Sunday, May 5, 2013

Letters from World War I

World War I was devastating for France. When troops and civilians were mobilized to fight against Germany in 1914, almost everyone thought the fighting would be over in a few short months. But the war dragged on and on, eventually killing or wounding almost an entire generation of men and leaving hundreds of thousands widows and orphans to re-build a shattered economy. You can read all this in the history books. But Philip Hoyle's book "Les lettres des freres Blanc" (Letters of the Blanc Brothers) gives you an intimate view of what life was like for the soldiers...the hardships, the terror, and the abject boredom between battles.

When Philip bought his farm on the Sauliac-sur-Cele causse over 20 years ago, he came into possession of 250 letters written by two brothers, Emile and Leopold Blanc. They faithfully wrote their parents who remained on the farm trying desperately to take care of the 80 hectares without the help of their two boys. The letters, written in simple, schoolboy French, describe life in the trenches and poignantly reveal how each brother remained attached to the land, asking about the crops, the livestock, the weather. Both boys became disillusioned with the war effort and even talked of deserting...something to which their parents strenuously objected. They remained with their respective units, however, and continued to fight. One, Emile, became radicalized politically while the other, Leopold, sank into despair developing a severe drinking problem. Both boys were killed in 1917 within weeks of one another during WWI's bloodiest battle at Verdun. M. and Mme Blanc were left childless and without help; their farm was eventually rented out in pieces to neighbors. M. Blanc was killed in a riding accident a few years after the war; his widow remained on the farm 30 years longer. With her death, the family line stopped. I can only imagine how lonely life must have been for her. How many times might she have read and re-read these letters...her only link to her dead sons?

The story of Philip's research into the letters is as interesting as the letters themselves. I think he should write a book about that! Here's one piece of the story that isn't in the letters. Philip discovered that Emile...the good-looking brother...had a sweetheart when he left for the front. She vowed that if he didn't return to her that she would take holy orders and go into the convent. He didn't return. She became a nun.

If you're interested in purchasing Philip's book which is written in French, you can contact him via email at
The war memorial to those 'who died for France' in Sauliac-sur-Cele. Every French village has a memorial, and every one has several names listed for World War I. As I learn more about World War I and now know the personal story of two of its dead, these memorials and their names become so much more meaningful touching to me.


  1. What a fascinating and sad story! Just the stuff of novels! I must get hold of Philip's book.

  2. I was intrigued to read your post on the Blanc brothers. What a sad discovery it must have been for Philip when he found and read the letters, but great that he has captured these in a book. It sounds like a thought-provoking read and I will look into getting a copy.