Letters from World War I

Miss Anna V.S. Mitchell (Red Cross), to her sister Caroline Phelps Stokes, April 1, 1918

Refer to caption
Anna Mitchell, American Red Cross worker
Courtesy National Archives, Washington, DC


Courtesy National Archives, Washington, DC

Anna Mitchell sent her sister extensive descriptions of her relief work. She started working at a canteen in France in 1916, and later managed the canteen at Chalon-sur-Marne. The facility provided coffee and food to civilians and the military. It did not, however, guarantee safety and Mitchell had to dodge bombs on numerous occasions. The handwritten additions on this typed letter suggest that the author might have been considering publishing her letters. As of 2017, the National Postal Museum’s researchers had not located such a publication.

one page of a typed letter


[handwritten] April 1, 1918 Chalons

C: - [typed with handwritten edits] Dearest Dear Caroline I wrote of getting home and being busy since then. In spite of the lovely weather I found the family looking rather tired, for sleep had been interfered with, by the nocturnal visitors  whom we have always been expecting here, and almost never seen. They began with this moon and the big offensive to carry their offensive behind the line as the Allies have done so wonderfully across the Rhine, - In other words to destroy as much property and as many lives as they can among civilians. The extraordinary thing to all of us is what comparatively little damage can be done by tons of the most powerful torpedoes and bombs dropped from the sky from relays of avions. Keeping it up for five or six hours, five or six days running. This is what they have been doing here, and winning a very thorough hatred, without doing, I am sure, nearly all they would like to. We are not mentioned in the papers, as Paris and London seem to be quite freely, but as this carries no name or date with it, you may be allowed to read how it seems, and what this one individual has been doing during the same kind of life millions have lead lately.

To get home that afternoon, when I came from Paris, I had to step over a goodish sized hole in the road in front, but a little to one side of our house. I believe that torpedo did not explode, or there might not have been any house to come back to! I heard all about their two nights already spent, one in our cellar, and another at the oeuvre. Here because when the alert went they stopped to close up, and it was then too late to get to the abri [shelter]. They all described that as the terrifying experience. Tthe noise and crash, with only the wooden building over them, they said was something unheard of, and of course they thought any moment might be their last. Tthey had not the slightest protection and felt all was aimed at them! It lasted a couple of hours, I believe, and they were certainly glad to have it over. Everyone thought they would doubtless be back that night. ¶ We dined early and went over to the canteen, taking most of the best part of dinner over for the Red Cross gentlemen who were rather expected to arrive from somewhere, and to want to dine. Surely enough they came. Mr. Davison, Mr. Wadsworth, another army man, and Mr. Perkins, who remained at the hotel, having felt slightly ill. M. and I took them all over the place, and they were very nice and appreciative. Mr. D- said it was such a comfort to find it just as wonderful, rather more so, than he had been saying it was; he was evidently much pleased and a nice easy man to get on with, without being wildly interesting. After we had been all over the place, we gave them the supper we had brought over. in our little bureau, and that also they seemed to appreciate. Then they watched the cantine work go on at its most crowded hour, but not for very long, for just as in a play the next scene opened, which was an alert. This time no seconds were wasted, the military were more vigorous than before, and we simply drove the men out, put away our things, collected cash, locked doors, and then simply ran for the abri. ¶ The one we ran to was more than a five minute run away, but very good, built primarily for government-usedate, but filled full with the people having any sort of right to it; we had watched it building a good part of the summer, and been much impressed by its solid concrete and sand bag protection. It was just a long narrow ditch in shape, or rather passage, (as ditch suggests no ceiling), and you went down a few steps to reach it. When we arrived at the entrance the Red Cross people were there, and there were some who said Mr. D- made no bones about getting in as quickly as possible! We all started in at the sound of the first cannon. We lined ourselves up against the walls, for it was clear there was going to be no extra room. A very large French officer with a voice of stentorian⁄tones of command, took charge, and commanded silence, if people talked too loud. I could not quite see what effect it would have on the bombs, but M- suggested that they might cause a panic, and I think myself he wanted to hear what was being done outside, in which I quite sympathized with him. When the bombardment was in full swing there was no difficulty about hearing! and Tthey were rather awe-inspiring sounds but not to me terrifying, only when an especially big one seemed to crash quite near, sending a kind of queer uncanny wind into the abri, did Ione catch mytheir breath and wonder for a moment just what would happen. Even a charming French soldier boy, who was talking to us later in the evening, said that he ducked his head quite unconsciously. It was strange

