Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Something Uniquely French: Marraines de Guerre

By Margaret H. Darrow

In the spring of 1915, the creation and promotion of marraines de guerre (war godmothers) transformed letter writing from personal support of loved ones into an act of patriotism. The scheme originated in the press and was carried on in its pages. Barrès in L'Echo de Paris touted the Soldier's Family, a charity founded by Mlle de Lens; L'Homme enchainé publicized a similar effort organized by Clemenceau's daughter, Mme Jaquemaire. Le Journal then started its own organization for the "adoption" of prisoners of war, while other papers and magazines opened their classified columns to ads from soldiers seeking marraines

The marraines de guerre were a peculiarly French creation without close parallels in Britain or Germany. The scheme drew from antecedents in Catholic women's charities that had "adopted" prison inmates and conscripts in order to convert them via correspondence. However, it was the German occupation of northern France that inspired and justified this wartime pen pal scheme. The name of Mme Jacquemaire's organization, the Charity of Combatants Without Family, revealed the thinking behind the plan. Women's main wartime mission was to support their men in combat and to provide them with comforts and services, but especially to remind them of, and personify for them, the France they were defending. Commentators depicted such support as crucial to a soldier's morale and, particularly, to his willingness to lay down his life. What, then, of the soldiers who had no women to sustain them in this way, soldiers without families, or soldiers whose families were sealed behind the battle lines in Occupied France? The themes of Catholic proselytizing and the German Occupation came together most explicitly in Barrès's promotion of marraines de guerre—letter writing was to be the Christian mission of French women to France's sons temporarily orphaned by German barbarism. 

An Idealized Marraine and Her Favorites

As the scheme left the hands of its originators and entered popular culture, its Catholic coloration faded, but the imagery of war orphans remained strong. Although in fact many soldiers who had families acquired marraines de guerre, the discourse of the scheme's promoters and apologists always depicted the soldier "godsons" as cut off from the home front and bereft of all ties to la patrie except through the devoted attention of their "godmothers." Without their support, according to Henriette de Vismes, the main eulogist of marraines during the war, soldiers without families could easily lose their courage and their will, with "fatal results." The marraine's letters were to ward off depression, le cafard, inspire her "godson" with patriotism and courage, applaud his victories, and, especially, reconcile him to the patriotic sacrifice of his life. Vismes cited the letter of a 19-year-old soldier from the occupied north of France to explain this aspect of the marraine's role: 

How I love my country...I seek to make myself useful as best I can and I constantly ask to be sent to the most dangerous spots, but I find I am often discouraged because if I am brave, no one will congratulate me and if I die, no one will be informed and once my home is liberated, my mother won't even know where I fell or if I did well

In both fictional and supposedly real letters, soldiers claimed that having a marraine de guerre gave them the courage to die bravely and the consolation that they would be mourned. In one of Duplessis de Pouzilhac's tales, correspondence with a gentle, patriotic marraine turned a former Montmartre apache [a violent street criminal] into a decorated war hero. Before entering his last battle he wrote to her, "Death will be sweet since I have found a little sister whose heart gave me a little affection." 

Susan Grayzel points out that some of the commentary and fiction imagined the relationship between marraine and filleul as an important transformative experience for women as well. This was the case in Jeanne Landre's novel, L'Ecole des marraines (1917) in which a bored society woman was restored to a proper feminine role by becoming a marraine to a heroic but doomed lieutenant. When he died in battle, her own patriotic sacrifice was accomplished. She became part of the heroic France by having "given" her man, thus experiencing the suffering necessary for France's triumph. 

Soldiers' Advertisements Seeking a Marraine

Marraines de guerre were not always female, as Visme reminded her readers. Civilian men, even convalescing soldiers, filled the role too, but in this one instance, contrary to all tradition, "the feminine outweighs the masculine." By imagining letter writing as feminine support for isolated soldiers, the marraine scheme helped reinforce wartime gender ideology. It drew upon the message of mobilization that had defined the battle front as masculine and physically separated from the feminine arrière. It also emphasized the important connection between them—the masculine combatant defended a feminine family, and that feminine family supported the war by supporting him. The marraine scheme took its premise from and helped elaborate the story of a feminine France for whom her sons fought and died. In Colette Yver's tale "La Marraine" (1915), a hospitalized soldier awaited a visit from his marraine de guerre who, though he had never seen her, had become "the image of France herself, the face of la was for her that he had fought and because of her support that he had been a hero." 

But if the feminine gendering of soldiers' pen pals could create a version of women's war service that was both familial and national, it also opened the imagination to romance and eroticism. Marraines de guerre were, after all, only pseudo-mothers and sisters; in actuality they were women writing to unknown men. Fiction writers leapt upon this new plot device and through it claimed the war as a terrain of romance. As Daniel Riche wrote in the introduction to his collection of short stories, L'Amour pendant la guerre (1917), "To support the sentimental preoccupations of men and women, God made marraines de guerre, war marriages, war flirtations." The marraine scheme created the paradoxical possibility of an intimate relationship between complete strangers. According to a story in the magazine Lectures pour tous, "[t]o all its merits, [the marraine de guerre scheme] adds this attraction; a certain romantic air, something unexpected and a little mysterious. Most of the fiction, plays and films about marraines de guerre played with the potential for mystery and deception - marraines who turned out to be long-lost mothers or estranged wives, or midinettes pretending to be mondaines, young women pretending to be elderly, elderly women pretending to be young, even men taking on female identities."

