the war.

A book worth reading is  Ruth McHaney Danner’s book: Making a World of Difference One Quilt at a Time: Inspiring Stories about Quilters and How They Have Touched Lives. (New World Library, 2015).

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.

General Pershing

General John J. Pershing (1860-1948), Commander in Chief of the AEF (American Expeditionary Force) during the war, arrived in Paris in June, 1917. Marion was there to witness the July 4th parade in the streets heralding the arrival of the American Pershingsoldiers. “The first American troops are in Paris! First came some dignitaries in automobiles, then the band playing full blast, and then our soldiers in khaki and Stetsons, the brownest, toughest, most businesslike citizens you ever laid eyes on, all with eyes dead ahead and solemn as tombstones—fighters every inch! The French cheered wildly and yelled, “Vive l’Amérique! Vive l’Amérique!” and waved banners. They certainly looked fine, very brown and hardy, fairly covered with flowers the populace had given them, stuck in their hats and coats and in the barrels of their guns. When at length they defiled and marched to the cemetery to place a wreath on La Fayette’s tomb, we fell in behind in our camions with the mob….So you see it was ‘some day’. A day to feel, right through you, the red-blooded tide of friendship between France and the U.S.A., good will bursting all bounds. A day to feel that you were a part of it all, that you were doing your bit and had a right to the thrills that were going up and down your spine! To have seen with my own eyes two nations gripping each others hands, nations that I love almost equally.” (Marion Mitchell, Chapter 2)

When the United States finally did enter the war, Pershing was given command of the AEF. The Army was not prepared; they had limited supplies, no aircraft and were struggling with organization and with recruitment. To add to that, the French and British expected the American soldiers to serve under their commands. Pershing refused and was able to secure separate camps for his men to aid in their training. He may be best known for leading the Battle of Meuse-Argonne in the Fall of 1918, finally sealing the fate of the German army and helping to end the war. His autobiography, My Experience of War, was published in 1931 and won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1932. There have been many books published since then about his military career; the latest one about the Battle of Meuse-Argonne came out this month, March, 2016. Forty-Seven Days: How Pershing’s warriors came of age to defeat the German Army in World War I by Mitchell Yockelson. It chronicles a short period of time, but covers it in depth.

The National Park Service honored him with a special monument in Pershing Park. If you go to Washington DC, the park is located between Pennsylvania Ave. and 14th and 15th Avenues. pershing-640a_1He may have been greatly pleased with this monument as he was appointed to the American Battle Monuments Commission by President Harding and he held the position of Chairman until his death in 1948. The Commission was established by Congress in 1923 as an independent agency of the US government to maintain permanent US military cemeteries, memorials and monuments in the US as well as outside the US.

Pershing Park will become the site of the new World War One Memorial. The final design was just chosen and fund raising has begun. Read more here. It should be dedicated on Nov. 11, 2018, one hundred years after the end of the war.

If you would like to donate $11.11 or more, click here.

When the war ended Pershing maintained a position as a consultant for the military. He was considered a mentor for George C. Marshall, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Omar N. Bradley and George S. Patton during World War II. Pershing was promoted to General of the Armies, a six-star General. The only other person to ever be awarded this honor was George Washington. Pershing is buried in Arlington Cemetery with his soldiers.

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Photo Credits: pbs.org; nps.gov

Flu Pandemic

Marion came down with the flu mid-September, 1918. In her journal she writes that it seemed like everyone around her was sick with the flu, which she called the ‘flu-microbe’. It turned out to be an influenza pandemic that swept around the world between the Spring of 1918 until the Summer of 1919 infecting an estimated 500 million people. It reached its peak in the Fall of 1918. A fifth of the world’s population was infected and it seemed to be the most deadly for people between 20-40 years of age. By the time it was over, an estimated 27 million people had died. Of those, an estimated 675,000 Americans died of the flu.Flu More US soldiers died of the flu than were killed in action in World War I. That’s not surprising when you look at the unsanitary conditions they had to endure in the trenches.

It was known as the ‘Spanish Flu’ and ‘La Grippe” as Spain was the earliest country to be hit hard by the disease. Even Spanish King Alfonso XIII (1886-1931) contracted the flu. Eventually researchers knew why the 1918-19 flu pandemic was so deadly; in many of the victims, the virus would invade the lungs causing bacterial pneumonia. The first licensed flu vaccine didn’t appear in the United States until the 1940’s. A popular rope-skipping jingle in 1918:  “I had a little bird, it’s name was Enza. I opened the window, and in-flu-enza.” (Crawford)

Marion was still sick with a deep cough three weeks after coming down with the flu. Her boss sent her to the south of France to recover and since she had not taken a vacation since arriving in France, she went. While there she was able to get well with plenty of fresh air, ocean breezes and wholesome food. She was still in southern France when the war ended and she traveled by train up to Paris, arriving in time for the 3-day Armistice celebration mid-November.

Photo Credits: flu.gov; pbs.org