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A New Zealand soldier and a remarkably refined young woman

19257

A young woman sits in an ornate wooden chair. She is wearing a blouse and a high-waisted, ankle-length skirt, with a peep of dark stockings and polished shoes. Four large buttons feature prominently on the sturdy material of the skirt with its broad hem. Her blouse is full, long sleeved with generous cuffs, small round drop buttons dot the front. The collar stretches wide across the shoulders trimmed with what appears to be fur, a winter touch. A fine chain hangs round her neck and a pendant; there is a practical watch on her left wrist. She wears her hair drawn back with a small band about the forehead, from which a few locks of hair escape. The face is attractive, she has large dark eyes, and a faint smile plays on her lips. However, by far the most striking thing about this portrait is the directness of her gaze. She looks straight at us steady and unfazed, confidently, perhaps even no-nonsense. A strong personality.

This is Germaine Lassalle – a young Frenchwoman in her early twenties. Her clothing is not Parisian high fashion, it’s not silk or satin, indeed she may have made some of it herself because we know she had worked as a dressmaker. When the First World War broke out, she returned to her parents’ home in the village of Lumbres in Pas-de-Calais, NE France, a bit behind the front lines. And it was there that she met a New Zealand soldier far from home, and a friendship grew between them.

That soldier was Leo Bestall, a stretcher-bearer with the New Zealand Medical Corps. Leo had arrived on the Western Front in July 1916 and carried stretchers through the mud and toil of the Somme battlefield. He kept a detailed diary and wrote letters home to his parents at least once a week. Over one hundred of these letters survive in the Collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo-Tā-ū-Rangi. Germaine’s lovely portrait sits among Leo’s papers in the collection - he labels it, ‘My friend Germaine Lassalle’. We owe the story of that friendship to his archived account.

Leo met Germaine when he was based in Lumbres in April 1917. He had been tasked with ‘water duties’ (testing water sources, then transporting water supplies to the front line). But the water cart broke down, and Leo found himself with little to do for about 10 days. He left his assigned billet and found accommodation for himself in Lumbres, and he met Germaine and the rest of her family at a local estaminet (a working-class eating establishment usually family owned and run, serving simple food and cheap beer - ideal for tired and thirsty soldiers).

“In the main estaminet we discovered Mlle Germaine Lassalle - a nice girl of about 19 or 20, a bit better educated than any we have come across so far. We had dinner in the estaminet [on Thursday] and a long talk to her afterwards in which we were much enlightened concerning the French people and their customs.” [Diary entry, written Sunday 15 April 1917]

“The usual girls in these estaminets and cabarets are pretty rough and if not get roughened by the English troops a lot, but she is most remarkably refined. Speaks middling English and is always trying to learn more from us and as she says, ‘When some soldiers speak very bad, I try not to be angry because I think it to myself - they are soldiers.’ She says that the part of France where we have spent so very many weary months is well known to be the coarsest and commonest part.” [Letter written to his parents, 16 April 1917]

“Even amongst English girls it is not often one finds one that is ambitious for further knowledge, especially of a language. Two of her cousins have married English officers. If we'd spent 6 months [at Lumbres] like some lucky units, instead of several days, she might have had prospects with a private in the N.Z.M.C. – perhaps.” [Letter written to his parents, 28 April 1916]

The army was an all-male institution. Leo was exhibiting a common hankering among soldiers, the desire for female company. But Germaine was special, she was intelligent and articulate, refined. She had not allowed the English troops to ‘roughen’ her – perhaps that direct gaze had rebutted a few. Nor did she judge the soldiers. That first meeting with Leo sounds familiar, it’s what all young people do when they first meet – they check each other out, exploring what they have in common, wondering if there is a friendship, perhaps even romance?

Leo was only in Lumbres a week and a half. But he spent ‘almost every spare minute’ with the Lassalles and left “quite sentimental about it and also righteously indignant that she should be ‘pulling beer’ in such a place. At any rate she has been jolly good to us … had us in to meals, so I was glad today to be able to do her a service by making up an eyewash for her sister.” [Diary entry, 22 April 1918] This entry shows that Leo enjoyed more than a simple friendly contact, more even than a brief romance or casual encounter – instead, he was accepted into the Lassalle family. He was welcomed into their home – think of a dining table with a tablecloth, and maybe a vase of flowers. Dishes of steaming food served on real plates. Think of boisterous children; Germaine was the oldest of six children, the youngest of whom was only three. Think of family hospitality, domesticity, inclusion, table talk, normalcy. A haven of home life, in the midst of brutal industrialised war.

Germaine and Leo stayed in touch. He received the “jolly little photo of herself” in March 1918. Then Leo was invalided to England with trench fever in May 1918 and did not return to France. He probably never saw Germaine again. However, he had left some precious items with her – “after the war if I am not alive, she will post you my diary of last year” [Letter to his parents, 18 August 1917] – and we know that diary was returned to New Zealand. The century old photograph of Germaine is quite small, 7.2 x 4.5 cm, small enough to be carried in Leo’s wallet (and to hold a fond place in his memories) before it made its way into the collection of the Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust.

Published in the Hawke’s Bay Today newspaper on 8 June 2024 and written by Dr Graham Howie, a senior lecturer and researcher at the Paramedicine Department, AUT. In October 2023, on a study tour in France, he visited the village of Lumbres and laid flowers on Germaine Lassalle’s grave.

Image: Portrait, Germaine Lassalle. French studio photograph, circa May 1917. Collection of Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust, Ruawharo-Tā-O-Ranga, 19257.

10 June 2024

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