Hilary Sunman

A Lotois family in peace and war: lives in letters

An introduction

In the summer of 2014 the Chateau des Albenquats burned down. I could see the plume of black smoke from my garden; thought it was a big bonfire, although they are not allowed in the dry summer months. But when I took my regular evening stroll, a kilometre along a quiet lane in the valley of the Lissourges river, I realised that it was the chateau; the smell of smoke and floccons of ash falling gently. 

It had been empty since I had been living in the valley – some 8 years – just visited from time to time by someone who kept the grass under control. It was a beautiful building, small for a chateau, but with a symmetry and elegance, a wide terrace along the whole facade of the building that cried out for parties – the swish of skirts, tinkle of glasses, the chatter and laughter. I had heard rumours; the place was owned by a family from Paris, a family from Bordeaux.  But then Irealised that the owners were closely connected to the family from whom I had bought my house, the Moulin at Latour, and that in fact I knew quite a lot about them.

When I bought the Moulin, it was decrepit and run down, barely habitable. The roof needed attention, the cellars and lofts were crammed full of rubbish. There were hundreds of hand blown glass bottles of wine, covered in the dust of decades. Ancient farm instruments, picks, saws, were piled up in the corners. In the loft above the single living space was a lifetime of clutter. Twelve pairs of shoes. Piles of ladies clothes. Mattresses, pillows, newspapers, school exercise books. And tucked away, in all these spaces, were bundles of letters, dusty, torn, but put away perhaps for safe keeping; about 120 letters, the earliest written in 1916, the most recent from 1950.

I read them all and read everything I could find about life in rural France between the wars, and then the years of the Second World War –the occupation and France's dark years. Research has not always been easy; there are still deep rifts and tensions in French rural society which I have tried to understand. The narrative of the letters provides a more personal account of this troubled half century.

The letters intrigued me. I transcribed them all, entered into a data base and started a quest.  As I read them I understood that they gave me a window into a world of which I knew almost nothing. I had loved France since my early teens. I came with my parents to Brittany in the early 1960s and was entranced by so much; the smell of heavy gasoil for the heating system, plates of langoustines with mayonnaise, wine automatically served at dinner, bread rolls with chocolate hidden inside them. We visited several times, to the Loire valley, to Paris and Brittany again.  It seemed only natural then, when I found myself with an unexpected gap year between school and university that I should come to France for a few months. I worked as an au pair to begin with in Paris in the ....arrondissement, and discovered the joy of walking the length of the Champs Elysees, from Etoile to the Place de la Concorde and then on toward Notre Dame and across the Petit Pont to the livelier, racier streets of rue St Jacques and rue Huchette, night clubs – boîtes - and cafes with black boys selling cous cous.  I learned that I could spend a whole evening in a cafe with just a small black coffee and that French boys were immeasurably better looking than their English counterparts.  ...I got a job selling magazines door to door, and discovered the wealthy suburbs in Neuilly and the great apartments of the rich in Avenue Foch, where I tried to persuade them to buy a subscription for an American magazine. I was not very successful, lived in a tiny hotel sharing a room with two other English girls near the Panthéon, and enjoyed the heady atmosphere of 1960s Paris – les Anglais were cool, the mini-jupe was in.

Later I spent months on holidays in various parts of France, the midi, the Loire valley, the Languedoc. My French is quite good, I can talk to people, and I thought I knew France.
But these letters taught me otherwise, and I have been - am still on – a voyage of discovery. Being in a new place is always enriching and when I arrived in the Lot I began to understand the ancient links between England and Aquitaine, the Hundred Years war, the Wars of religion. But the letters led me into territory of which I had only the faintest idea. My generation, born after the war, had few direct memories of the war, and one was reared on stories of Britain's heroic stand alone; Dunkirk was remembered as a triumph only slightly less glorious than the Normandy landings. I grew up aware of Nazism and the Holocaust but I had very little knowledge of the pain of and the war years throughout Europe, and in particular, very little knowledge about France, her occupation by the Germans and the ambiguities of collaboration and resistance. Since I found the letters I have immersed myself in the history of France in the first part of the 20th century.  The letters have opened a window into the past – but the past is a shadowy, secretive place, full of evasions.

