Mary Ann Newcomb was a member of the George Washington University chapter of Sigma Kappa. For a time she served as Vice-President. The September 1918 Sigma Kappa Triangle reported that she was “preparing to go to France in the fall with the Red Cross. She has been entertaining in the camps for some time.”
During World War I, she served in the Red Cross. She sailed for Europe in October of 1918, leaving from Quebec for London with its American Unit No. 8. After a short stay in London and Frances, she headed to the hospital center in Mesves, France. Located between the villages of Mesves and Bulcy, it was said to be one of the largest hospitals in the world. She established and was in charge of a recreation hut. According to letters she wrote, she installed pianos, planned a library and a tailor’s shop, and started an orchestra. She also spent hours visiting patients and “providing them with cigarettes and delicacies, sweaters, bathrobes, hosiery and toilet articles.” Moreover she slept in the cold barracks and was responsible for doing her own laundry.
The December 1919 Triangle, the “Overseas Number,” included her letter about the Christmas 1918 celebration at the hospital center. Titled “A Real Christmas in France,” the letter described the celebration she and the American Red Cross coordinated:
‘Whoever thought that a real, honest-to-goodness Christmas would be possible in France? This surely is the biggest surprise we ever had in our lives,’ said two Rainbow Division men on the morning of December 25, 1918, in the Red Cross Recreation Hut of Evacuation Hospital #27 at Meaves, France. It was Christmas Eve and it had been raining and snowing for three days. The mud outside was about knee deep and the gloom inside was almost equal to the mud. The soldiers were all gathered around the small tables playing cards or writing letters. The electric lights had gone out and the flickering candle light showed faces with far-away thoughts.
One could just see that these soldier boys were dreaming of home with its usual Christmas Eve bustle and cheerful Christmas spirit. One big Texan said, ‘I’d give a million to walk into my house now. I can just see my mother decorating the house and trimming the tree for my kid brothers and sisters. What a difference!’ and he sadly picked up his cap and strode off to his bunk.
At nine-thirty all the boys left the hut. There was no sign of Christmas anywhere, not a piece of decoration—not even an evergreen. After the windows and doors had been bolted, about fifteen boys, who had been let into the secret, started in to work, and such fun as they had! The whole place was decorated from one end to the other with Christmas decorations and evergreens. One long, slim buck private from Alabama sitting on a rafter running across the room and holding a bunch of evergreens in his hand said, ‘Gee, fellows, this is great! It makes you feel you are playing Santa Claus for the rest of the gang.’ A Christmas tree reaching from the floor to the ceiling was literally covered with tinsel and ornaments. A large table covered with a white sheet was placed in the middle of the floor. On this we put all kinds of toy horns, whistles, drums, pipes, and anything that would make a noise.
One week before, the Red Cross had sent us candy, cakes, figs, nuts, cigarettes, tobacco, matches, chewing-gum, handkerchiefs, socks, red ribbon, and Christmas cards. Our same fifteen boys helped us fill 950 pairs of socks, tying each pair together and attaching a Christmas card. We had enough material to entirely fill both socks of each pair. The socks having been finished previously were placed around the foot of the Christmas tree on the stage. At four-thirty in the morning the place looked like a real Christmas party, so the fifteen boys and two Red Cross workers turned in for the few remaining hours before reveille.
The boys were told to report at the hut at nine o’clock on Christmas morning. Promptly at nine the doors were opened and the long line filed in, passing the stage and receiving from one of the Red Cross workers a pair of socks and a wish for a merry Christmas. For a few minutes the boys were overcome with astonishment, for the Red Cross hut was a fairy-land compared to what it had been the night before when they left it. At first they did nothing but stand around and stare, but soon they discovered the toys on the center table and then the fun began. Such a noise! The men gathered in groups and each tried to make the most noise, as they gave cheer after cheer for the Red Cross. In the middle of the
performance the commanding officer of the whole center came in to see, as he said, what all the fun was about.Almost every man came to the workers and said he had never had such a good time at Christmas before. One Georgia boy said, ‘This seems like a real old-fashioned southern Christmas.’ A California boy said that he had never had such a surprise in his life. One middle westerner remarked. ‘This is more fun than a Christmas at home because it is so unexpected. At home we would have expected a lot, but over here
we expected nothing, and just look what we got.’ And he held up his socks and looked around.
At twelve-thirty chow call sounded and the boys with mess kits in hand rushed to enjoy the chicken dinner which had been furnished by the American Red Cross. The boys were told to report at the hut again at three o ‘clock and to bring their mess kits and cups. One smiling soldier boy about eighteen years old said, ‘Gee, are we going to have another surprise?’ Another answered, ‘You can bet your life! The Red Cross is just full of pleasant surprises for us.’ Again the long line of khaki filed into the hut and this time one Red Cross worker gave each man a quarter of an apple pie about one and a half inches thick, while the other dipped out a canteen cup of chocolate. The chocolate and the pies had been cooked the night before by a volunteer company of ten cooks and K. Ps.
Once again the boys cheered the Red Cross and all expressed over and over again their appreciation of what had been done for them and their joy in having spent such a pleasant Christmas so far away from home.
Mary Ann Newcomb, Sigma Kappa
In 1927, she became Mrs. Abner Milton Cornwell. The couple lived in Lincolnton, North Carolina where they raised a family. In 1966, she served the Daughters of the American Revolution as State Regent of North Carolina. She died in 1981.
© Fran Becque, www.fraternityhistory.com, 2017. All Rights Reserved. If you enjoyed this post, please sign up for updates through the comments section below. Also follow me on twitter @GLOHistory and Pinterest www.pinterest.com/glohistory/