22 July 1917 | A Letter from a German Prison Camp

19 Jul

I’m posting this here because I don’t imagine I’ll ever get the chance to bring it up otherwise.  The following is a letter from the French Archives nationales, dated 22 July, 1917.  It is from a young woman in the civilian prison camp at Limburg, and is addressed to her husband, another civilian who had been forced to work in Battalion 2 of the Zivilarbeiter Bataillonen, stationed somewhere in northern France.  This latter group, easily distinguishable in public by the red armbands they were forced to wear, was comprised of French and Belgian civilians who were essentially enslaved to support the German war effort through their labour.  From Audoin-Rouzeau and Becker’s 14-18 (2000):

They were blackmailed in a particularly odious manner.  Either they voluntarily agreed to work for the Germans, in which case their situation was one of ‘free’ salaried employees who were entitled to leaves and to contact with their relatives; or they refused, in which case they were rounded up and subjected to compulsory labour.  [. . .] Since most mayors refused to hand over lists of their town’s unemployed, the Germans simply rounded up men in the streets and deported them. [75]

It is against this backdrop that we must read this heartbreaking letter from the young Eugénie Broyart.  Her original grammar has been preserved as much as is possible in translation:

22 July 1917

Dear Lucien,

I’m surprised by your silence I havent received news since your cards of 3 and 11 March, yet I would be very happy to get some for I miss you a lot and regardless of my courage and my resignation I don’t know if I can stand this suffering of being separated from the whole family as we are if I knew where my little children and my parents are I’d take courage more easily.  In spite of everything I’m in good health and so is my little Henri and I hope my letter will find you well also, which is what we must ask for in our sad situation.  Rosa is fine still works outside she sends you her greetings but still doesn’t know about her misfortune she received another card this week from your parents they sent back to non-occupied France… all these upheavals of all these families, Rosa doesn’t know where Raymond is either.

Dear Lucien if you can try to look into the fate of our poor little children, because for myself I can’t and you will write me but write me always as much as possible, that will be a very precious consolation… I feel like everyone is abandoning me, though, dear husband we must not get too discouraged for we’re still needed on earth to bring up our little family.  I hope though that there will be an end and that we will all be reunited to live happier days after so many cruel ordeals we certainly deserve to I don’t have much else to tell you hello from my comrades to Cousin Désiré and to you I hope you are still together.

A thousand loving kisses from afar while waiting to kiss each other close up what a happy day, dear Lucien, but when… let’s hope for God’s clemency.  Yours for life.

Eugénie Broyart

(Above all, send me good news from you soon, I forgot to tell you I haven’t yet received news of the plea for pardon that I asked for I hope.)

Pause to think on all that is contained above.

In any event, it reminds me of nothing so much as this remarkable passage from Edith Wharton’s The Marne (1918), which sees a young American man head off to France as a volunteer after having been briefly exposed to the war in its early months during the initial German invasion.  He arrives in the little town he and his family used to visit so often, seeking news of the friendly family that had acted as hosts and tutors in French.

Troy jumped down, and began to ask questions. At first the only person who recognized the name of Gantier was an old woman too frightened and feeble-minded to answer intelligibly. Then a French territorial who was hoeing with the women came forward. He belonged to the place and knew the story.

“M. Gantier – the old gentleman? He was mayor, and the Germans took him. He died in Germany. The young girl – Mlle. Gantier – was taken with him. No, she’s not dead… I don’t know… She’s shut up somewhere in Germany… queer in the head, they say. …The sons – ah, you knew Monsieur Paul? He went first… What, the others? … Yes; the three others – Louis at Notre Dame to Lorette; Jean on a submarine; poor little Félix, the youngest, of the fever at Salonika. Voilà… The old lady? Ah, she and her sister went away… some charitable people took them, I don’t know where… I’ve got the address somewhere…”

He fumbled, and brought out a strip of paper on which was written the name of a town in the centre of France.

“There’s where they were a year ago. … Yes, you may say: there’s a family gone – wiped out. How often I’ve seen them all sitting there, laughing and drinking coffee in the arbour! They were not rich, but they were happy, and proud of each other. That’s over.”

He went back to his hoeing. [64-66]

This story, and others like it, repeated itself over and over, in the millions, throughout France and Belgium from the autumn of 1914 onwards.  The focus on the trenches, while understandable, does tend sometimes to obscure this fact.


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