Monday, March 12, 2012

A Return to Vivoin

I found the following two real photo postcards together at a postcard show.  It appeared that they might have been taken in the same place.  Both of them seemed to show American soldiers on the streets of a French village during WWI.  One of the cards had the word, "VIVOIN" written in ink on the front of the card.  There was no other identifying information.   

(click on images for larger view)

Here's a detail from that photo.  Take a look at the French citizens on the left, and notice the young girl with the large white hat with the ribbon on it.

The second photo and a detail scan:

I really like the pose of the automobile driver – everything about him says, "France, 1918." Do you see the girl with the with the white hat again, standing next to her mother?  It seems that the soldiers were checking out the town and the citizens were taking a look at the American doughboys.  Imagine the conversations that took place or were attempted that day! 

The obvious first step toward investigating these images was to look up the name Vivoin.  As I suspected, its a small French village, or more properly in French terms, a commune, in western France in the region of Pays-de-la-Loire.   The town of Saint-Nazarie, which is southwest of Vivoin, became an important unloading port for US troops, especially in the latter stages of the war.

The United States entered WWI in 1917, and American troops began to arrive in France, forming the American Expeditionary Force in June of that year, but did not enter the trenches in divisional strength until October.  Vivoin is located far from the Western Front, but the troops in these photo could have been on their way to or from the front, or they could have been support troops. French, British, Canadian and Russian troops had been engaged in very desperate and bloody battles against the Germans since 1914, and the arrival of the Americans was a much needed morale boost.

To confirm that these photos were indeed of Vivion, France, I turned to Google Earth.  I am still amazed with with this piece of technology.  I can remember standing in the backyard with my Dad in 1957, watching Sputnik cross the sky, and in the 1980s Dad delighted in showing us the navigation uses of his LORAN – a long range radio navigation system. He was a fast learner on the home computer in it's early days and he saw the coming development of GPS, but he never saw anything like Google Earth.  

Google Earth allows earth-bound folks like myself to fly, as if on a magic carpet, and to land wherever one wants to.  I decided that since Vivion was a small community I would try to put myself down in the largest intersection in town, go to GE street view and take a look around.

Here's what I found on my first attempt:

Look familiar?  Here's a slightly different view:

Well, okie, dokie then – some details have changed – but look at the roofs, the dormers, the brick details on the top of the corner building and the placement of windows and doors.  It's the same place.  We are looking north on Rue de Doucelles in Vivoin, France.

I had one of the photo confirmed as to place, and I wanted to see if I could locate the other one. I turned my virtual self 90 degrees east, and here's what I saw:

This is the church l’Eglise St. Hippolyte in Vivoin.   Here are two more views:  

That's it. We're there.  I can't read any patches or insignia on the 1918 uniforms, so we don't know who these troops were or anything about their war experiences or their lives after the war, but 94 years later we can put ourselves on the same sidewalk.   Since the girl in the hat and her mother had moved from one corner to another, we know the photos were probably taken only minutes apart, and that the citizens of Vivoin were following the soldiers as they took in the town.

We've had trip to France and a trip through time, compliments of the person who snapped the photos in 1918, the soldier who brought them home, and the magic carpet of Google Earth.  And, I offer special thanks to the person who took a moment to write "Vivoin" on the photo.

If anyone from Vivoin happens across this blog, I'd be pleased to hear from you.

“I'll just tell you what I remember 
because memory is as close as I've gotten to building my own time machine.” 
― Samantha Hunt, The Invention of Everything Else

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