France seeks WWI mementos to mark centennial

PARIS (AP) — Maurice Day had not yet met the young, charming Emilienne Charbonneau before he was sent off to fight on the Western Front in November 1914.

Day, an 18-year-old French enlistee, was paired with Charbonneau, also 18, in a pen-pal arrangement early in the war. It was part of the French army's attempts to lift morale during the brutal months of life on the front lines.

The pair kept up their correspondence for the duration of World War I, with Charbonneau sending Day dozens of small postcards decorated with colorful and humorous drawings on the front and her neat, tiny script on the back.

After the war, they wed. And last week, their granddaughter Dominique Thuillier brought the carefully preserved postcards in a plastic binder to Paris' National Library as part of the country's "Grande Collecte." An effort to gather and immortalize family mementos from World War I, it's part of France's commemoration of the upcoming 100th anniversary of the start of the war that tore the continent and this country apart from 1914 to 1918.

The postcards were handed down to Thuillier by her grandmother when she was a teenager. The postcards are "mostly banalities, chit-chat about what was going on at home or on the front," said Thuillier. "(But) I'm here today — it's thanks to them."

There's one part of the couple's 100-year-old correspondence that Thuillier does not have — the love letters Day sent Charbonneau from the front, which she took with her to the grave. Paris' National Library is one of dozens of collection points across France that opened their doors from Nov. 9 to 16 for the "Grande Collecte."

Donors were invited to tell the stories behind their mementos, which the library's experts scanned and entered into an online archive that has already collected more than 50,000 items. Thuillier brought in other family heirlooms, including Day's military medals and ribbons, a black-and-white photograph of Day in uniform, and a well preserved green notebook in which Day's army career is detailed.

One item in particular interested Thuillier. It's a postcard written in Cyrillic, taken from the pocket of a Bulgarian soldier who her grandfather killed in combat on the Eastern Front. Thuillier says she dreams of being able to track down the soldier's descendants and return the postcard, a century later.

Some other material collected during the campaign: — Soldier Auguste Girard's medals and engraved certificate showing where he had fought and when he was discharged on Nov. 13, 1918. — A book of hand-drawn maps and notes evoking fighting in Champagne and elsewhere.

— A pipe and plaque belonging to artilleryman Andre Truffaut. — A photo of the capture of a German soldier by French troops. — A mini-sword belonging to her grandfather brought by Josette Farat.

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