Les marraines de guerre

Viscountess Benoist d'Azy, wartime godmother to fort de Douaumont
Corps 1
The wartime godmothers the soldiers' other family To sustain soldiers' morale: that was the mission of the wartime godmothers. This working-class institution, created during the First World War, left a lasting memory, which explains its reappearance in 1939. However, the circumstances of its creation remain generally unknown and it was forgotten for a long time that the army mistrusted them and that moralists had dragged them through the mud. Why did the godmothers cause so much fear and, paradoxically, how could their popularity be explained?
Corps 2


As the war was supposed to be short-lived, nothing had been arranged in 1914 to sustain soldiers' morale. But the fronts were gridlocked, the war dragged on in the mud of the trenches and the question naturally began to be raised. It was posed in a more pointed way for those called up from invaded regions who were cut off from any news of their families and who, because of that, were deprived of any emotional support, money, parcels and any gestures that might give meaning to the fighting. That might seem insignificant, but as the weeks went by, morale was seriously affected. "I am the only one in my squad in my position," one of them wrote. "The others receive lovely long letters, at the bottom of which I sometimes see: with love from your parents. Whatever I do, I must admit that I am jealous of their joy and, although generally of strong character, I have already felt like crying. I have really tried not to complain". "There is nothing harder for me than when letters are handed out", another one confides (1). Left to their own devices, these soldiers were helped by various charities and associations who could nevertheless not replace the affection of a mother, wife or sister. It was for them that, at the end of 1914 the thoughtful idea of the wartime godmother was conceived.

La Famille du soldat (The Soldier's Family) was the first association to be born in January 1915. Created by Mlle de Lens, it benefited from the patronage of some high-profile people and from free advertising in L'Écho de Paris, which did not take long to found its own agency in the face of the influx of letters from suffering soldiers, like other newspapers (L'Homme enchaîné, La Croix, Le Journal...). The publication "Mon soldat" ("My Soldier") then appeared, founded by Mme Bérard and supported by the Minister for War, Alexandre Millerand, before a myriad of newspapers and various associations offered in turn to act as intermediaries. These first publications were highly ethical and patriotic, run by conservative female patrons who wanted to remind everyone that the French people formed an interdependent and united family. The term "marraine" ("godmother") itself was not however innocent. Deriving from religious terminology, it conjures up a commitment in front of God to replace parents if they should happen to die and shows that correspondents fulfilled a natural duty of care to a member of the national community. For some women, this family commitment took on a concrete meaning, as with this mother in mourning who wrote to la Famille du soldat: "I no longer have a son, I gave him to France. Give me another one in the person of a soldier separated from his own family".

From godson to Prince Charming The invention of the godmother thus contributed to the theme of the sacred Union and of the so-called disappearance of social barriers and other discrimination that had prevented the French people from being united prior to 1914. A play by Abel Hermant and André Reuze, La marraine inconnue (The unknown Godmother), playing at the Hoche theatre in December 1916, worked this theme of the reunion of the social classes by presenting a story that linked the myth of Prince Charming with that of the unity of the classes (2): the affection shown by Philippe, the wealthy godson, to Renée, the daughter of a cleaner, turns naturally to marriage. Less blind to the possibility of overcoming the divides, a song about the loves of a young penniless foot-soldier and a rich godmother, which appeared in Le Canard poilu on 19 January 1916, nevertheless had a happy ending:

"So one day the father said to his daughter: You must not carry on with this love that makes your soul feel too much excitement and so this young man is not for you, and you must end all contact. [...] He came home on leave with a fine decoration saw his godmother and said to the father: Sir, If I have fought well it is to defend your property, without us, you would have nothing That is why I have the honour of asking you for the heart And hand of your daughter. And the charmed father Told him: it is agreed You are part of the family".

