|Alton Hawkes in France, 1917, left. His grandson,
Brett Hawkes, right, retraced his grandfather's
WWI route through France.
Brett Hawkes used stacks of old photos to re-create his grandfather’s 600-mile route through the French countryside.
By Christopher Muther Boston Globe Staff, 23 March 2023
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 front lines 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.
|Lt. Alton Hawkes stands on top of the bombed church in
the French countryside in 1918. His grandson Brett photographed the church as it looks today.
Alton Hawkes stands on top of the bombed church in the French countryside in 1918. His grandson Brett photographed the church as it looks today
Read the entire account of Alton Hawkes's pilgrimage HERE
Thanks to Mr. Jack (Kavanagh) for bringing this article to our attention