As part of the World War I centennial commemorations which are slowly taking shape in the US and in full flight over there in Europe, the Massachusetts Historical Society has assembled an exhibition entitled Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country: Massachusetts Women in the First World War, the centerpiece of which are the nearly 250 photographs taken by Newton textile heiress Margaret Hall, who left her comfortable life in the summer of 1918 to take up work at a Red Cross canteen in France. Hall was 42 at the time, but she had been a history major at Bryn Mawr, and it is very clear to me–from both her photographs and their captions and the letters assembled in the accompanying book Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country: the World War I Memoir of Margaret Hall (ed. by Margaret R. Higonnet with Susan Solomon)– that she felt honor-bound to record the devastation of the Great War. And that she did. Her photographs, which have all been digitized on the MHS website, fall into roughly three categories: life at the canteen, troop movements, and the ravages of war–the latter images include the French countryside, leveled cities (Ypres!!!! Verdun), and the battlefields, which look like wasteland and are labeled as such. She takes us (literally) into the trenches and shows us all the captured German ammunition: my favorite image is of a celebratory Paris at war’s end where a pile of German guns is topped by a triumphant French rooster. Hall takes care to show both life and death in the closing months of the war, and from her American perspective she clearly grasps the fact that this was the first world war, bringing men (and women) from all over the globe to live (and die) in France.
Just a few of Margaret Hall’s photographs:
French troops on the march.
“Miss Mitchell in her Garden”: Hall’s colleagues at the Red Cross canteen in Châlons-sur-Marne.
“Six Nationalities” at the Canteen.
“Our Sausage Balloon”
Reims Cathedral, “France triumphant rising out of her ruins”
“U.S.A. National Cemetery, Romagne–Argonne, June 1919”.
“Cock crowing for Victory“, Paris 1919.