British postcards were often humorous and artists would poke fun in a good-natured and simple way, in contrast to the vindictiveness of German or French humour. The jokes often rested on turns of
phrase that soldiers might have quipped or included in their own postcards.
From 1914 onwards a dozen or so comic artists dominated the postcard scene.
A good background information source on song postcards.
French Postcards: Many of the postcards in this collection are from the personal correspondence of one French couple. I am very grateful to my friend, NSLH, for the translations and
War correspondence of Lea Dissais and her husband Camille Dissais (1914-1918)
This collection of written postcards is a poignant testimony to the emotional turmoil brought about by the lengthy separation suffered by couples during the First World War. Lea and Camille are a
very close couple who write to each other every day, sometimes twice a day. Lea's postcards are especially moving as she is a woman who wears her heart on her sleeve and is a natural born
worrier, as she admits herself. "That's just my nature," she writes in one of her postcards. Lea and Camille are both modest people from a rural agricultural background with a very average level
of literacy. Lea's writing is especially poor in terms of grammar, punctuation and spelling (which often relies on phonetics). However, what she lacks in grammatical precision, she compensates
for in emotions. Her postcards contain many moving comments and a precious wealth of details on daily life in rural France during the Great War, from daily work in the fields to little shopping
trips to the nearby town (Dissay) to try to find food and clothing.
This collection of postcards spans 1914 to 1918 and therefore covers the entire period of the war. Camille, we learn, starts his military service as a member of the cavalry but by February 1916
he is no longer able to ride and is moved to work in the kitchen of the Etat Major. This is a much safer place and comes as a huge relief to Lea. This slightly alleviates her worries but the
separation continues to take its toll and her subsequent postcards show her anxious longing for her husband to come home for good. The long absence is punctuated by very short
periods of reunion. The permissions [military leaves] of four days are something that keeps Lea going. In the meantime she shares her daily worries with her husband in her writing. We learn that
finances are tight, health is a concern (especially that of their daughter Yvette) and work in the fields is often gruelling and relentless. As the war lengthens, Lea's words become darker: The
very harsh winter of 1917, the lack of food and the general social unrest that characterise the last years of the war are very clearly reflected in the correspondence. "What is the point of going
on," Lea writes, "maybe it would be better to die right now."
Although there is a lot of sadness in this correspondence, one cannot be left unmoved by the enduring love and tenderness the spouses express in their correspondence. They show a great sense of care for each other. They not only write each day but they also exchange goods through parcels (which are sometimes lost or delayed in the post). Lea sends Camille money for his daily expenses although she herself struggles to keep afloat. They read and reread each other's letters constantly and eagerly check the post each morning. Their longing for each other is most beautifully expressed by Lea in her card dated 26 December 1915, the day after their second Christmas apart: she dreams that they are standing together eating ripe grapes and collecting eggs. It is winter, the vines are bare and the hens are not laying any more, but this is the dream that both worries and sustains her.
The emotional impact of the Great War on couples is an aspect that has been very little studied by historians. However this is beginning to change with, for example, the recent publications by social French historian Clémentine Vidal-Naquet of Correspondances conjugales 1914-1918 : Dans l'intimité de la Grande Guerre(2014) and Couples Dans La Grande Guerre. Le Tragique Et L'Ordinaire Du Lien Conjugal (Romans, Essais, Poésie, Documents)(2014). In these works Vidal-Naquet studied the transformation of relationships and the sharing of emotions during the first war, using the correspondence of eight French couples who, like Léa and Camille, suffered the toil of separation and vowed to write to each other every day. This “pacte épistolaire” (epistolary deal) as Vidal-Naquet describes it, was essential in preserving the fabric of French society and in ensuring the survival of the couple as the primary entity of the French family.
From the very start of the war, the state showed a great preoccupation with this issue and legal measures were put in place to facilitate marriage with, for example, the law of 4thApril 1915 that authorised marriage in absence (mariage par procuration). This was aimed at soldiers on the front who wished to get married but could not be present for their wedding. The law was not very successful; probably because such distance wedding might have seemed a very awkward thing to do. Only 1% of marriages happened in that way during the period. However this shows the anxiety of the state to protect the institution of marriage. This was only a temporary law that was reinstated during the Second World War. Postcards, a relatively cheap way for couples to keep in touch, were also sometimes distributed free of charge to soldiers to encourage them to write home and postcard sellers were allowed to come and sell on the front. From the 3rdof August 1914 the French government also instituted the Franchise Militaire, an exemption from postal costs for all soldiers on the front writing to their families. This, at first, created a great chaos and led to delays in deliveries as postal services were overwhelmed by the amount of post sent by soldiers. A restructuring of postal services followed with the division of fighting zones into postal sectors (secteur postaux). There were mini post-offices in the trenches and designated soldiers acted as postmen. At home many women were involved in the sorting and delivering of the mail. All was done to ensure that men and women could keep in touch and share their lives with each other though far apart.
