It arrived on my desk one morning. A handmade scrapbook labeled Correspondances Militaires, 1916-1917 covered in paper the color of the French military uniform – bleu horizon. Each letter was carefully pasted along one edge to a thin strip of paper. Each letter was written to Emile Toulouse from his brothers Eugène and Jean and a smattering of friends and cousins. They all served France during World War I. Emile served as a firefighter in Paris. Eugène served in the infantry. Jean served with the artillery.
The most important function of war time letters is simply to assure family and friends that one is still in this world. Eugène writes at the beginning of almost every letter and card exactly the same sentence: “Je suis toujours en bonne santé et désire que ma lettre te trouve de même. = I am still in good health and hope that my letter finds you the same.” The fact that Eugène wrote that for over 2.5 years (March 1915 until November 1917) while serving in the trenches in France is remarkable. In the optimistic early days of 1915, he gathered flowers from each of the trenches.
By December 29, 1916, Eugène’s spirits were flagging and for good reason. Below is a translated excerpt from that letter.
“ . . . From time to time here at this Compagnie de Dépôt we are almost as brutally treated as you are, and twice I was almost thrown in jail without any reason. You better believe it’s harsh to be treated that way especially because it’s possible that in one week we will have our pants on fire and our feet freeze. I am beginning to believe that we will never beat them although you know my morale was pretty high. I can’t wait for the escape.”
[Translation by Dominique Coulombe, Senior Scholarly Resources Librarian]