Through her eyes: Exhibit offers glimpse of WWI through diaries of Hatfield woman

  • Hatfield native Marian Billings, pictured in 1918, served as a Red Cross canteen worker in World War I. An exhibit at the Hatfield Historical Museum gives a glimpse into her service in France through diaries and photographs.  STAFF PHOTO/LUIS FIELDMAN

  • Hatfield native Marian Billings’ journal provides a personal, firsthand account of World War I in France.  STAFF PHOTO/LUIS FIELDMAN

  • Marian Billings’ passport is on display at the Hatfield Historical Museum.  STAFF PHOTO/LUIS FIELDMAN

Staff Writer 
Published: 5/25/2019 7:02:11 PM

HATFIELD — Around a century ago, Marian C. Billings left her family’s tobacco farm on Main Street at the age of 37 to join the Red Cross as a canteen worker during World War I. Of the 103 people from Hatfield who enlisted to serve in “the war to end all wars,” she was the only woman. 

A new exhibit curated by the Hatfield Historical Society shares stories of Billings’ time nursing and feeding soldiers from 1918-1919 in France, as well as presents stories pieced together about the town’s WWI soldiers.

“Through Marian’s Eyes: A Red Cross Canteen Worker Recounts World War I” opens on Sunday at the Historical Society Museum at 39 Main St., which is directly across the street from Billings’ old farmhouse, and runs until next spring. 

Also on display are wartime photographs and the flapper-style dress Billings wore to a Victory Dance in France. Descendants of Billings donated the collection to the town’s historical society, and now the public can learn from her firsthand account of the Great War. 

“She not only tells about what it was like to be a canteen worker — what they ate, what they served and when the guys came through — but she tells lots of stories about the soldiers,  ‘the boys,’ as she calls them,” Kathie Gow, curator of the exhibit, said on Saturday. “You get the war through her eyes. She had some maturity and a thoughtfulness, and her journals are quite moving.” 

The opening will coincide with Hatfield’s Memorial Day parade and ceremony at Town Hall. From 10 a.m. to 11 a.m., the exhibit will be open to the public, and it will re-open at 1:30 p.m., after the parade. The Hatfield Memorial Day parade begins at 12:30 p.m. at the American Legion Post 344 and will proceed down Maple Street to Main Street, culminating with a ceremony at Town Hall. 

On opening day, from 1:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m., there will also be a recreation of a Red Cross tent in front of the museum. Two local high school students will be dressed as Red Cross canteen workers, wearing uniforms modeled after Marian’s, and will serve refreshments. 

A stark picture of the war emerges from the selected passages of Billings’ journal that Gow has printed on small cards for the public to read.

“Last night a group of shell shocked patients came in,” Billings wrote in an entry dated September 11, 1918. “It was pitiful to see them, some of them unable to keep from throwing their arms, and heads and legs.” 

A passage from October 12, 1918 reads: “Always here one does the best one can and forget that things were ever different. It’s a great game to play. Granted you haven’t knitting needles — how are you going to mend a boy’s sweater? Wire hairpins did the work splendidly.” 

One hundred years after the formal end to the Great War, Gow said that curating the exhibit served as an impetus to rediscover  the history of those who served in WWI from Hatfield.

Although the town knew the names of those who served, not much else was known about them, Gow said. In speaking with descendants, there were vague recollections of their relative’s service, and many WWI artifacts donated to the historical society simply listed to whom they belonged. 

“We talked to a lot of people who thought they had someone in World War I,” she said. “They didn’t know what service they were in, what unit or where they served — or they didn’t really have any stories.” 

“The details had been lost,” said Cher Nicholas, president of the Hatfield Historical Society.

A volunteer at the historical society, Rob Wilson, took an investigative dive into old Hampshire Gazette articles from the World War I-era kept at the Forbes Library and discovered some of the histories of the 103 Hatfield natives who served in the war. The Gazette collection at Forbes includes excerpts of letters that were written by soldiers and published in the newspaper.

“It’s a real ground-level view of the war,” Wilson said. “And none of these individuals glorified the war. They were doing their duty and being realistic. It’s really informative and eye-opening as to the war, learning about the culture and mindset of the time.” 

Those from Hatfield who served varied in age from teenagers to those in their mid-40s, according to Wilson. Listed occupations for the soldiers include laborers, tradespeople, farmers, doctors, merchants and students. Of the 103 that served, the only fatality was Marcus G. Mullins, 26, who joined the Army in July 1918. He died during training from the Spanish flu, a disease that killed millions worldwide. 

One Hatfield soldier, Peter Balise, lived on Chestnut Street and joined the National Guard in October 1917, according to Wilson. On April 19, 1918, he wrote to his brother, “My new home is in Company K of 103d [Infantry] Regiment, an outfit that already has some reputation as a fighting unit over here.”

“Believe me,” he continued, “they are real men and a bunch who knew how to show a newcomer a welcome that spells ‘one of us.’”

“There’s a lot of valuable lessons in it all,” Wilson said. “Part of Memorial Day is an opportunity to learn those lessons and sacrifices of the men and women involved in war and who, in too many cases, gave their lives.” 

Luis Fieldman can be reached at lfieldman@gazettenet.com. 

 


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