“With a mischievous smile, the mailman hands the young second lieutenant the large blue perfumed envelope, still closed and containing the warm and loving missive from the tender penfriend. "She doesn't forget you does she, lieutenant? You get one everyday!" And the large jerky handwriting, deciphered while sitting in a window frame helps the 20-year-old heart to forget this terrible war for some few hours…"
At the start of the 20th century, correspondence by mail was the most widespread means of communication: letters are written in all circumstances, and nothing is more ordinary than receiving mail. In fact, the mail is delivered several times each day. But when the war breaks out, communications are interrupted or made very difficult. Weeks can sometimes pass without a letter being delivered. The soldiers are on the other side of the front: they're in the unoccupied zone, of course, but all direct links with their family still in Belgium have been severed. To supply them with moral support, various private or official initiatives will provide the soldier with a correspondent, a wartime penfriend with whom he can discuss his feelings, find comfort and encouragement to persevere. Some of these relationships remained friendly and short-lived, others turned into true love stories, but all of them marked the correspondents on both sides. This is the fabulous story of the wartime penfriends.
The wartime penfriends: an incredible organisation!
As soon as the war began, charities and persons of good intentions began to think about the soldiers at the front and to demonstrate their moral or material support. With the holidays being particularly difficult for soldiers, several charities send scarves and small gifts, but it is in late 1914 / early 1915 that the incredible adventure of the wartime penfriends gets underway with the Oeuvre des Marraines de Guerre set up by Lieutenant de Dorlodot with the support of the Belgian Correspondence Bureau, that was created in October 1914 and placed in charge of all correspondence to and from the soldiers at the front. These volunteers, all women, use these letters to provide moral support and courage to soldiers whom they don't know, with de Dorlodot looking after making contacts between the soldiers and the candidate penfriends. They would be the recipients of their concerns and joys, helping to break the almost exclusively male isolation in which the soldiers lived. The supervision provided by de Dorlodot and the Belgian Correspondence Office is a means for the military authorities to monitor the content of the letters, and to intervene by blocking any letter containing confidential information.
Many soldiers would ask for a lady penfriend. Some soldiers indicate their preferences, almost as they would to a marriage broker, while others ask, using orthography that borders on illiteracy, “two find them a penfrend” (sic) . The privilege of obtaining a lady correspondent is therefore not reserved only for the most literate. With the demand for lady penfriends far exceeding the supply, de Dorlodot has to look abroad. In the spring of 1917, the Belgian consulates and embassies abroad served as the linchpins for this moral support operation, launching calls for lady penfriends for soldiers in the American press, including the “New York Herald” and the “Washington Post”. These calls were answered by American women, who wrote to the embassy and expressed their desire to support the Belgian soldiers despite the distance.
Some soldiers, too impatient or with only relative confidence in the military hierarchy, would go so far as to personally attempt to contact American press organisations, or the "director general of the American post office”. Naturally, these attempts were in vain, and intercepted by the Correspondence Office! An excessively bold soldier could be put in his place, with his superior asking him to refrain from such correspondence in the future, "as it will lead to no results and just generates useless mail".This isn't altogether untrue, but the superior deliberately neglects to mention that uncontrolled correspondence of this type would also slip by the censorship. Some soldiers, to get around the official procedures, attempt to prevail upon their friends who have left for America, asking them to put them into contact with "some pretty girl in your circle". In France, at the same time, women from higher social circles organise a correspondence system between French women and soldiers at the front. They call for participants via the press, and the newspapers are soon inundated with "penfriend" proposals.
The objective is to lend support to French soldiers, but in turn, these arrangements will also provide penfriends for Belgian soldiers. Avoiding any organisation, other soldiers will maintain unofficial correspondence with families whom they met while on leave or while convalescing in France or England.The conservation of these letters is problematic for soldiers don't want to be separated from them. The military authorities propose the organisation of a mail depot where any soldier could retrieve his correspondence while on leave or "at the end of the war", but many prefer to keep with them the letters that they have received, or if not all of them, at least a few special ones that they read and reread whenever possible.