Emotions are difficult to quantify or qualify and this might explain why very few historians have tried to tackle the subject of the couple in the Great War. How do you quantify the pain and suffering of a wife separated from her husband, burdened by the need to feed herself and her children, and constantly thinking of her husband who is posted in a faraway unknown location with the shadow of death hanging over him? The only words that can fully account for the excruciating pain brought by such circumstances are those of the couple themselves. By preserving their words and the pictures they chose to correspond with each other, we do get a true sense of what it was like to be a couple lost in the violence of the Great War. The postcards presented here are those they carefully selected for each other. Romantic, sometimes slightly erotic, the pictures on the postcards give a very idealized view of love and married life- very far away from the gruesome reality of the war and the darkness of some of the writings found on the other side of the card. This idealized view of love was one that was actively promoted by the French government at the time. Patriotism and idealization of love and family went hand in hand. The ultimate aim of human love was to produce little “bébés poilus”, poilu babies, to protect the homeland. However this patriotism is perhaps not making such an impact on Léa: all she sees is, in her words, “a big great mess” that separates her from her beloved husband.
What makes this collection so interesting is the background of the correspondents. Most of the letters usually edited are from middle class or upper class men and women. This is underlined by Vidal-Naquet in the introduction of her book Correspondances conjugales. These writings have been preserved not only because of their sentimental value but also probably because of the importance given to the written word in such social circles. Family correspondence is cherished and passed on from generation to generation.
The Dissais correspondence, like many other letters
and postcards from the lower classes, was probably rescued by some house clearance worker who might have realised that the pictures would be of interest to collectors. This private collection was
sold casually on Ebay to the present owner who bought it for the quality of the pictures. The postcards are indeed very attractive but, more importantly, the writing at the back provides us with
a very rare insight into the life of very ordinary (one would say relatively poor) men and women from the French countryside. For example, they offer rare details about the system put in place to
support families suffering hardship.
The postcard dated 11 February 1915 gives us a very precious account of Lea’s visit to the local judge to claim the allocation militaire, a monthly grant provided by the government to the poorest families of soldiers on the front. When asked about her wealth, Lea is economical with the truth: she wants to make sure that she does get the financial help she thinks she deserves. Lea finds the questions intrusive: how many oxen does she own, can her parents or her husband’s parents offer support, etc... A neighbour, Juliette Deschamps is also applying for the allocation. Why should she get it, questions Lea, she is better off than us. Who receives or does not receive the allocation becomes a point of conversation. Wars are often said to bring people together but they can also exacerbate rivalries and jealousies. In the postcards we get a glimpse of both the solidarity between small plot holders and of the constant human need to compare wealth. They share resources (oxen, carts, threshing machines) but they also express envy and feelings of unfairness. Lea points out in her postcard dated 4 June 1915 that some of her agricultural co-workers get paid more than she does.
The Dissais collection is a wonderful addition to the social history of rural France during the first World War as well as a moving witness to the individual story of Camille and Lea, two very ordinary human beings struggling to keep love alive in a time of separation, hardship and enduring darkness. Lea and Camille’s writings clearly reflect the wider events taking place (social unrest, harsh winter, shortage of food, omnipresence of danger and death) as well as their particular and personal story. Collective and individual history beautifully come together in this exceptional collection from unknown and forgotten ordinary people.
Records relating to the Dissais family are currently kept in the Archives Départementales de la Vienne (Departmental archives of the Vienne) and have kindly be made available to us by Pierre Brémond, deputy mayor of Dissay and employee of the Archives. We are extremely grateful for his help on this matter.
Here is the information that can be found in the Archives Départementales about the Dissais family:
Camille Dissais was born on 2 June 1882, at 2 am in Brétigny (in the municipality of Beaumont), to Aimé Dissais, farmer, aged 30 and Émelie Boux, his wife, no profession, aged 20.
Léa Leclerc was born on 10 August 10 1886 at 3:00 am in Aillé (commune of Saint-Georges-les-Baillargeaux), to Paul Napoleon Leclerc, owner farmer, aged 22 and Mary Grollier, his wife, no profession , aged 22.
Lea and Camille were married in Dissay, 19 November 1906. Their daughter, Yvette Dissais was born May 23, 1909 at 4 in the morning.
Camille, Lea and Yvette Dissais were residents of the village of Nouzières (in the commune of Dissay) in censuses of 1911 and 1921. In the first census, Camille's profession is "owner-operator" (with the note: boss). In the second, he is described as "farmer" (always with the same note).
Sadly Lea died in Dissay on 6 August 1924. Camille remarried in Beaumont on 8 January 1927 with Jeanne Joubert. He then lived in Brétigny (Beaumont), his village of birth.
From a military standpoint, Camille’s name can be found in the 1902 Register of the Chatellerault office as number 1141. He was incorporated on 15 November 1903 into the 20th Field Artillery Regiment as a 2nd class soldier. He was with the 9th Squadron's of the train d’équipages (a logistics section created by Napoleon to coordinate the transport of food, material and ammunitions for the field army) on September 24, 1904, and the 5th Squadron's on December 23, 1905. From December 24, 1905 to September 30, 1906, he participated in the Algerian campaign. He completed two periods in the Reserve from 3 to 25 May 1909 and 9 to 25 April 1912. He was then called to active military service under the decree of mobilization of 1 August 1914. He participated in the campaign in Germany up to demobilization, March 3, 1919. He received the War Cross, Bronze Star and a citation from the artillery unit of the Moroccan Division.
On the Train d’équipages see: