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Love Is Falling: A Wartime Work-Camp Courtship

The True Story of Yvette Fleuret and Roger Cuquemelle

During World War I, single women in France could volunteer through a government program to become an anonymous French soldier’s wife. This femme de la guerre had but one patriotic duty—to write her assigned husband letters. Nowadays, most single women in France swipe on apps like Tinder; but nothing’s really changed. Whether on the front lines or alone at a bar—whether we have it or we don’t—for some of us, having a partner is all we really think about or talk about.

Well, I have a story for you. It all started last summer in France. Actually, it started long before that in the fall of 1942, but let me explain. I am a singer. I sing love songs. Julie Rougé, my booking agent in France, and I were working on a new project when we stumbled upon a truly epic love story that we would later set to music.

At the time, I was struggling with writer’s block and feeling some frustration with the dynamic at my label. At the office in Marseille, I shared my feelings with Julie. I was tired of writing about myself. I was feeling isolated by touring. I wanted to do something different. I was even open to the possibility of a song-blog, writing songs with strangers. That’s when Julie brought in the little red box. She placed the red box on the desk between us, put down her cigarette, and slowly removed the lid. Then she carefully removed a perfectly stacked bundle of vintage papers wrapped in a pink ribbon. The stack contained a few photographs, a handful of antique postcards, and hundreds of letters in perfect, navy-blue handwriting. These are Julie’s grandparents’—Yvette and Roger’s—correspondence from World War II.

Photo by the author

Photo by the author

Julie and her family are very proud of these paper relics. These letters are a touchstone to their own legacy of resilience and the triumph of love over sorrow. We spent the afternoon reading, laughing, crying, and swooning as Yvette and Roger’s wartime courtship revealed itself. Over the next few months, the stories and songs came pouring out, the most famous being the one about the scarf. No one knows what color the scarf was, but I like to imagine it was a rosy pink. At just nineteen, Roger was deported and sent to work at a forced labor camp in Duisberg, Germany. Yvette, the girl next door was fourteen at the time of their first letter in 1942. Yvette sent him off to Germany with a scarf and a secret declaration of love:

Caen, June 15, 1942

Roger, I am sending you this to prove my friendship. The other day when you asked me if I loved you, you didn’t believe me. But it is true. I do love you. It is a secret. Don’t tell anyone! I’m finishing my letter and holding you dear with all my heart.

Your little Yvette

Caen le 15 juin 1942

Roger, je t’envoie cette lettre pour te prouver mes amitiés car l’autre jour quand tu m’as demandé si je t’aimais tu n’as pas voulu me croire et pourtant c’est vrai que je t’aime. C’est secret, surtout ne parle de rien à personne. Je termine ma lettre en t’embrassant de tout mon cœur.

Ta petite Yvette

Upon his arrival in Germany, Roger discovered the raids were deadly serious. He was hospitalized, taking a piece of shrapnel to the leg for failing to reach the shelter quickly enough. Even so, during a bomb raid three months later, instead of running for cover Roger ran back to his bunker. He had forgotten Yvette’s scarf. He had to go back and get it. When he left the shelter, it was bombed and all the people inside were killed. Roger was the only survivor. He was extremely lucky but swore it was  not chance but Yvette’s scarf that saved him. As the RAF bombings continued to increase in frequency and intensity, it became clear that Yvette’s letters were keeping Roger alive.

By 1944, France was occupied and Caen, Yvette and Roger’s hometown, was decimated. Yvette evacuated with her family inland and wrote Roger, “la rue saint jean n’existe plus.” [The street we grew up on no longer exists.] The two continued to write and were falling very much in love. But Julie and I noticed something peculiar about Yvette’s letters. She was not as concerned about the war as she was about impressing Roger.

In one of her letters, Yvette told Roger about the red handbag she wanted to buy, detailing the ins and outs of this purchase. (Julie and I are on the ground laughing when we read this.) While Roger was getting bombed in Germany, Yvette was shopping. Sixteen-year-old Yvette asserted her independence and good taste by saying such things as: “I don’t care what my mother says. It’s my money that I earned,” and “The handbag is very à la mode.”

It all seemed like trivial teen stuff until the very last line where there was a change in tone. Yvette told Roger she won’t wear her new bag until he comes home, for their first date. She will wait for him. After reading the letters from 1944, we lovingly nickname Yvette, “Naivette.” We also realized that Roger played into her simplemindedness, encouraging her, asking more questions about the red handbag, and ultimately protecting her from the details of his reality in the work camp.

Aside from the formalities of the letters, the blue stripes of German censorship, and the paragraphs of Bonjours directed at distant relatives and cousins, the most unifying characteristic of the letters was the importance of the mundane. In addition to the red handbag, Yvette related that she had made herself a coat. Yvette and Roger talked about what they ate. Roger ate only rutabaga day and night and day. Yvette noticed how popular Nestle milk was becoming and the couple discussed possible picnics and bike rides and dreamt up a myriad of dates they would go on after the war. Roger told Yvette that one day, they are going to get in the car and drive to infinity.

One can only imagine why these normal moments of everyday life meant so much to the separated lovers. Death was all around. The bombings were nonstop. The war seemed endless. When the raids caused delays and disappearing mail, Roger began to unravel. In these letters, he accused Yvette of treason and Yvette accused him of flirting with German women at the movie theater. There was less talk of picnics as sadness, anger, and paranoia took over. And, yet, somehow, the two of them settled their engagement and continued writing.

Photo by the author

Photo by the author

When Europe was liberated, a shoeless Roger went to Brussels. There, he  stole a dead German’s boots and walked from Brussels to Paris to find his family. Not yet in Yvette’s arms, he wrote her one last letter in 1946:

My mother is puzzled by the fact that I am singing. ”You never sang before the war? What is wrong with you? How could you come back from the war singing and dancing,“ she says. In response I sang her a little song, love is falling through the air all around me, Love makes the world go round, When one is in love, it is not the same, is not. Isn’t that so my little Yvette, darling?

As Julie and I read this, she remembered her grandfather’s singing. Her eyes lit up, she cracked a smile, and started impersonating him, singing a familiar, half-forgotten tune in a rich and low voice, exaggerating vibrato. The song Roger sang came from a B-roll French movie that could have been playing in Germany at the time. It was sung by Tino Rossi, with lots of vibrato. Julie and I thought this song best captured Roger’s feelings for Yvette and the reason why he made it back when so many others didn’t.

After the dark storm clouds
The golden sun will rise
After slavery
Will come freedom
Let’s go my dearest
Into the unknown
Don’t look back
We have no choice but to move

Après le sombre orage
Vient le soleil doré
Après notre esclavage
Viendra la liberté!
Partons, tendre fillette
Partons vers l’inconnu:
Bien que l’on le regrette
Il le faut . . . que veux-tu!

Love is falling through the air all around us
Only Love can console this poor world
Only love can brighten our day
Only love will set us free

C’est l’amour qui flotte dans l’air à la ronde
C’est l’amour qui console le pauvre monde
C’est l’amour qui rend chaque jour la gaîté
C’est l’amour qui nous rendra la liberté


Photo by the author

Photo by the author


Nous avons encore été en alerte cette nuit mais ils n’ont pas bombardé à Duisburg mais à quelques kilomètres. Sur le journal que nous avons ici, j’ai vu que la France a été encore bombardée, et il y a pas mal de gens qui y sont restés, c’est toujours les mêmes qui sont innocents, qui prennent dessus. Les français auront eu leur part avec les morts, avec tous les autres pays.

Roger Cuquemelle à Duisberg, 1944



*Special thanks to the family of Yvette and Roger Cuquemelle—their eight children, their grandchildren, and their great grandchildren.