The following is a work of fiction based upon facts found in letters written by my grandfather to my grandmother while he was stationed in France during World War II. I’ve written before of a French family whose lives were forever altered by the quick, ruthless act of German soldiers. This letter contains that story.
A Soldier’s Letter Home
Somewhere in France
November 18, 1944
I’ve had six hours of sleep in the last forty-two, and I am plenty tired. But I didn’t want to fall asleep before writing to the sweetest girl in all the world.
It’s been raining on and off for weeks here, and it’s cold as mischief at night, but that’s not what has kept me from sleeping. We’re now indoors; I’m in a room with fourteen other men. We even have a table to write on and bunks to lay our cots upon. There were mattresses on the bunks when we arrived, and we were all very excited to sleep in a real bed. But we soon discovered the mattresses were full of some rather unwelcomed creatures. We had to burn them all and rub the bunks down with coal oil. We now sleep on our cots, which is just fine with me. I haven’t slept much because I had guard duty until 5 a.m. the night before last, and I left very early this morning for the Quartermaster’s Depot with my supply Sergeant to look for a new pair of trousers. Mine are worn thin, and I’ve nicked them in several places.
We couldn’t have asked for a better day. The sun kept shining brightly as we drove through the countryside, revealing France’s great beauty, which had been unnoticed until now because of the rain and our minds being set on our duties. For months we’ve pitched our tents in the wheat fields and forests here, but I don’t think any of us could have told you how vast and golden the fields are or how thick, and yet inviting, the forests seem. It was so pleasant and peaceful riding in the back of that truck with the warm sun on my face, even for such a long distance, that for a moment or two I could almost imagine there wasn’t a war going on.
We drove through several towns, none of which I can mention, to get to the Quatermaster’s Depot. I can’t even mention where that is. But after visiting the QD and collecting the supplies we needed, all but a pair of trousers for me (we couldn’t find any), we made our way as far back as Commercy and stopped. Our business in Commercy, by far the most important of the day, was to pick up some ice cream and cookies for our unit’s evening meal.
We parked the truck in the lot guarded by the M.P.s (Military Police) and found a bakery nearby. I’m not sure what I was expecting the bakery to be like—busier, I suppose. We’ve spent all of our time in the countryside and haven’t seen any villages or shops. Rumors spread like wildfire among the men though, and I’ve heard that in Paris there are hoards of desperate and starving people standing outside of the bakeries with their ration coupons, hoping to get a little bread.
There were no lines at all at the bakery we stepped into. We were the only ones there, and there was plenty of bread for any who wanted—long, thin baguettes and round, crusty table breads. The shop was filled with a sweet, toasty smell, and after months of living off of army food and K rations I don’t remember smelling anything half as good. It’s funny how a simple thing—like the smell of freshly baked bread—can feel like such a luxury when you’ve gone without for so long. It reminds me of home, and there’s no place I’d rather be. Right now I’m at the point where I just sit and look at your picture, wishing for you every moment I can. Honey, I could go on for ours about how much I miss you, but I need to tell you about our time at the bakery before I forget or before the lights are turned out.
The bakery is run by a kind and gracious couple, or family I should say for they have two daughters. The oldest I judged to be not over fourteen and the other one about twelve. They were so happy to see us; you would have thought we were prodigal sons returned home. The moment we entered their shop they leapt up and clapped their hands, then insisted on cutting an enormous slice of apple pie for each of us. They were just as insistent about us sitting down and eating every bite of it, too. It wasn’t like the apple pie you get in America. There was no crust on top. Instead, the bottom crust was folded over the apples, which were neatly lined in circles. It was delicious, though really a little more than I cared for at one setting.
They also brought out a good bottle of wine and filled our glasses. We haven’t had much wine since being over here except for a few occasional drops at dinner that’s rationed to us from the bottles captured along with the Germans. As we ate our pie and drank our wine, the youngest girl of the family played her violin for us. It was all quite a treat!
The young girl was real cute about playing for us. At first, like all children, she was reluctant and even hid behind her mother. But we pled with her and said there was nothing we’d rather do than listen to her play the violin. She didn’t have any better luck refusing us than we did their pie. She held the bow in her small, shaky hand and played the first song so low we couldn’t hear it. We all laughed, and her parents begged her to play it again, which she did. I wasn’t familiar with the tune, but I was surprised at the talent of such a young girl. We gave a hearty applause when she was done, and she stood up tall and flashed a proud smile, quite pleased with herself.
After our concert was complete and our plates were clean, our time took a very somber turn. The father of the family told our supply Sergeant, who speaks French and served as our translator, that he wanted to tell us a story about friends of theirs who are dairy farmers just outside of town that would reveal just how brutal the German soldiers have been.
I watched as his wife pulled her sweater over her shoulders and sunk back into her chair with her arms crossed and head cupped in her hand. He leaned in with a look of urgency in his eyes, and for the first time I saw how weary the two looked.
It seems that one afternoon soldiers came to their friends’ farm to take their children to work in the German factories. It’s typically the older children that are taken, but these German soldiers insisted on taking their youngest boy who was only six years old. The father stepped in front of his little boy and refused to let the soldiers take him. One of the soldiers shot the man in the head. Their friend was dead before he hit the ground. The soldier then shot the little boy in each of his legs. The devils left, kidnapping the older two children and leaving the mother widowed with a farm to run and a little boy—now crippled for life—to care for all on her on.
When the baker had finished telling his story we sat in a weighted silence. I don’t know how long it lasted. All I could think about was that verse in the Bible, the one about Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted. How many mothers have wept the tears of Rachel during this dreadful war?
Without anyone asking her to, the little girl picked up her violin and played a sad, simple song. This time she played as if no one was watching; she played the song as if it were a prayer. It wasn’t for us that she played that violin. I suspect she played it for her friends—the ones who are still missing.
I personally feel that the end of this war is very near. But war or no war, and regardless of when it ends, I will always love you with all of my heart. I have to say good-byefor now. The lights will go out soon. I’ll finish telling you about my trip in my letter tomorrow.
With all my love,
Copyright © 2021, Rebekah T. Durham.
All Rights Reserved