The Restoration of Hattonchâtel after World War I
Belle returned to France when war broke out in 1914. Whole town-populations in the Alsace-Lorraine districts, in close proximity to Germany and the battlefront, had been displaced from their homes and relocated to the south as war refugees. She worked for the Red Cross and the Secours de Guerre in Paris, and then as the American president of the Village Libérés, helping to source American funds in support refugee repatriation and postwar French rebuilding projects.
Her dedication to the refugee aid effort began with the appeal to the women of the Skinner Coffee house to help supply hand-fashioned clothing to the hundreds of thousands of refugees, on behalf of Holyoke. Belle arrived at the port of New York William or Joseph to see her off and trunks packed with her community’s offerings.
She traveled alone, resisting many offers to dine with the ship’s captain at his table. Belle’s mission was to spread American kindness and care for the French citizens who had been driven from their homes and livelihoods with little hope of restoring either. She personally delivered food and Holyoke’s handmade clothing into the hands of those in need.
She stayed on. She toured the devastated villages near the front in Lorraine with French General Berthelot. As they entered the Meuse Valley, she lifted her binoculars to view the hilltop village that had impressed her in 1911 and saw no more than scattered piles of granite block and rubble where the lovely medieval Chateau de Hattonchâtel had been. She pledged her organizational skill and financial sponsorship to rebuild Hattonchâtel on the spot.
The village had been occupied by World War I German forces for nearly four years. Belle Skinner would eventually move to 8 Rue Monsieur, on the Left Bank near the Eiffel Tower, and divide her time between Paris and Hattonchâtel, her adopted village one hundred and fifty miles east. In turn, the people of Hattonchâtel adopted Belle Skinner as their “marraine” or godmother for her sustained charity toward the village and its people.
A formal celebration marked the completion of the first phase of the historical reconstruction and preservation in 1923. French President Raymond and Madame Poincaré, Bishop Charles-Marie-André Ginisty of Verdun, General Berthélot, Hattonchâtel Mayor Thierry joined Belle and several members of the Skinner family, and hundreds of residents of the village and surrounding communities to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the liberation of the Meuse. Men and women in traditional Alsatian and Lorraine ceremonial dress prayed at mass and at the christening of the new church bell, reviewed rebuilding progress, and celebrated their accomplishments.