Entente cordiale: Love letters resurface from WWI romance
Love letters bring warmth to even outsiders who stumble upon its romantic wording. Vanessa Couchman tells about her run-in with documented love from a WWI letter written in the rural countryside of Espinas.
Sometimes fate works in mysterious ways. In this case, it saved for posterity a wonderful letter that would otherwise have been consigned to the flames with a heap of junk.
Every July and August the commune of Espinas organises weekly walks that aim to reveal the surrounding countryside and places of cultural and historical interest. Each year, one of the walks involves a visit to the hamlet of Flouquet. Once a thriving farming community, no one lives there all year round now.
However, the place is far from dead. The people who own houses there keep the place looking neat and tidy and take a pride in renovating the common parts of the hamlet.
Flouquet consists of a handful of houses grouped around a grassy open area planted with chestnut and walnut trees. The original bread oven has been restored and is lit for the benefit of the walkers. The heat is intense inside the small building. You can see the original wooden paddles on which the bread was put into and removed from the oven.
Some of the people were brought up there, but moved away to marry or work. One woman shows us how she helped her grandmother with the washing. It had to be boiled in a large vessel first, with the lessive (washing powder made from ash) and carried down a steep hill in a wheelbarrow to be rinsed in the lavoir. They then laboriously wheeled it back up and hung it out to dry.
Nadette, who organises the walks with husband René, told us that this year there was going to be a surprise. This turned out to be the letter, happily reclaimed from potential oblivion.
The husband of the ‘washing lady’ (I don’t know their names) was brought up in the area. He and his sister were clearing out an attic recently when a piece of paper fluttered to the floor, catching their attention. On deciphering it, they realised it was a letter from their grandmother to their grandfather, written during the First World War when he was fighting in the trenches somewhere in northern France.
The grandson, now in his sixties, read us the letter. His grandmother (Palmyre) was left with several children and a farm to look after when her husband went off to war, as happened so often in that period.
She tells her husband what’s happening on the farm, what she has done with particular fields, whose advice she has taken (or not – she was quite proud of that) and how the weather has been.
She wrote the letter in several stages, taking it up again when she found the time. She says how much she misses her husband, whom she has not seen for nine months; “We were so happy together.”
We were told that it was unusual for people at that time to express their emotions in writing (or in person), even to spouses or close relatives. Happily, her husband was one of the lucky ones who escaped the jaws of death and came home to father another three children.
Little did Palmyre suspect, when she wrote the letter, that almost a century later it would trigger so much interest. For her, it was a private and intimate document for her husband’s eyes only. The fact that he kept it shows how much he valued it.
I wonder what she would have thought had she known that a group of strangers would one day be privy to her secrets.
Reprinted with permission from Life on La Lune
Vanessa Couchman is a freelance writer living in southwest France since 1997. As well as writing research reports and magazine articles she also blogs about France, aiming to show life there as it is, warts and all.
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