100 Years ago this week: Christmas in the Bull pen

Background:  In September 1917 My grandfather, John Rodney Jamieson, who we later called ‘Poppa’, joined the 20th Engineers regiment of the United States Army.  After training at Jefferson Barracks in Missouri and on the grounds of the American University in Washington, D.C. he sailed to St. Nazaire, France aboard a troop transport ship.  After spending some time at a camp outside St. Nazaire they have now set up camp inside a bull ring in Dax, France.


From the Journal of John Rodney Jamieson

Sunday Dec 23, 1917Very busy day getting supplies from Depot.  Building tent floors and erecting tents.  Have two tents with stoves.

Monday Dec 24 – Working hard to get tents up and arranged.  Spent Christmas eve in city at picture show and in seeing town.

Tuesday Dec 25– “Christmas day in the “Bull Pen”  Had a fine dinner of turkey, dates, nuts.  No work today.

Wednesday Dec 26– Mail today 1-home 1-Marion 2-Uncle Will 1 Ora.  Had travellers checks cashed at Banque de Franca.

Thursday Dec 27– Today was payday.  Nearly everyone has been broke for some time.

Friday Dec 28 – There is plenty of hot water here as hot springs are found all over town.  Big night tonight.

Saturday Dec 29 – Ground covered with snow. Very cold (about 23 degrees above)  for this place.  Dinner party this night  First “grand eats” for some time

Here is a description of contemporary Dax, France from the editors of the Encyclopedia Britannica:

“Dax is in the Landes District of southwestern France. It lies on the left bank of the Adour River, 88 miles (142 km) southwest of Bordeaux and 50 miles (80 km) north of the Pyrenees frontier with Spain. The town is a spa resort whose thermal springs and mud baths have been noted for the cure of rheumatism since Roman times, when it was known as Aquae Tarbellicae. Situated on the edge of the Landes Forest, it is also a tourist centre. The remains of its Gallo-Roman walls have been made into a promenade. At the Place de la Fontaine Chaude, near the Roman wall, there are hot springs, the waters of which gush out at a temperature of 147 °F (64 °C). Near the river is a park with a bull ring. Small-scale woodworking and leatherworking are local industries. Pop. (1999) 19,515; (2014 est.) 20,485.”

Sunday, December 23, 1917- As the week begins Poppa and the other soldiers of the Headquarters unit have been in Dax, France for only 36 hours and they are working to set up camp inside a bull fighting ring.  I don’t think many veterans can say they were stationed in a bull ring!

The existence of a bull ring, not a typical feature in France, was due to the close proximity of Dax to the Spanish border.

Major Edward Hartwick was Poppa’s commanding officer.  Here is how he described the bull ring camp in a letter to his family in Michigan:

“The headquarters detachment about forty men are encamped- where do you think- well I got permission to pitch our tents in the Arena a Spanish bull ring surrounded with raised seats all constructed of concrete similar to our ball park except the diameter of the ring is only about 150 feet but is the best camping place we will ever get.  Under the concrete raised benches are rooms where we store our baggage.  Also toilet rooms and where they kept the bulls and horses we are going to keep our horses, pigs, auto trucks, automobile and the best of all one of the hot springs is but a few feet from the entrance.  A circular concrete wall with only two entrances encloses the place. A most admirable place for a little camp. When we shut the big door we are hidden from the curious though friendly public which has been flocking to look at us so much that I had the mayor put up a notice that it was forbidden to enter the arena without permission from him.  Soon we shall have the arena connected with electric light and our own telephone to the two camps and then we will be settled.”

The Dax bullring was built in 1913.


In his photo album this picture is labelled: John Rodney Jamieson Dax, France 1917.

20th Engineers– The 20th Engineers battalion was established to mill and provide lumber products for the army’s use in building bridges, roads buildings, etc.  Poppa, like most of the other soldiers of the 20th had experience in the lumber business.  Before (and after) his service in the army he worked for his father and uncles at Jamieson Brothers lumber yard in Poynette, Wisconsin.

Dax was chosen as one of the camps of the 20th Engineers because of the areas abundance of forests.  Major Hartwick wrote the following about the trees in the area:

“One hundred or so years ago this country was a wide expanse of sand and sandy moraiss a desert but about that time experiments were made with a view of growing a forest of pine and after years of trial and discouragement the successful methods were found so that the woods are of trees from fifty to seventy years a species of pine resembling in appearance our jack pine but growing fifty to sixty feet high and with limbs about thirty feet from the ground.”

Christmas Day 1917– Poppa reported that he had the day off and had a nice meal.

December 26– Poppa received mail from Marion Brown (who would become his wife and my grandmother) and Ora Hopkins, who was his cousin, daughter of his aunt Samantha Janet (Jamieson) and Uncle Edgar Hinkson.

The grave marker of Ora Hinkson Hopkins in the Hillside Cemetery, Poynette, WI

Next Week:  Starting the New Year in France


“A Biographical Sketch of Major Edward E. Hartwick.” Google Books. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Dec. 2017.
The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Dax.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 09 June 2017. Web. 20 Dec. 2017.


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