When I decided to write a First World War romance, I instinctively knew that letters should play a key role in the story. I was initially inspired by some of the more famous ones, those of the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfrid Owen, the letters which Vera Brittain wrote to her brother and fiancé, both of whom were killed. What I intended to do was evoke the horror of trench warfare through my fictional letters, but while chatting about this on-line, a story which Alice, one of my Facebook friends told me, gave me pause for thought.
Alice’s grandfather was Arsene Renaud, who served in the French army with the Zouaves, famous for their colourful uniform of scarlet pantaloons and caps. He was captured in 1916 on the Macedonian front, and spent the rest of the war in a Bulgarian POW camp. Freed in 1919, he actually walked a large part of the way home to western France. The letters he wrote to Alice’s grandmother, who was then only sixteen, are not about the war, or the camp. They’re about home, and in particular, they’re about food. They are about yearning, not privation.
Arsene Renaud’s tale is poignant because thousands of families have a similar story to tell, and they possess collections of very similar letters. The First World War was fought by men who had never left home before, who had never had to put pen to paper before, men who rarely expressed their feelings, never mind write them down. These letters sound stilted, constrained, wooden even. You’d be forgiven for thinking that they were cold, but reading between the lines, I began to see that they were the very opposite. The men who wrote them were homesick. They were lonely. And they were frightened. It wasn’t only the instinct to protect their loved ones from the harsh reality of war that inhibited them, it was the need to protect themselves, to wrap themselves in the warm cloak of happy memories, and to keep those memories close in the hope that they might garner more of them in the future.
When Robbie, the hero of the second story in my Never Forget Me trilogy, first meets Sylvie, he is too afraid to hope. He can’t bear to think about the home he misses, because he believes he’ll never see it again. He can’t allow himself to love Sylvie, because he is so certain he’ll lose her. But love is an unstoppable force, and it transforms Robbie – and his letters. Sylvie’s surname is Renaud, my own very small tribute to Alice’s grandfather.
Letters document history much more effectively than any textbook. What letter most defines your history?