Marriage? Love? It was not about that when the first associations were created, rather just a patriotic duty of a family nature. However, the wartime godmothers very quickly emerged from the moral framework that had governed their foundation. The upset came on three levels: not only did the "godmothering" extend widely beyond those soldiers deprived of a family and escape from under the control of the bodies founded in 1915, but it developed into a kind of flirting by correspondence, a sentimental relationship between young men and women. Henriette de Vismes, who was involved in founding La Famille du soldat, would only talk about the godmothers as a mother or sister figure and absolutely refused to imagine the sentimental nature of the relationships and the love that could result from it: "Real godmothers and real godsons, real pity and real unhappiness have other concerns and higher aims. [...] And if, sometimes in the quiet hours at the bottom of his trench, as the sadness of night gradually descends, a young godson starts to dream more fondly of his young godmother, it is to imagine her above him, with all her beauty and all her virtues, intangible and almost sacred, like an angel or a saint descended from Heaven coming to his aid". However, the reality was something quite different; sentimental relationships began, meetings took place during leave when godmothers provided, in the expression used by foot-soldiers, "a goods meal, good shelter and the rest", and marriages did take place. The fantasy of the gentle godmother ran through the trenches; after all, was it not "another patriotic duty" to open up one's heart and one's bed? (3)

This shift from the patriotic to the sentimental was identified from 1915 when the light review Fantasio brought out the publication about "Flirting on the front" on 1 May of the same year. This fortnightly publication was worried about the amorous solitude of the young servicemen and offered to act as an intermediary between the two sexes. But very quickly the demand from soldiers outstripped the offers from the young ladies and "Flirting on the front" became a victim of its own success. On 15 August 1915, it boasted it had already matched 6,000 soldiers with godmothers, a figure that the Mon soldat association was not to achieve until 1917! On 15 November, inundated with soldiers' requests, Fantasio announced that it was ending its initiative. But the torch of this agony column was taken up by the leading saucy review of the time: La Vie Parisienne. On 4 December 1915, it opened up its columns to small ads from active servicemen. Only two people tested the water that day, but six months later the weekly review published two full pages of small ads from godsons seeking adoption.

La Vie parisienne took advantage of this demand to increase the price per published line, from two Francs in 1916 to four Francs in 1918. In such a profusion of ads, it was necessary to make oneself stand out by any means necessary: "It's raining! Our shelters are flooded. Quick, dear godmothers, one word and we're saved", wrote Lieutenant Raoul Denys, of the 155th infantry regiment. They didn't hide what they were looking for, coming straight to the point: "Two young sub-officers seek corresp. with nice affectionate Parisian girls", wrote two gunners, whilst the Chief Marshall of Lodgings, Heufel, published this announcement: "The war is immeasurably long and I, too, would like to have a little affectionate and sentimental godmother who would make me forget the days that go by so slowly. Discretion of a gentleman ".

Popular despite the critics For the "prudish", the wartime godmother thus became a scandalous social peril, reflecting the declining morals: "Hiding behind words of such pious and patriotic charity, people can cover up their cunning immorality", choked the French publication on 25 January 1917. And La Vie parisienne saw itself used as prostitution agency! Gradually, the wartime godmothers came to be no longer hailed in the press as an incarnation of patriotism, but rather denigrated and shown as old girls throwing themselves into the seduction game and taking advantage of circumstances. In L'École des marraines (The School for Godmothers), novelist Jeanne Landre made fun of a round and "low-slung" fifty year-old woman who "picked up from a distance". This theme of the old girl stunned by the arrival of the godson on leave even became the subject of plays such as Cœur de marraines, Son filleul (The heart of the godmothers, her godson) and even Parrains-marraines (Godfathers-Godmothers). Once the godmothers were praised to the skies, now they were ridiculed. The farce Nénette a un filleul (Nénette has a godson) plumbs the depths in depicting a frivolous woman rejoicing when her godson came on leave, only to discover that he is a priest! This cheap image was the source of the vocational crisis that emerged in 1916. Weariness, the length of the conflict, disillusion with love affairs and the painful experience of the death of a godson also contributed. There could never be parity between the demand from soldiers and that from the young women: "Perhaps I don't have any female readers ?" wondered a female journalist for La Bataille, looking for godmothers for the soldiers who wrote to her in January 1916. On 9 February 1917, she acknowledged her failure: "Godmothers, godmothers, if you don't have pity, I will soon become buried under a pyramid of letters from would-be godsons. Listen to my cry of distress and come to my aid". So didn't the godmother die from her success?

