The Beehive: the official blog of the Massachusetts Historical Society

Life on the French Front during WWI: Margaret Hall’s Memoir

In the forthcoming MHS publication Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country, 1918-1919, Red Cross volunteer Margaret Hall recounts through letters, diary entries, and photographs her time working close to the front lines in France during World War I. She worked at a canteen at Châlons-sur-Marne, a village with a critical railroad juncture that made it a target to the Axis and also provided a steady stream of soldiers and wounded passing through. Her sincere, plucky voice depicts both the hopeful moments and the tragedies of a ravaged country towards the end of the war.

Hall often stayed in makeshift, unsanitary quarters and had to remain ever vigilant for air raids. This September 29, 1918, diary entry reveals the struggle for basic necessities like rest and hygiene.

Great bombardment all night. People couldn’t sleep. My sleep disturbed, for when that is going on you feel that something is wrong and you can’t rest calmly. It is certainly a nervous life. I don’t take off my clothes at night now. Am eaten alive with fleas and suffer untold agony. Scarcely have time to wash my hands or do my hair; am a perfect pig to behold, but there is so much doing that I couldn’t shut myself up for long enough to do anything.

Despite her difficult living circumstances, however, and the long hours she spent working in the canteen feeding soldiers and refugees, Hall maintained a sense of curiosity about what was going on around her. Later in the same entry she describes an interesting scene she encountered.

Saw the sweetest procession go over the bridge today; a little circus parade, each little cart drawn by a big sturdy horse. They were carrier pigeons going up to the front in their little houses, which were very neat and freshly painted. They had windows to look out and it was the only soothing thing I’ve seen in the long endless moving stream. . . . Saw also a hundred dogs going up to the front. They were walking round the streets here, two to one master, looking awfully sweet and young, all different kinds, but so affectionate to their masters. They had little tin boxes on their collars. I hated to think they had to catch it too.

University of Connecticut English professor and MHS fellow Margaret Higonnet is editing Margaret Hall’s memoir, which has an expected 2014 publication date. Stay tuned for future posts following Hall’s experiences in the Great War.

permalink | Published: Wednesday, 31 July, 2013, 1:00 AM


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