As we take note of Veterans Day, once called Armistice Day to mark the end of World War I, you may want to remember Marion G. Crandell.
Crandell, who was born in Cedar Rapids, was the first U.S. woman killed in World War I while serving near the front lines in France in support of Allied troops.
Crandell was a volunteer aid worker with the YMCA’s United States Christian Commission, which ran canteens for the soldiers in France.
She had been in France only six weeks when a German artillery shell hit her apartment, across the street from where she was working in Sainte-Menehould, a village in northeast France. She died March 27, 1918, at age 46.
Crandell was born in Cedar Rapids in 1872, where her father, George T. Crandell of Omaha, was auditor of the Iowa Railroad Land Co. and other companies. One of six children, she lived with her family at 162 Park (Third) Avenue (SE). The family belonged to Grace Episcopal Church until moving back to Omaha in 1886 when George’s companies were absorbed by Union Pacific.
As a young woman, Crandell traveled in Europe and lived in France, where she became fluent in French. In 1910, she returned to the United States to study teaching languages at the University of Colorado.
In June 1911, she joined the faculty of Bellevue College in Omaha, teaching French and literature. In 1915, she began teaching French at the State Normal School of California at Piedmont.
In September 1916, Crandell began teaching at St. Katharine’s girls school in Davenport, where she soon became the assistant French instructor. At the end of the school year, in the summer of 1917, she visited her brother, George Jr., in Alameda, Calif.
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The United States had entered the war in April 1917, and it was through the Alameda YMCA that Crandell decided to volunteer as an aid worker in France. St. Katharine’s granted her leave from teaching through the end of the war. After training, Crandell sailed for France from New York on Feb. 5, 1918, arriving in Paris 10 days later.
She helped in the YMCA canteen across the street from her Paris apartment before being transferred in early March to a canteen closer to the front. The French called the YMCA canteens the French Soldiers’ Fireside, an indication of the respite the canteens offered soldiers.
According to a March 30 story in the Oakland Tribune, the last letter Crandell’s brother George received from his sister was dated March 6 and posted from Chalons sur- Marne (now known as Châlons-en-Champagne) in northeast France.
Crandell also posted a letter to the sister superior at St. Katherine’s on March 6. It arrived in Davenport April 5.
“Dear Sister Superior and All at St. Katherine’s,” it read. “This is the first time I have felt that I could sit down quietly and write letters. At Paris there was something to do all the time, and distances were so great that I was going constantly.
“I left Paris yesterday afternoon. My French collaboratrice and I had both asked for our movement pass to leave Paris to go to our canteen. Mine came but she did not receive hers, so I was obliged to come on alone.
“Our canteen is situated in a small village between here and Verdun. I am going to relieve the young French girl who is there. I was glad to leave Paris for I had been waiting three weeks.
“I met three nice American men. They were in the ambulance corps and had been to Nice for a twelve days’ leave. They said they had enjoyed their good bed and private bath. Their bed at the front consists of a cot with wire across for springs and a bundle of straw for a mattress, and a bath about once a month.
“Still, they admitted their lot was one of deluxe compared to the regular soldiers at the front. Yet they looked so well, and the youngest said: ‘This war is a great leveler, and I am already leveled and life to me will never be the same again.’
“They praised the YMCA in France and said they would support it to the end of their days.
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“This city has 25,000 inhabitants, and it is the dirtiest city I ever saw. I am staying at the hotel of the ‘High Mother of God.’ My room is large and barnlike and hasn’t been heated this winter, but I don’t mind. I am so glad I came to do anything I can for these poor soldiers. I am so grateful to you, dear sister, for letting me come and to the teachers who are taking my work for me.
“I have my ‘identity’ bracelet with my name and address on and must wear it and my uniform all the time. The French people can’t be too nice to American women in uniform.”
On March 27, Crandell was in her apartment across the street from the canteen when a shell from a German bombardment hit a window. Shrapnel hit her neck and face. She was taken to a hospital but died a few minutes later, never regaining consciousness.
She was given a military funeral the next day, her coffin draped with the French flag. The French army chaplain who conducted the service said, “She came to work for soldiers; she died like a soldier.”
She was the only woman buried in the military cemetery among the graves of 6,000 French soldiers. American services were held in Paris the next afternoon.
When news reached Cedar Rapids, Crandell’s home church, Grace Episcopal, scheduled a memorial service for her April 4.
By the end of the month, plans were underway to create a memorial at St. Katharine’s for Crandell, the first American woman to be killed in active war work. The Episcopal diocese and St. Katharine’s envisioned a house for teachers.
Crandell’s remains were later transferred to the American Cemetery at Argonne.
On Armistice Day 1925, a memorial marker honoring her was placed near the Rock Island Arsenal Bridge (or Government Bridge) in Davenport. Another marker was placed by the State Historical Society and the Daughters of the American Revolution at the Annie Wittenmyer home in Davenport in 1979.
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