French women in the Great War

In France between 1914 and 1918, 8 million men were forced to leave their homes to carry out their duty towards their homeland. Their departure caused upheaval in their lives and in the organization of daily life of society as a whole. The women left behind were forced to compensate for the men’s absence. They threw off their traditional roles and duties and, despite their unequal legal standing, replaced their husbands, sons or brothers running farms, workshops or shops as well as in the factories. The ability of a large number of women to take on new responsibilities and successfully manage the family business as well as their courage and determination to deal with the pain of separation provided support and solace that were crucial to the tenacity of the men at the front.

 

Excerpt from a letter from Félicie Mougeot to her husband Hippolyte Bougaud, a farmer at Saint-Aubin called up into the 260th Infantry Regiment at the beginning of the war and sent to Serbia the autumn of 1915.

 

Saint-Aubin, 7 October 1915,

My dearest Bougaud,

Who would have believed that you along with the whole 260th would have had to leave for Serbia. So far away and what will become of you down there, and what will we do here while waiting for your first letter and your return – it will certainly be long in coming and nothing frightens me more than thinking about it, especially at these times I would like so much for you to be here near me to help with caring for Marie-Louise. Poor little darling, her fever went away last night at 8 o’clock. She slept well during the night, this morning she was quite weak but calm and had no fever until 2 pm, then from half past two the fever became more violent and agitated again, I thought it was meningitis she was suffering so much with her head, the midwife who is looking after Jeanne went to find a telegrapher to call the doctor who was here but we didn’t know and in the turmoil we didn’t think to ask, but he came back this evening at 7 o’clock for his 15 francs, it doesn’t matter, the visit was necessary, he examined her thoroughly and although he didn’t confirm anything, he has found something abnormal at the top of her right lung. He hopes however that it’s nothing serious. She also apparently has a bit of enteritis, which combined with her nervous temperament causes bouts of high temperature. Care, herbal teas, cough syrup, a bit of antipyrine, and oh no! some vegetable broth that’s her prescribed diet, on the other hand she won’t have anything else so it’s useless refusing her any solid food.

[…]

I think the time when I could rely on your advice to keep the crops in good condition is over for now. [...] The never-ending war provides hardly any incentive, I won’t hide it from you, to cultivate the land so why go to so much bother to do the work. We would have been better off I think not growing anything at all, it would probably be over now and we would have been all the better for it. You have raised our hopes however about getting new leave, I think you will soon be going back to Saint-Aubin. What do they think they are doing sending so many troops down there? If I am allowed to write to you, give Marguerite your address as I think that just like for me, it takes time for you to get our news. Let’s pray together for our dear little ones and especially for M. Louise to get better, and let’s pray for each other; God will give us strength. Before I write off, please be brave, keep in good health and send news soon. Goodbye, my dearest Friend, and with all my most affectionate kisses, I ensure you of my complete devotion. Your loving wife.

Félicie

 

Excerpt from correspondence from Gabrielle M. to her spouse Constant, a wine merchant in the Jura region and private in the 260th infantry regiment called up in February 1915.

 

Petit-Noir, Wednesday 24 February [1915]

My dearest companion,

You have to keep up your will and determination and tell yourself: I want to go back home and I will not be discouraged! I understand that it’s terrible down there and that you need the courage of a hero not to tremble. Since you have to be there to defend us, raise your eyes and be confident. The inevitable will happen here on Earth. I admire you, my dear great man, and I am proud of your heroism. With all my love and an affectionate hug.

 

Petit-Noir, 5 March 1915

My dear husband, you will have to be brave if you are to see me again soon, […] I thank all the nice fellows you know who had the goodness to tell you not to think about home all the time. They are right, it does you more harm than good. They also have their families, think about it, my darling; they have to make the same sacrifices as you; they take it all in their stride, regain their courage and think about it later. […]

It doesn’t do your mother any good to write to you, she is too upset. We should always encourage our dear ones and brave soldiers! She acts neither like a Frenchwoman nor a Christian mother! I have still got three barrels of 16°5 from Algeria. I’m going to see if I can get some from the South.

Uncle Amédée is offering me some 9° Boyer Béziers at 14 francs, shipping from the station. I am waiting for the samples. The wines are a bit more expensive.

I am in excellent health, what about you, my dear husband?

Millions of kisses.

 

Petit-Noir, 2 June [1915]

My dearest husband. In between customers, I’m writing to tell you that I love you and that day and night I only think of you, my darling. […] I only wish for one thing, not for you to come back here because you have to see your duty through but that they put you somewhere where I can come and see you as often as possible. That will be enough for us in wartime, we need to be grateful for small mercies during these terrible times! So many have been deprived of them forever! […]

It is a bit mean of you to lay the blame on me when I don’t deserve it. I have a clean conscience and feel perfectly at ease, so when will you be able to stop all this reproaching? It’s very unfair and I don’t understand you. You always compare me with some passionate character from a novel and I am, thank goodness, far from being that. But when all said and done, you have had this idea for months and I haven’t managed to persuade you that it isn’t true.  It really is unfortunate as the thought depresses me as it used to when you were here. You mustn’t believe that all women are to blame. Yes, many of them are but fortunately there are some who are steer clear of the temptations of this ugly world. You can rely on me, without a shadow of a doubt. Once again, I have a clear conscience and these things are just between us! […]

With hugs, cuddles and a tender loving squeeze in my arms. Until the happy time comes when we really can hug each other, I’m going to make sure you get my kisses down their every day.

All yours, G.

 

Excerpt from correspondence between Yvonne and Maurice Retour, manager of a weaving mill in Orne, called up into the 205th Infantry Regiment. Having volunteered to go to the front, he was killed in combat on 27 September 1915.

 

Monday, 16 November 1914

My adorable little Maurice,

On my way back from Mass, I met the postman who said, “You have a letter from your husband!” …

You can imagine how gladly I climbed the hill despite the wind and rain. […]

I no longer remember exactly what I wrote to you on 4 and 5 November, but just knowing that you find me beautiful makes me blush. This is love, so you have to believe it... but if only you knew how much I desire you! ..

When do you think the war will end?

[…] Are you receiving all my letters?

I write to you every evening so you will be able to tell from the date if any of my letters are missing. Did you receive the one in which I gave you the business figures for the last three months? 90 000 F more in revenue than in 1913, August, September and October. Henri has written to you with a lot of details and I registered this letter so that you are sure of getting but it may take longer to arrive.

[…] Michel has become very mischievous. He holds out a notebook for his grandmother and when she goes to get it, he pulls it away shrieking with laughter. The rascal! He sends you his lovely smile. A hug from me with all my heart.

Queussec* my love

[* A term of endearment used in Brittany]
 

Bibliography:

Clémentine Vidal-Naquet, Correspondances conjugales 1914-1918: Dans l'intimité de la Grande Guerre, Paris, Editions Robert Laffont, 2014.

The second excerpt from correspondence is taken from

Constant M.,Gabrielle M. , Des Tranchées à l'alcôve - Correspondance amoureuse et érotique pendant la guerre, Imago 2006