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WWI French Bride

(This is a reprint of an article published on the old blog.)


Arthur Ollie South was born December 6, 1897, the son of Elmer and Cora South. He served with distinction during WWI and on his return from overseas brought with him his bride of a few months, a French girl whom he married while in service. This is his story.


Arthur enlisted in the US Army at Vincennes, Indiana, June 18,1917. On March 14, 1918, he wrote to his mother from Camp Shelby, Hattiesburg, Mississippi while serving with Co. A. 152nd Inf. describing a typical day in the army.


“We start out in the morning at 7:30 prompt and don’t come in until 11:30 am and then we have to find our tents wash our faces and hands and make a run for the mess line. Come out of the mess hall and wash our mess kits and by the time we get them dried it is time to go out and drill again or else we go on maneuvers. We went out on maneuvers today and had a real battle, or it was supposed to be and our enemy was the 151st Regiment. We went out on a hill and hid and in about an hour here they came, but they were just about a thousand yards away from us and didn’t know where we were so they sent out patrols and scouts. One scout came right through our lines and he was no more than through when he was surrounded and we took his horse away from him and made him prisoner. Then we got through with him and the rest of them spied us, or in some way they found out where we were, so they began sending out skirmish lines. And we just stayed hid until we got a good shot at them and then we let them have it. They ran into our rifle fire and machine gun fire and we had an awful battle and nearly everyone in the 151st was killed. But they didn’t know it. We got the decision just the same and we are going out again tomorrow and capture the 151st and believe me we will take them too.”


Arthur then thanked his mother for a photo she had sent of herself and his youngest little brother and he sent her some pictures that he thought might interest her. He said he was feeling fine “except for a slight touch of rheumatism in my right hip; I don’t know what the cause of it is, but every time I make a hike my hip begins hurting after I have gone four or five miles under pack and once in a while it bothers me when I don’t have to carry a pack. But I am using some liniment and I think I will be all right in a little while.”


By September 21, 1918, Arthur was stationed at Camp Mills, Long Island, New York. He wrote his mother describing the trip to that place.


“We left Camp Shelby Sunday, September 15, just eleven months to the day since we arrived there. Our first stop was at Meridian, Mississippi. The Red Cross girls met us there and sure gave us a real send-off. They served about 70 gallons of ice cream, cigarettes, and candy and we sure did enjoy ourselves. The next stop was at Atlanta, Georgia. We were met there by the Red Cross, too, but they didn’t treat us near like they did in Meridian. We stopped in Augusta, Georgia, but it was nearly midnight when we got there so we couldn’t have a very good time and the Red Cross workers had closed and gone home.


“Then we came into South Carolina and made a stop at Florence. We had a good time there and the Red Cross sure did treat us fine. Then we made a couple of stops but none were of any interest until we got into Washington where we were given breakfast. That was our third morning on the train. The next big stop we made was at Philadelphia, the fourth largest city in the world. Well, we began to realize that we were in God’s country once more because there was so much difference in the people and the climate.


“Then we got into New York City where we stayed overnight in the yards and saw the Statue of Liberty. Believe me, it is sure a pretty thing to see, although we were about three miles from it. Early the next morning we were put on the boat, “Lakewood” was her name and were taken out into the Hudson River and to Long Island. When we got away out in the river, we could not see either bank and the waves were running high.”


Arthur continued by telling his mother that they had finally arrived at Camp Mills and found that things were much the same there except that it is colder. “We had on our coats this morning and some were wearing overcoats, but we had a hard rain last night and that accounts for the chilly weather. I haven’t been off of camp yet as I have had bad luck again. I have another big boil on my left ankle but it is about well now and I think it will be alright before we start over. I haven’t been up in the city yet as I have been ‘broke’, so I can’t tell you anything about it.”


Then in typical 21-year- old fashion, Arthur told his mother not to worry about him and that he would do as she said in her letter, because he knew she had a hard time caring for him when he was little. While history does not provide us with the instructions his mother gave him, she was apparently not opposed to using the guilt that every mother has found herself using, to get her children to obey.


On October 15, 1919, Arthur’s company had been shipped to France and was preparing depart the ship. He wrote his mother a letter so he could mail it as soon as they did so.


“We started on our trip Sunday morning to (censored by Army censors) and have been riding the waves ever since. I have seen some pretty rough waters since we started but not bad at that. I will say that I have been drenched by the waves while standing on the upper deck on the stern of the ship and believe me the water is sure salty. Several of the boys got sea sick and thought they were going to die. But I never even felt bad so you see I ought to make a good sailor. . .


