Connecting With My Grandfather

During May of 2011 my wife and I traveled to France to visit one of the areas where my maternal grandfather was stationed in World War I.

The 90 plus letters that he sent home while stationed oversees not only provided information about the various locations and his activities but they also gave us an insight into him as a person. It is from having his letters that I have been encouraging people to record their own stories and their family history.

Read some of his letters at Alenjes Publishing

While there was no "genealogical research" done on this trip it was researching my family's history while making some of our own.

Several newspaper articles told of the trip.

A shorter version of this article was translated into French and published in the municipal bulletin of Is-sur-Tille France - Is ci et là.

  • Part 1: September 2011 - Page 20

  • Part 2: January 2012 - Page 25

[unfortunately online copies are no longer available]

Connecting With My Grandfather

By Jeffrey A. Bockman

Original article posted August 16, 2011.

My grandfather John G. Stevenson died on 1 Feb 1924 when my mother was only three years old. She has only a few memories of him. The letters that he sent home while he was stationed in France during World War One are the one thing that has given my mother and me a little insight into him as a person, his interests, and his activities. They also provide information about the places that he was stationed, including Camp Williams.

Photo of John G. Stevenson in 1917 with his first daughter Sarah (Sally) >

I was delighted to find information about Camp Williams on the following websites:

When I first contacted the historical society I was hoping that someone could give me an idea about where to find some of the locations that my grandfather had described in his letters. What I received was much more.

John G. Stevenson (1st Lieutenant Ordnance Depot) first sighted France on 26 March 1918 before the ship bringing them over from the United States, the USS Henry R. Mallory, had landed in Bordeaux. He wrote: "we have at last sighted France. & she is indeed beautiful" From the ship we can see tiny farms – wonderfully cultivated – everything is green & the trees are all in leaf – it made me awfully homesick for you & Hinsdale (the town where they lived) when I saw the little red roofed houses, set in their tiny gardens – through the glasses we could see a woman plowing in the field using a cow instead of a horse."

Later he said "This country is wonderful & the people charming – the city which I visited was very quaint- & the buildings although a century old are solid, clean & very attractive – the poorest houses are build of stone or concrete and have tile roofs, but the front doors make a hit with me – everyone is scrubbed to a polish & the brass knockers & knobs shine like gold. The country is lovely – flowers in bloom, cherry blossoms out & the grass and leaves fully developed & a wonderful green."

His 2 April letter continued to express his love of France: "No use talking dear – I will never be happy until you, baby & I tour this country. It is simply beautiful & the houses so quaint & substantial – also very old – I went to a church yesterday that is hundreds of years old & at that, it is fairly new. The streets are very narrow & crooked & paved with cobble stones – women wear wooded shoes."

On the 7th of April he told about the railroad trip, going in circles, and then nearing their destination.

"We have had another wonderful trip through the most lovely country you ever dreamed of – we are justly tired but all in good shape. These French trains are queer – there are no aisles & to get from one compartment to another you slim out on the running board. We were 60 hours in route & I think we went around in circles."

Camp Williams & Is-sur-Tille

"This is a dandy place & the little village near us is very quaint – it reminds me of Venice – as there is a river dashing through it & the houses are built right in the water – so that the women do their washing right from their backdoor – quite a stunt – they have a wooden paddle & beat the wadding out of whatever they are washing on a stone slab."

He was probably describing the lavoirs and homes on Rue Gambetta. During our visit we learned from Mrs. Francoise Mangel that the bourgeoisie homes had their own private lavoirs. Unlike many current stars and politicians they did not want their dirty laundry on display.

"We are very fortunate in being sent to the post – it is a dandy & the fellows here seem bully we are to take up to two weeks course of study & application, we start in tomorrow am – it is very interesting & very important work – when the course is finished I hope to be stationed here permanently."

I learned a little about his sense of humor in his 13 April letter.

"The rain has stopped and it looks very much as if we would have a nice Sunday for a change; the average is about five rainy days each week and the mud is a fright; our quarters are about two miles from here and nothing but deep slimy, gooey mud to walk on; Don’t be surprised if I come home with web feet!"

On the 17th of April he wrote "This part of France is more beautiful than anything I have ever seen in America – hills in every direction – streams of clear, cold water running all around filled with trout, the hills covered with pine.

Sunday I took a long walk by myself – over the hills & along a nice macadam road until I came to a quaint little stone village on a river – every house & wall in the place was made of limestone & many of the roofs were made of limestone slabs piled two feet thick & supported by beams which were trees 9 inches thick!!! & all covered with moss, (the roofs I mean).