Some soldiers, too impatient or with only relative confidence in the military hierarchy, would go so far as to personally attempt to contact American press organisations, or the director general of the American post office
A unique experience…
The letter-based intimacy that develops within a very socially codified society is an all-new experience. This initiative, that is a growing success, serves the Allies in two ways: it helps to provide a solution, at no great cost, for the possible demoralization of the troops, while also encouraging female citizens, many of whom have family members at the front, to do something for their homeland, i.e. something acceptable for the female elements. Criticism sometimes appears in the French press, questioning the morality of mixed correspondence and, especially, the problems that could result: indeed, it's morally unheard-of for strangers to write to one another, and behind certain signatures, certain disreputable characters are suspected, but such criticism primarily targets the French initiatives, and are certainly a minority. These correspondents will certainly not remain strangers for long, with details being quickly exchanged and the written exchanges becoming more varied. A soldier will often ask for other addresses for his friends in the trenches who don't yet have a penfriend.
The penfriend provides her soldier with letters that are supposed to distract him, she tells him about her daily life, and encourages him: she calls on him to be brave and praises the population's eternal debt to the soldiers bravely fighting on the front, but she also looks after his material needs, by sending parcels to her soldier, containing food, tobacco or clothing. In return, the soldier sends her little souvenirs, drawings or flowers picked not far from the front. The material requests can sometimes be very specific, with the soldier asking for a given brand of tobacco or some "real chocolate", but in general, he's very happy with everything that he receives and with the attention devoted to him.
The penfriend provides her soldier with letters that are supposed to distract him, she tells him about her daily life, and encourages him: she calls on him to be brave and praises the population's eternal debt to the soldiers bravely fighting on the front, but she also looks after his material needs, by sending parcels to her soldier, containing food, tobacco or clothing. In return, the soldier sends her little souvenirs, drawings or flowers picked not far from the front.
"I'm alone at the front… I'm all alone"
In addition to the ordinary chit chat about the weather, the quality of the food or the hope to see a quick ending to the war, more personal confidences are soon shared.When the lady penfriend also has a son at the front, the soldier asks her about him, with hopes that he is doing well and not suffering in the throes of the war. Sometimes this son dies, and the soldier penfriend takes on the role of substitute. Also quite often, the soldier knows that his lady penfriend is in contact with other soldiers, often friends, and he asks for news: “I hope that you often receive news from your boys, and I would be very grateful if you could give me Charles' address, as I haven't had any news of him in a long time", writes Louis Cornil, a young volunteer soldier gone to war with his brother Jean.
Whenever possible, the lady penfriends also help to convey letters to the families in the occupied zone, via a system of triangular correspondence: the soldier writes to his penfriend, and she in turn sends news to the family through a letter transportation network, but this requires quite a lot of confidence in one's correspondent. It's easier for the French lady penfriends to make contact with Belgian relatives who have taken refuge in France. The letters are generally signed "from the Belgian front" due to fears of espionage, especially since they don't always arrive at the right destination, but it can happen that geographical details, names of cities or places, are mentioned in the letters from soldiers, even though the latter are quite well aware of the risk that this entails.
"Can you imagine how I hesitate to announce this in Belgium, and how would I announce it?"
For her part, the penfriend often asks for news of the soldier's family, and if he has received any. Serious information can be entrusted to the penfriend before being shared with anyone else, as is the case of Louis Cornil, who writes to his penfriend to announce the recent death of his brother, Jean, before even telling his own mother! The pain was too great, and he felt the need to share his grief with someone who would be less affected by his brother's death.
Over time, and provided that the correspondence continues, the content becomes more intimate, and the authors begin the letters with friendly little names: "my soldier", "my little warrior friend" from the lady penfriend, and "your warrior son" and even quite simply "your son" from the grateful soldier. Engelina Popta, a Dutch penfriend, signs her letters with her nickname, “Lientje”, after a year of virtually weekly correspondence. After two years, her letters are signed "your little sister". The topics of discussion also evolve. The war is always in the background, but philosophical considerations on life, love and death, so present at the front, are discussed by the soldiers. What an emotional path for correspondents who don't actually know one another, and whom the conflict has brought together! The slightest delay in the mail delivery, in either direction, is a reason for concern or a source of misunderstanding: “We've been quite busy of late, and haven't had the pleasure of writing in the last few days", writes Louis Cornil to his penfriend on 20 September 1918, in the throes of the final offensive. In April 1916, “Lientje” writes to her soldier three times without receiving a response, and worries that correspondence between them is no longer permitted. It's a great relief, a few days later, when she learns that this silence was simply due to troop movements.
