MHS News

Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country Opens at the Massachusetts Historical Society on June 12

An exhibition of letters, photographs, and other memorabilia assembled to commemorate the centenary of the first World War

Photograph of Margaret Hall and a soldierTo commemorate the centennial of the outbreak of World War I, the MHS has organized the exhibition Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country: Massachusetts Women in the First World War, focusing on two of the hundreds of women from the Commonwealth who went to France as members of the U.S. armed forces, the Red Cross, and other war relief organizations. From the Society’s extraordinary collection of women’s remembrances, this exhibition features photographs, letters, diaries, and memorabilia related to Margaret Hall and Eleanor (Nora) Saltonstall, Red Cross volunteers in France. Both women were keen observers of the climactic months of the war and depicted what they witnessed in vivid detail. The exhibition is open at the MHS June 12, 2014 through January 24, 2015.

Nora Saltonstall was 23 when she sailed for France in October 1917 to work in Paris with the Bureau of Refugees and Relief, a division of the American Red Cross, which provided lodging for refugees. In November, she transferred to an American Red Cross dispensary in Paris and, after the new year, to Mrs. Charles Daly's Auto-Chir No. 7, an American Red Cross hospital unit attached to the French army. The Auto-Chir was a mobile hospital which followed the troops, serving as the primary medical unit after the first aid station. Later, she was the chauffeur while the Auto-Chir served along the western front in France, the site of the German offensives in the spring of 1918.  It was for this service that she earned the Croix de Guerre that is on display in the exhibition along with a selection of her letters home and a portrait of Nora by Frank Weston Benson.

In August 1918, a Massachusetts-born woman named Margaret Hall boarded a transport ship in New York City that would take her across the Atlantic to work with the American Red Cross in France. The year she spent abroad was eye opening. When she returned stateside, she compiled a typescript narrative from the letters and diary passages that she wrote while overseas and illustrated it with roughly 275 photographs and illustrative items. Her words offer a first-hand account of life on the Western Front in the last months of the war while her photographs depict the soldiers, canteens, and extensive destruction following the war. That narrative, "Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country, 1918-1919," is a manuscript in the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society (MHS) and will be on display. The exhibition will highlight a selection of Hall’s large-format photographs of the battlefront on loan from the Cohasset Historical Society.

About the publication

The MHS will publish Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country: The World War I Memoir of Margaret Hall on July 14, 2014, as part of its commemoration of the beginning of World War I. Modern readers will be transported by this first-person account of a woman’s life in the Great War. The book augments Hall’s written story with several dozen of her striking and never-before-published photographs, selected from those she included in the archived typescript.

Margaret Higonnet, the volume’s editor, opens up the text for readers with a suite of supporting materials: an introduction, headnotes on key related topics, a biographical key identifying the people who appear in the text, a geographical key of significant locations, a timeline of relevant World War I events, and glossaries of period and French terms.

About the Massachusetts Historical Society

The Massachusetts Historical Society is one of the nation’s preeminent research libraries, with collections that provide an unparalleled record of the vibrant course of American history. Since its founding in 1791, the MHS has fostered research, scholarship, and education. With millions of pages of manuscript letters, diaries, and other documents, as well as early newspapers, broadsides, artifacts, works of art, maps, photographs, and prints, the MHS offers a wide-ranging perspective on the United States from the earliest beginnings of the nation to the present day. Exhibition galleries are open Monday to Saturday from 10:00 AM to 4:00 PM.

Published: Friday, 6 June, 2014, 12:00 AM