This book tells more than one story; the story of my journey into the world of these 120 letters, these twenty or thirty people, and their story and the story of France.

The Letters

In my preface I write of finding the letters, transcribing them and telling their story, as if it is was as easy as that.

Some were loose, some tied in little bundles, some stored in old plastic bags. They were all over the place, tucked in corners in the loft with, as I say, old shows, ladies' dresses, all manner of hoardings. With them were school exercise books, old newspapers and various tax returns and insurance claims. They were nearly all hand written, a few typed but only business correspondence. Most of them were in envelopes but they were dusty and fragile, the ink often faded and the handwriting of a different age. They smelled musty, a smell of straw and byres.  Many had also been chewed – mice? I think so. They sat for a few weeks in a cluster on the table; I could not have thrown them away but the task of understanding them, making sense of them, discovering the people, was to say the least, daunting.  Two names stood out from the signatures or the envelopes – Ouilleres, and de Folmont, but I had no context.  So I wrapped them in an old piece of African fabric and stowed them carefully in an old strong box which had belonged to my grandfather. And there they stayed, together with the old newspapers and tax returns for five or six years.
Occasionally I would take them out, blow a little dust away – and put them back in the strong box.   I saw that to make sense of them would take time and there always seemed to be other things demanding my effort. I was still working then and the limited time I had at Latour was spent on restoring the house, making a garden in the English way and having family and friends to stay and share our delightful little corner of France.

IreneeThen I realised that one of the dusty plastic bags contained photographs, black and white, and these dated from the 1940s and '50s. It also contained the identity card of Irenée Ouillères. I showed them to a friend, a neighbour in Latour, who had known the Ouilleres family briefly in the seventies and while she had never known Irenée, she knew his younger sister and she knew who would be able to open the door for me. And this was when I met Roger Besse.  Although nearly 90, Roger is a strikingly handsome man, who lives 500 metres away from the village in a rambling farmstead. I took him the bag of pictures. Ah, he said, over a slice of pizza and a glass of red wine, that is Irenée, I remember Irenee. And he pointed out Irenée's sisters, his younger brother and his parents.  And that was the first of many suppers or apéros where Roger filled me in with the story of Irénée.  I learned that Irenee had fought in the Resistance in 1944 and that he and Roger had been at school together in the 1930s, in the former convent which is where my friend lives.

Roger led me into the history of the valley during the war. In the south west of France it had not been occupied by the Germans until November 1942, and the area was remote. But in 1944-5 the Resistance became an active and tangible presence in the local area. He told me of  le Capitaine Georges,  the local leader from the communist party, the FTP (Francs Tireurs Partisans -in full)  and how the young men would join his forces – sometimes forced, sometimes with joy and enthusiasm. Roger himself was too young, at this time he was still only 14, but Irenee was called to join the FTP in late 1944 and swept off to an area called the Pointe de Graves, a zone just north of Bordeaux where the Resistance were determined to rid the country of the last German stronghold. There was much here for me to learn – Roger lent me a book written by Captain George, a memoire and account of the fighting years. 

I visited the Musée de la Resistance in Cahors, the departmental capital where records of all who fell fighting in the resistance are kept, and where photographs and news cuttings and articles spell out the activities of the later years of the war and occupation.  I looked in the folder [REVISIT] where the fallen were listed, and there was Irenee Ouilleres. [insert texte] That he fell at the Ponte de Graves was now confirmed, in early 1945. There were news cuttings about the Pointe de Graves and some photographs, one of a group of five young men in rough uniform, posing outside a cabin in woodland and captioned 'FFI Pointe de Graves 1944'.  Now, Irenee was a good looking young man and had a very distinctive hair line, almost a widow's peak but higher and more rounded, thick dark hair swept back from his face. Almost unmistakeable-and it was indeed a picture of Irenee here in the Musée de la Resistance, bringing my musty dusty letters to life for the first time. I remember the shiver of recognition and the understanding that here was a tangible close physical sense of the life of the war years.

