Mildred Mitchell sitting under a frescoed wall
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Massachusetts-born American Red Cross worker Margaret Hall took this portrait of Mildred Mitchell, a fellow volunteer, in France, late in 1918. For a photograph taken so close to the western front that the guns could be heard more or less constantly, the image might seem unusually serene. Mitchell sits in front of a fresco, staring into the distance with a curious expression. Whatever the original intent behind the posing and taking of this picture may have been, Hall gave it the caption "Not a dream." The contemplative scene represents the exception, not the rule, of a volunteer's life in wartime France.
Hall's Memoir and Photographs
"Not a dream" is not typical of Margaret Hall's photographs from her time in France, at least of the nearly 300 that she pasted into her World War I memoir. Portraits are few: more often, Hall's images capture the exhausting hustle of canteen work—women surrounded by crushes of hungry soldiers and working as fast as possible to serve them coffee and sandwiches—and later, the stillness and soul-sickening desolation of battlefields and ruined towns. To Hall, life in wartime France was so alien as to feel dreamlike. In a letter home, she wrote
There never has been anything real about my life over here. I can't believe that it is I who am seeing it with my eyes, living in something that is a reality and not a dream. It worries me sometimes for I am afraid it will disappear out of my memory like a dream, and I don't know just what to do to hold on to it.
Fearful though she was that her unreal experience would vanish from her mind, Hall was at that very moment solving the problem she faced. In letters and journal entries, she recorded vivid observations and details from her adventures, and with her cameras she documented what she saw. When she returned stateside, she compiled her writings and photographs into a narrative of her war experience. One iteration of this typescript (she made four) is in the collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society, having been donated in 1927 by Hall's aunt Emma Lewis Coleman, a historian and photographer who influenced Hall throughout her life.
When Hall arrived in France in September 1918, she awaited her assignment from the American Red Cross, hoping to secure a position as near the frontlines as possible. Eventually, she was sent to work at a canteen in Châlons-sur-Marne (now Châlons-en-Champagne), an assignment she was so pleased with, she was "like a Cheshire cat."Châlons was a critical transport junction, where trains brought soldiers, prisoners, and refugees whom Hall met, served, and sometimes photographed. French artists had decorated the walls of the canteen at Châlons with paintings, such as the fresco behind Mildred Mitchell in "Not a dream" (note the Pickelhaube-wearing German soldier stuffed into a cauldron!).
The canteen had been cofounded by Marjorie Nott and Anna Van Schaik Mitchell, aunt of Mildred Mitchell. In addition to working at her aunt's canteen, from October to December 1918 Mildred ran French Ambulance No. 5, a temporary tent hospital at Écury that cared for the wounded and for victims of influenza.
Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country
On 14 July 2014, the Massachusetts Historical Society will publish Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country: The World War I Memoir of Margaret Hall. The book presents Hall's memoir in full and over eighty of her compelling photographs, all placed in historical context by the volume's editor, Margaret Higonnet. Margaret Hall's memoir and photographs are also a major focus of the Society's exhibition Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country: Massachusetts Women in the First World War, on display from 12 June 2014 to 24 January 2015. The book and the exhibition are part of the Society's centennial commemoration of the beginning of World War I.
Hall, Margaret. "Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country, 1918–1919," typescript, Massachusetts Historical Society.
Quotations from pages 84 and 20.
---. Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country: The World War I Memoir of Margaret Hall. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 2014.