August 2014 Articles

On the Western Front

A Mawrter goes to war.


By Nancy Brokaw


“M.H. ready to sail”: Margaret Hall, Class of 1899, before shipping out to France.

The guns are banging away at the front…. We’ve got the hardest part of the line near us, where there is terrific fighting and terrific mortality.”

So wrote Margaret Hall about her experiences during World War I. An 1899 graduate of Bryn Mawr, Hall worked for women’s suffrage, traveled to Cuba—and, in the waning days of the Great War, sailed across the Atlantic as a Red Cross volunteer.
Her first assignment was a desk job, but she wanted to see action. She got her wish when she was assigned to a Red Cross canteen near the front lines—just in time for the last major battle of the war.

Hall took photographs and wrote letters home—materials she would later compile into Letters and Photographs from the Battle Country, 1918 and 1919. No one knows whether she intended to publish, but the final manuscript is a fascinating—and polished—product.

One hundred years later, two Mawrters—Margaret R. Higonnet ’63 and Elizabeth Reilly ’14—have rediscovered Hall. An edition of Letters and Photographs, edited by Higonnet, was published recently by the Massachusetts Historical Society. Meanwhile, Reilly has been poring over one of the four extant copies of the manuscript, held in the College’s Special Collections. Together with Curator for Manuscripts and Rare Books Marianne Hansen, Reilly is hard at work on an online exhibition devoted to Hall.

A self-described “history nerd,” Reilly was impressed by the photographs: “Hall was both fascinated and horrified by the amount of destruction [and]… the majority of her photographs are scenes of desolate land, abandoned weapons, destroyed buildings, and graves.”

Reilly was struck, too, by Hall’s prescience. When a German prisoner told her, “Just wait six years,” she wrote, “I think they have no intention of remaining a conquered nation longer than that.”

Responding to that spine-chilling anecdote, Reilly observes: “Seven years after the war ended, Adolf Hitler published Mein Kampf.



Click the images for a closer look.


“Town ‘Caves,’ Châlons”: To escape the bombardments, Hall and her fellow workers took shelter underground.












“Anywhere in France in the ‘Zone des Armées.”










“France triumphant rising out of her ruins, Nov. 12, 1918.”














“On the little foot path into Fort de la Laufée”: The WWI death toll, both military and civilian, has been estimated at 16 million.