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The Ripples of War

Leon’s military death certificate. His full name was “Eugene Leon.”

Leon Mathonnet died on October 2, 1914, killed in battle at Monchy-le-Preux, France. He was the great-grandfather of my wife, Sophie.

One year from now we will commemorate the centennial of the armistice that ended of World War I, November 11, 1918—the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Of course, the United States did not enter World War I until 1917, long after the Germans, French, and Brits had spent years stalemated in the trenches.

A booklet about Leon’s army division during World War I.

Leon died in the first few months of the war. Not in the well-known Battle of the Marne, when according to folklore, Paris taxis ferried young men and champagne to the front lines to stave off the advancing Germans. Leon died in northern France, very near the Belgian border. His body was never recovered. I’m not a military historian, but just googling around, it appears Monchy-le-Preux was the front line for most of the war, and then in 1917, three years after Leon’s death, became the site of an important battle as the British and Canadians briefly gained some traction.

But this is a family story, not a military history. Leon’s story causes me to wonder, to psychologize, about how his death affected his family, including my wife, three generations later. It makes me wonder about, or more accurately grieve for, all the families whose lives have been torn apart by war, or really any tragedy—how the ripples of war, tragedy, and grief spread across the generations, virtually invisible but still very potent.

Leon was father to Rene, an eight year old boy when his father was killed. Leon’s common law wife, Rene’s mother, had died in childbirth. It’s surprising to me that a single-father would be drafted into the army, but what do I know? Perhaps considerations like this didn’t mean much a century ago.


Our attention turns now to Rene, Sophie’s grandfather. There are living people who knew him, who still remember Rene—including Sophie. And this is where my psychologizing becomes pure conjecture. There’s no way of knowing who Rene might have been if his mother had survived his birth, if his father hadn’t been killed in the war. Even more, we’re getting pretty speculative when we start to wonder how Rene’s fathering skills—or lack thereof—affected his sons, including Sophie’s father, and how any of this seeped out to touch Sophie, or perhaps even our children.

I’ll just tell the story as I’ve been told it.

Rene was an orphan at age eight. Mother dead in childbirth. Father dead in battle. He was sent to some sort of orphanage or public institution. But before long, his grandparents, Leon’s parents, learned they could receive financial support from the state if they helped with the raising of Rene. They enrolled him in a boarding school, although he would spend summers and holidays with his grandparents. Apparently, Rene was spoiled by his grandparents. That’s not hard to believe. Aging, weary grandparents, filled with grief, pity, and love, indulging their orphaned grandson.

Dashing Rene and his horse

The way I hear it, Rene never took much to responsibility or maturity. He loved horses, both riding and betting at the track. He liked the high life. Drinking was another favorite activity, although whether or not it was a “problem” by today’s standards, who can say?

He married a hardworking young woman, Marthe, stern-unto-sour. In fairness, maybe it was years of being married to Rene that made Marthe sour. She was a skilled and successful seamstress. Was Rene attracted by her firm and industrious ways? Psychology 101 might say so. Or maybe it was her dark brown eyes. To this marriage, three sons were born. The eldest, Roger, is Sophie’s father, my father-in-law.

As a husband and father, Rene was a bit of a failure, or maybe worse. Personal pleasures took priority over family. He was a player of horses and ladies. Eventually he simply disappeared without explanation. In some ways, he was so selfish and unreliable nobody in the family missed him. But of course they really did. Near the end of his life, when his sons were long grown, he returned to Marthe, asking for mercy. She took him back, as a boarder more than a husband.

Roger and beyond

Roger, Sophie’s father, grew up in a home with an unreliable, often absent father. His mother, Marthe, was busy as the breadwinner of the family, so her mother, Roger’s grandmother, ran the household. Imagine the dynamics between a negligent, cavalier son-in-law and his formidable mother-in-law who managed the home while watching her young daughter toil to support the family. Roger’s fondest boyhood memories are of his great-grandfather, Leon’s father. Perhaps the great-grandfather indulged Roger just the way he had spoiled his orphaned grandson.

Young Roger, Sophie’s father, with his great-grandfather, Anselm, the father of Leon.