Dear I would give anything if you could be here to enjoy the air & scenery with me! You would be so excited over everything along the road that it would take me a week to walk you five miles – for instance – today I struck a patch of violets a block long – single ones & very fragrant – this part of the country is not quite as advanced as the port I first saw – so I still have blooming fruit trees to look at & tiny gardens, neat as wax in which the vegetables are planted by ruler I guess – every one just in the right place."

On Sunday 21 April 21 he wrote "I want to stay in the place - it is lovely - & there are lots of other places not so nice. This is absolutely country with trees, creeks, rivers, hills, etc & the air is wonderful."

29 April - "Yesterday was a lovely day - for a change, & I took a long bicycle ride through the country - it was lovely - but oh boys! My setter is ruined. This county is very hilly - but perfectly beautiful! Some of the views from hill tops are exquisite - & in the early a.m. the grotesque effects are wonderful - sort of a blue haze - with poplars sticking through dimly."

1 May - "This is a wonderful place – the scenery has it “on” any I have ever seen. – hills all over – trout streams tearing along here & there – big forests of pines all around & a dozen little towns within walking distance. Last Sun. I hooked (borrowed) a bicycle & rode all around – it was bully – but my “sitter” suffered."

4 May - "tomorrow I am going to hook the Bike again and ride over to a range of hills that seem to be about ten miles away and which look very beautiful from here. Gee, but I wish you were here and that we had a (car) then you, Babe and I would start out sight seeing; there are a lot of Castles hidden away in this vicinity and most of them have an old man or woman in charge who takes you through and tell you the history. I have seen but one and it dates back to the time of Christ and is nothing but a pile of ruins.

Another Castle about ten miles from here belonged to old Catherine, the one Dumas wrote about, she was a wizard at poisoning people and her secret poison lockers, tunnels, etc. are to be seen, also here boudoir which was hung with carved cordovan leather; the Castle is surrounded by a Moat and has a Draw Bridge. Hope that I can locate it tomorrow."

While we did not visit that castle, we did visit La Ferme du Fosse where we saw Edmund and Monique Kruszynski’s drawbridge close after viewing the lower level of the house, where it was easy to imagine knights sitting at the table eating, drinking, and carousing.

11 May - "I hate to leave this place in a way - the country is perfectly beautiful - 100% more so than the Fox River Valley - so you may judge how wonderful it is. I am going to a larger seaport & will be the (Commanding Officer) in our branch of the service."

On 15 May he was transferred to Tours and on 31 July he was finally transferred to St. Nazarre.

Thatched Roofed Building

The only site that I was able to visit and know that it was exactly the same place that my grandfather described was the old chimney northeast of town. It was part of a building that he wrote about several times. Unfortunately access to the site is not very easy.

13 April 1918 - "There was a company of English stationed here once & the Non Coms. (non-commissioned) got busy & built a house, built the furniture, fireplace & everything else – it is very attractive – has a thatched roof & the sides are made of home made adobe (straw & clay) the interior is rustic – whole trees for beams & big rocks for fire place. The chair seats & backs are woven of reeds & branches."

17 April - "Saturday night there was a concert company here from Paris to play at the “Y” – but someone arranged to have them play at our Club first – Oh yes, we have a peach of a Club – remember me telling you about the thatched house that the English built? – well the YMCA took it – put in a billiard table, piano, & a canteen where we can buy candy, sardines, etc. they have lots of magazines & books. It is a bully place – also free!!

Well – the young women – four of them came over & played for us & one sang – they were splendid! Violin, Viola, piano & a singer & each a soloist – only our piano happens to be shi half of the keys & the other half stick so the artist could not attempt a number all by herself. After entertaining us for an hour – they went to the Y and gave the men a concert – you could have heard the cheers for miles & after every selection by the ladies – the men rendered one – so in all – a big time was had."

1 May - "Besides the Y.M.C.A we have a club that is a dandy; it was designed and built by the Non Coms. Of an English Regiment that was stationed here; the men built the furniture also and it is very attractive; The walls are made of mud and straw, the roof is thatched and the floor is gravel; there is a piano, billiard table, writing desks, magazines galore and a canteen where we can buy candy, cigars and all kinds of stuff; the frame is of logs and the fireplace is heavy stones: NO DUES."


7 April – When he first arrived:|

"We are billeted in an old Chateau – with a name a mile long – but it isn’t at all the sort of chateau that you read about in fairy stories – in fact it is owned by a miller now & he and his family live down stairs while fifteen of us live up. Abry & I are bunkers & our room is just like a nice family vault aged 200 & never opened.

