It is hardly too much to say that every woman in France, from noblesse to peasant, has her filleul (godson) in the trenches; in many cases, when she still has a considerable income in spite of taxes, moratoriums, and all the rest of it, she is a marraine on the grand scale and has several hundred. Children have their filleul, correspond with him, send him little presents several times a month and weep bitterly when word comes that he is deep in his last trench.
Servants save their wages so that when the filleuls of their mistresses come home on their six days' leave they at least can provide the afternoon wine and entertain them royally in the kitchen. Old maids, still sewing in their attic for a few sous a day, have found a gleam of brightness for the first time in their somber lives in the knowledge that they give a mite of comfort or pleasure to some unknown man, offering his life in the defence of France, and whose letters, sentimental, effusive, playful, almost resign these poor stranded women to the crucifixion of their country.
Busy women like Madame d'Andigné sit up until two in the morning writing to their grateful filleuls. Girls, who once dreamed only of marrying and living the brilliant life of the femme du monde spend hours daily not only on cheerful letters, but knitting, sewing, embroidering, purchasing for humble men who will mean nothing to their future, beyond the growth of spirit they unconsciously induced. Poor women far from Paris, where, at least, thousands of these permissionnaires linger for a few hours on their way home, toil all night over their letters to men for whom they conceive a profound sentiment but never can hope to see. Shop girls save their wages and lady's maids pilfer in a noble cause.
It was Madame Berard (who was a Miss Dana of Boston) who organized this magnificent spirit into a great oeuvre, so that thousands of men could be made happy whom no kindly woman so far had been able to discover.
Madame Berard, who has three sons in the army herself, nursed at the Front for several months after the war broke out. Even officers told her that they used to go off by themselves and cry because they never received a letter, or any sort of reminder that they were anything but part of a machine defending France. These officers, of course, were from the invaded district, and in addition to their isolation, were haunted by fears for their women now in the power of men who were as cruel as they were sensual and degenerate.
When she returned to her home she immediately entered upon the career of marraine, corresponding with several hundred of the men she either had known or whose names were given to her by their commanding officers. Naturally the work progressed beyond her capacity and she called upon friends to help her out. Out of this initial and purely personal devotion grew the great oeuvre, Mon Soldat, which has met with such a warm response in this country.
Madame Berard's headquarters are in a villa in the Parc Monceau. Here is conducted all the correspondence with the agents in other cities, here come thousands of letters and presents by every mail to be forwarded to the Front, and here come the grateful--and hopeful--permissionnaires, who never depart without a present and sometimes leave one, generally an ingenious trinket made in the trenches.
When I visited the villa last summer the oeuvre had eight thousand marraines, and no doubt the number has doubled to-day. Fifteen hundred of these were American, marshalled by Madame Berard's representative in New York, Mr. R.W. Neeser. Some of these fairy godmothers had ten filleuls. Packages were dispatched to the Front every week. Women that could not afford presents wrote regularly. There were at that time over twenty thousand filleuls.
The letters received from these men of all grades must be a source of psychologic as well as sympathetic interest to the more intelligent marraines, for when the men live long enough they reveal much of their native characteristics between the formalities so dear to the French. But too many of them write but one letter, and sometimes they do not finish that.
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