It began with albums of black-and-white photos and caches of yellowed letters tucked away in boxes for decades. For the better part of a century, the boxes and their mostly-forgotten contents collected dust while occupying real estate in attics throughout Massachusetts.
But for Brett Hawkes, a retired tech salesman who resides in Rockport, the long-ignored photos his grandfather took while serving in the Army during World War I became more than musty relics. They inspired a once-in-a-lifetime journey that spanned 600 miles across the French countryside.
Hawkes received the boxes of old photos and letters when his mother passed away in 2013. He said he glanced at them occasionally, but otherwise, they remained stored away, collecting another decade of dust. He came upon them again in the winter of 2022 while cleaning his office, but this time, the more he studied them, the more he was drawn to what he saw.
The pictures, taken in 1917 on the frontlines of the war in France, showed soldiers fighting in trenches, bombed buildings, and previously idyllic fields transformed into hastily-dug cemeteries. But his grandfather also took pictures of everyday life in the small towns where he was stationed. There are pictures of friends he made, soldiers playing football in a snowy field, and peaceful streets.
“I stared at these old photos and thought, ‘Oh my God, look at these churches bombed to the ground.’ I started wondering what they look like now,” Hawkes said. “I happened to find a photo he took of a famous chateau, and I Googled it and saw it was all renovated.”
That’s when the idea for his trip took root. He devised a plan to find the locations of as many of the photos as possible — thankfully, his grandfather had labeled the towns where pictures were taken — and re-create his grandfather’s 1917 route in France.
“I said to myself, ‘I have to find every photo and every location, and then I can figure out where it was taken and stand exactly where he stood. I could take it from the same vantage point and see how it’s changed. It was something I was sure no one had done before.”
Hawkes, 71, is an avid cyclist and decided the best way to travel the rural route was on his bike. His wife took a hard pass on joining him. His children, who are in their 30s and have kids of their own, weren’t able to take three weeks out of their lives to join their dad. So Hawkes decided he would make the 600-mile journey solo.
“For three weeks, I was going to drag my grandfather down from heaven, retrace his steps, and connect with Grampy and a forgotten era,” he said.
Reconstructing the route
Hawkes’s grandfather, Alton Hawkes, was born in Weymouth, grew up in Quincy, and graduated from Harvard in 1917. After graduation, he immediately enlisted in the Army and sailed to France, attending a French Army engineering school in Versailles. The United States had joined WWI earlier that year, having avoided the conflict since it began in 1914. President Woodrow Wilson was reelected in 1916 thanks in part to the campaign slogan, “He kept us out of war.”
But when British intelligence intercepted a telegram from Germany to Mexico outlining a secret plot to return Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona to Mexico in exchange for an alliance, Wilson asked the House and Senate for a declaration of war. According to the National WWI Museum in Kansas City, the US joined the Allies (France, the United Kingdom, Russia, Italy, and Japan) in fighting the Central Powers (Germany and the Ottoman Empire). Alton Hawkes entered the war just months after America’s entry and was sent for further training in Abainville before being stationed in the villages of Warmaise, Chepoix, and Broyes, about 70 miles north of Paris.
Brett said his grandfather, who studied engineering, was also an avid amateur photographer and collector, which made reconstructing the route easier. He also had letters that his grandfather had written home to his family, outlining some of his more benign activities.
“What boggled my mind was that he took these photographs of the destruction and fighting that would be classified today,” he said. “The more I learned, the more I became emotionally involved. It’s part of the reason why Ancestry.com and 23andMe are so popular. People want to feel an emotional connection with the past.”
Hawkes has two skills that made the trip possible. The first was years of cycling experience. When he was 16, his neck was broken in a severe car accident. As a result, the right side of his body was paralyzed. Over time he regained the use of his body, but the former athlete continued walking with a limp. While he could no longer run or play sports, he could cycle, which remains his passion.
His other skill is the ability to speak French and a general love of French culture. He brushed up on his French before the trip, but he spoke no English for three weeks on the road.
“Being able to speak French helped form bonds and broke down barriers with the people I met,” he said. “It made the trip a lot more personal.”
Those meetings with residents are what made his trip a success. He would roll into small farming towns and seek out cafes where he would strike up conversations with locals. If the town was too small for a cafe, he knocked on the doors of houses that his grandfather had photographed, or he would seek out the mayor of a town he was visiting for assistance in finding buildings or bridges.
“I’m an older guy. I wasn’t threatening. I couldn’t punch myself out of a paper bag,” he said. “I think that helped a lot.”
When word spread through these tiny towns of the American retracing his grandfather’s WWI route, strangers would show up at bed and breakfasts where Hawkes was staying with information about locations in the photographs and stories about the war that had been handed down.
“Once I started trying to find these places, and I started getting successful, I got obsessed,” he said. “I was going find these places come hell or high water. I was like a maniac, but I was a polite maniac. I started to really go through a transition. It became more than a vacation, it became a passion. It was an incredible experience. It’s hard to explain, but that’s really what happened. I went through a transformation.”
He found the field where the French government awarded his grandfather the Croix de Guerre for his bravery in battle. In one photo, his grandfather stood on a pile of rubble that had once been a church. Hawkes found the location with a new church in its place. It was the same with historic buildings that had been repaired or rebuilt. Just like his grandfather, the younger Hawkes was there to document it all.
“He guided me from heaven,” Hawkes said.
Because this was a ground war that happened in small farming towns, there were still remnants of the era, such as a barn that housed American soldiers with English written on the beams (”God bless our home” and “This is no latrine.”) Hawkes made friends along the route who he has remained in contact with. He even wrote a small book about his adventures.
But the most important aspect of the journey was that Hawkes learned about a part of his grandfather’s life that was previously a mystery. Alton Hawkes never spoke of his time in WWI. He was injured in the war, returned to the United States in 1918, and began rebuilding his life. Along the way, he contracted polio, lost his house in the Great Depression, had a daughter who died of scarlet fever, and another son who was killed in WWII. He worked as a manager at Sears in Bangor and passed away in 1968 when Brett Hawkes was a teenager.
“I know this sounds corny, but I tell people they should engage in conversations with older relatives now while they can. You have to talk about stuff,” he said. “I have a million questions for my grandfather that I wish I had asked him when he was still alive. But, at least now, I know more about him and what he went through. In many ways, I’m lucky those old photos are still around.”
Christopher Muther can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther and Instagram @chris_muther.