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Collections Cameo, April 2015

Helen Farwell Stevenson WWI scrapbook, 1918-1919

By Amber Craghead, Leslie T. Chapman Museum Intern

The Helen Farwell Stevenson collection donated in 2000 by John (“Archie”) Stevenson is composed of loose photographs, letters, newspaper clippings, and scrapbook pages belonging to Helen Farwell Stevenson circa 1918-1919 detailing her experience as a WWI nurse in France. Helen Farwell was born on September 15th, 1895 to Granger Farwell and Sarah Child Goodrich Farwell, both of Chicago. Helen was the last of the couple’s five daughters and the family resided at Knollwood, currently located at 400 N. Washington Rd. in Lake Forest.

Sarah FarwellHelen, along with her sister Sarah Granger Farwell (born October 25th, 1890), served as nurses in WWI in France with the American Red Cross and the American Fund for French Wounded (AFFW). The two sisters left for France on February 9th, 1918 aboard the S.S. Touraine and remained abroad until the following spring. While in France, the two journeyed as nurses across the French countryside to towns such as Sezanne, Epernay, Epinal, and Paris taking care of wounded soldiers. Helen and Sarah, who was nicknamed “Yebo,” often wrote letters home and fortunately, several of these letters were kept by Helen in her scrapbook pages. Based off the letters home, we know that the sisters were stationed at the battle of Chateau-Thierry which took place on July 18th, 1918. This battle was one of the first battles led by General John Pershing and the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) as part of the Second Battle of the Marne.

The letters home detail the conditions of France during the War and serve as an excellent resource as to what life was like for the French citizens and for French and American soldiers during 1918-1919. One of the letters home, dated February 23rd, 1918 by Helen states, “My work consists of meeting the wagons from the depots, listing the cases and telling the men where to place them, and tracing lost ones. In between tomes we open the cases and sort the contents. I am one of the best nail pullers in the world now” (item no. 35.2). In another letter written by Helen on March 7th, 1918 she says, “I like my work a lot but it is very strenuous. Tonight we are going to the Gard du Nords to distribute comfort bags and goods to the men returning to the front tonight – poor men, they dread it so. Any stray candy would be welcomed with open arms. No such things exist now over here” (item no. 35.8). On March 19th, 1918 Sarah wrote, “Mrs. Hill…gave me an introduction to a very attractive French person staying at this hotel. She has lost her husband and son in this war and has twenty-eight relatives fighting. We went to a French cinema tonight – all the plot was in French, but Charlie Chaplin was the hero, He is popular here too.”

In an undated, unsigned letter by one of the girls, it reads, “The people are awfully brave, but so sad. The children are underfed, hardly ever cry and pleased to death if they get any little thing we can find out of the comfort bags… We will always send you a cable if anything happens, so please take no news as good news always.” The letter continues with, “Everyone here has a “Jilleul” or an adopted soldier at the front whom they write to. The other night at the Canteen one boy in the artillery asked me if I would write him. He has been in the fight ever since the War started and I have had several letters, which I struggle to answer. They simply love to have someone to talk to.” (Item no. 38.5.2)

Another letter detailing the conditions states, “It is too bad the farm [Knollwood, in Lake Forest] is not nearer France, for milk is a great luxury, - 12Ȼ for the unbottled kind and that can only be bought at certain hours during the day. Living over here has certainly taught us not to waste anything. You do not take anything you are not going to eat, and you think before you help yourself.” (item no. 44.3)

During her time in France, Helen Farwell would go on to meet Lieut. Richard D. Stevenson, also of Illinois. Stevenson was an ambulance driver who was awarded the Croix de Guerre for his service during an air raid. After a short time, the two were married in France on February 25th, 1919 by Reverend Chauncey Goodrich at the American Church in Paris with Sarah Farwell and Joshua Stevenson (Richard’s brother) as witnesses. Following their wedding, the couple vacationed in Monte Carlo for their honeymoon and eventually returned back to the U.S. that summer.

 

The Helen Farwell Stevenson collection provides us with a priceless firsthand account of what life was like in WWI France between 1918 and 1919. The letters and photographs help piece together the amazing story of two sisters who gave up their lives of luxury in order to “do their bit” in the Great War. As the Chicago Tribune printed on April 4th, 1918, “If there are any more young women like Sarah and Helen Farwell who want to come over to help us in the Paris depot of the American fund for French wounded we would love to have them.”