How do you tell your nine-year-old boy that you might not come back from the war?
11 October 1916
My dear lad,
You have just turned nine, a great age which has also become now the most touching. Too young to take part in the war, you are old enough at least for it to shape your memories, and sufficiently aware to understand that you, all of you nine-year-old children, will later have to weigh up its consequences and learn its lessons.
What a happy life, both agreable and full, we will then have provided for you, if in fact you know how, and wish, to remember and understand! And so that you might remember, dear boy, I willingly accept the difficulties of the present, along with all the risks and the separation - which is most difficult of all - which has so disrupted our family home where we lived with your mother and where we doted on you.
So, just like when you were very small and I sat you on my knee to tell you stories or show you lovely picture books, with all of your tender attention listen carefully to the things which will seem at first rather serious, even to a big boy of nine years old, but which it will be a comfort to me to have told you, dear boy. It will reassure me to know that you will attach yourself to these words, having heard them from my mouth, and that you will understand them: yes, your daddy will thus be more at peace, should I after the war no longer be there to explain them to you.
Your nine years which make you so strong for your mother - for me and for France also - your nine years: I am so proud of them!
I do not believe myself guilty of weakness or sentimentalism. I admire this one general, whom I know, who does not wear mourning clothes for his sons and never speaks of them ('so as not to grieve my men and weaken their courage' he says) He had two sons, his pride and joy, who fell on the same day aged twenty and nineteen. I admire him, though I do not know whether I would have the strength to follow his example. I would have clasped you to my heart, and then, without crying or wailing like others do, I would have waited and done my part. But nobody can tell me not to be happy if now it is my turn and not yours; if I must go and you remain behind.
To my mind, it is one of the most poignant problems of a war, to choose in advance which of those born to defend a nation must be offered first for sacrifice by that nation. Let me tell you frankly: given all his responsibilities, the death of a thirty-five year old man destroys a home. But I cannot help wondering whether it it not still sadder if all the hopes of that home for the future die. Certainly I feel how deep will be my sorrow in leaving my beloved wife and child behind, but at least I would have had years of happiness and love with you, and the bitterness of my regrets will be swept away by all my sweet memories.
I will sorry about all the things I have not done, or that I will not have been able to do. But at the same time, I will think that you are there, you, my son, to continue my work, to bring about what I could only plan or dream of doing. The death of a child is crushing and futile, but the death of a father - a noble death like all deaths during this period - will on the contrary inspire and bear fruit.
Do you understand now, my dear little boy, all the hope we have placed in you, we your forebears, at this gravest of hours, all we expect of you, my nine-year-old son, and why I say that in leaving before you, we will have chosen the better part? For if God does not allow us to be together at the end of the war as we were before, instead of the dark despair into which your death would have plunged me, my last thoughts will have been a comfort and a consolation: the memories and the example that I have tried to leave you.
Lieutenant Després was killed in action on 21 April 1918 during the Battle of the Lys (Flanders).