A Special Contribution Courtesy of
In the spring of 1915, the creation and promotion of marraines de guerre [war god-mothers]
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.
An Idealized Marraine and Her Favorites
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 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 transformatory 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' Seek a Marraine
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."
Out to Dinner
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 Mine 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. And 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
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, 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 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
Thanks to Professor Darrow of Dartmouth University and Kathleen May of Berg Publishers for working with the Great War Society to make this presentation possible and to Tony Langley, collector of period magazines for the illustrations.
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