The Woman Who Made Tin Faces
1914 Pierre La Fontane
The tension in Europe in 1914 could be cut with a knife as Germany made all sorts of overtures toward increasing their national objectives by military means. Kaiser Whihelm II had a hatred of Great Britain that stemmed from his unnatural incestuous love of his mother Princess Victoria, Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter. As an impetuous young man, he broke with Otto von Bismarck turning the German into a dictatorial government pursuing a more aggressive military path that would eventually lead to war resulting in the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. With all of the nationalistic alliances, once the powder keg fuse was lit, Europe would burn in a devastating slaughter known as the Great War, the war to end all wars which again it was not to be.
At the dawn of the new century came new weapons capable of greater destructive capability that had ever been seen on the battlefield before. With these new weapons like the tanks, aeroplanes and mustard gas, entire companies could be obliterated in minutes. Many of those in command positions still adhered to strategies from the previous century such as the frontal assault and cavalry charges on horseback and thus casualty rates far exceeded expectations. And still many would be sent to their doom as the killing capability of these new weapons out distanced anyone’s imagination of the times.
The result of the destructiveness of these new weapons brought about trench warfare, but even retreating back to such primitive earthen defenses could not stop what would become a mass slaughter. Chess pieces were moved across Europe with each move bringing them closer to war. As 1914 dawned, it was clear to all that Europe was headed for war. No one could have predicted such devastation would follow, but the spider web of alliances would create a domino effect that would leave the nations of Europe in complete disarray.
Mindy enrolled in the university where she met a handsome young man named Pierre La Fontane whose father owned a vineyard up near Rouen. As editor of the college newspaper, his views about Germany's military aggressiveness was well known through his weekly editorial.
“These Germans must be taught a lesson.” He would tell her when they went out to their favorite bistro for dinner.
“It will come.” She would shake her head. War was not something that she agreed with. There were better ways to solve differences, but Pierre would talk about how Kaiser Wilhelm had said things about England that were inflammatory and insulting.
In early June, Pierre proposed to Mindy and she immediately accepted. They went to visit Jacques to tell him the news. He was as happy as Mindy could have expected and he kept toasting the couple with wine from Pierre’s father’s winery.
Everything came to a screeching halt when Archduke Ferdinand was killed by Serbian Gavrilo Princip on June 28, 1914. Great Britain declared war, Pierre was quick to join up. All through the campus, young undergraduates signed up. There were bonfires and other celebrations for those who would be leaving the university for military training. Pierre would be commissioned as a cavalry officer once he had complete training.
“Don’t worry, Mindy, this war will be over by Christmas and the Ottoman Empire will be in shambles.” He assured her as they lay in bed late on a Sunday morning.
“Still, war?” She grimaced. “People are killed in war.”
“I doubt I will even see any action.” He assured her. “Her majesty’s army is a world power and with us by her side, nothing will match our strength and resolve.”
“Viva la France.” Yelled someone from the street. There were more cheers.
“You see.” He waved to his well-wishers.
The summer was in full swing in the city as the blossoms and trees were now decorated in their summer splendor. Merchants held out their wares as the couple passed, he in his uniform, she in her frock and long dress with her brunette hair pulled up in the back. Her eyes shone brightly and sparkled as she looked up at him, her hand on his right arm as he strode the main street along the river. They would dine at a bistro with bread and pasta with olives and a light oil sitting at an outdoor table with a clear view of the river. A man with an easel stood capturing the beauty of the river as it flowed past.
“I promise I will come back to you, Mindy.” He took her hand in his and kissed every finger.
“My hands are so coarse.” She smiled hoping that the tingly feeling she was feeling would never go away.
But it did. The day she saw the postman riding his little bicycle up her drive, she knew why he had come. Jacques was in the field pulling up the chaff.
“No!” She cried out as he parked his bicycle in front of her blue door.
“Mademoiselle LaFleur.” He handed her the telegram.
Tears were already flowing from her eyes.
“I am so sorry.” He bowed his head as she took the telegram from his hand.
“How many?” She ripped it open.
“I’m sorry?” He shook his head.
“How many have you delivered this week?” She asked as she removed the telegram from the envelope.
“I do not know.” He shook his head.
To whom it may concern,
This is to inform you that Lt. Pierre La Fontane was killed in action at Ypres on November 20, 1914 in a cavalry charge on German lines. His bravery and courage will long be remembered.
Crumpling at the door still holding the telegram, Jacques spotted his daughter and ran to her.
“What is it?” He already knew. His daughter did not weep unless it was for a very good reason. He could not even remember her shedding a tear at her own mother’s funeral despite the fact he did not spare a single tear as he said farewell to the love of his life.
“He is gone, papa.” She managed to say handing him the telegram.
“Oh my daughter, I am so sorry.” He embraced her and joined her in her sorrow.
November 19, 1914, Ypres, Flanders.
“Lt. La Fontane, in the morning you will take your detachment to the north flank of the German lines.” Captain Rolland Rebineaux pointed to the map pinned up on the wall in his small office. “We must silence the guns there if we are to have a breakthrough.”
“Yes sir.” He saluted.
“Now get some rest. Tomorrow will be a long day.” He threw his cigarette in the mud with a hiss.
Pierre did not sleep, instead he spent most of the night writing a letter to Mindy, a letter that she would never receive.
Already the shells were whistling overhead by the time the sun broke the horizon on the gray November morning. He closed his eyes. In a few days, his mother Estelle would be getting the boxes of Christmas decorations and start hanging them in their home. He missed being home for the holidays, the smell of ham cooking and all of the delicious candy that decorated the living room.
Boom! Boom! Boom!
Today would not be a day to think about the holidays that were coming. Today would be about riding into the German lines and opening them for a forward advancement.
“Cavalry, to your horses.” The captain shouted the command. He and his men moved to the stables where their horses would be waiting. Some of them were skittish as the artillery began to land around them. Some of the men were as skittish as their mounts. A couple of them vomited up the warm oatmeal and biscuits served at the mess. Pierre went without breakfast as he did not want anything to weigh him down on the charge. Final plans were hastily made as they began to ride out of the stable. One of the men moved the barbed wire as the men rode through on their horses appearing very brave and noble as the barren country lay before them and their destination.
As soon as they formed a skirmish line, Pierre could hear the machine guns rattle. When they got within a kilometer of the German trenches, the bullets began to whiz overhead like angry, deadly bees. Corporal Chateneau grabbed his face with his hand and Pierre could see blood squirt out between his fingers. A rider close to him appeared to be electrified as his chest was ripped open by several bullets. An explosion ripped a horse in half, tossing his rider into the mud never to rise to his feet again. He heard some screams and in horror, he realized that with the trenches still about a kilometer away, there was no possible way they would reach their objective. One of the men writing in the mud was trying to put his intestines back where they had come from when he was ripped open by crossfire. He saw his sergeant raise his pistol, but because the barrel was caked with mud when he pressed the trigger it exploded, removing his right hand fingers and all.
Some of the wounded who had managed to stay in their saddles began to ride back to the French lines. Hearing a clang, he saw the man closely now had a bullet hole in his helmet. Blood ran freely down his face before he fell from his mount.
“We need to retreat.” One of the junior officers called in the mayhem.
Looking up he saw the trenches were still about a kilometer and began to wonder if they were moving with the rotation of the earth. More of his men were screaming as they fell from their saddles. Horses kicked wildly in the air in death throes. A trumpet sounded from the French lines, so Pierre decided they needed to advance on the Germans, but the machine guns were relentless as bullets continued their deadly hail on the soldiers.
The last thing Pierre saw in this life were the German trenches coming up to his right. He saw some of the soldiers wearing their stahlhelms peeking over the parapets of their trenches. He could hear them speaking in a language he did not understand. He felt the first bullet hit his chest, knocking the air out of him and stopping him for a moment. Another bullet hit him and then another. More bullets would hit him, but he would not feel it as he fell from his saddle. As he lay there staring up at the sky shedding tears upon his fall, he could hear the Germans grab the reins of his horse and lead him into their trench.
The last time Mindy visited the La Fontanes, they were preparing to bury their eldest son. Snow covered the farmyard broken only by the brown mud of Pierre’s grave where his brothers and sisters had gathered along with their parents. Mindy was there, but she could tell that she was no longer part of this family any longer.
Karl and Molina LaFontane stood shivering in the cold with their two daughters and four sons as the priest read about not being afraid in the valley of death, but Mindy could see the two youngest brothers were mightily afraid of that valley and she couldn’t blame them, because when his casket was lowered and the dirt put over him, it was a very dark valley indeed.
Jacques stood next to Mindy even though he did not know a single soul gathered at Pierre’s graveside. If truth be told, he really didn’t know Pierre at all since they had met at college. Climbing up on the buckboard for the hour plus ride home back to Paris, Mindy did not say a word as the snow continued to fall on them.
He put a blanket over her shoulders as she shivered in front of the fire that evening. He gave her some hot cider from his own stock, but she didn’t drink but a small sip.
“This war is wrong, papa.” She said, staring at the flames dancing happily in the fireplace.
“I will not disagree with you.” He said,
“All of these young men are being slaughtered and no one cares.” She said as tears began to fall on her cheek once again.
“We were told this war would not last, but it has and the more it lasts, the more young men we are bound to lose.” He put his hand in her hair, but it didn’t stop her tears.
Father Tomas Reggligeur heard her confession in which she proclaimed that she did not support the war, but he said that was up to each person and was not something in God’s holy realm. It would be a month after her confession that he was called up as a chaplain. She did join the convent in rolling bandages for the soldiers.
“I thought you did not support this war.” Sister Marie remarked one evening.
“I do not.” She proclaimed.
“But you are with us rolling bandages.” She smiled at Mindy with her matronly wisdom.
“I do not want them to suffer any more than they have to.” She shrugged.
“Very noble.” She winked.
“Do you think Father Reggligeur will be kept safe?” Mindy asked.
“I am praying so.” The nun crossed herself.
As it turned out, despite a few close calls, Father Reggligeur made it through his time in one solid piece much to the delight of his perishoners. But he would not talk about any of what he had seen or heard when he was serving. One afternoon, Mindy walked in while he was supposed to be praying, but he was just sitting in his room like a statue, his eyes glossed over and his mouth hanging open. She knew he was seeing some of the things he had seen while serving.
“Father?” She touched his arm. He did not stir. “Father?”
It was as if someone had woken him from a dream.
“Mindy, my child.” He whispered. “What is it?
“I was just checking on you.” She nodded.
“Okay, merci.” His smile seemed painted on like on some of her tin masks.
“Adieu.” She waved as she left his room.
“Adieu.” He waved back.
On her way home, she passed by the bistro her and Pierre spent many a happy hour in. She saw a young woman with a man at one of the tables she used to sit at on the patio overlooking the river. Some pigeons had gathered in hopes the couple would drop some of the bread on the pavement. She did not notice until she was home that there were tears in her eyes. She closed the front door and sat down with her back against the door and sobbed for nearly an hour.