Lost Face of WWI: Canteen Worker Nelle Robertson (1877-1919) of Virginia Illinois

Photograph of Nelle Robertson courtesy of Dale Robertson, whose great-grandfather was a first-cousin to Nelle. Used with permission.

This story of Nelle Robertson is part of a continuing series to honor those women of WWI who died in service.  Sometimes called “Gold Star” Women they served as yeomen, nurses, telephone operators, Red Cross volunteers and as YMCA/YWCA canteen workers.

It is this latter work that Nelle Robertson was involved with.  She was well educated, had a supportive family, and died far away from home while serving her country.

When we think of non-military service during WWI many jobs come to mind.  I’ve written about the nurses, telephone operators, ambulance drivers, Red Cross and other ancillary workers who provided essential but often dangerous tasks in Europe and on the home front.  Not mentioned before (in my stories) were the services that the YMCA and YWCA canteen workers provided.  And so I mention them now.

Service graphic. National League for Woman’s Service, World War, 1917.

Canteen work was often established at railway stations where hot coffee, tea, cocoa and sandwiches would be served. They would also help with writing and posting letters, and offering parties and dances for socialization to help keep morale up. According to the New York Tribune of 15 June 1919, The YWCA had “400 clubs, 140 hostels and 60 canteens in France and England during the war for women war workers.”

–Her Family–
Nelle Robertson was born 27 Feb 1877 in Virginia, Illinois, daughter of John Thomas “J.T.” & Eliza J. (Mathews) RobertsonShe had several siblings as follows:
1. Richard John Robertson, b. 27 March 1875 Virginia IL. He m. 30 Aug 1905 Iva M. Dick dau of Alfred & Eliza Dick. Children: Richard V, Lyle, Alfred, Edith M. all born Wauneta Nebraska. He is buried in Riverside Cemetery Wauneta, Chase Co. Nebraska.
2. Nelle Robertson** born 27 Feb 1877 Virginia IL [This story is about her].
3. Virgil Elon Robertson b 21 June 1880 Cass Co. IL; He m. Emaline Oakes
4. Frank Mathew Robertson b. 6 Jan 1884 IL, d. Aug 1928 Cass Co. IL. Buried Walnut Ridge Cemetery
5. Nadine Robertson b abt 1884; she m. 6 Sep 1906 in Cass Co. IL to Robert Howard Campbell. Buried Walnut Ridge Cemetery.
6. Almanita “Nita” “Alma” Robertson b 30 July 1889 Virginia Cass Co. IL, d. 20 May 1967 Springfield IL; She m. Thomas G. Charles. Buried Oak Grove Cemetery Beardstown IL.

1899 group photo of Lasell Seminary students from the Allerlei school periodical. Nelle Robertson is among them. Internet Archive.

–Her Education and Involvements–
Nelle Robertson attended local schools in Virginia IL, followed by higher education at Lasell Seminary [now called Lasell University] in Newton MA (1896-98) and Fine Arts classes at MacMurray Women’s College, Jacksonville IL (1900).  She was a member of Pi Beta Phi Fraternity. She taught for several years, and was active in her community, eventually elected Secretary of the local YWCA. [ Her service is also credited to the YMCA].

–Her Service–

Nelle Robertson’s signature from her 1918 passport.

Several newspaper and newsletter notices of 1919 tell the story of her involvement with the YMCA canteen. The Jacksonville Daily Journal of Sunday, October 27, 1918, Jacksonville, Illinois, reported: “Nelle Robertson received a call to report for overseas canteen work in the Y* M. C. A. service. Miss Robertson left last evening for Chicago for a few days’ visit, and will report in New York Oct. 30th. Her many friends join in wishing her every success in the work which she is so well qualified to do.”

Briggs, Clare A., Artist. The men know home folks know YWCA hostess houses in seventy camps / / Briggs. United States, 1918. Photograph.

Then 2 years after her death, the Lasell Leaves [newsletter], Lasell Female Seminary Periodical, 1922, reported: From Evergreen Park Farm, Virginia Illinois there came recently to our Principal an interesting and touching letter written by Nadine Robertson Campbell in which she tells of the death of her sister, Nelle Robertson (1896-98): “Nelle enlisted as a Young Women’s Christian Association secretary was in Marseilles and did wonderful work there. Later she was stricken with fever from which she did not recover and was buried in Marseilles but her later resting place was in one of our war cemeteries near Paris. We received such excellent letters form the war officers telling of her good work among the boys. The churches in Virginia Illinois, dedicated a room in the new Wesley Memorial Building at Champaign in memory of he. Dr. Bragdon was the head of the school when she was at Lasell. I am sure he will remember her.” Lasell takes the privilege, at this late day of extending tender sympathy to this sister and to the bereaved family and will remember with comfort and pride Nelle’s splendid record in the Great War.”

Additional details are provided in the Jacksonville Daily Journal, Friday March 28, 1919: MISS NELLE ROBERTSON DIES IN FRANCE — J.T. Robertson of Virginia Advised of Death of Daughter in Marseilles, Frances–Was Engaged in Canteen Work in French City.— Many Jacksonville people heard with genuine sorrow of the death of Miss Nelle Robertson of Virginia in Marseilles France as a result of typhoid fever. A cablegram brought this sad news to her father J.T. Robertson of Virginia, Thursday. The message came from Lieut. George C. Lenington a former pastor of the Presbyterian church in Virginia and now serving as chaplain with the American army of occupation. Miss Robertson during the war period was active in various patriotic efforts and a few months ago was accepted for service overseas and assigned to canteen service in Marseilles. Recently she contracted the fever and her condition grew rapidly worse until the end came. Miss Robertson was a daughter of Mr. and Mrs. John T. Robertson of Virginia and was born there Feb 27 1877. She attended the public schools of Virginia and afterward was a student at a Jacksonville college, later going to LaSalle seminary at Auburndale Mass. After finishing her own education, Miss Robertson engaged for a number of years in teaching. Letters written to her family from France were on an enthusiastic kind and indicated her strong interest in the work in which she was engaged. The last letter from her was written under date of Feb 20. Those who knew Miss Robertson could not fail to appreciate her worth. She lived unselfishly and was genuinely interested in her relatives and friends. She leaves her father J.T. Robertson of Virginia; three brothers and two sisters: Richard Robertson living in Nebraska; Virgil E. Robertson of Virginia; E.M. Robertson of Decatur; Mrs. T.G. Charles of Beardstown; and Mrs. R.H. Campbell of Virginia. Mrs. John Robertson of West Lafayette avenue is a grandmother of the deceased and John R. Robertson her uncle.”

Nelle Robertson died on 23 March 1919 at Marseilles France of typhoid fever.  When the Suresnes American Cemetery was constructed her remains were moved there, where she lies beneath a simple white cross.  [A.B.M. grave at Suresnes American Cemetery, France  ] [Find-A-Grave listing].   There are also TWO Cenotaphs, one in Walnut Ridge Cemetery, Virginia IL where her parents are buried, and a 2nd cenotaph in Beardstown Cemetery, where her youngest sister Almanita is buried.

CENOTAPH in Walnut Ridge Cemetery, Virginia Cass Co IL, inscription:
Nelle Robertson
b 1877 YMCA d. 1919
Buried in France

CENOTAPH at Beardstown City Cemetery, Beardstown Cass Co. IL, inscription:
NELLE ROBERTSON
DIED IN FRANCE
Y.M.C.A. SERVICE
BURIED AT SURESNES, FRANCE

[end]

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