2 September 1914
From what I have heard, the French army won the last battle. I could not be absolutely certain, as I was in my hospital bed for the entire week, much to my utter disdain. My infection had gotten worse, thus causing a fever. I was quickly tended to by the nurses, and, in my feverish state, believed one of the women to be my wife. I can only thank the Lord that she was patient with me as I recovered, and when I at last had my wits about me, I apologised profusely. She forgave me, of course – the forgiveness of women is such a virtue they had! If only men possessed the same qualities; so much conflict could be avoided.
The morning of the second day of September, I had woken up at the sound of the bell, as every morning. It was a sound that was imprinted into my mind, existing when it was not even there to begin with. I was in the war even when I was not, which was ironic. Stretching, I realised how much better I felt, and knew that it was the last day before I would be returned to battle. According to the news I heard from the soldiers filtering in daily, the Germans were resisting, and it seemed as though the war would be a few months longer than originally perceived. That was no big deal, I thought. The French had within them a vendetta, and a desire to win. We would win, for our fathers.
A few minutes after breakfast was served, a woman came in, delivering mail to all the soldiers. When at last the kind lady passed by my bed, she placed a letter into my hands! I looked up at her in shock, before looking down once again – the letter was, indeed, from my wife. At that moment, I nearly could have cried tears of joy, but instead, I simply thanked the woman. She seemed to understand the source of my happiness, and only dipped her head in acknowledgement of my thanks before continuing to the other hospital rooms. Myself, I wasted no time in opening the letter, perhaps destroying the beautiful envelope in which it was sent. Inside, the letter was a little dirty and somewhat wrinkled, but I never expected Caroline to keep the paper where it would stay tidy. At first, I relished in her gorgeous handwriting; the way it dipped, swooped, and curved, skimming over the pages before I finally gave myself to the text.
Twenty-fourth day in the month of August, year nineteen-hundred and fourteen
I have received your many letters, dear! I only hope that this arrives in time so that it does not trouble you further. Every one of them came in the mail at the same time; those darned postmen cannot even do their jobs. Thank you for caring about me so. I assure that I am doing quite well. The house is always quiet without you, and though you are rather quiet, you always keep this house alive with a certain sort of energy that only you could have. Please, love, be safe on the battlefield. I love you very much, and it would break my heart to hear the news that you shall never return home. I understand that it is mostly pure luck, as the bullet has taken some of the best men. But no matter what, I am proud of you, dearest husband. I hope that you know that, if it is the only thing you know. If there is anything I can do to help you from where I am at home, it would be greatly appreciated if you told me what to do.
Have you saved the photo of us? I hope you look at it every night, just as I look at the photos of you upon my walls. I miss you dearly, and I only hope that you will be home before the end of the year. Winters can be harsh, and if they are not feeding you well enough, just let me know, and I will supply you with some of the money that I am making from manufacturing shells. Oh, we shall be so incredibly rich once you return home! And we will live out the rest of our days happily. I will never forget about you, love, and I know some soldiers talk, but it is all just meaningless chatter. Why should I disrespect you in such a way as to be unfaithful, if you are only doing your duty in serving France? I love you so much, my most precious Armand, and though I wish to write much more to you, my wrist grows incredibly tired. I am not used to writing letters of such a length, and I would take a break, but I would like this letter to be delivered to you as soon as possible.
All my love,
Post-scriptum: You must describe your uniform to me! I have heard that it looks much like what was worn in eighteen-hundred and seventy, and that it looks absolutely charming. I can only imagine how handsome you would look in a military uniform, all proper and upright.
I read the letter twice over, committing every word to memory; I savoured her compliments, her declarations of love, everything. I loved my Caroline so dearly, and to get a letter from her in the time of war, the time of the most utmost solitude, was enough to make me curl up on my side and cry, from pure joy. Alain, who wondered what was going on, turned around to see me, with trails of tears that ran down my pale cheeks, and a large smile upon my lips. He grinned and placed a large hand on my shoulder. “So y’finally got a letter from your wife, eh? Good on ya’, friend. So, what’d’ya think? She love ya’ after all?” I nodded wordlessly, too awestruck to speak. During my fever, I had completely given up hope that I would ever hear from my wife again; yet clutching in my hands was the proof that she remembered me. I rocked back and forth, not knowing what to do with myself, whilst Alain only watched on, amused. “Now, now. No need to get yourself worked up over it,” my friend informed me. “It’s only a letter, Armand. I’m sure you’ll get plenty more where that came from.” He nodded towards the wrinkled piece of paper. “Be careful with that, else it’ll rip, and I know y’don’t want that, do ya’?”