That winter, 2013, I started the unravelling of my find. I put all the letters in date order and found the earliest was written in 1912, the most recent in 1970. This was the winter when I transcribed them, a complex task for they were written in archaic hands, and often difficult to interpret.  I copied them first in French, as best I could, and then translated them in English. 120 letters, fifty years, 20,000 words.  At first they made little sense. I began by looking at the letters around Irenee in 1944 and 1945, written by him as he recounted life on the front.  But other letters as yet offered me  no obvious story.
I'm not sure when I realised that these letters were showing me a side of France of which I had no idea. I understood about the idea of the Resistance, there had been films and stories. But the war years, now that was another thing.  Then I read one letter dated 5th October 1938. The author wrote 'My dear friend, At last we can breathe again! The nightmare has evaporated, what a relief!  And to think that there are those who are not happy with this happy solution – while others cannot believe in the disappearance of such menacing threats'...On September 30th 1938 the Munich Declaration was signed – averting it seemed for good the prospect of war and German aggression. It seems to me that this letter must be referring to this declaration, the relief and doubts felt by the writer paralleling emotions in England and elsewhere throughout western Europe. Again, I was touching the raw emotion of peace and war.

As I continued, I realised I had a narrative of fifty years; a one-sided narrative to be sure as the letters are those received by the Ouilleres family, few are written by them.  They are mainly addressed to two generations of the Ouillères family, Faustin and later Léopold, also known as Paul, and they are mainly from members of the de Folmont family. At this time, the Ouilleres owned a farmstead at la Romiguières in the valley of the Lissourgues river in the commune of Belaye (they did not move to le Moulin, my house, until the 1950s), about a kilometre from les Albenquats. Some letters are of a contractual, business nature; others more personal. Most of the letters reflect brief periods of time when something important, interesting or upsetting seems to be happening.

The letters cover a period from World War 1, when rural life was impoverished in many ways, through the 1930s to the war years of 1939 to 1945. A loose sequence of about 30 letters documents day to day life in the Lissourgues valley during the 1920s Most are written by Henri de Testas de Folmont to Faustin Ouillères, cultivateur, vigneron  and estate manager (regisseur) for the de Folmont lands around Latour. The letters deal principally with business transactions of one sort or another; the sale of a farm and certain farming effects; preparation of the château for a family visit; payment of taxes. De Folmont is aware of the life of the Ouillères family but he is not intimately involved. Other matters talk of barrels of wine ordered for a purchaser in Paris, a contretemps with the local rail delivery service.

During the 1930s, the letters from Henri de Folmont continue but less frequently. Perhaps the relationship has changed. During these years Paul appears in the correspondence, taking over as regisseur from Faustin who died in 1931.  We are aware that Paul is married, and by 1930 has four children, and that he walks with a stick, carrying his long term sciatica. As well as estate duties, he has a thriving wine business, and enjoys hunting game, but by the late 1930s there is a strong sense of the rumbling approaches of war and the anxieties it brings.

By the 1940s Geneviève David de Prades, daughter of Henri de Folmont is carrying on most of the correspondence, the tone is less businesslike, and the impact of the war dominates. There is correspondence about Paul's children, and as the war progresses there are letters from Irenée, Paul's oldest son. At the end of 1944 he joins the resistance. At the Pointe de Grave in December 1944 he received a wound in his thigh from a bullet and an explosion, probably from a mine, while on a reconnaissance mission, and after two agonising months he dies in hospital and Bordeaux. The correspondence between Geneviève and the Ouillères family –Irenée's parents, his sister and some family friends – shows the close ties between the aristocrats and the estate manager and his family.

Some form part of a clear narrative, others are more inconsequential, but they open a small but curiously intimate window on life in rural southwest France, through troubled times. Small triumphs, some losses, the gradual decline of older family members
This book follows the chronology of the letters through the tempestuous times of the 20th century – a period some write of as the Thirty Years war. In between the hostilities was the great depression, and people's lives were precariously at risk from the climate as well as the actions of man.  The first section of this book paints a picture of the Lissourges valley where our actions – writings – take place and then the second section reflects on the impacts of the Great War on this area, where the war memorials bear mute respect to the thousands lost throughout France.  There was a brief period between the wars where life seemed normal, peaceable; but as the third section shows, although this corner of France was not initially occupied by the Germans, life and communications were profoundly affected. This corner of France became closely involved in the Resistance – and in what is but there was collaboration and ambiguity as well. And the impacts came home to the Ouilleres family in what is almost the coda to the war. To this day matters from those years cannot  readily  be talked about either within the local area or more widely afield. .