Whether describing keeping warm in a cold-water fat, making change in a language she imperfectly under- stands or trekking across the bare hillocks and deep trenches of the battlefield at Douaumont, France, Margaret Hall’s voice is steady, self-deprecating and shrewd. At 42, Hall was among the elite Americans who could afford to pay their room, board and other expenses during volunteer service. Educated at Bryn Mawr, trained as a historian and comfortable in French and German, Hall brought other talents as well: a keen eye for detail and a gift for photography. All of these aspects are on display in Battle Country: The World War I Memoir of Margaret Hall, Hall’s 1919 recollections of a year spent in France during the closing months of World War I and its aftermath. Serving food and coffee to soldiers at a railroad station at Châlons-sur-Marne (today Châlonsen-Champagne), she was one of more than 16,000 American women who volunteered alongside the 2 million American soldiers who poured into France and helped turn the tide against Germany. Hall’s never-before published memoir and photographs are put in context by thoughtful historical commentary.
Raised in a wealthy Boston family, Hall had visited Europe with her mother, whetting a lifelong appetite for travel and adventure. As Hall put it, “In my day you could not get married and see the world. I chose to see the world.” What she saw in wartime France, though, felt unreal: “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.”
Fortunately, the camera she smuggled into the country allowed her to leave a remarkable record of what she witnessed: soldiers of various nationalities, volunteer aid workers and the destruction of French towns and cathedrals. Her deepest interest lay in seeing the combat zone, however, and she managed to do so briefly, after the war had ended, when she hitchhiked around northern France. Her photographs of deep and narrow trenches, the skeleton of a German soldier and an overturned German tank on a terrain as bleak as the moon bring the war home as no words can.
Hall’s mournful photographs contrast with her brisk and sensible commentary. She chides the shortsightedness and chauvinism of American soldiers who complain about the scarcities and rough conditions in France after experiencing comparative abundance in German POW camps. And she displays breathtakingly steady nerves—staying in her fat during a bombing when others had headed to underground shelters and commenting, after learning of the suicide of two sisters who had also volunteered in France, that “super-sensitive people should not come here.”
Hall would return to run the family business in Hull, Mass. But she spent the last months of her service helping wounded soldiers and refugees and documenting the deep commitment of the French to honor the servicemen who had lost their lives. Although some 70 percent of American soldiers killed in the war were shipped home for burial, the others were laid to rest in France, where the locals tenderly decorated their graves.
Originally published in the February 2015 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.