Category Archives: Marion

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. “

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“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.

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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.

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“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)

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

 

Rudyard Kipling

Marion, born in 1888, was 8 years old when she was given this copy of The Jungle Book in 1896. The book The-Jungle-Book-coverwas first published in 1894 while Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) was living in Vermont. He had spent the first six years of his life living in Bombay and many of his stories reflect that early influence. Early on he became a master of the Short Story format and was a prolific writer and poet. In 1907, Kipling won the Nobel Prize for Literature; he was the youngest ever recipient and the first Briton to win this honor. Before the war he was a very popular writer and Marion’s writing reflects his influence as she subtly refers to him and his writing in her war journal.

His only son, John, died in WWI in September, 1915 at the Battle of Loos; he was serving with the Irish Guard. With his body not accounted for, Kipling spent many years after the war trying to locate him as a prisoner or his burial spot. In 1992, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission changed the inscription on a gravestone of an unknown soldier to read John Kipling after conclusive evidence that this indeed was the final resting spot of the young soldier.Rudyard Kipling 1

Rudyard Kipling is buried in the Poet’s Corner at Westminster Abbey.

Disney has announced the remake and re-imagining of the 1967 animated movie, Jungle Book, due to be released in April, 2016. Who hasn’t hummed those songs or sung along with the different generations who watched the movie and listened to the cassette or CD in the car on road trips? – Jungle Book Trailer

 

 

 

Marion’s Ukulele

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Marion learned to play the ukulele while vacationing in Hawaii before WWI. She took it with her to France in 1917 and played for the wounded soldiers at the field hospitals that she visited. Her letters home about Christmas, 1917, became an article she published in Sunset magazine in 1918. She describes visiting the wounded and taking them comfort bags of goodies from home. While there she pulled out her ukulele and played songs from home – I Been Workin on the Railroad, Sweet Rosy O’Grady, When the Midnight Choo-Choo Leaves for  Alabama and My Honolulu Tomboy. The French soldiers sang along with her when she played Madelon for them.

Another time (Feb. 22, 1918) she describes a bombardment on Nancy and while folks gathered in the shelter they were serenaded by her with Hawaiian love songs and hulas. That probably did wonders to take their minds off the bombs falling all around them.

The ukulele was a very popular instrument in the early 1900’s. It was made even more popular at the 1915 San Francisco Panama Pacific International Exposition in the Hawaiian pavilion. It seems to be having a resurgence today and Marion would have enjoyed this rendition of an old favorite – Ukulele Weeps by Jake Shimabukuro

 

The Lusitania

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With construction beginning in 1903, the British Cunard liner Lusitania made it’s first voyage in 1907.  It had been built to be the “Greyhound of the Seas” and captured a Blue Ribbon for the fastest Atlantic crossing. It was the largest, fastest and most luxurious ship for its time. During the ship’s lifespan, it made 101 round-trip voyages.

On May 1, 1915, it set sail for Liverpool departing from New York. Despite warnings in New York newspapers (from the German Embassy) that “vessels flying under the flag of Great Britain, or any of her allies, are liable to destruction”, there were 1,924 people on board. The warnings were taken seriously by some as the number of passengers was only half the ship’s capacity. The Captain felt the ship was safe as it could ‘outrun’ any German submarines.  Still, the ship was on ‘high alert’ when it was torpedoed in the Irish Sea by a German U-boat on May 7th and sank within 20 minutes, with 1,198 people perishing; 128 were Americans.

Sentiment mounted in the US to declare war on Germany, but Wilson hesitated. In fact, he waited two years and didn’t officially declare war until April, 1917.

Marion headed to France on the SS Rochambeau on May 17, 1917, two years after the sinking of the Lusitania. While still on board the ship, the first line in her first letter home is “Well, no submarines so far….”

There have been many books written about the Lusitania. The latest one (2015), Dead Wake by Dead WakeErik Larson is the type of narrative non-fiction that captures the reader and keeps our attention from the first page until the last. His attention to detail and recounting of the history and demise of this famous ship is told from every side, British, US and German. The book is a gripping account of a time in history and provides a different perspective on a memorable event.