When she’s not teaching English at Serra High School, Chris Lowenstein spends much of her time dealing in antiquarian books, which sometimes results in sheer serendipity that leads her to unusual non-literary discoveries. In one case she stumbled upon — pun meant — a footlocker crammed with items from World War I.
The footlocker purchased from an estate was “a rare find,” said Lowenstein who uses the contents to help spark her students interest in history. Last year, she bought some of the items to class, giving her students “a chance to examine World War I artifacts firsthand. It was also a great opportunity for them to think about the stories that such objects tell and about what they hope to accomplish with their own life stories.”
The footlocker belonged to Albert Bene, who lived in San Francisco but fought in the French army. The items include a complete French army uniform, military decorations, canteen, gas mask, mess kit and helmet as well as shrapnel labeled with the names of the battlefields from where the shell fragments came. There’s also a German helmet with both entry and exit bullet holes.
The footlocker also yielded many letters Bene sent home to his wife, Maria, while he was serving overseas. “The correspondence is written in French, and I am in the process of having it all translated so I can know what he said,” said Lowenstein, who has done extensive research about Bene’s life. The dates and locations on the letters show Bene was at Verdun, the Somme, and Aisne, three of the bloodiest battles of the war. Lowenstein hopes a French teacher at Serra, and perhaps a student, will help her translate the letters.
Still unknown is whether Bene was an American or French citizen when he enlisted and fought for the French for the duration. His wife and daughter remained in San Francisco, and he returned to them after the war, living the rest of his life in the Bay Area. At the time of his enlistment, Bene was a professional photographer.
Lowenstein discovered that Bene’s time in the army involved serving in a listening post, a forward position that brought him within 50 yards of the enemy. He was wounded but remained in his post for weeks to provide information about German movements.
“He was given the Croix de Guerre for his heroism,” Lowenstein said. “The medal is in the footlocker along with other medals he was awarded. A San Francisco Bulletin newspaper article celebrated his return home and described how he earned the medal.”
Bene recounted for the reporter how he became a forward observer. He was told “to crawl along on my belly to this hole and stay there. I did not know at this time that I would be in it four months.” An abandoned trench in no-man’s-land became his home where he communicated by telephone to the French forces. His food was limited and he lost a great deal of weight.
Calling the footlocker “a treasure,” Lowenstein added that Bene’s story deserves to be told, describing Bene as “an ordinary person, but he was also a fascinating and heroic individual who loved his country of origin and served it well. My job as an antiquarian bookseller is to do careful and accurate research, to tell the story of the footlocker, and ultimately to place it somewhere that will help ensure that he and his service are not forgotten.”
The Bulletin newspaper article published in February of 1918 said Bene’s 6-year-old daughter, Marie, marched around with her father’s war souvenirs during Bene’s first day home, which was on her first day of school. She begged her mother to let her miss school but was told: “Your father went to fight the Germans because it was his duty. Your duty is to go to school.”
She went to school.
The Rear View Mirror by history columnist Jim Clifford appears in the Daily Journal every other Monday. Objects in The Mirror are closer than they appear.