Elsie S. Church, 2000, Steps Retraced

A Weekend in Eastern France: 21-23 July, 2000
A revisit to the sites described by my mother Elsie S. Church in her journal and letters of 1918-1919: En Voyage, Bay-sur-Aube, Intervalle, and Nanteuille-la-Fosse

Friday, July 21, 2000

From Paris I set out for Bay-sur-Aube in the cool morning air early on a Friday in our small and “friendful” rented Peugeot accompanied by my new friend parisienne Catherine Lion-Meric, as navigateur.  After a hesitant start at the Pte. de Clignancourt we attained the peripherique interieur and rocketed east and south toward the exit for Dijon—the electronic panels overhead announcing the route ahead to be “toujours FLUIDE”.

I had written to Bay in June in the hope of having some advanced help in finding things there as I had no photos of Bay, my mother having not received a camera from home until June of 1919 in Paris.  The mayor had answered me (by e-mail) and Catherine had confirmed by phone that we were to meet in Bay at ten.

Through Langres, off the A-31, then turning north at Auberive we came into Bay and turned left over a small stone bridge to see a couple of boys.  We asked the way to the mairie.  They pointed ahead and there on the sidewalk in the dappled sunlight stood five men obviously in casual attendance upon our arrival.  We were greeted by M. le maire, Henri Lodiot, who introduced us to M. Edgar Cudel (Bay historian), M. Rene Rousselet (village doyen, 86), Mr. Sebastian Price (Englishman, owner of the Chateau), and M. Jean Royer (a local genealogist).  All were gracious and obviously delighted to meet us.  They ushered us into the one cavernous village schoolroom in the back of the mairie where we sat at a huge wooden table and talked for two hours.

00072108_BayGroupRousselet, a contemporary of Cécile Mongin, remembered her and the family with whom Elsie had beeen billeted; we were later shown the house where she had a room on the second floor and where the Orderly Room had been on the ground floor. He remembered the (Co. F) cook who was wont to chase the kids away when they gathered around looking hopefully for handouts.  M. Royer had sought out that Cécile had died a few years previously in Marseilles at the age of eighty-one.  When shown some of Elsie’s photos taken at Le Bourget M. Cudel revealed his interest in antique airplanes and so I gave him my copies of the pictures. He had been a navigator in the French air force.

We gave them, too, a copy of Elsie’s letters and journal whereupon the Englishman offered to translate it into French for use by M. Cudel in his plans for a Bay historical retrospective to be held in the summer of 2001— and to which he invited us.

At noon the mayor had to leave for another appointment but before he left glasses appeared, a bottle of champagne, and a basket of pink frosted champagne biscuits.  We toasted Elsie and the AEF and some others and stepped out into the sunlight for a round of photos in the courtyard.

00072111_BsA_CudelHouseAt once it became clear that we were to stay for déjuner at the home of M. Cudel.  His house sat above the now disused lavarie in the square on a steep open street with a view of the town amid terraces of plants and beautiful flowers.  His wife Janine had prepared a lovely gourmet lunch in the French style:  pineapple with homemade mayonnaise, red wine, a delicious pork dish with fruit and cheese, followed by a lemon sorbet scooped in the center to accommodate a small pool of triple-sec.

We were then taken on an auto tour of the high ground above Bay with views toward Vitry across the valley of the Aube.  We saw the traces of a Roman road, the village of Germaines, and ended above Bay at the ancient Roman church.  Along the way Mr. Price revealed to us that above the town runs a straight “magnetic” line having tangible effects upon people in the region.  He cited as proof of the magnetic theory a “line” many miles long in England discovered when it was realized that all the churches lying on it were dedicated to St. Mark.  Catherine and I gradually came to the conclusion that Mr. Price was somewhat of an otherworldly visionary.

In the churchyard at Bay a majestic lime tree stands planted, they told us, along with others in churchyards all over France, to commemorate the Edict of Nantes.  Mr. Price expounded upon how, on a certain day of the year, the sun at its rising, shines through a narrow opening above the altar of the church casting a light exactly in the center of (or at least upon some spot of significance on) the opposite wall; the implication being that the church had been originally and mystically oriented toward this end.  Catherine and I accepted these revelations as colorful if somewhat fanciful.

1921_BayElsie'sHutM. Royer showed us the field immediately adjacent to the churchyard where Elsie’s “hut” had once stood [1]. The hut had been razed many decades earlier but we all convinced ourselves that we could find, in the churchyard wall, the spot where the doughboys had temporarily “liberated” stones for Elsie’s cheminée only to have had to replace them at the behest of an irate mayor.

Mr. Price took us on a brief tour of the Chateau.  His quick reading of the journal in the morning had led him to believe that Elsie had described an evening spent there but, in rereading her words, I think the chateau she described was not in Bay but in Germaines or in Aulnay nearby.

Promises were made to exchange photos and to stay in touch at least until the next summer.

M. Cudel drove us the three kilometers to Vitry. I wanted to walk back to Bay by the road that Elsie had so often taken after her visits to Juliette Whiton.  In Vitry Edgar made a few inquiries aimed at finding where Juliette had been stationed and billeted but there was no one old enough to make the eighty-one year connection.

France2000019Edgar left us.  We walked back to Bay along the side of the hill overlooking the valley of the Aube in the early evening sunlight— in France in July it stays light until eleven.  The valley was green and beautiful and of course I thought of my mother on this same walk so long ago.  We then came back into Bay and took our leave in the car; back through Auberive (literally, Aube riverbank) and on to Troyes where we had a Youth Hostel reservation.

Catherine had made a reservation at an andouillette specialty restaurant where we had a pleasant dinner.  Andouillette is akin to tripe and is, in fact, a tripe sausage famously favored in the Troyes region.  Catherine suggested that I might not like it and suggested I try something else, which I did.  I tasted hers and remained doubtful about whether it really could have been to my liking.

Outside the hostel we searched in vain for a comet that I had heard about.

Saturday, July 22, 2000

Catherine had not seen much of eastern France and we both remarked the “big-sky” flatness of the region we traversed between Troyes and the valley of the Marne.  We were on our way north to Hautvillers in the Champagne region armed this time with some photographs that Elsie had taken in the summer and fall of 1919 during her time in Nanteuille-la-Fosse with the Brits of the American Red Cross.

00072217_BsA_ClmBouquet
Catherine and Mme. Boquet

We had a picture of Mme. Legal and her son Leandre taken in front of an iron gate in Hautvillers, a town of about five-hundred houses; we hoped to find the gate.  After having drawn a blank at the tourist acceuil, although there were very few people out and about, we began accosting souls in the street to show them the photo.  A man said “Je ne sais pas, mais Mme. Boquet saura“.  The Mme. was called from her gate, threw open her casement above, and a minute later descended into her court— she is the sole and aging owner, we were told, of La Cave Dom Perignon.  “Ah. Je crois que c’est par la“, and we followed her around a corner.  “Voila“, she said.  But no; similar gate and details (a local founder undoubtedly made all the gates in the region and put upon them his mark) but not right.  “Alors, par ici” and we followed her around another corner but, again, not the one.  While the three puzzled in the street I found a young man, showed him the picture and he said, “Suivez moi“.  He led me down through steep back courts, pigs and geese scattering as we went, emerged on a lower street, walked down a couple of doors, pointed, and said, “C’est la“.  And he was right.

It was lots of fun.  We took photos. The lady of the house came out and now, of course, we had to send her a copy of the pictures too.

After déjuner at a nice restaurant we drove along the Marne through the vinyards and then north to the high ground of the Montagne de Reims and to the village of Nanteuille-la-Fosse (now la-Forêt) where Elsie had lived and worked during the summer and fall with the British Quaker ladies of the American Red Cross.

We wanted to find the house for which we had a picture of the courtyard containing a military truck and of a circular pool in the backyard as well as some others around the town.  After a disappointing hour or so of wandering around (the streets were empty) peering at the pictures we found a young man mowing his side yard.  He cut his mower and we showed him the photos one after another: “Pas a Nanteuille. Pas a Nanteuille. Pas…“.  We began to think we were in the wrong town.  Then:

Mais, Mme. Trinquart saura, parceque son marie ramasse les cartes postales anciennes de la ville.”  So, next door, the bell was pulled, Mme. came out into her court and let us in.  She looked at the picture, spread her gaze and her arms expansively and said, “Mais oui.  C’est ici!”  And sure enough, of hundreds of houses in the village, we happened by chance to be standing in the very courtyard we sought [2].

