Postcards from the WW1 frontline: 'I have lost courage and I will go to bed in tears'

This year marked 100 years since the outbreak of World War One, when numerous centenary commemorations were held across the former battlefields of north and eastern France in memory of the more than nine million military personnel and some seven million civilians who died in the four-year conflict, which left millions more wounded. The Nicéphore Niépce museum of photographic art and science in the town of Chalons-sur Saône in central France, named after the French engineer credited with inventing the earliest forms of photography, has mounted several exhibitions dedicated to the use of photography during the Great War. One of them centres on the postcards used for correspondence between French WW1 soldiers – popularly called Poilus – and their families, via a series of exchanges between a military nurse sent to the front and his wife. Entitled ‘Mamad and Toinot’, it traces their miserable forced separation (save for rare leave visits) between 1914 and 1919, when Toinot – a pet name for Antoine – was finally demobbed. Throughout the period, Mamad – pet name for Madeleine – brought up their infant son René, and later a newborn sister Marcelle, in the tiny village of Ormes, close to Chalons-sur Saône. The correspondence traces their pains, passions, tears and despair when what Antoine thought would be a brief war became the lengthy butchery of one of the most deadly conflicts in history. Mediapart presents here a selection from that correspondence, which begins almost to the day a century ago, together with reproductions of the postcards they used and also photomontages of others typical of the time, in which nationalism and the values of the faithful family are key themes.

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  1. Ormes, December 19th 1914

    My darling,

    It's two days now since I had word from you. It seems such a long time, it seems to last for ever and I can't wait for you to come home to me. I had a wonderful dream last night my darling, I dreamed you had come back. Ah, if only you knew how happy I was and how I hugged and kissed you! Ah, you can believe I was happy to see you again and let us hope my darling that my dream will come true soon and we will be together forever and never be apart again.

    Mamad

    Postcard caption: ‘Is it true that they are happy at the camp, with good meals and wine and tobacco?’

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