[p. 2] to hear several of them saythat, they did not like that kind of thing, thatit was a good deal more comfortable at the front; and one of our compatriots, a military police, said he would rather like to “beat it back to the trenches”, where I fancy they do not feel like rats in a trap, as one certainly rather does in an abri. Between the most violent moments we talked pleasantly, and Mr. D- who amiably supplied me with his coat to sit on, I found knew Clarence. Finally everything got quiet, and after waiting quite a long time, we came out. It was apparently all over. He and the others went back to the hotel, and M-declared it was the mark of a banker when he thanked us “for a delightful evening”.! ¶ We went to open the cantine, and were leaving when Mildred appeared from the Paris train; I had tried to catch her by telegram to say word had just come from Clarence, thathe was in Paris. It seemed so aggravating, whenand she wanted to see him so much; he had telegraphed for her to come on Saturday, so we thought he might be there only a few days, and she finally decided to turn around and go right back, on a train that left at two o’clock A.M. It will seem to you a little crazy, but I thought it might be her only chance to see him before he got sent to the front, and this did not seem a particularly salubrious spot to remain in. We started to walk home, she, M and I, she to get a clean blouse, M and I for bed. ¶ It was a beautifully clear moonlight night and just aswe got to the middle of the bridge crossing the river, when we heard an avion nearby. It sounded so low we thought of course it was French, and were just thinking how nice to have them out, when suddenly the whole sky we were facing was lit into a red glow, followed by a terrific crash. I said we must drop (the thing one is always told to do if caught out) soand down we went on our stomachs, in the dust of the side walk, then we edged up to the parapets of the bridge, but by this time the whole world seemed to be one roar of whizzing, bursting bombs, the deep boom of the cannon and the rattle of the mitrailleuse! and Tthinking of all that might come down on us in the shape of shot and shrapnel, we decided to make back for the abri. I shall never forget that run as long as I live. We started off with a dash, Mildred in the lead, her long legs flying out behind. She was dressed in her citiest clothes, with hat and veil, and she carried a dinky little bandbox, with her Paris hat. Every time a bomb went off we would throw ourselves flat again, for there was something singularly uncomfortable about being upright, and the abri seemed far off. It is easily approached from the cantine but not from the street. A door which they never open would make it much nearer, and M- wasted a minute beating on it with her hands and shouting for them to open in a most melodramatic manner, as it struck me at the time. Meanwhile Mildred was getting over a tall spiked fence. Sshe hung on it by her dress, but I came along and took her off, and then got over myself. I had to call to my aid all my childhoods experience, and general intelligence, for it was a very high, unapproachable fence, and in the act I thought how stupid it would be (and like what often happened) to escape from bombs so fast you die on a spiked fence! Well, we got into the abri and M (who had gone around) joined us a moment later, and there we spent the rest of the night until nearly three Aa.Mm. Once more all seemed over and was this time, the Paris train just drawing in as we emerged. I saw Mildred into it, and she was off. ¶ We opened the cantine and worked till next morning, or rather that morning. After washing up and breakfasting at home M and I came back to see the Red Cross people, and they all came in and talked long and seriously about the abri, which they wanted the military to build for us, and the general necessity of taking precautions, and how responsible they would feel if anything happened to any of us, etc., and were all very nice. Then they went off. ¶ That afternoon I went to bed for three hours, and have not had my clothes off since then, except for a rare bath. That was four days ago. It is extraordinary how one can dispense with the ordinary ways of civilization, and I find without sleep as well. I think we all do, but I have the great advantage of being able to tuck in an hour or two anytime the moment offers and yet not seem to miss it. Sunday night was almost like the last one, except that we had no sprints. The cantine closed even quicker after the aclert and we made for the same abri where we stayed all night, and the bombardment was a good deal heavier than before, and the abri fuller. As before we stood flat up against the wall or sat like Turks, when the crashes were not too near. When we came out in the morning we saw what concerned us very nearly, the flames from a rather distant store containing our extra supply of provisions! They were gone, and they represented a good deal of skillful buying on R’s part as well as money. We opened the cantine

[p. 3] again at four Aa.Mm., and it went quite cheerfully all day, but the Ggeneral sent an order it should close for the present from 8 P.M. to 4 A.M. This means that we do not wait for an aslert but shut up and leave for the night, and we now go to the great wine caves, which towards evening every day they gather in the entire populace. It is an extraordinary sight to see the people streaming down the roads leading to them, carrying great bundles of blankest, or bedding, or pushing these things in baby carriages, or little carts, women, children, babies, carrying or being carried. One of the most pathetic is a push cart piled high with bedding/surmounted with a feather bed, and on this a feeble old woman, and a little further such a tottering lame old couple, who can scarcely walk, helping each other along.

When actually in the caves, the scene is incredibly picturesque, a kind of barndoor entrance, and then great stone vaulted galleries running straight into the hillside, such a mountain as the Pied Piper might have opened for his troop of children, only I cannot say it suggests their delights! It is packed full of humanity, double rows down each gallery, with just room to pick one’s way between prostrate forms. Some lie on heaps of rags, one feels in a free lodging house of the poorest order. Others have set up their beds and one looks into the most complete domestic scene, perhaps a lantern and an alarm clock over their heads and the whole family comfortably ensconced. One such was a most picture-book party; from under a huge feather bed appeared a man, and his wife, withand the perkiest little baby sitting up between them;. and Eeach step one takes bring one into the intimacy of a different ménage and one sees all in the flickering light of candles, in the dark shadows of the rock room. It looked at first despairingly impossible to find a spot in which to establish ourselvesoneself, but the galleries seemed to extend on and on and we were finally conducted to a remote quite empty one; as far as I could understand it was empty because far away and not rock. The guard however said it was absolutely safe, as we had fifteen metres of dirt on top of us. Here we established ourselves on steamer chairs we had taken, and wrapped up in blankets to keep warm. It was the coldest, dankest atmosphere I have ever felt in my life, and smelt so strongly of death weone felt as though wethey must surely have waked up in ourtheir coffins after being buried a hundred years.

After two nights spent standing up, a steamer chair with a cushion behind myones head seemed bliss, and I slept or dosed quite a lot, and found my old capacity of not minding noise most useful. Many were kept wide awake by crying children and snoring adults. Before four those of us who were to open the cantine turned out, and were not altogether sorry to escape from the bowels of the earth. There had been no bombardment. It is no joke opening the cantine at that hour, by the light of candles, with everything cold, and the fires mostly out, and a crowd of men who have been waiting to get in, and must be fed at once to catch trains. Everything in the way of dishes areis left dirty from the night before, and the cooks, considerably demoralized, don’t come, except the coffee man. I came back for a wash and breakfast ∧and then spent the morning at the cantine, as Gen.- had sent an officer to say that he was coming to talk about an abri being built for us, the result of Mr. Davison’s concern. That afternoon Miss Ely came over from her place to see how we were. The storehouse being burned made many people think the cantine had gone, and we had various visits of condolance or sympathy. Gen.- did not come until we were having supper. He was very nice, and anxious to know where we slept and on what, and seemed to think the caves a bit plebian. R- had already gotten an army tent which he was planning to put up outside the town, and we have all been supplied with shrapnel helmets.