The salacious humor magazine, La Vie parisienne, printed hundreds of requests from soldiers seeking marraines de guerre. Many of the 216 ads published in the 6 January 1917 issue indeed evoked the themes developed by the promoters of the marraine scheme. The soldiers were "very bored," "melancholy," "neurasthenic;" some were wounded. (One specified "one wound, two citations.") They were also "very alone," "isolated from all civilized life," "without family," and some "from the invaded territory." They were seeking affection, tenderness and gaiety, but also "moral comfort," "spiritual support," someone to be their "ray of sunshine." However, most combined such pathetic touches with requests similar to modern "personal" ads—"serious young man seeks gay, affectionate correspondent." As today, the ads described the men in terms calculated to appeal to feminine preferences for youth, good looks and high status. In this case, the status was provided by rank (most described themselves as officers), by branch of military service (aviation was a distinct plus), and by their decorations. Citations and Croix de guerre littered the page. Many of the ads hinted at romantic and sexual adventure with references to "sensitive" hearts and promises of "unforgettable pleasures" and the utmost discretion. The magazine promoted the erotic connection between marraines and their pen pals in its cartoons, jokes, and short stories. In one such, Loulette was amazed when her visiting fllleul addressed her as "madame." How could he be so cold after the intimacy of their letters? "Oh, those letters...and those I received, that I opened slowly, so slowly to make the pleasure last!" Of course he quickly lost his formality (and his trousers) and the story ended in sighs, exclamation points and ellipses on Loulette's "delicious" divan. 

Promoters of the marraine scheme denied this narrative by insisting that the love that sustained the relationship was not romantic but familial or comradely. For example, in the 1917 play, "Marraines de Paris," a girl explained to her grandmother who objected to her writing to a strange man, "We don't love our 'godsons' like future husbands, first of all because many of them are married; they are our sons, our little brothers. We write to them a little like they were childhood friends who are in trouble. No harm in that." Vismes warded off the threat of sexuality with a series of portraits of typical marraines de guerre : a bereaved mother, a schoolgirl writing to a pretend big brother, a childless widow whose "poor little soldier" was the son she never had. There was not a lonely war widow or a romantic mademoiselle among them. Such narratives she consigned to "the cartoons, the theater and the cinema." 

What Some Thought It Was All About

The possibility of women corresponding with unknown men opened up two more potentially explosive themes, class and race. In many accounts, the marraines de guerre were educated, well-to-do Parisiennes, while their "godsons" were gawky country bumpkins making the "the first serious use of what they had studied in school so long ago." The central scene was the arrival of the soldier on leave at his marraine's drawing room, where he sat dumbstruck at the elegance of his surroundings and the graciousness of his hostess. In this scene, the erotic potential was swamped by the class gulf. The marraine's mission was to introduce her simple hero to the civilization he was fighting to protect. Off they went on a whirlwind tour of Notre Dame, Napoleon's tomb, and the Louvre, as she showed him "the beauty and grandeur of his country, of its History and of the Cause he defends." But the abiding lesson was class conciliation. The lady recognized the simple courage and good heart of the typical poilu, while the soldier learned to appreciate noblesse oblige: "This sweet and devoted woman who spoke to them in the name of the friendship she had for them" taught the soldiers "wisdom, reason, moderation" and docility. Postwar social harmony was assured. 

Viscountess Benoist d'Azy, Marraine of Fort Douaumont

Less central to the marraine plot, but still in evidence, was the issue of race. About 200,000 troops from France's colonies in West Africa served in France during the First World War, and some people worried about the disruptive potential of relations between them and French women. While soldiers worried about "their" women with black men, military authorities were more concerned that feminine contact would weaken what they idealized as the natural warrior spirit of African soldiers. The popular press flirted with the image of the midinette and her tirailleur africain boyfriend, but the marraine story largely ducked the potential for interracial romance. In a play by Hary Mitchell, a black poilu arrived at his marraine's house complete with a bouquet of flowers for the sprightly young lady who had been writing to him, only to find out that his marraine was actually a middle-aged man. All is well that ends well; the masquerading marraine treated his filleul to a patriotic speech and a meeting with the prime minister, and became his parraine (godfather) instead. Marcel Boulenger, in his acid satire on Parisian society women at war, used the possibility of a black filleul to explode elitist pretensions. His fashionable marraine copied Mme de Sévigné in order to give style to her little notes to her soldier, and relegated the job of finding appropriate treats to send him to her long-suffering servants. She imagined him as "one of the most distinguished young men." He turned out to be black. Boulenger presented race as a much more unbridgeable gulf than class, at least when gender was involved. Unlike the parraine in Mitchell's play, this marraine could have no civilizing mission toward the black soldier. His racial difference made him an illegitimate interloper in the great French family over which French womanhood presided. 

