The destination for history

Mildred: American WWI front-line witness


‘The Stars & Stripes are flying at my gate, and they are flying all over France. What is more they will be flying – if they are not already – over Westminster, for the first time in history.’ – Mildred Aldrich, April 8, 1917

So wrote an elated Mildred Aldrich when she could finally scream at the top of her voice her joy that her native United States was at last entering the war on the side of the Allies. She had ridden the gamut of emotions since her little part of France - a small hill-top house called La Creste with views across the Marne River and valley – had become under threat from German invasion in their bid to take Paris at the start of the war. Since that time she had done everything in her power to make her compatriots in the United States aware of the terrible suffering by having her memoirs ‘A Hilltop On The Marne’ published. Her story articulated the opening days of war, and what she observed and experienced living so close to the Battle of the Marne.

As far as Mildred was concerned her country, of which she was extremely proud, should have entered the war when the Germans sank the RMS Lusitania in 1915. She recalled her utter shame and disbelief that they did nothing at that time, and also remembered how those who knew her in the French community seemed embarrassed to mention it. This humiliation remained a raw wound for her. Mildred also became disillusioned by what she saw as shoddy journalism in some quarters, and her opinion of politics:

‘Day after day one reads things in the sheets that call themselves newspapers and knows that the truth is not there, and while politics – the curse of the modern world – are messing things up, one wishes one had the courage not to read the papers. It used to seem sometimes that it was wicked to find it all so interesting…’

Mildred’s thoughts of a hundred years ago seem to eerily chime those of the current world events – in both journalism and politics. It is sad then, after the passing of a whole century, that if Mildred was still here today she would shake her head in disbelief at the fact nothing has really changed in some respects in spite of the deprivations, horrors and loss so many experienced in her time.

On that jubilant day in 1917, her thoughts also turned to Captain Simpson who was the first British officer to march up to her house in 1914. In those days that seemed so surreal now, they sat and drank tea from china cups. Her heart broke that he was so long dead now. 

‘I remember his stern, bronzed, but kindly face, which lighted up so with a smile, as he sat with me at tea on that memorable Wednesday afternoon, and all that he did so simply to relieve the strain on our nerves that trying day. I know nothing about him – who he was – what he had for family – he was just a brave, kindly, human being, who had met me for a few hours, passed on – passed out [of life]. He is only one of thousands, but he is the one whose sympathetic voice I had heard who, in all the hurry and fatigue of those hard days, had time to stop and console us here, and whom I had hoped to see again; and I grieved with his men for him.’

Through Mildred’s experiences and first-hand accounts of living in such close proximity to the war in France, we get a real eye-opening view of what life was like for the rural French caught up behind the lines, and how they managed to live from day to day.

By David Slattery-Christy, author of Mildred on the Marne

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