Even the surely painful, vice-like grip of my right hand attempting to hold on to Camille’s delicate, yet unusually sweaty, left is not enough to keep her within my grasp. The celebratory crowd lurches us in diverging directions through unrelenting waves down the cobblestone central avenue of Marseilles.
“Hold on to me!” Camille screams out.
“I’ll never let you go!” I call back, unable to catch her hand before it slips beyond my reach.
I claw across the tall slender, and until a moment ago, smiling and cheering, man whom the crowd wedged between our newlywed hands.
“You hit me!” he bellows, not really knowing who hit him, just that he was hit.
Ducking under his arm as he begins to swing wildly, I catch Camille’s small left hand with my right and swung her toward me.
Her right arm swings lovingly over my shoulder and clasps at my neck.
“I’m never leaving your side!” she exclaims with a deep thrust of warm breath that instantly raises my body temperature.
My left hand slips easily around Camille’s waist. “I love you!”
“I love you too!”
Her smooth lips thrust against my own as we stand united like a rock holding firm despite the flood of humanity celebrating a glorious future about to unfold with the start of this righteous war.
For weeks now, we’ve been mesmerized by the potential for war against Germany, for the chance our generation has to make its mark on history and for the honor to fight on behalf of our beloved France. What a great time to be young, fit, in love, and planning a wedding! Every day over the past few weeks, before heading out for the final preparations at the church or with our families, Camille and I sit together in the park, reading the newspaper as we hold each other. The intrigues of the Serbians, the hard line of the Austrians, the uncompromising Russians, the incomprehensible Germans, and the resolute French strain international relations, as if all muscles are coiled in preparations to let slip every war-enabling resource at each other’s throats.
The warm summer days pass with ebbs and flows of the chance that this war will come as our wedding day approaches. On some days, the chance of encountering war seems inescapable. On others, diplomacy appears to be making dastardly progress toward some settled solution. Lately, though, the path toward general war, not tread since the age of Napoleon, seemed to be finely taking shape.
As Camille and I draw closer to each other, the world draws closer to a definitive end to all of this pathetic uncertainty. We will settle all accounts, once and for all. Germany and Austria-Hungary will be crushed under the sheer weight of the nations arrayed against them. The world will finally have resolution, and I will be married to the most beautiful woman in that world.
What a glorious time to be alive and in love!
A post came for me this morning. Camille rushed in, holding the small card with my name on it.
She cannot contain her giddiness. “We’ve been mobilized!”
I look at her for a moment, contemplating what she means before it sinks in. I have been mobilized for war, and she is coming with me.
She twirls the card in the air as her body gingerly spins in a very small circle. The soft curves of her hips catch the thin fabric of her white dress, wrapping the garment about her. She flings the card to the sky before rounding about to fall into my arms.
“I will not leave your side,” she repeats in a resolute voice.
“I will not let you,” I repeatedly reply as we make our way to the floor of our humble apartment.
To serve France is the chance of a lifetime for both of us.
My unit is forming just north of the city in a small park near the north train station. Camille packs us a lunch, expecting that we will have to wait through the afternoon in the park. We walk hand-in-hand to the park, in no hurry to get there before lunch.
“You’re late!” a soft-blue-coated and red-trouser-panted soldier yells when Camille and I stroll into the park together.
He could not even know who I am, so how does he know I’m late.
The soldier grabs my right arm, pulling me away from Camille, and pushing me toward a group of men gathered under a set of willow trees.
“I’m going with him,” Camille demands and follows me toward the group of men.
I take her hand in mine again.
The soldier looks at me, laughs, and then snarks out, “No skin off my back, deary. I just hope you don’t mind laying on yours.”
Camille is popular within our unit. She stays by my side at all times while helping the men clean uniforms, polish buttons, and cook our food. She integrated with the unit from the start, for the men love having her around. So far, we’ve only had a little bit of trouble with a few guys touching her in ways a married woman should not be touched.
Over the course of the first week, as a unit, the men gathered together spare scraps of uniforms that Camille sewed, creating her own uniform. Her beautiful figure is now hidden under soft-blue wool. This creation makes her look less like a woman to all of the other men, but nothing will make her less of a woman to me.
Our orders came this morning to prepare to deploy to the Front. Finally! We have been waiting for several weeks, training, marching, cleaning, marching, eating, and marching every day for three weeks. What were they waiting for?
The whole unit heads to the train station together. When we arrive, our company of men is connected to the rest of the battalion. Our Battalion Commander, Major Renpis, is at the station. We are lined up, each man and Camille, carrying our weapons and packs. The battalion commander walks the line, cursorily inspecting the companies under his command. Approaching Camille, he does a double take.
She is holding a rifle, just like every man in the unit, but her uniform is not regulation. He pauses in front of her before turning to our Company Commander, Captain Bunoit.
“Captain, this is a woman.”
Captain Bunoit matter-of-factly replies “Yes, she is the newlywed wife of Private Meripot standing next to her.”
Major Renpis looks her up and down. “You have done well to disguise yourself, Madame.”
Camille smiles. “Thank you, Sir.”
“Of course, you realize that this unit is going to war.”
“You will not stay behind?”
“No, Sir, I cannot leave my husband’s side.”
“Private Meripot,” the Major turns toward me, “your wife is your responsibility. I will not acknowledge her existence or take any responsibility for her safety. Do you understand?”
“Very well,” he says, turning back toward Camille. “Madame, before exiting the train you should put a blanket around your stomach to make it stick out more and put some dirt on your chin to make it fuller. Then you may be able to pass for a man. I wish you luck, Madame.”
The major walks on.
When we exit the train, the Battalion is lined up together with the other Battalions in our division. Our Division Commander addresses the unit.
“We are taking the fight to the enemy,” General Chimeis tell us
“Our triumph will be the Hun’s tragedy. Divisions all over France are preparing for this counter-attack. The Hun almost captured Paris. Now it is our turn to drive like a dagger through their line, all of the way to Berlin.
“You men are the pride of France and the nightmare of the enemy. Make your wives, mothers, and children proud. Make them call out with honor: ‘my husband, son, father destroyed Germany.’ Make them thank the heavens that you are France!”
The whole unit roars with a massive, “Hurrah! Hurrah!”
Camille, standing at attention by my side, simply brushes her hip to mine. Out of the corner of my eye, I see an almost imperceptible smile at the left edge of her mouth.
Our division marches toward the Front. The blanket wrapped around her chest flattens out her upper body, while the dirt hides her small cheekbones and slender chin. As we approach the Front, we can hear the booming of artillery. The closer we get the more we are able to pick up the metallic tube sound of the field guns firing and the rrraaattaaa-rrraaaataaa of the machine guns. Camille stays by my side the entire march.
We begin to pass a field hospital, where an officer is just coming out of a wounded ward. He carelessly looks up in my general direction. I think nothing of it.
Camille happened to be looking in that direction as he exited the ward, so their eyes meet. He pauses a moment before running toward us.
“Stop! Stop there!” he calls out as he nears our marching line.
We all march on, not knowing whom he is addressing.
“I said stop right there! All of you!”
Captain Bunoit orders out, “Halt!”
The unit comes to a standstill.
The officer, whom I can now see is a Colonel, runs straight toward Camille, passing Captain Bunoit without a glance.
As he nears her, he reaches out his hand, which lands with a less than gentle thud upon Camille’s young, fleshy chest.
“You do not belong here!” he exclaims.
Captain Bunoit is directly behind the Colonel, having followed him over once he realized what the Colonel intended.
“I will not leave my husband’s side,” Camille declares, staring down the Colonel.
“Who is your husband?” the Colonel quips back without looking directly at her.
“I am!” I announce with an attempt at an authoritative voice that pales in comparison to what I had hoped would come out.
“Control your woman, boy. She cannot go to the Front.”
Captain Bunoit, at this point standing directly behind the Colonel, interrupts. “Sir, she is a member of the unit.”
Spinning around, as if seeing Captain Bunoit for the first time, the Colonel barks back “The only option she has is to stay here and serve the whole Army. Is this her role for your unit?”
Blushing, the Captain is at a loss for words.
The Colonel, feeling superior, turns to me again. “Is your woman your unit’s whore?”
Without a thought in my mind, my clenched left fist hurtles toward the Colonel’s face and hits his cheek with a thud.
“She is my wife!”
The Colonel stammers, bumps against Captain Bunoit, whose face is covered in disbelief followed by horror.
“Oh, Henri!” Camille calls out. “No!”
By now the whole unit surrounds our little scene, with other soldiers gathering along the edges. The Colonel's staff rushes toward him, pushing soldiers out of the way to attend his side.
Pulling his hand away from his cheek, the Colonel calls out, “Arrest this whore and soldier at once.”
“Sir, all we want to do is fight for France!” I declare, realizing I may not get that chance after having struck an officer.
“Boy, you have a choice.” The Colonel offers in a fact-laden voice. “You can face the firing squad for striking a superior officer, or you can go to the Front. Which will it be?”
“The Front, Sir!” No thought being needed on my part to make that choice.
“Fine, but she cannot go. She must stay here,” the Colonel replies.
“I will not!” Camille declares. “I will not leave his side.”
Without even looking at Camille, the Colonel, staring deadpan into my eyes, orders, “If you cannot convince her to stay, either you die by firing squad, or she dies before you go to the Front.”
Camille and I look in each other’s eyes. She is willing to give everything for France, but our love is so strong, she cannot leave me.
Softly, so no one else can hear, she whispers to me, “We are dead already.”
As she does so, she reaches down toward my belt and unholsters my Lebel revolver.
I flinch away as she brings the firearm to her forehead.
She leans in to give me a kiss.
I put my left hand on her right hand as we bring our lips together.
The barrel of the firearms is against her temple.
My forefinger finds hers.
We pull together.
Our march to the Front takes three hours even though we only cover less than a mile. Nine times we are forced to take cover from German artillery.
The whole unit is quiet the entire way. No words, from any of the men. Even Captain Bunoit is unusually silent.
As we enter the trench, we are told to stand ready.
There is no time to put down our kit, no time to make ourselves at home. We have been ordered to attack right away.
Every man in the unit is thankful, me most of all. May we fight for France! May we make this sacrifice worth the reward.
We are told to drop all of our kit except our rifles, helmets, and ammunition.
“Everything will be moved up for you after you’ve taken their line.”
We all crouch up against the dirt side of the trench. Helmets are tightened, ammunition cartridges filled, and canteen’s topped off.
My unit gives me the place of honor at the top of a small ladder. I will be the first over the top.
Whistles blow along the entire trench line. Shrill screams of cork-blocked air rushing past uncompromising metal tell the whole French Army to attack.
I leap from the ladder over the rampart of the trench just as the German machine guns open across the entire Front.
cracckk, CCrRAACCKKK, CRRRRAAAACCCCKKKKK three rounds whiz ever closer to my head, until . . .
Camille approaches me in a smooth excitement. She is clean, beautiful, and now in my arms.
Her whisper catches my ear, “We died for France!”
“Yes, yes we did.” I softly reply as our lips meet.
In early 1915, as the Front-Line in France stabilized a new unit was approaching the combat zone. One of the soldiers in this unit was accompanied by his wife, who would not leave his side. The soldier was given the choice of leaving the Army in disgrace without having the chance to fight for France or killing his wife. He chose to shoot his wife rather than miss the chance to fight. French military rules required that civilians were not allowed at the Front, especially wives, for they were distracting to the soldiers. Prostitutes, however, were allowed to ply their trade at the Front. Some wives, later in the year and then through the rest of the war, sacrificed their bodies to the Army of France in order to stay near their husbands. Most of those husbands never lived to see their wives again.