We console ourselves with the view – which is wonderful – before us is a lovely little river & an old gristmill operated by it – the water roars & boils making an awful fuss. – behind us the country stretches away to hills & from here I can see two or three buildings that look like old castles – if I every get time I want to look them over – but first I want to go to the village (3 miles) & buy a pair of wooden shoes for baby! As we were marching up from the train I saw a little child her age walking along wearing them – nearly everyone wears them on the street & when they get to where they were going - they leave them on the doorstep."

We were able to visit the Maison Perrenet and the grounds of the Moulin de Marcilly thanks to the Sabatier family. This might have been where he stayed.

In 1916 the Perrenet family's two sons, Jean & Etienne were killed in the war. The family was very appreciative of American help and offered assistance where they could.

He could also have possibly stayed at the mill east of Marcilly.

10 April - "We moved from the Chateau (Morgue) yesterday & our new quarters are fine – we have stove & electric lights – very comfortable – also at 5:30 am a good band marches up and down in front of our room & plays something stirring to wake us up – gay lift! But it is a long walk from where we live to where we work & the mud is ankle deep."

13 April - "Now I have a nice room all to myself – stove – electric lights etc. I do all my own housework – split wood – carry water & dump dirty water – it is lots of fun. We have a bully shower bath in the next block."

Sunday 21 April - "Have just made a little sketch of my room - you can stand it up & imagine you are right in it. - You can see into all adjoining rooms through the cracks & no one in the building has a secret from his neighbor - there are about 40 officers quartered in this building two to a room - only I am alone. The S.E. wall is the outside one - & that is brick for 3 ft from floor. I only have one stove - but it is right in the corner so I had to draw it twice."

Life at the Camp

17 April - "Speaking of stewed - reminds me that I haven't had but one decent drink since I got to France - their regulations are very strict. & the Military Police - enforce them with glee - nothing stronger than beer or light wine & there isn't a "kick" in a barrel of it."

Fortunately we were able to enjoy many wonderful beverages during our visit.

"Speaking of regulations - you can tell any Mother that has a son over here that he is safer as far as wine, women & song is concerned that he would be at home. If a man or officer is seen with a questionable woman he is arrested at once, Court Marshaled & sent home in disgrace - this country is overrun with Military Police & they are right on the job. No decent woman will have anything to do with the Americans & the Americans cannot have anything to do with the indecent - so there you go."

"Have just come in from a very interesting days work & I am very, very tired, - a crew of us left here at 6:45 this am with a truck full of machine guns & ammunition – when we got to where we were going we set up the guns & each of us took one & blew the crust off the earth – the guns are beauts & I love to shoot them – we fired over 6000 rounds and didn’t kill a thing ( I hope) – We were testing guns that had been sent back from the front for repairs & the work is part of my instruction course."

Our Visit & Thanks

On top of LeMont de Marcilly-sur-Tille we were able to view the valley and see the extent of the camp. We saw the location of the mill, the old chimney, and the hills that he rode to on the bike.

My wife and I would like to thank everyone that made our visit a wonderful and unique experience: Pierre and Denise Aymard for everything that they did. Christian Baujard and his wife Francoise for their company, the tour of the town, and translations. Mayor Michel Maillot and his wife for their hospitality, and him for his sense of humor, and Jean Marc Daurelle for the jeep ride and a common view that you don't want to change history. Also the various families that opened up their homes to us and let us have a glimpse of what life was like then, and now.

While we enjoyed the rest of our vacation immensely, it was the times that we were able to talk with local people, or at least try to, that made it special. I was able to not only connect a little bit with my grandfather, but with the town and the surrounding area that he loved, and a few of the people living there.

I wish that we could have spent more time in the area. I would have liked to attend the memorial events on the 8th of May and visited more of the local shops and businesses. We loved the chocolate éclairs from Maison Louot and the dinner we had at O Dix d'Is. We enjoyed hearing the children's singing practice at the church, and attending the opening of an art exhibit at the Espace Culture Carnot.

While my grandfather was never able to return to France as he had wished, I have been there three times and I plan on returning to Is-sur-Tille and Burgundy.

I cannot officially speak for all Americans but I want to thank the village, the Societe d'Histoire Tille/Ignon, the Rotary Club, and the many individuals that were involved in creating the stele that shows your continued appreciation for the efforts of the American Expeditionary Forces and for the recognition of the 238 soldiers that died in Camp Williams on the village memorial. It is appreciated.

(back of the memorial)