"Which war was your war, Bon-Papa?"
I grew up in a very strange family in Southern France.
On my mother’s side, I had one grandmother, «Bonne-Maman» and one grandfather, «Bon-Papa». Bonne-Maman was my mother’s mother.
But Bon-Papa was not my mother’s father. He was her grandfather.
Therefore my Bon-Papa was my great-grandfather and he loved me very much.
We called him Bon-Papa Mathieu and I don’t know why we had to single him out since he was our one and only «grandfather».
Bon-Papa was born in 1869. Too young to remember the 1870 war against Prussia...
His father bred horses and sheep in a small village in the montain, 25 miles above Carcassonne. At the beginning of the XXth century, the sheep were replaced by cows.
By the time I was born, the cows and horses had been sold but my grandfather still bred one pig and several geese, every year, for family use only!
Even tho he was close to 45 in 1914, he was drafted, went to war and remained away up North until 1918. He was lucky enough to survive what was to be called «The Great War»... or «The war to end all wars»!
He had gotten married quite late but he had three young children by the time he went to war.
I’ve read his letters to his wife who taught school during the war while raising the children and managing the farm.
He wrote beautifully but never said one word about the war except that he kept telling his wife that he’d be home very soon since «it» was bound to stop «next month» and this went on for four years, in every letter!
He also helped her manage the farm from the war front in a very amazing way that I’m still trying to understand. No phone, no e-mails... And yet he did keep on running the whole business from «distant lands» (at the time).
Since he was a horseman, he had to carry orders, accompany the supplies brought to the entrenched troops and then on his way back, he’d bring back the wounded and the dead.
A lot of young men drafted from his village, friends and cousins, didn’t survive.
But he came back home, «apparently unharmed». His children grew up. They all went to school, then got married and had children. I was his first great-grandchild.
Before I was born, another world war started in 1939. Being 70, he was obviously too old to be drafted but his son and sons-in-law went to war but not for long and then they spent four years as prisoners of war in Germany. So he was the «pater familias», watching over his daughters, daughter-in-law and grand-children.
Then he decided to help the (French) Resistance as it was called.
In the 1920s, he had been hired by the government to be a gamekeeper in the Ramondens forest, close to his village.
It is a huge forest but he knew all its paths and more.
When in 1942, it became an important base for the Resistance, he offered his help to the younger men who were hiding there to fight the Germans occupying this part of Southern France.
He’d lead them to safety. He’d bring them food and the precious messages from London he’d listen to on his banned radio (hidden somewhere in his house, probably in the pigshed!). He’d help them move to another part of the forest when the Germans were attacking... He almost got caught and killed several times.
The war ended. The younger men went back home to their families and Bon-Papa went back to his Bon-Papa life.
He never boasted about his Resistance life. We learnt about it from older family members and friends. I found what he did so incredible and almost mythical. He truly was my hero.
Instead he was always telling us stories about his «Great War»... And we’d get bored... because we all were born either just before or right after the 2nd World War which after all, belonged to our very recent past. Who could care about a war that had happened so many years ago?
It took me a long time to get that ‘14-18’ was probably «his» war because it had happened long ago and far away from his beloved village and family.
I slowly came to understand that it had been a real trauma for a much younger and «apparently unharmed» Mathieu. We failed to see the younger man within our very old Bon Papa.
Children can be cruel sometimes.
He died when I was 14 and left a big gap in my life.
And that’s exactly when I started reading a lot of books about the First World War. Too late.
«Good Night, and Good Luck».