On the Trail of the Great War: Letters from the Front (1)
In the summer of 1914, Ernest Vattan, the director of one of Societe Generale's Paris branches, began corresponding with his employees deployed to the front. This gave them the chance to share the unvarnished reality of an unspeakably horrific war with no end in sight. Here are a few selected excerpts.
Left: Ernest Vattan
Toul, 8 October 1914
It was with great delight that I received your card. The Huns are quiet right now, so I am taking this moment of peace to let you know that I am still quite well, and I hope that my card will find you and your family in good health.
I have heard from Sautereau, who has been injured, but fortunately not too seriously. I also saw Damica, whose arm was wounded. As for me, the bullets and shells have so far only grazed me, so I'm still hoping to return healthy and, above all, victorious.
Reims, 23 February 1915
Today was our 154th day in the trenches, apparently a record, and our situation has not changed one bit. We keep building up our fortifications while the Germans fire large shells at us.
Our fairly well-positioned sector is not likely to fall under attack, and overall things are mostly quiet for us. The same cannot be said for the people of Reims, where bombing recommenced the day before yesterday […], bringing death. […] Despite the painful sights I witness each day, I am holding on to my courage and I believe in the future.
My dream would be to take a short tour of Germany before this cursed war ends […]
Sens, 28 May 1915
I have just left Montargis for the Dardanelles on 27 May. We arrived in Sens yesterday and will not leave for Grenoble until tomorrow, the 29th. I will send you word from each country where I stop or stay. I'm glad to be going. Each one of us volunteered for this. I am still in good health and wish the same for all of you. I just learned from my wife that my poor friend Denis has died. Such a tragedy for his family! What a cursed war. When will this nightmare end? God only knows.
My regards to you and your wife and daughter. Sincerely,
2 July 1915
I am happy to tell you that I am still safe and sound. For nine months, we have kept on occupying the same positions, and our time is spent making ourselves even stronger each day. But I regret that I cannot give you details about our operations, as the military authorities deal harshly with those who divulge the slightest bit of information. Nonetheless, though this war be long, I am still confident our forces will be victorious and my morale remains high. […]
I took the liberty of having one of my men make a ring for your little girl, which will be sent to you in a few days.
I hope that you, Mr. Vattan, are in good health as well as your whole family.
I look forward to hearing from you. Best regards,
3 November 1915,
Please accept my apologies for taking so long to write you. Here we work non-stop, and now I am enjoying my first rest away from the front lines in two-and-a-half months.
For eight days it has been raining day and night. Would you be so kind as to send me news of my colleagues from the office, who I hope are still in good health?
With great respect,
18 December 1915,
Since my return from leave I have remained in the same region, which brought me a most unexpected encounter yesterday. I ran into Valiquet, who had just arrived three days before. He told me that Dorison had died, which deeply affected me, as there was a solid bond of friendship between us. […]
Life is calm here, nothing has changed. Still hoping victory is at hand.
Auxiliary Hospital #9, Fontenay Le Comte, 29 December 1915
I am sending you my best wishes for the New Year. I am doing better and better but still cannot walk without crutches. The Branch Director of Fontenay has been to see me several times.
Please give my kind words to my old colleagues who are still there.
[location and date unknown]
I am now in the 82nd infantry. When I was in the 28th in Evreux, I was with Mr. Croizet.
Here the cannons rumble deeply, and the army we face is led by the son of the Kaiser himself.
Could you send me any news about the men from the office? That would make me very happy.
With great respect,
Salonika, 22 February 1916
The weather here has got a bit milder. […] Meanwhile, the enemy no longer shows any sign of life, except for the aeroplanes that visit us from time to time, but they have no luck, as they are almost all shot down, either by our own planes or by the heavy artillery.
Best of wishes from your devoted employee,
21 August 1918
Dear Mr. Vattan,
Tomorrow we go off to the front line. However, I hope I won't be there long. I'm counting on leaving for France soon. […] The heat persists worryingly, and we are in a spot where there is no water except from the lake, which does not exactly make for pleasant drinking. Also, we can only go there at night, as our cousins across the way won't let us go in the daytime...
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