If possible, meetings take place when the soldiers are on leave: a small group of them sometimes go to visit their common penfriend, who receives them warmly and shows them around her city. While such visits are anticipated by the soldiers who hope to escape from the front if only for a few hours, they are also an opportunity for the lady penfriend to have a social role in the war, and to demonstrate this fact. In France, she will walk around with "her" soldier, showing that she too, in some way, is participating in the war effort. The corresponding couples often meet up in Paris, and the chasm between the muddy front with the its countless dangers and the beautiful Paris boulevards does not go unnoticed! It's also the moment of truth: the lady penfriends discover the soldier's true personality, sometimes far from her heroic image of him, and the soldiers finally meet the person's whose physical appearance and personality they have long imagined.
As with all "blind dates", the enthusiasm, indifference or deception will vary according to each person's expectations and personality. Depending on what they've said in their letters, the meeting between the lady penfriend and her soldier will lead to romantic deception, or the realisation of a promise. Certain lady penfriends and soldiers are clear from the very start: they are already engaged and seek only friendship as a result of the circumstances of the war. That's the case with Engelina Popta and her soldier, Jean. Other lady penfriends are clearly looking for a potential husband, preferably one recognised for acts of bravery and in the best possible social situation. Others seek only to provide some feminine but friendly support to the soldiers going through the trials of the war.
In the United States, where physical meetings could scarcely be imagined, being a lady penfriend allows one to feel in some way involved in the faraway conflict: " At the office today, I mentioned the letters that my daughter received from her soldier penfriend, and I showed a few of them. One lady from the office expressed a desire to also have the opportunity to write to a Belgian soldier. Could you please do whatever is necessary?", writes the father of a young penfriend to the Belgian Ambassador to the United States in 1918. The keen interest in this arrangement has a snowball effect and allows the population to support the war effort sometimes without truly realising it, though this goodwill sometimes runs into practical problems, such as a language barrier. It is therefore necessary to find lady penfriends with a basic knowledge of French, or soldiers who know enough English. Despite these difficulties, the cross-Atlantic initiatives were full of good intentions and helped to overcome European discouragement.
… but there were setbacks as well!
Some soldiers collected lady penfriends. It almost became a kind of game, having more than your mates in the trenches. This also made it possible to receive more treats and tobacco, and more possibilities for escaping from this masculine world that had so little place for feelings. Some soldiers clearly understood the benefit, however innocent, that they could derive from the "lady penfriend" system, but this is sometimes attracted jealousy, notably from comrades who didn't have one. It should be noted that the abuses were not all to be found on the side of the soldiers. In France, there were also cases of abuses by the lady penfriends who sought to swindle the soldiers, or who were looking to be provided for by them.
Civilians also took advantage of the opportunity to commit swindles. In January 1917, "Le Courrier des armées" related a scandal brought to light by a Swiss general: a supposed poilu (French soldier) was abusing the generosity of some 30 lady penfriends and a dozen support committees without having once been anywhere near the front.
Time also takes its toll: the war continues, life in the rear is nothing like life at the front, opportunities for leave are rare, and in terms of the French initiatives, people get tired of investing the time, while the strident complaints about the morality of certain lady penfriends does nothing to boost the motivation of the ladies. Sometimes the disenchantment will be due to the soldier's image of his kind fairy. These abuses, in addition to the flagging motivation of potential lady penfriends along with fatigue in view of the length of the war, slowly weighed on this initiative.
Unforgettable penfriends on both sides
The experience of the wartime penfriends is a unique example of solidarity across ages, social classes and sexes. Strong links of love or friendship were established between the soldiers and these "nurses of the heart". The links were fragile and controlled, of course, but nonetheless crucial to the soldiers who were filled with manly encouragement as the shells fell around them. It is for this reason that the letters were so dear to the soldiers but also to the ladies, who were aware of their role in the moral support of the soldiers.
Some lady penfriends, such as “Lientje” Popta, lost their friend to combat. There were also a few fine stories of soldiers marrying their lady penfriends, such as a certain Englebert Decrop who married Christina London in 1919, but there were also disappointments. Sometimes, the social and cultural differences between the parties were too big. While not all soldiers remained in contact with their lady penfriends, and if the return to civil life closed this bold social parenthesis, no one, neither the soldiers nor their lady penfriends, would forget these sometimes halting but always moving contacts between men and women in the context of a worldwide war.
While not all soldiers remained in contact with their lady penfriends, and if the return to civil life closed this bold social parenthesis, no one, neither the soldiers nor their lady penfriends, would forget these sometimes halting but always moving contacts between men and women in the context of a worldwide war.