This is a story written by RCB in the spring of 1919 at Lyon, when he filled several pages of a notebook with stories about his time in France. This one is about the months just after the armistice, when his ambulance unit was assigned to help with the resettlement of refugees in the area around Chateau Thierry.
May 8 1919
A letter arrived today from Mlle Renée Decout. It is a rather amazing letter, and deserves mention. But first, who is Renée? That is a story.
The section was stationed at Chateau Thierry. We were moving the Prefecture from its temporary seat at Chateau Thierry to the ancient prefecture at Laon. I loaded up with four passengers, one of whom was a girl of 19 or twenty. When I was about to start I suggested that one of the passengers sit on the seat with me, “in order to better distribute the load.” The girl was in the further corner of the ambulance, but she jumped up, being the first to understand what I said, crowded past her mother and the other passengers, and joined me on the seat. I was glad.
She was not a beautiful girl – quite thin and pale, with red hair – but her face had an expression of intensity, of feeling, of character that I liked. We talked in French, German and English as I drove toward Laon, and she told me the story of her last few years. How her father was Inspector of Finance near St. Quentin when the war broke out. The family left St. Quentin in horse and wagon, and hurried to Laon. Still the Boche were coming, so they went on to Soissons. A few miles from Soissons their horse lay down and died. A passing courrier – one of the British Contemptibles – told them that the Boche were twenty miles away. The family walked in to Soissons.
An hour later the Boche appeared. [p.10] There was a fight in the streets of the town, during which the Decout family took shelter in a cellar. Then the wave of Germans rolled on, and left them prisoners, stranded, unable to go on. There was nothing to do but go back to St. Quentin, and back they went – afoot. Several days after they reached St Quentin Joffre’s victorious army had cleared Soissons. But the army never reached St. Quentin. And for two years the Decouts lived under the German rule. Their chateau was used by the general of the Xth German Army Corps – (He paid for this hospitality by blowing up the place with a mine when he left it.)
The life under the Germans was hard, but it was much harder on the majority of the people than on the Decouts. The father went to jail three times for protesting; the daughter was compelled to work on the roads; the mother to do washing for the soldiers.
When Renée spoke of this period her anger was so intense that her face flushed and her whole body trembled. I thought of Mme Defarge and of the women of the Revolution. “We will never forget,” she said, and the intensity of her feeling left no doubt as to her sincerity. She will never forget, and she will teach her children to remember.
“And all they would give me to eat was a piece of bread like that” – she held up two tiny nervous fingers – “when I was sixteen”. [p.11]
I thought I caught a note of pathos in that “when I was sixteen”, that seemed to be a forlorn remembrance of the hardship and starvation that had robbed her of her beauty. For she was not beautiful – too pinched – too prematurely old, as from too much suffering and hating. And in the letter that came today I catch the same note “je ne suis qu’un vilain petit papillon qui ne peut vivre que au [sic] grand air.”
As this story was finished we were mounting the plateau of the Aisne on the road from Soissons to Laon – the same road she had traversed four years before as a refugee, and then as a prisoner returning home. But this plateau has been the scene of some of the most sanguine fighting in the war. The earth has been churned up and tossed around, mixed with the remains of war materials, shattered revitament & torn barbed wire. I have a mental picture of what this country must have looked like before – it was one of the most fertile plains of France, the broad highway bordered with great trees. Only a few shattered skeletons remain from those trees. This was the first time Renée had seen the country since 1914.
As we drove along, the mother began to rap on the back of the ambulance. I stopped to see what she wanted. “Regardez,” she croaked, “C’est le Chemin des Dames.”
No doubt, during the wild battles that raged on this plateau the roll of the guns could be heard [p.12] at St. Quentin; no doubt the family had often watched, at night, the flashes of light along this very ridge, and read with anxiety and fear the garbled German communiqués.
“C’est terrible” was all Renée said.
The next time I saw her I had just taken a lot of official cartes d’alimentation to the Prefecture, and I saw her as she came to go to lunch, from her office in the bureau. She gave me the address of her parents in Chateau Thierry, and I called on them and made arrangements through them with Mlle Abeilhou, Renée’s friend, to take lessons in French. And that led to another very nice friendship, but to go on.
Renée had told me with frankness typically French about her fiancé, an Alsatian, who wanted her to marry him immediately. The third time I saw her she was with her fiancé. They were staying together – quite openly, and I had a cup of chocolate with them. Then a day later, having had my car repaired at Laon, I took them both to Chateau Thierry. And at Chateau Thierry the first thing I learned was that orders had come for me to go to the University of Dijon.
I said goodbye, and promised to drop a card to the family, which I did.
And today I get a reply from the girl. A rather long letter that I can hardly understand. [p.13]
“I have permitted myself to attach to your name a qualificative (dear) because I have a reason; search and you will find that which I shall keep forever for you – nevertheless I can better express my thought in saying”that I shall keep a memory of my own eternally secret." There is never a perfect union in life; all are more or less well-made, but never perfect.
My future husband, whom you know, is nice, devoted, intelligent, but you surpass him still, and I would desire for my marriage a man of higher intellectual level than mine. I have yielded to my fiancé because he is an orphan, and because I love his country of Alsace, but dear Monsieur Binkley, I shall never forget you and the greatest pleasure you could possibly give me as well as my family who often speak of you, would be to attend my wedding in the early part of July –
(Here follow a lot of questions)
The italics are copied. I regard the letter as interesting and have copied this portion of it with the intention of studying out something from it.
I wonder if the French custom of marriage for convenience does not have a very profound influence on national life.
Renée’s letter is tucked into the front of the notebook; I’ll transcribe and translate it another time. Bob’s translation is fairly accurate.
Bob’s 1919 diary helps pin down some of the dates. He started taking French lessons from Lucienne Abeilhou in early January, so the first and second meetings with Renée must have happened in November or December, 1918. He drove Renée and her fiancé Jacques to Chateau Thierry on Feb. 28, and left for Dijon the next day. He wrote in his diary on May 8: “Strange letter from Renée”. He answered her letter a couple of weeks later, but we don’t know what he said. By July he was in Paris working six days a week for Prof. Adams collecting documents for the Hoover War Library, and attending the theatre in the evenings with a number of different women. He does not appear to have attended Renée’s wedding.