After Christmas Riri and Fonfon receive a letter, sent by their sisters in early December, which contains the news that Oncle Louis has died. They send their condolences, saying that although his death is not unexpected, it must be hard for Tante Augusta and Oncle Emile. Brice does not know who Louis and Augusta were, but it sounds as though Louis was perhaps Emile’s brother or brother-in-law.
Letters are crossing and taking a long time to arrive, but brothers and sisters send each other good wishes for the new year and Fonfon writes that their sincerest wish is to return home as soon as possible, either permanently because the war will have ended, or on leave, to which they will be entitled after one year of STO. They are hoping to be able to wangle their leave a few months earlier on the basis that they came to Germany directly from the Chantier – they have colleagues who arrived in Dresden on the same date as they did and who are leaving for France on January 16th. They have never been so long away from home – eight and ten months respectively since their last leave from the Chantier “it’s not good to be apart for so long” – but as usual they are at pains to put their situation in perspective “but there are some guys who have been here for four years, so we shouldn’t complain.” They did try their luck, but in mid January their request is met with a firm refusal – “no leave allowed until we’ve done a full twelve months here, so don’t expect to see us before June unless, as we sincerely hope, it’s all over by then.”
This letter ends with an intriguing PS: 1. “The sugared almonds have fulfilled their destiny” (i.e. have been eaten) and 2. “we know nothing whatever about the electric cables in the attic” and there are more jokey references in the following ones. Riri is glad to have news of TF, his “cavalière”, a dancing partner from some past festivity “as I am sure you would be delighted to hear from RG if he had been your partner, but I don’t think the same is true for Fonfon and Mlle X, who never said a word to him”. Just teasing banter between siblings, remembering better times to keep their chins up. The girls ask continually if their brothers have enough to eat. “I can reassure you on that point: it seems that potatoes are back in fashion, although not quite as much as before” they reply.
Their clothes are threadbare and there are holes in their socks and jumpers. They have no access to clothing ration coupons and ask once again for darning wool, “brown, grey and red for the sweaters, sock-wool in grey, blue-grey, beige, brown … and black wool for my black trousers”. They have found someone to do their laundry and mending, although she is “horribly expensive” and the results are not perfect. “We just don’t the have time ourselves, as we are away from camp from six in the morning to seven at night and to be honest, she does a better job than we would”. Oncle Firmin has contacted the Chantiers de Jeunesse in Die and asked them to send some clothes but the results are not very satisfactory. Fonfon’s parcel contained “a pair of army issue trousers which don’t fit, some shoes and one pair of socks. I haven’t received anything as yet” says Riri.
The parcel of wool finally arrives and the sisters have slipped in some apples, which are in perfect condition despite their long journey and are much appreciated. Oncle Firmin has also sent the gnole which they are delighted to receive. “We were able to repay our colleagues in the camp who share out anything they receive from home: wine, cakes, cigarettes, dried beans, pasta and so on. So if by chance you have a few extra litres in the cellar, we would accept them with pleasure.” Firmin had quite an extensive vineyard and probably made 50 to 80 litres of gnole a year, so the request is not unreasonable.
These letters are a lifeline, connecting them with everything they know and love, but at the end of January the brothers learn that they can no longer write to their family as much as they wish. They will be restricted to two letters each per month plus an unlimited number of blank postcards “as if we were prisoners” they remark sadly.
I really like this wintry picture of Dresden by the Norwegian artist Knud Baade, who spent three years in Dresden in the mid 1830s. You don’t see the whole thing on the header image, so here it is in full.
Unless otherwise stated, all images from Wikipedia commons. Wherever possible I have traced and credited the image authors. Any omissions are unintentional.