“Say, I have seen two funerals since I’ve been on board ship and it is a sad thing, too. Because every soldier is like a “brother” to me although I didn’t even know the men that died, I can’t help but feel bad. Another died just before supper so we will have another funeral tomorrow. All they do is sew them up in a strong sack and they are ready for the watery grave. Then the band plays solemn pieces such as “Nearer My God to thee” and then the bugle plays taps and the dead man is slid down a board into the deep cold ocean. Take it from me, I don’t want to have a grave like that if I can help it.”


If Arthur had been a parent, he may have thought twice about writing the above paragraph as it probably didn’t allay his mother’s fears much.


In December, Arthur wrote two letters home, one of December 7, 1918 which was just to wish them all a Merry Christmas and the other on December 11. In this one he describes what kind of food he wants when he returns home.

“I am going to give you a surprise some of these fine days, and when you get a wire asking for a dinner for eight be sure and have it filled, for I sure want you to see me get filled up, and I'll tell you what I want you to have fixed: a fine big chicken, a chocolate cake and plenty of good flapjacks and syrup; some good creamed potatoes and some good baked beans and plenty of good fruit. Outside of that, anything that you desire to fix will suit me.”


Then Arthur chides his mother for not writing. “I have never received any mail since I have been over here, and, therefore, I do not know whether there has been any sickness in the family or not and owing to the fact that there has been so much Spanish influenza, I have been worried about all of you.”


Arthur continues by describing his life there. “We are having some pretty bad weather here now. It rains nearly all the time and just enough to wet a fellow real good when he is out in it. But we have good officers and are not out in very much of it. I have an exceptionally good billet to sleep in and I want to tell you about it. Our billet is in one end of a French house and the other end, there lives an old Frenchman, 63 years old, but he is just like a kid in actions, but like a father to us fellows. Every day when we go out to drill, he cleans everything up nice and clean and sometimes scrubs the floor. He is just like an old faithful watchdog, and nothing escapes his vigilance. And, he always has a good fire for us when we come in from drill, and he loaned us his pot to cook in and gives us potatoes, carrots, turnips, onions and will say, "Bon for soup for Soldat Americ, " which means it will make good soup for American soldiers. Once in a while, he gets on a high horse and just acts like a great big kid. But his long white whiskers and sparkling eyes shows one that he has good common judgment and we call him "daddy" all the time.”


Arthur provides a new address for his mother to correspond with him: Cpl. Arthur South, 2nd Prov. Co. 329th Infantry, A.P.O. 762 A.E.F. France. His letter of January 6, 1919, from Fresnay-sur-Sarthe, France, is full of despair.


“I haven't hardly got the heart to write anymore because I never get an answer and I hardly know what to write about because all I can do is ask questions. I never get an answer to my questions and I just have to ask the same thing over and over. I can't find out whether you are all well or not and believe me, it gets next to me. As yet I have never received a line from anyone since I left the States, and I wish if you are all alive and well that you would address me a letter to my present address as I will probably be here for some time. And whatever you do, address the envelope with ink. I have thought perhaps you have written with a pencil and the post office workers could not make out who it is for, as mail must go through many hands and a great deal of traveling before it gets to France. So, try to get me a letter as soon as you can and follow the rules that I gave you.”


But then Arthur forgives her and writes later in that same letter: “I intended to send you some souvenirs for Christmas but we didn't get paid until Christmas Eve and I was afraid to send anything expensive through the mail so I thought I would wait and bring the things home with me. I expect to be home in time to help eat some of the new garden this year if it isn't too early, but I do believe I will be able to spend next Fourth of July with you, but if I don't get home by that time, have a good big dinner for next Christmas. But as long as I fare as well as I am now, I can't complain very much, only we do pretty hard work and if I was back home, I could be making far more money.


“Say, did I tell you about my French girl? I have me a real home over here and I sure do appreciate the treatment, too. Say, how you would like to have a little French Mademoiselle for a daughter-in-law? But, never worry, I think there is a little girl in the states waiting for me.”


Arthur’s new address by January 23, 1919 was: Prov. Supply Co. Sub Depot No 9 A. E. F. A. PA. E. F. A. P. O. 762, Fresnay- sur-Sarthe, France, and the letter he wrote to his mother reeked of homesickness.


“Again, I will try to drop you a few lines to let you know that I am O. K. but as yet have not heard from you although I have been looking for a letter for some time. I got a letter the other day from over here. It had been to Camp Selby, Camp Mills and then back across the ocean and found me after five months of traveling. Now I think that is going pretty well, but I can't figure why I have never got a letter from you. It sure was a surprise to me to hear from one of the boys, especially a letter that had crossed the ocean twice. But any kind of letter is more than welcome over here.


