Oeuvre Mon Soldat
By Frank Hunter Potter
[The Outlook; June 14, 1916]
Among the great number of varied sufferings cause by the present war in Europe there is one which creates peculiar sympathy because it is solely mental and moral. It is the case of the French soldiers who come from parts of France which are now occupied by the Germans. These men were called to the colors in the early days of August 1914. From that time to this the vast majority of them have not heard a word from the families they behind, and they are uncertain as to the fate which has befallen their wives and children, their fathers and mothers, their brothers and sisters. The doubt is agonizing, the suspense has been almost unendurable, yet for most of these men there has been no friend to speak a word of sympathy or to show human interest. As one of them write from the trenches, "I had a leave of absence of five days last week, but as I had nowhere to go I just stayed here."
An organization, the Oeuvre Mon Soldat, 1915 has undertaken to take the place, so far as such a thing is possible, of the families whom these soldiers cannot reach, and to supply these lonely men with a little sympathy and friendship. Each member of this organization is given the name and regiment of one of them, and is expected to write him two letters a month and to send him monthly a small parcel of something which will be useful to him—socks, handkerchiefs, soap, towels, any one of the hundred and one things which the Government naturally does not furnish him, but which go so far to make life comfortable. Anybody can think up a list of things which in the circumstances he himself would be glad to have, but, after all, the most valuable contribution which each member of the Oeuvre can make is the intelligent friendship and sympathy which he can bestow upon the friendless soldier at the front.
These men reply to the letters which they receive from their unknown correspondents, each of whom assumes the relation of godfather, or godmother to the godson. The replies at first are naturally apt to be a little constrained, as between strangers, but after a bit the correspondence warms up on both sides, and if the interest of the godfather is real the relation is apt to end by being very beautiful, for the gratitude of these heroic men is touching. One of them writes to his godfather: "I begin to dread the end of the war, because I know that I shall lose you." Any one who has established the close relationship with one of these men which so many members of the Oeuvre enjoy is not likely to let the friendship drop short of the grave.
The correspondence with them develops wonderful surprises. An American godmother wrote to a soldier whose name had been given her, and received in reply a letter written entirely in German. It was from an Alsatian who had been in the German army at the outbreak of the war, and who was unable to speak a word of French. The Germans had deprived him of the language of his true fatherland, but could not deprive him of his innate love for it. He deserted from the Germans and joined the French army and when this American lady first heard from him he was employed as a bomb-thrower in the French trenches. One day the godmother got a letter in a strange hand. It was from one of his officers, and read: "My brave grenadier often talked to me of his godmother in New York. 'If I fall, you will write to her and thank her,' he said. Alas! he did fall in bravely executing a bomb attack on the enemies' trenches."
The irrepressible French gayety shines out through all the hardships and sorrows of their lives. One American sent his soldier a collection of caricatures of the Kaiser Wilhelm. The soldier wrote back that he would take advantage of the first dark night to crawl near the German trenches and throw the caricatures into them, that he and his companions might see how the Boches would take it when they saw how their Emperor was ridiculed in America. In a subsequent letter he said: "I carried out my joke with the caricatures of the Emperor Wilhelm, but those people were so stupid that they got angry, and sent us in reply a whole series of shells from their 77s."
It is in these letters that the soul of the French poilu is seen naked. How splendid he is can be known only by reading what he writes. Mind you, it is not the educated, refined, cultivated Frenchman of the upper classes who writes these letters; it is the man of the people. One man of forty-five, a woolworker, wrote his marraine that he had had no word since the beginning of the war from his wife, of his own age, or of his little daughter of twelve. When the godmother wrote that she would try to get him some news through the agency of a Swiss organization, he thanked her. "It would be a great happiness for me to know that my dear wife and child are in good health, and that they have not suffered too much from the Boches. As for us here, we will go on to the end, and we will make them pay dearly for all the sufferings endured by our dear ones, because for them it is too late. At Verdun they will not pass until we are all killed. We can only say, Courage and Confidence, and so far as we are concerned, we can only hope that those at the rear will work at munitions, so that these may not fail us. We ask nothing more."
It would be impossible to convey more simply the fact that this man and his comrades have devoted themselves to dying for their country, and that all they ask of their countrymen is to see that their sacrifice is not fruitless. Any one who writes French and is so minded can do something to bring light and happiness into the lives of these heroic men during the short time that many of them have to live, when they are deprived of happiness from any other quarter. Mr. Robert W. Neeser, the distinguished historian of the American navy, is the American representative of the work, and will be glad to supply inquirers with the names of soldiers and with the rather strict governmental regulations under which their may be written to. His address is 247 Fifth Avenue, New York City.
The Oeuvre was founded under the patronage of the Minister de la Guerre, by Madame Philippe Bérard, and it has done splendid work. It costs so little in money or trouble to give a great deal of happiness to thee most déshérité element in the French army that the readers of The Outlook ought to supply enough new members of the Oeuvre to take care of every member of it.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
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THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald