When war broke out in 1914, Aurélie was just 15 years old. A pretty young girl, living on her parents’ farm in a green valley in Normandy.
Pleasures were simple at the beginning of the century, the occasional family dinner, a village party, a harvest supper. Her father’s farm lay on the edge of the small unremarkable village. She had received a succinct education from Mademoiselle Turpin, who taught the local children how to read and write, with some rudimentary mathematics for those who were able.
This was the farm where her father was born and raised, and his father before him. There were good years and bad years; a small herd of milk cows, wheat, flax, rotating crops. Aurélie had grown up seeing her parents peaceful, hard working, the rhythm of their lives dictated by the seasons on the farm.
She was close friends with a girl of the same age called Hélène. Hélène lived in the big house beside the church, her father was the local doctor and her mother helped with the parish. Hélène had a brother called Fernand – he was tall with blue eyes and tousled hair. He dreamed of becoming an engineer and building high bridges.
Fernand was two years older than Aurélie and they had an understanding. Once, at the harvest supper on the village square, he had squeezed her hand, and the next day he turned up at the farm unannounced.
On the pretext of returning Aurélie’s mother’s shawl, forgotten at the supper, Fernand managed to find himself alone with Aurélie, who was hanging laundry out to dry in the garden. There was an earnest, gentle look in his eyes as he told her that he loved her, that although she did not know it yet, one day they would be married. He lifted her small hand to his lips, kissed her fingers gently, then pulled his cap back on to his head, smiled to see her blush and left her standing by the washing line, her head reeling, and stars in her eyes.
Two weeks later, in the height of the summer of 1914, the Great War was declared and the awful truth began to sink in. France was going to lose many, many young boys: loving husbands, adored brothers and precious sons.
Over the next few months, the newspapers started reporting the losses on the battlefield, and the day the news arrived that the village blacksmith had been killed in a muddy trench near the Belgian border, the whole community reeled in shock.
Shortly after Christmas 1915, Fernand was called up to fight and Aurélie thought that she would stop breathing. The evening before he left, they took a walk together along the edge of the forest. He brought his dog along, and she was glad of the distraction of throwing a stick and patting the dog’s back …. anything was better than thinking this may the last time she would see Fernand.
For the next three years, Aurélie thought about Fernand every single day. She received the occasional letter, and she wrote to him every week but had no way of knowing if he received her notes.
The village was strangely empty, nearly all the men were gone. Food was scarce, rationing was in place and the women worked day and night to tend the land, care for children and home, and make a little go as far as possible. Outside the church, the priest had put up a board onto which he pinned official notices and news from the front. Anxious mothers would pass by the church and read the lists, trembling to find a familiar name. Casualties and losses were massive; there were tales of young men returning home without a leg, without an arm, without a face, without a memory.
Aurélie longed to be useful. Besides worrying for Fernand, she was also without news of her father and her uncle, who had joined the same infantry regiment as Fernand. Her mother put on a brave face and repeated every day, “I dreamt of your papa last night, he is well, I just know that he is well”.
In November 1917, at the age of eighteen, Aurélie and Hélène were issued with nurse’s uniforms and informed by letter that they should report for duty in Paris, from where they would be taken by train to the front. They had no training, no experience as a nurse … they would learn fast.
It was a dreadful shock to see the field hospitals, and each time new wounded arrived, she would hold her breath, dreading to find Fernand or her Papa on a stretcher. Her work was exhausting, relentless suffering and sadness took their toll on them all. Field hospitals moved around, sleep was limited, living conditions appalling.
In early November 1918 doctors and soldiers began to talk of the end of the war coming soon, surely this torture had to end. On the 11th of the month, Aurélie was wrapping bandages when Hélène came rushing into the hospital tent, “Aurélie, Aurélie, come quick …. come now …… he’s here! …. oh merci, mon Dieu! Fernand is alive, he is here, come now, come now!”
Aurélie dropped the bandages at her feet and ran after her friend across the muddy field to the furthest tent. Sitting on the ground was a line of exhausted men; some had bandages on their faces, others had their arms in slings, two were on stretchers. They were all so muddy that it was difficult to distinguish their features.
The two girls arrived panting, tears coming down their faces, “Il est où? Where is he? Which one is Fernand?” Aurélie stopped in front of the men, her eyes darting from one to the next, “Fernand, is it you?” … then more loudly, “Fernand!! Where are you?!”
There was a moment’s silence, then from a stretcher at the end of the line, a hand went up, and a rasping voice was heard, “Aurélie …. mon amour …. Aurélie!”
She rushed over to the young man, and with her nurse’s apron wiped the mud from his face, revealing those features that had been in her dreams day and night for the past three years.
“Oh Fernand, mon Fernand, you will never leave me again!”
Later that morning, the news was official. The Armistice was signed, the war was over. Aurélie changed the dressing on Fernand’s leg, and was relieved to discover that he was otherwise unscathed. They talked little, stunned and relieved to be together, not sure it was really happening. As she held his hand and stroked his hair, she whispered, “For as long as I shall live, this moment, Fernand, this moment when I have found you again and the war is over, this shall always be the best day in my life.”
I hope you enjoy this fictional piece. Today, of course, is Armistice Day, and all across France, flowers are being laid at the war memorials in every town and village. Lest we forget.
all images thanks to Google