“It may not be so long now until I can come home. By the time the big rambler blossoms I (hope to) see you. You know the one I mean, the (rose) on the south side of the house next to the parlor window. I am having a fairly good time now but nothing like if I was back home. Say, sometimes I just shut my eyes and think and I can see everything just as it was when I left home, and the more I think of it the more I want to see the old place again. But it won't be long until I'll be back there and I hope to find everything just as it was when I left.


“And say, you ought to see me. I am as fat as a fool and weigh 168 pounds. But, of course, when I weighed that, I had on plenty of clothes and a pair of boots. So, I judge I'll go about 145 with my wrestling outfit on. So, tell Vander I don't think he will ever be able to lay my back to the ground as he said when I was home on furlough. And tell Dad that he must speak to Elmer and give him my best regards and also inform him that I am still banking on my old job and I think I can say the same for Roy and Ray if they didn't get knocked off. Ed Ward said in his letter that he had never heard from him and he is in the same division. But there is nothing unusual about that as they have no time to look up lost comrades while in action and believe me those boys saw plenty of action.”


On June 24, 1919, Arthur writes again to his mother, this time from Le Mans, Sarthe, France. There must have been other letters in that 6 months but we are not privy to them.


“I suppose you are all rejoicing back home now as peace has been accepted. Well, so are we, in a way, but not as you would expect. It is, of course, a consolation that the strife and bloodshed are over, but that does not mean that everything is "setting pretty" here in France. No, it means that unless we get out of this area before the Army of Occupation starts coming through, we are out of luck for at least another three months. But I've a pretty good idea that we will start home on or near 15th of July.


“Another reason is that many rumors have been spread throughout the country over there by some misinformed authority that those who are held have been in some way remiss in their duty and are being kept back as punishment. Some of the boys have received letters from home folks upbraiding them. One of our officers has written a letter for us and signed it explaining that soldiers detained overseas are held through no fault of their own. I am sending it in this letter so if there are any boys from home who are still over here and there is any doubt in the mind of the public, let me make a suggestion that Dad take the letter to someone and have it read in a men's meeting at church.


“Well, Mother, you may be interested in what I am doing now that I have been held over for further duty, I'll tell you. This morning I was put in charge of a bunch of French men and women. Of course, I like that, you know, I always did like to boss someone. It isn't hard work only there is plenty of responsibility and worry. But I have a couple of Belgian girls who act as interpreters for me.”



Arthur also mentions Gilberte, his French ‘finance’. “I am the happiest man on earth. But I'm not going to say anything about that in this letter. I think I've said enough except that Gilberte sends the best of love to all the family and asked that you write her a few lines in my letters as she is very anxious to hear from all of you. Give my love to all. Goodbye and beau coup kisses to all.”


On June 25, 1918 Arthur writes to his mother that he hasn’t been getting much mail because so many troops are leaving now. The Post Office Forces were making preparations to leave also, and there was little wonder that the mail didn’t arrive like it had previously.


In this letter Arthur describes his wedding and begs his mother to accept his new wife. “I sure am happy today. I just got back from another three-day leave and it was all spent with my wife and her people. Sure had a good time. She is in the best of health and sends her best regards to all the family. She is very anxious to see you, says she loves you already before she had met you and I’m sure, you will love her also. During my visit we went to the home of an old English lady who has known her father since he was a young man and she complemented me on my choice. She asked me if you were in favor of my bringing her home and I told her no, that you didn’t like the idea. Then she says, “Well, if you wish, I’ll write your mother a note of recommendation for the girl, and I’m sure she will love her because I carried her in my arms when she was in long dress and have kept in contact with the family all this time and never yet have I heard of her being anything else but a little lady.”


“But I have confidence in my wife. Mother, I know you well enough to know that letter would not be necessary after you get acquainted with her so I am trusting everything to you. I’ll send you our photo as we were married just a few days ago and you can see for yourself what kind of looking girl she is, and later on, you can learn her character as I know her. She is at the home of her parents now and will probably stay with them three or four days longer, then she comes to Le Mans to stay with me until we start home.


“I wish you could have been present at the time of the wedding. We had a good time; everybody was happy; there were plenty of good eats and songs and wines. I don’t care much for the wines but I enjoy the songs and eats, always. Well, it came time for me to say or sing something so I explained things to them in French and sang the old song (Mother you know it), “M is for the million things she gave me, O is only that she’s growing old. . .


“I’m sure you know it or have heard it. And when I got thru one fellow got up and said, “Friends of the evening, let us drink to the health of the mother, and we drank to your health with the best of champagne, and every one said, no one could do more than that unless the other were present. So, you see, Mother, I was thinking of you even at my wedding supper, you above all other, and that is what prompted my wife to say, “when you write your mother again, tell her, her daughter-in-law loves her next to the son, and that is beaucoup.


“Well, Mother . . . I ask you, also, to try and forgive me for marrying against your will, but Mother, dear, I just simply found the girl I loved and as you were not acquainted with her, I decided to take her and risk your disapproval. After you have known her. . . but I am going to say no more except if you want the letter of recommendation from the old English woman who has known her from childhood, I’ll write her asking her to send you a letter telling you what she knows of the girl.”


On July 5 1919, Arthur and Gilberte Bigot South appeared at the US Consulate’s office in Paris, France and applied for conditional passport so Gilberte could travel to the United States with her husband. She stated that she had been born at Versailles, Seine et Oise, France, on April 22, 1897, and had been married to Corp. Arthur South with the Provisional Salvage Company, American Expeditionary Forces, on June 26, 1919, at the same place. At that time, she was described as 22 years of age, 5 ft 5 inches, with brown eyes, brown hair and an oval face.



The wedding picture of Cpl. Arthur South and his French girl bride who were expected to arrive in the States was published in the local paper on August 7, 1919. “Newspaper cuts are proverbially unkind but even a newspaper cut could not utterly detract from the sweet winsome expression of Cpl. Arthur South and his French girl bride who are expected to arrive in the States this week. This young Mademoiselle of France has chosen to leave the land of her father to come to the land of strange people, strange customs and a foreign tongue.


“The young people became acquainted at her home in Fresne, France, near which Cpl. South was stationed shortly after his arrival overseas. The French father and mother were very kind to the young American soldiers and young South was often entertained in this home. Letters to his parents in America early in the summer told of a 10 days’ leave which he was to spend in Paris and promised some future letter to tell them about the trip."


This turned out to be his honeymoon, the couple being married on June 26, 1919. Apparently, his mother still needed reassurance, or at least the couple thought so, because the newspaper reported that reassuring letters had been received from lifelong friends of the young lady assuring Mrs. South that that her son has chosen wisely and well, and that she need have no fear in welcoming this stranger from a foreign land as a daughter. Gilberte herself wrote very earnestly that her husband's friends were hers and she was very anxious to know the friends of his home town.


The following year in August of 1920 after the couple had returned to Lawrenceville and made a home, they had twins, a boy and a girl, Robert Murray and Simone Edith. On July 3, 1922, Gilberte gave birth to a little girl, Rose Olga, who was stillborn.


Further tragedy stuck on Tuesday, January 2, 1923, when Arthur was found dead about six o’clock in the morning on the floor of the Indian Refinery. A fellow employee noticed an unusual amount of steam coming from the agitator room. Opening the door to see what the trouble was he stumbled across the dead body of 25-year- old Arthur South.

The employee called for assistance and the body was taken to the hospital where Arthur was pronounced dead. A coroner's jury was then impaneled. From the facts it was learned that South had been working with a mixture of litharge and lye in a cone shaped receptacle. Steam was turned into the agitator from the bottom and it was presumed the fumes from the mixing mass suffocated him. His face and forearms were badly burned but the injury was not sufficient to have caused death. After the inquiry into the circumstances of the death, the jury rendered a verdict of "accidental asphyxiation due to inhalation of fumes from chemicals."


Arthur Ollie South was buried with military honors on Friday, January 5, 1923, in the Lawrenceville Cemetery. Funeral services were held at the Lawrenceville Methodist Church. An impressive, though sad, feature of the funeral was the reading of an obituary by Philip H. Lewis. This was prepared and delivered in French for the benefit of the sorrowing wife who spoke and understood English imperfectly. The body was then followed to the grave by an escort of ex-servicemen accompanied by the Citizens’ Band, where last rites were administered including a three-volley salute by the Honor Guard.


Arthur Ollie South’s life, with the exception of the time he served in World War I, was spent in the community where he was born. His genial disposition, moral integrity and industrious habits earned him a large circle of friends. His age and general fitness for service gave him a place in that large number of men who answered their country's call in World War I. Two years and two months were accredited to him in the honorable discharge which was issued to him on his release from service.


During his service in France, Arthur formed the acquaintance of, and was united in marriage, to Miss Gilberte Bigot of Versailles, France. At the close of the war they returned to America, to make their home in Lawrenceville.


On June 16, 1923, six months after Arthur Ollie South died, another son was born to Gilberte and named after her deceased husband, Arthur Ollie South. From newspaper accounts of social events and church gatherings, Gilberte was accepted into the South family and by the ladies of the church. She left for France, November 13,1924, for her first visit home since she came to this country with her husband at the end of WWI. She arrived November 21 at Cherbourg and returned to Lawrence County on June 7, 1926, on the ship, Leviathan.


The "welcome home" to this daughter of France who had chosen to live in America with her children, might have come, not from any one family alone, but from all who in those troubled years of WWI, had learned to love and sympathize with her native land.


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