I have forgotten to say how awfully nice the American military police have been to us personally (they were ordered to more or less spend the nights where we did, and look after us in every way!, but much more how finely they have behaved, and also some ambulance men in the night of greatest horror, when in the bombardment we saw from the bridge a torpedo crashed through a house and killed those who had taken refuge in the cellar. There was a big relief party trying to dig them out, when those fiendish avions seeing them by the light they had to work by, tried to drop a bomb squarely on them, and came very near. We heard thatmany people in the town have spoken of how the Americans worked.

[p. 4] I have gotten I think to Tuesday night, which we spent in another cave. A French nurse friend told us about it and offered us some of her brancards to put up there. M., Hmme. D, and I were in it. We had scarcely gotten settled when the bombardment began. It sounded quite different from what it had in the little abri, more like a majestic storm with an occasional crash, and a queer resounding echo in the cave. It went on and one from nine to about two-thirty, but it did not by any means keep me continuously awake. I slept a great deal in spite of it, and about four, as it had been quiet for some time, I grasped my helmet and crept out to go to the cantine (the others to open it were in another cave.) It was still bright moonlight, and there was another of those ghastly fire glows, in the direction of the cantine. I felt sure however it was not that, but some supplies that had been set on fire before.

When I reached the cantine my heart sank, Tthe bureau door was swinging on its hinges, and the first words of∧Miss Rogers’ (who had already arrived) first words were “Yyour poor dear cantine”. I thought of course all of it had gone except the part I stood in, and then I began to look around and take notice. Everywhere was shattered glass, and torn paper (of which many of our windows are made), and splintered door frames, and the remains of torn shutters; and soot lay thick on everything; and a piercing cold wind blew through. All comfort and beauty seemed suddenly like chaff that had gone. But the main/thing was to get something hot for the frozen men who were waiting. Struggling with soot and almost frozen fingers we managed before long to get something out on the counter, and at the same time to be more and more convinced by what a miracle the cantine was still there. OneThe bomb or torpedo had struck within about fifty feet, while∧outside, another, a little farther away, had completely ruined a big wooden building. They had torn off every bit of our wood work, and the tiled roof looked as if struck by a torpedo, but they had not even cracked the walls. What made one feel worse was the conviction that now they had come so near, it was only a question of time, when they would get it, a pessimist’s view, which I have gotten over now, and feel that we will surely escape. We have been altogether so fortunate, we cannot feel thankful enough. We have several signs around our own house to make us feel this also. A house scarcely a block away, a complete ruin! We have nothing but a few broken window panes, dislocated window frames, and a little hole through the wall of our laundry, which is a sort of extension room on the ground floor. None of these things need to make you the least nervous, for now that we repair with great caution every night to shelter it is quite safe. There has been practically no one killed the last few times. It is in the beginning of these things the harm is done, when no one realizes what is coming.

Wednesday morning Dr. Flint and an American officer turned up at the cantine and were so nice, because they had been all along the front and told us the most encouraging things, of the battle, and how well everything was surely coming out, also how vitally important our work might be here to make everyone feel this, from cooks to poilus, and so help to spike the Germans plans of a defeatist offensive along with his other. They were so earnest and so convinced that they left us feeling quite inspired with a new mission.

That afternoon Mildred turned up, to my great relief, as I was beginning to feel worried about her, having heard no word since she left. We have had two or three quiet nights now, and things seem to be returning to the normal; also a change of weather makes us begin to build hopes of a night in bed. The cave I sleep in now however/is much drier than the first and except for people who already have colds, it does not seem to hurt them.

This is already too long, and I must stop, as I have other letters to get off by some one who is leaving tomorrow. Have just heard news of Dorothy’s baby. Fancy being great aunts!

No end of love to you all.

Ffrom your devoted Nan

My Fellow Soldiers