Now with Roger, my father-in-law, we’re getting too close to do simplistic psychology. His foibles and the dirty laundry of Sophie’s family don’t need to be aired here. It wasn’t ideal, but no worse than many a family.

Still, when my father-in-law confounds or vexes me, I find myself asking how being raised by a bitter mother who was trying to provide for her family, an extremely unreliable father, and a doting great-grandfather made him who he is. By the time we get to Sophie, “objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.” It is simply too close for me to focus, too close to dispassionately analyze.

A friend of mine was a therapist for the Veterans Administration. Late last century and early in the 2000’s, he was about out of clients. The Vietnam vets he saw were aging and dying. My friend has since retired but VA therapists are certainly no longer running short of clients.

Leon Mathonnet’s story is just one of millions. One hundred years from now, I wonder what the families of the four Green Berets recently killed in Niger will be able to see and say about how those deaths seeped into generation after generation? We usually count the cost of war in dead and wounded. But the ripples go out so much wider, so much farther.


In the US, we often portray Europeans as soft and cowardly. I’ve spent a good deal of time in Europe, mostly France. My theory is that Europeans see so many reminders of the ugly cost of war all around them, they just aren’t eager to do it again. Of course, those who actually remember the wars are disappearing. But the reminders, stories, and monuments are everywhere. In France, I’m always struck by the World War I memorials in every little town, engraved with many, many names even in the smallest village.
The other side of Sophie’s family, her mother’s family, had a house that was commandeered first for German and then for British officers during World War I. When the family returned after the war, the only things they could find of their home and possessions were a wooden plant stand and this soup ladle.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is a recently retired minister of the Reformed Church in America. He has been the convener of the Reformed Journal’s daily blog since its inception in 2011. He and his wife, Sophie, reside in Des Moines, Iowa.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Wow. Behold all flesh is as the grass, and all the comeliness of man is as the flower of grass.

  • Kim Van Es says:

    We need to hear these stories and more like them. Any glorification of war is immoral.

  • Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison. Thanks, Steve.

  • Jane Brown says:

    Very poignant Steve-

  • John Tiemstra says:

    WWI had many fewer American casualties than WWII, but the opposite was true in Europe, far and away. The monuments testify to that. But many immigrants to America in the early 20th c. lost relatives in the Great War. My great-uncle Albert Bell died in the war. He had emigrated from Northern Ireland to New Zealand, even as his sister, my grandmother, emigrated to New York, and later Chicago. He could have stayed home, since he was a policeman, but he felt obligated to go.There’s been an Albert in every generation of the Bell family since then.

  • Wow! Thank you for sharing this.

  • James Schaap says:

    Thanks for the story, Steve. They do things nothing else does. By the way, if you haven’t already, sometime you and Sophie should go south to Kansas City and visit the WWI Museum. People there tell the story very well.

  • Judith Loucks Gruver says:

    Thank you for this touching, informative writing.

  • Thank you all for engaging and for your comments. Tuesday, the day this post appeared, was a bit of a whirlwind as Sophie’s mother died that morning. While it is another story for another day, her older brother, Robert, was killed in WW II at age 16–wearing his Boy Scout uniform while helping evacuate people, he was mistaken as a combatant. Buried in a mass grave, his family never saw him again. Lord have mercy, indeed.

  • Nancy Dunham says:

    Wow, may God bless Robert and Sophie, you and the rest of your family. RIP Marie Claire. My father lost many of his cousins in WW1 and both of my parents were directly affected by WWII. My great grandfather Woolley fought in the CIvil War, it all seems so far away and yet so close. Thank you for sharing the story. Even on hard days, it really hits home on how fortunate I am. Whenever, I heard someone from an older generation say “Thank you to God for this beautiful country and the privilege of living here”I used to pass it off as some chauvinistic rhetoric.
    The greatest generations really do know, don’t they. Immigrints too…sorry can’t spell today. Anselm looks like a very kind and wonderful man. Betcha he and our parents are all looking down happy and relieved, and Sophie’s great grandmother–witnessing Sophie’s ordination…

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