For its part, the army did not really appreciate the "godmothering" initiative. It feared that there were spies hiding amongst the female correspondents, looking to test the soldiers' morale, find out about troop movements and current preparations and other information that could be useful to the enemy. On 18 May 1915, the Minister for War Alexandre Millerand - who at the same time pledged his support for Mon soldat - wrote to the Minister for the Interior asking him to monitor the mailboxes. Following agreement from the Minister in charge of the public postal service, all correspondence sent with reference numbers or letters was no longer distributed, but thrown away instead. Amongst the private postal services, the company Iris was subjected to the wrath of patriots and La Tribune de Paris led a vicious campaign against it, accusing it of being the conveyor of immorality and German espionage. The announcements must be coded, or else spies were hiding behind them, the moralists fantasised. In June 1917, a memo from the 2nd office, in other words the army's information department, called for a fight against the announcements in the press by godmothers, which might hide "enemy agents using the language of semi-virgins, knowing full well that in corresponding with some officers, the latter would sooner or later be sure to commit certain indiscretions of a military nature" (4). The conservative L'Intransigeant newspaper saw no other explanation for the failure of the Chemin des Dames offensive in April 1917: France was defeated by "pornographic" small ads concealing German spies. According to Gabriel Perreux, the 2nd office replied to several ads to probe the godmothers' motives and to make sure they weren't a relay station to Berlin. For their part, the British chose the strong-handed approach, forbidding their men from using French godmothers.

Certain French generals would have liked to apply such steadfastness and, on 28 June 1917, the commander of the northern and eastern armies solemnly asked the Minister of War to ban godsons and godmothers. But without success. Although criticised, the godmothers were too popular to have opprobrium heaped upon them. The only attempt at a ban just concerned Swiss godmothers in February 1916, but the 2nd office's decision was overturned the following month by the government, who did not want any diplomatic complications from incriminating the Swiss women In fact, the wartime godmother frightened the military services as much as the moralists because she embodied the liberalisation of morals and because she was a free woman who wrote to men, without any supervision or monitoring. Worse still, the existence of the godmother was a reminder that the heroes were beings of flesh and blood, that they suffered and needed affection and that they were fragile and miserable. But where was the stoic, chaste and determined hero depicted in the propaganda?

In 1918 and 1919, when the war was over and marriages were taking place between former godsons and godmothers, the concept did not disappear and later reappeared in the form of the adoption of devastated towns and villages by the cities that had been spared physical damage. Following the example of Marseille, who adopted the stricken town of Arras on 15 October 1918 and offered it the sum of 900,000 F to rebuild its walls, those parts of France that had not suffered devastation became godmothers to ruined regions. Even the former allies came in on the act and joined in the movement, such as London, who made Verdun its godchild. On 1 January 1921, twenty million had been collected in the whole of France, creating a solidarity movement using as its model, on a general scale, the one created in 1915 for soldiers deprived of affection. Yes, the country could be proud of the godmother!

Notes: (1) Henriette de Vismes, Histoire authentique et touchante des marraines et des filleuls de guerre(The True and touching Story of the wartime godmothers and godsons), Paris, Perrin, 1918, 298 p., p. 60-63. (2) Police headquarters archives, B/A 772, Play Reference no. 2562. (3) Gabriel Perreux, La vie quotidienne des civils en France pendant la Grande Guerre (The daily life of civilians during the Great War), Paris, Hachette, 1966, 351 p., p. 41. (4) Service historique de la défense (Defence History Department) 16 N 1554