Anna V. S. Mitchell to her sister Caroline Phelps Stokes
Courtesy National Archives, Washington, DC
Anna Mitchell worked at a Red Cross canteen in France for two years. Mitchell helped provide vital food services to both military personnel and civilians during the war. She continued helping after the Armistice and poignantly described the sad state of prisoners of war making their way home. They were nearly starving and lacked suitable clothing. The Italians, French, British, and Americans told her stories of being released from German camps without provisions or directions. 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.
[handwritten horizontally] [illegible] I want new tan hankies The rubbers are 2 pairs of storm 1 p tips All these packages will probably be lost in the move but if there is no other way to send them will have to buy it!
[handwritten] Chalons After Peace 1918 After Peace Please return 2 page
[typed with handwritten edits] Dearest Dear Caroline I wrote/last on the great day when we were going around telling ourselves it was really true, the war was fainished and won. I remember I was quite exhausted by night, I one had run around so, aa to so many diffaerent places, for no special reason, unless it was to get a flag or to put it up.
Since then it has become gradually a more recognized fact, though- everyone is busy with speculations and plans as to how it is going to finish off/and as to how its finish is going to affect ^his or her ones own individual oeuvre and occupation. and oOf course no one knows any thing definite. Everyone about the cantine has been asking x how long a life it would still have. To see it now one would not imagine it was anywhere near approaching its end, for it is jammed x full, morning, noon, and night. We have been very short of workers, and with all the little things there are to do, I have really had my days full, first for lack of them, and then because of them. ¶ Thursday, I think it was, the Red Cross finally decided to si/eze the opportunity of getting them down by camion, and seven were dropped at my door at seven o’clock. aAs hotel rooms here are quite unobtainable, it was lucky we had several empty ones here, so I could squeeze them all in for the night. and sSince then it has been a great work and fuss getting them into permanent quarters, though after showing them what there was, I have let them do most ^of the work themselves They are all ladies of years and dignity , and experienced cantiners, so I feel outr tone should be quite elevated. sSome of the lot before this x we thought more conducive to lowering it. There are so many now it is hard work to get them all on the program , and at the same time to keep the French ladies, when they come, feeling ^that they have enough to do . When once settled and at work I expect to have leisure x to write my family, and generally do all the things I ought to do and have left undone. It is perhaps these spells of comparoative leisure, combined with my excellent constitution x and ability not to worry, that makes it unnecessary for me ever to take permissions or to feel worn out. iIt would amuse my family, who remember the days of my being coddled and prevented from overtiring myself, to hear the general opinion here, that I am made of some diffierent stuff ^because I can do so much more work than most of them. tThis might opinion might be inconvenient if it sent led to everyone’s shoving work on oneme, but on the contrary every~one here is very nice, in having a fixed idea that I don’t spare myself and ^M jumping at any chance to do my work for me. It is very unromantic not to be worn out by the war. I shall be almost ashamed to present my prosperous healthy physiology^person at home. I have about decided hthat if I have ever been in a feeble state of health it has only been because I did not have enough to do!
But I must hurry up and get on with my letter. I am enjoying the unique experience of having the sitting room to myself, and any xmoment Mme. deL- may come in. wWhen she is in the house, and Marjorie not here to form be her liste/ner, it is all up with serious occupations.
[p. 2] no ¶ She is down here now with a bad cold, staying on from day to day, and demanding waiting on, entertainment, and conversation. bBut though occupaying, it is very nice to have her. I find her me even her most persistent small talk a great relief from that of Mrs. F- When she came down ten/days ago for a night, and Smith was taking her back, I decided to go up x to have a few moments’ talk with M- about future plans. and Mrs. F.- also went. Smith’s usual bad luck persued^ pursued him and we had two punctures on the way. and As we had only started in the afternoon there wuas clearly no going back that night. New ¶ We found M- and Miss R- in the midst of their ruined town, in an unexp^ectedly cosy, attractive room, the only with the dining room, the only really intact one, in the great rambling partly destroyed house. Tthey had discovered, in remote corners of it, too or three bits of nice furniture, which with the plain white walls x gave the room a pretty Ffrench air. They rather resented being told they were comfortable, as they have always diescribed their housex in terms of hardship, and I must admit their bedrooms lacked comfort and, most conspicuously, warmth. M- said that only the day before had paper been put in her windows, and that I could not judge on a dry night how the rain had come through. New ¶ We dined most superiorily on lobster which Robin had brought sent up, and Smith got taken back by two American officers who came in and had to be given dinner. and Mrs F- and I spent the night in the sitting room. To spend the night without articles of toilet x means noting to me now. I have become so much a barbarian ^that I simply curl up and sleep in my clothes, and consider ^that in thatcold weather they have great advantages. ¶ Their raison d’etre for being in - - is a long improvised table across the door of a large room . They or the men working for them ststand behind it and pour free coffee from brocs, then carry them back to an outside little kitchen where the men make it. Tthe cantine room is furnished with a few chairs and tables, rather rough and dingy looking, but picturesque when filled with a crowd. The men seem more friendly and talkative with one than they do in these more elaborate surroundings here, and I liked pouring coffee there, until the coffee gave out, which I believe happens much of the time, - the difficulty of primitive arrangements. ¶ Next morning there were very few men coming in and we wandered/around the town. It was very impressive in its ruins and with a kind of beauty , when lines of convoys came through it. The destruction seemed so recent! One house, through which a bomb had apparently fallen , had everything in it still, - the sewing machine, and the little photographs and mirrors on the walls, strangely unbroken. There was a very beautifully kept cemetery , where thousands of Germansx are buried, having died, ^sothe inscriptions state, “ for God, the King and the Fatherland”. Aand how many thousands of French lie buried for their country in that vicinity! There are of course lots of German signs around. h The house of the cantine was used as an officers’ mess, and in the kitchen I found a slate, with evidently the last menu, a Sonnetag abends essen. It sounded quite good. They were also provided arranged for amusement with a bowling alley , in the midst of which I discovered, and stept gingerly over, an unexploded shell.
¶ The cantine was comparatively empty during the day. Tthe fourth Aarmy had moved away , and their reason for being there ^was about finished, except that prisoners out of Germany had started coming through , and/about four in the afternoon they began again. x You have never seen or imagined such pathetic figures, everyone emaciated, in stra^nge ragged garments, parts of German uniforms, or old French,^ones pinched and cold looking, -for it was freezing weather. They streamed in and asked for food, a bit of bread or anything . Bbread, chocolate, and cigarettes were all we had to give them , except that the men prepared as quickly as they could some canned soup . Tthey came into the cantine and huddled around the cooking fires in the yard, and we took the food out to them. Tthere were Italians, French, English, and Americans. The English were in far the worst condition . Oone man ^was scarcely able to stand, I led ^him at once to a chair by the fire, and we only dared to give him ^only liquid food.
[p.3] Tthe others with him looked almost as badly off. Aall were like some exaggerated stage representation of starved and maltreated prisoners. One seldom sees in real life anything so extreme. They practically all agreed that the German people x had very little more to eat than was given to them, but that gave no excuse for their treatment, - being made to work long hours/with blows if they were ill , and even being kicked when they were dying. Tthe stamp of misery and suffering x was so strong in the faces x of all, but the Ffrench could still smile and say things with their gentle touch of “esprit”. The English seemed absolutely cowed. but Iit went to one’s heart with all of the to hear their thank/yous for the little one could give. They had all just walked away from their captors, getting some~way the knowledge they could go, though the Germans seem never to have told them so. Eeither the gates were simply lifted, or their guards removed, or they met other priso^ners going towards Ffrance. and Oof course they started out x with no provisions whatever, and with only a vague idea of their direction. Tthey said the women in Belgium had been very good to them, giving them a little food even when it me^ant depriving themselves. The Americans were naturally the physically worn/out, as they had been there a shorter x time, and they seem to have showed a good deal of spirit, and been consequentlyg less bullied. Ssome of them said they passed the night concocting tales to tell the Germans in the day, putting just enough truth in them to have them believed. Tthey appear to have been of a truly terrifying nanature as to what the Americans had ^doneand were going to do. ¶ When the camion came to get Mrs. F, and me x the prisoners were coming in such crowds ^that I decided to stay to stay for the night. , and Wwe kept in all evening feeding them. Wwe were afraid our provisions would give out so and I, with a long line of these poor pathetic remnants of humanity trailing after me, ^went to find the military post, where we were told they would be fed. But this turned out to be futile ^as no provisions had been made for them, and I had to take them back to the cantine , to be fed as long as our supplies lasted, which they just about did for that evening . We could offer them nowhere to sleep, except the floor of a the cantine, and many of them spent the night splitting wood and keeping up the fires in the court.
[handwritten] ¶ Next morning, as our supplies had given out, I started back very early, & hustled around here, to get Carrions bread supplies. I was met at this Cantine by a horde of some of these same prisoners. We gave, in one day, fifteen hundred free meals to them. They were the same pathetic creatures I have described, but we had here less time to hear their stories. In a few days they had practically passed. ¶ I have not been back to Vouzier. Having had plenty to do here, & they having not so much there. This letter has been written despite the most distracting interruptions, trailed on for several days, & I am now, in despair, going to get it
[p. 4] off. I continue my life’s history in this letter. As several fear I have left Xmas too late, if not please get the children presents from me, including of course Lucy. You know about what I would spend on them if I were there, somewhere around $5- $6, or $7 dollars a piece, though I doubt if one can now buy in America as much as a thumbtack for that amount And do get something for yourself if there is anything you want, or if not; let us call off presents between ourselves for this time It seems so commercial to be all having money, our lot will always exchange will we not?
Ever your devoted Nan Thanksgiving Day
S.P. inclosed ^is the order for sending a pair of shoes Would be the high ones I wrote for, a miss-fit for you, or made by your shoe maker for you, the other a pair of oxfords x for this spring, leather No 53654 562 Alexanders