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

By Luis Fieldman
via the Daily Hampshire Gazette (MA) newspaper web site

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.

6e1fbe312a494c9394620ac68d0beb1bHatfield 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. 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.”

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.

Read the entire article on the Daily Hampshire Gazette web site here:

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