“No, no, of course not. You are quite right,” I stammered, slipping the letter into my pocket. I had only just noticed that my hands were trembling from the excitement that I felt, and I was giddy like a young child receiving a socking filled to the brim with fruit and nuts on Christmas morning. “I need to tell Sébastien!” I exclaimed, clambering out of bed. Alain tried to stop me, as he either thought I was not well enough, or he simply wanted the company, but I was gone before I could hear a single one of his words. “Thank you, Alain!” I called back, not exactly certain for what I was thanking him.
Running through the hospital, I only narrowly avoided several tired-looking nurses, who gave me disapproving looks as I pushed by them to share my news with the entire hospital. I knew that at this hour of the morning, the injured soldiers would most likely be sharing stories of their lives back at home while their wounds were being tended to. I poked my head inside each room, then held out the letter. At first, the others stared at me in confusion, and then I told them, “My wife! She finally replied to my letters!”
Sébastien, who had visited the hospital to check upon his comrades, was the only one who stood to congratulate me, putting his hand on my shoulder. Then, he murmured in my ear, “The others are still waiting. Trouble with the post, you know? So many letters are going in and out, they’re taking days longer than they should.” The man stuffed his hands in his pockets with a heavy sigh. “Unfortunately for them. But lucky for you.” He smiled at me, and I could only return the gesture amiably. “Thankfully, I haven’t sent any letters out, therefore I am waiting on nothing.” He removed a hand from his pocket to rub at his small beard thoughtfully, emerald eyes fixated on me with a curious grin.
Finally, I saw my chance to ask, as the attention had been pulled away from me once more. The majority of the soldiers were sharing stories, while a few were dedicatedly playing a game of card, at which they no doubt were cheating. “You have no wife, no lady-friend that will send you letters?” I was a little shocked at this. Sébastien only shook his head, and I furrowed my brow. “Does it not get lonely?” What would this man have to fight for, if not his wife or children?
“I never get lonely,” the man assured me, and were it not for his tone, I would have thought nothing of the wink. Perhaps I knew what he meant, but I refused to show that I did. There were several filles de joie who liked to offer their services to the soldiers that missed their wives on the most depraved of levels. I could never think of myself going with a prostitute, since trust worked both ways; I trusted Caroline not to be unfaithful, just as she trusted me not to be unfaithful. With a sigh, I placed the letter back into my breast pocket, keeping it with a small picture of my wife. Perhaps I was a little bit too superstitious, but I thought it good luck to keep the mementos of the one I loved most near my heart.
“If… you’re certain…” I said, somewhat hesitantly. I should only reach forward and give Sébastien’s arm a reassuring squeeze; an amiable gesture to show that I would be there for my friend. I was a stranger to loneliness, but being thrust into it when I joined the war, it was all that I experienced. It was a different sort of isolation; though I was around many people, and made several comrades in the process, I was away from the woman I loved most in the entire world. I could sense her presence with me, as though she were here in spirit, and I simply could not wait until I returned home again. It had only been a month since I left, but the days passed by so agonisingly slowly, as one seemed like another. The sky was rarely blue, as the smoke and debris from the shells stirred up a different kind of fog from what I was used to seeing. Shouts of French soldiers, as well as the occasional German, rang through. I had become used to these sounds, as horrible as it seemed.
Finally released from the hospital, I was given the opportunity to return back to the trenches, and I did so quite willingly. I walked down the path from where the building was, and it took me several hours to return to the trenches. Already, my leg started to ache again, but not for a moment did I consider returning to the hospital. I was getting fidgety, there, and I absolutely despised it. If I wanted to rest instead of protect our country, I would have stayed at home, then get shot for cowardice. That is what I would have deserved, as well.
It was not long before our regiment was called to fight once again. I went forth, putting on my façade of bravery. I was not certain how many men I had killed, but in all honesty, I did not want anybody to tell me. In doing so, I would be labelled a murderer, and I already was for being forced to kill the defenseless German boy on my first day. Of course, in the eyes of France, I am not a murderer, no; I am a hero. But in the eyes of God, I shall be condemned to Hell, lest I beg him forgiveness for him to have mercy upon my misguided soul. But how much would such a gracious God forgive? Should I not be a martyr, risking my own life in deserting, so that I would prevent the loss of more human life on my behalf? The only thought that held me back from sacrificing myself in such a way was Caroline. I knew she was waiting so desperately for my return, and I could not ever betray her. I made a solemn promise, and it was well-known that I kept every promise to which I swore.
