Category Archives: France

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. 

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:;


Marion’s Ukulele


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 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.

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