She led us through her house and there, in the back, was the little circular pool of Elsie’s photo, filled with grass and no longer “reflecting the mood of the sky above”.  We found the site of several of the other pictures, too, and one man (a M. Marcoup) asked me to send him a copy of the old photo of his street.

At Verzy that evening we visited Les Arbres Faux (a disappointment) and stayed at the hostel there.

Sunday, July 23, 2000

I had hoped to follow parts of Elsie’s battlefield tour but Catherine didn’t have much interest in that.  So we drove to Reims in the morning and got her a ticket to Paris and then spent the time until her train visiting the Cathedral.  I dropped her off at the station and headed off for the WWI front to the east, eventually reaching as far as Fort Douaumont at Verdun.

I had a couple of pictures.  One of the village of Forges— completely razed by battle.  And one of a wrecked house by the road.  There was one that I didn’t actually have with me but was pretty sure had been taken at Vauquois (Elsie’s “Split Hill”).

In the Argonne forest, after having visited a massive and sombre French monument and having revisited the Crown Prince’s Dugout [3], I parked by the side of the road more or less at random in an isolated stretch and walked into the forest.  All of the trees are the same size— eighty-two years old.  I hadn’t walked thirty meters before I came to a decaying battlefield trench deep over my head and zig-zagging off into the forest in each direction.  Ten or twenty meters farther on there was another one.  As far as the forest would permit a vista the “level” ground above the trenches was scalloped on a scale of three to six meters into an endless sea of huge “waves” each about one meter from trough to crest— the ancient shell holes now overgrown with low brush and trees.  My father, Kerr Atkinson, saw service in this region in 1918, but nearer to Grand Pré and Thiaucourt.

I passed through Varennes where Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were arrested and returned to Paris after their attempted escape during the Revolution.

1919 ForgesAt Vauquois I told the Mme. at the visitor center I had a picture taken in 1919.  She wanted me to send it (and I later did.  She says it’s on display there now).  At Forges I drove through town from the direction of the former Cumières and then turned around having passed a group of gay people sitting at tables. I asked if it was a restaurant and  they said no but beckoned me over anyhow.  I showed them the photo of Forges and they passed it all around amazed— for it showed not a brick or stone standing; nothing but a hand-painted road sign indicating the center of town.  They offered me a beer and I stayed for a while to chat.

I stopped for a minute at Le Mort Homme, finding trenches in the forest there as well, and then went on to Verdun and Fort Douaumont where the massive iron view-ports and gun turrets are slowly rusting away on the crest of the fortification.  I looked for my mother’s “queer little narrow-gauge railway” but didn’t have time really to search it out— if, indeed, it still exists.

From Verdun I went on to the A-4 to Verzy again where the hostel lady was upset that I was too late for dinner for which I had made a reservation.  The next morning I briefly revisited Nanteuille and Hautvillers  on my way back to Paris to meet Catherine for dinner at her bureau in the rue Le Courbe.


[1] Elsie revisited Bay on her honeymoon in August of 1921 and took a photograph of the church with her “hut” on the right in the foreground.  She noted at that time: “… my hut is still there, ivy and all.”

[2] I have to wonder about this “chance”.  Upon returning home to Weston I found later some further photographs taken by my mother when we were in France in 1939 as a family when I was fourteen.  I have a diary entry for July 23rd in which I note that we “saw… the house [in Hautvillers] where she stayed”.  However, one of the 1939 photo’s is of the same courtyard in Nanteuille leading me to know that I had actually seen the house myself sixty-one years ago.  I have no recollection whatever of this particular visit but I have to wonder whether something other than chance urged me to stop next door to that particular house to query a young man mowing his side yard.

[3] There is a photo of Holley and me taken at this dugout in 1939.


William C. Atkinson, Weston, MA, 10/23/00


 

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