My belief was that the officers were catching on to my avoiding of killing German soldiers. I could feel their weighted stares upon me, and my palms became sweaty with each shot I took, deliberately missing my spiky-helmeted targets. I knew that my suspicions were correct when I felt a rough hand on my shoulder, dragging me to my feet. “Private! Do not make a single move from where you are standing! You realise that we are in a war, yes?” the large, intimidating officer shouted; he clearly lived up to his name, as he proudly presented a dark, bushy moustache that barely fit between his nose and upper lip. “If you are not fit for what a soldier ought to do, perhaps you do not belong here at all. Now, let me see you shoot at and kill a German. Now!”
Terrified for my own life, I re-adjusted my rifle in my trembling hands, and got down in an attempt to disguise my bright red trousers. Mud made the gun slippery, and the shouting of the man towering above me caused me to whimper in fear. Bullets landed all around us, but thankfully, we were at such a distance that none of them hit their mark. I took aim at a German soldier, begged God for forgiveness, and took a shot. The bullet missed entirely, only alerting the other man to my presence. He appeared as frightened as I was, and I took another shot; this time, the bullet hitting directly where I was aiming. I saw him collapse into the enemy trenches, and the officer dashed back into the heat of the battle.
Staring down at my rifle, and glanced between it and the far-off German trenches. My reaction was not as severe as the first time I was forced to kill, which worried me deeply. The sort of praise a soldier received for murdering the most number of Germans was an odd sort of reward system; one that toyed with the very way I thought, and what I believed to be right and wrong. I despised it, but also … enjoyed it at the same time. What better way to get one to do one’s bidding than to tell them that doing it is the best act that one could possibly commit? It was genius, but in a terrifyingly evil way. My country had managed to convince hundreds of thousands – perhaps even millions – of good-hearted men that murder was justified, when the victim was a German. Clenching my fists tightly, it took me a moment to regain my composure before I took aim again.
Hesitant at first, I took another shot at a German soldier. It had nearly slipped my mind to pray to God, but I managed to remember as I pulled the trigger. It must have been too late, however, as the bullet clipped the man in the side, causing him to cry out in excruciating pain. Ashamed that I had caused so much suffering, I crawled back towards the safety of my trench, hiding behind a bush. My chest was heaving, and I tried to catch my breath as quickly as possible, but my racing heart simply would not allow it. All I wanted was for all the guns to stop firing, shells to stop exploding, and men to stop shouting. Then, I would be at peace. However, no such peace was granted.
“Shell!” I heard the cry of a soldier, and saw three men running back into the trench. I tried to scramble to my feet, but felt a firm hand take me by the strap of my haversack and pull me back. I landed with a hard thud just as a loud rumble shook the earth. Looking up, I saw the exhausted, muddy face of Mercier smiling back at me. The boy certainly seemed proud that he had just saved my life. I stood, with the support from the wall of the trench, and offered him back my strongest smile, which was not very much of a smile at all.
Seeing as I could not offer the man a visual expression of my gratitude, I held out my hand for him to shake. “You saved my life, friend. Thank you so much.” I breathed a heavy sigh of relief, my heart finally coming back into time with my lungs. “I fear – I do not know what my wife would do if she heard that I was killed in battle. Perhaps she would be rather cross with me,” I joked, patting the man on the back. Mercier only shook his head, and the brave little soldier disappeared back into the maze of trenches.
I watched him go, in a strange mix of gratitude and awe, finally turning to my side to see Sébastien. “He’s a cute one, isn’t he?” the other man remarked, much to my surprise. Seeing the expression upon my face, Sébastien only laughed. “What? Not as cute as you, of course.” Falsely pinpointing the cause of my confusion, he back-tracked, before saying hesitantly, “Oh, you didn’t know? Well, then!” Now, of course, I did. Sébastien was a homosexual, unfortunately for him. If he was found being intimate with another male soldier, he would be shot for the example, killed by his own country. I looked around, worried that someone had heard him, but to my relief, the other men were much too focused on the warfare around them.
Suddenly, I became aware of the odd sensation of lips upon mine. Sébastien dragged me into a corner, where he pressed me up against the muddy wall, and, before I had registered what was happening, he kissed me deeply. Any depravity that I had expected was completely void from this action, but I was so surprised that I could only stare back at the man, wide-eyed. He distanced his face from me, and I could see a smile turn up the corners of his lips. “It is rare that one truly finds pleasure in the trenches, especially in a simple kiss,” he noted. Then, seeing as I had not reacted in a way that would suggest I was inclined in such a manner, Sébastien released his grip from the straps of my haversack.
I found that my heart was racing as I looked back at the man, who was only slightly shorter than me. Only just comprehending what had happened, I stammered, “I – I cannot – I have a wife… she loves me very much, Sébastien… I love her too. I could not betray her-” I responded thickly, swallowing the lump that had quickly risen in my throat. “I hope that you do not take offense, friend, truly. Perhaps it might be best for you to – find an unmarried man, who does not intend on marrying a woman…” The words refused to come out in a smooth manner, and I looked back at Sébastien, utterly embarrassed by my reaction.
Though somewhat crestfallen, the soldier gave a good-natured laugh. “Of course, one cannot expect me to always be correct. It was that dainty walk of yours,” he teased. “As long as you aren’t upset, I shall count it as a victory.” I admired the way the man took everything in stride, as though nothing could faze him. Then, rubbing my lips at the lingering sensation of the kiss, it only crossed my mind that such an action might have been seen as offensive. Sébastien, however, had seen far worse in his lifetime, no doubt, and kept his entrancing gaze on mine. “You are incredibly cute, as well, though I shouldn’t see why that would be your fault at all. Tell your wife that she did an excellent job in marrying you!” Sébastien nudged me with a chuckle, and I instantly knew that I was on good terms with the man, which was an absolute relief.
Just like that, Sébastien tugged me back into the fading throes of battle. He stayed by my side all the while, a comradery that I greatly appreciated. Somehow, I felt far braver, or perhaps important, while I was by the side of the other soldier. I found myself wanting to protect him, my reaction times to enemy artillerymen greatly augmented. Several times, Sébastien complimented my reflexes, or my aim, or how well I protected the older soldier in general, but I hardly had any time to bask in the praise, as there was always something to dodge. By the early hours of the morning, the Germans had pushed us to our trench, and we were forced to surrender.
Finally safe from the bombardments of shells, no longer feeling the rumble of the ground below my feet, I felt it best to write a letter to my wife; first of all, to thank her for replying to me, but also to tell her of the terrible sin that had been committed upon me. In God’s eyes, adultery was far worse than homosexuality, so it was not from whom the kiss came, it was the action itself. I would have confessed the same thing were I with a prostitute.
The 3rd of September 1914
My wonderful love,
At last, I have gotten your letter from you. It is such a relief to know that you have not forgotten about me! My heart is warmed with the news that you still love me, despite my absence, and you have remained faithful to your poor husband. I have been in the hospital with an injury to my leg and a slight fever for the past few days, but fear not, as I am now perfectly well again. The nurses are quite wonderful at their job, and I am very lucky. However, there is something on my mind which occurred sometime in the evening (as it is now quite early in the morning.) A man has made advances to me, unaware that I was married. When I explained to him that I was married, and loved you deeply, he seemed to understand, but I still must confess to you the sin that was committed, as both a Catholic and a loving husband.
He kissed me, as unfortunate as it may sound. I do not wish to mention his name, as it is irrelevant, and he would get killed for homosexuality. I should let you know that I did not return the kiss, as I was in such a state of shock. It was nothing like the kisses you give me, dear. Yours are tender and loving, with a delicacy that I believe only a woman could have. This man, however gentle, will always be rough, as that is his nature. I am only glad that he did not bruise my delicate lips, as that would prove to be a telltale sign. Perhaps now, he shall leave me alone, but I simply wished to inform you of anything that may upset you, precious Caroline.
But how rude of me not to answer your requests! Oh, you would love my uniform very much. The hat is quite blue, and is really quite charming. The coat is an incredibly bright blue as well, when it is clean, of course. You know what it looks like, as it is quite similar to that of 1870. It has changed somewhat since our first month of fighting, from the red trousers, which are so vibrant a colour that I had to cover them in mud all the time, to blue ones that match the rest of the uniform. The red trousers were a terrible flaw, and I have lost many comrades simply because they could not camouflage themselves well enough. It is a shame, truly, as it almost seems as though France wished for her soldiers to die. Though, I am quite glad that they have, at last, changed them. We shall be much safer now.
At any rate, I should hope to receive another letter from you in a few weeks’ time, since I now know the speed of the post. Please, do not hesitate in the slightest. I wish to read whatever you have to say, as it is all so incredibly important to me, which you must already know. I have read your letter so many times over, I have memorised it.
With the most tender kisses,
Setting my quill down, I looked over the letter a second time. Satisfied, I blew on the ink, then folded it up and placed it beside my bed, for I knew Mercier would go around, as he did every morning, and deliver the letters to the censoring station. I leaned over and blew out my candle, before snuggling under the blanket of my camp-bed like a small child, feeling content at last, as though, despite the war, the world was at peace. It might have been the delusions of a man, crazed from battle, but from what I could tell, I was sane, if only incredibly exhausted. My eyes seemed to close on their own accord, and I drifted to sleep whilst thinking pleasant thoughts of my wife.