I Wish I'd Been There: Grange le Comte, France,
by Diane Zimmerman Umble
John S. Zimmerman, back row, third from left. (Credit:
Diane Zimmerman Umble)
Fourteen young men look into the camera on a faded postcard
captioned "2nd Causal Company, Ft. Hamilton,
N.Y. June 8, 1918." My grandfather, John S. Zimmerman (1893-1970),
stands in the back row, wearing a battered felt hat and a broad
grin. Grandpa was one of over fifty Mennonite conscientious objectors
who joined the American Friends Service Committee to bring relief
and reconstruction to devastated communities in France near the
end of and following the First World War.
I wish I been with him on his journey. I would have liked
to see his face when on January 12, 1919; passengers sighted
a whale on the voyage from New York to Liverpool. What an adventure
the train ride to Paris must have been for this earnest young
Mennonite from Rothsville, Pa. Grandpa was assigned to the équipe
at Grange le Comte, a large rural estate in the Verdun sector,
along with a large contingent of English and American Quakers
and a handful of Mennonites. By March 1919, he was chief wireman
in the electrical department. By day, he rode a specially equipped
motorcycle throughout the countryside, rebuilding telephone and
electrical wires. At night, he was night operator at the powerhouse,
responsible for keeping watch over the generators.
At a desk in the powerhouse, he often wrote letters to E.
Elmira Hess, a young woman back home in Brunnerville, who had
promised to share news from the boys in France with the Young
People's Meeting at Ephrata Mennonite Church. His letters to
Elmira describe his work, his travel, and, most of all, his questions
about what God requires of Mennonites of his generation.
Periodically, the Mennonites serving in France had opportunities
to gather. On one occasion, some forty met.
"We aim to sustain our religious life by frequent meetings
such as was held March 30, 1919, in a shell torn chateau near
Neuville, France. It was truly inspirational, for so large a
group of us in common faith had not had the privilege of meeting
since leaving for military camp. From our discussion here and
small pervious meetings, five important problems may be deduced
among others which we hope to discuss at a 2 day conference to
be held near Verdun about June 1st or 2nd.
Will you not favor us with your frank opinion and judgment as
God reveals it on these matters.
1. The relation of the individual to the church.
2. Should the church at large or a few individuals control
the activities of the church.
3. What should be the church's attitude toward her present
educational institutions and toward Christian education.
4. Should the church interest herself in an aggressive social
and mission program for the world.
5. Should the young people of the church be trusted to effect
some permanent organization aiming toward annual open conference
… with a view of acting on their religious convictions."(Letter
dated April 10, 1919)
I wish I could have heard these discussions. In one of his
early letters he wrote, "The church is in need of both young
men and women who can say I am willing to do my part. I am looking
forward to a great missionary epoch in the history of the Mennonite
church." The boys in France had visions for the future.
They were passionate in their deliberations, and they wanted
their peers at home to test these visions along with them. Grandpa's
five important problems resonate with contemporary challenges
facing the church. I wonder how he would answer his questions
Diane Zimmerman Umble is professor
and chair in the department of communication and theatre at Millersville
University. She is author of Holding the Line: The Telephone
in Old Order Mennonite andAmish Life, and co-editor of Strangers
at Home: Amish and Mennonite Women in History.