The press and commentators like Abensour and Bontoux praised French women for their philanthropic war service. By knitting hats, writing letters, collecting money, sending treats, and aiding war victims, French women were making an important contribution to the war effort. According to the many eulogists of women's patriotism, such charities softened the war's inevitable destruction while supporting its glory. They demonstrated to the world that French civilization, whether defined as nurturing self-sacrifice or gay sophistication, not only survived but flourished under the test of battle. Yet almost every commentator also criticized French women's charitable efforts as well. Some attacked a particular kind of charity as being frivolous and unnecessary. "Lady hospital visitors" were a favorite target of satire, because it was claimed that in return for a few oranges and chocolate bars they wanted effusive gratitude and stories of heroism. If this charity gave too little and expected too much, Jeanne Landre criticized the marraine scheme for the opposite reason. It gave too much, and indiscriminately. Soldiers collected marraines de guerre in order to accumulate goodies and wrote their own fake death announcements when they became bored. Landre also mocked what she considered the multiplication of trivial charities by creating fictional examples such as the BPSLF, the Bouton Pression Sur le Front, a charitable society formed to replace uniform buttons with metal snaps. These were venial faults, however. Some critics claimed that ill-considered charity was actually harmful. Frédéric Masson fulminated against canteens that handed out food and drink to wounded soldiers without regard for their medical conditions. Leon Abensour even argued that, given the unemployment of garment workers, well-to-do women should not knit for their soldier sons, but should buy knitted goods instead. 

Ad for a Secret Bracelet that a Good Godmother Should Send Her Godson

The most common accusation was that, although perhaps laudable in their aims, women took up war charity in the wrong spirit. Critics like Donnay and Boulenger claimed that too often women volunteered out of boredom or to be fashionable rather than as an act of patriotic self-abnegation. Mme Daudet dismissed war charities as motivated by "desire for the top spot, for status that you defend inch by inch like a little fortress marked with a Red Cross." Such women had no real devotion to the cause and no staying power when rival attractions appeared. According to their critics, the most telling evidence of this feminine légerté was that some of the notable woman who had founded important charities in Paris in August abandoned them to go to Bordeaux in September. According to Jane Michaux, "[N]ot that they have given up on their devotion, nor on precedence, no! But due to one of those sudden shifts of the winds of fashion, from one day to the next there are no interesting wounded, workshops or charity canteens except in Bordeaux." But of course this was no "sudden shift of the winds of fashion," it was a response to the government's panicky flight to Bordeaux in the face of the German invasion, and as the wives and daughters of cabinet members and prominent politicians, many important patronesses went too. 

On the one hand, the criticism represented a deflection upon these society women, always fair game, of anger and disappointment at the government for its cowardly behavior, criticism that neither the crisis of the moment (nor censorship, for that matter) was permitted to be directed at its true object. Georges Lechartier pontificated, "Duty, for governments, is sometimes subtle. We cannot, we must not immediately judge them. But for ourselves in our own consciences, duty is always clear, precise, irrefutable." 

But in fact, for the wives of government officials whom he was chastising, such duty was far from clear. Another reading of their behavior might have praised these women for dutifully accompanying their husbands to Bordeaux. The Weiss family exemplified the contradictory pulls upon feminine duty. Louise's father, Paul Weiss, was an official who moved to Bordeaux with the government. His wife, involved in hospital work in Paris, refused to go with him, so he ordered Louise to come to Bordeaux to be his housekeeper and hostess. Louise, who was also running a hospital at this point, closed her charity in order to obey. Which woman did her duty? The discourse of femininity as war service had no answer. What both praise and criticism refused to acknowledge was that the attempt to rework feminine domestic roles as war service was shot through with paradoxes. How could women truly devote themselves to the war when their first priorities always remained those of domesticity, of femininity? The spleen that women's war charities seemed to produce in their critics was an expression of vast unease with the whole project of feminine war service. Instead of supporting the masculine war effort, the critics suspected women's activities as competing with it or even undermining it. 

A Filleul on Display

Commentators saved their most sarcastic judgments for the marraine scheme, whose sentimental purpose, whether maternal or romantic, struck critics as particularly damaging. They claimed that it led to confidence tricks and even outright fraud, that the high-flown hogwash typical of marraines' letters disgusted soldiers rather than inspiring them, and even weakened their fighting spirit. But the most prevalent charge was that rather than trying to support masculine resolve in the war, marraines, like Michaux's charity ladies, were furthering their own, feminine interests. Women became marraines de guerre to relieve boredom by initiating a flirtation or to seek a husband. For society ladies, writing to "godsons" and displaying their letters was just another kind of social snobbery; among young women, it led to a weakening of morals to which postwar commentators would point to explain French decline. By opening the war to romance, the marraine scheme undermined its true purpose. 

Credits: Thanks to Professor Darrow of Dartmouth University for allowing us to publish this excerpt from her 2000 work, French Women and the First World War: War Stories of the Home Front, available at and other outlets.

1 comment: