Love Letter Update for Valentine's Day

13 February 2010 by Nicholas Schmidt

It has been a year since the first blog entry went up about Marthe Gylbert and her letter. In this time, with the help of some very generous people, I have been able to discover much about Marthe and her wonderful love letter. If you have not seen the previous blog entries, they can be found here and here.

Marthe‘s nephew Jean Marc Gylbert has been very helpful and interested. He has provided much information about his family and his aunt although some part of the story remains a mystery even to him. This blog is based on information Jean Marc Gylbert has provided.

Courtesy of Jean Marc Gylbert and Rose Rae

Marthe was born on the 24th April 1901 to Louis and Marie Louise Gylbert. She was the fourth child in the family of six children, two of whom died while very young. The family came originally from Nieppe, a village about 3 km from Armentières, on the left bank of the Lys River. Jean Marc Gylbert describes the family as ‘very poor' with Marthe’s father working as a farm labourer and her mother employed as a servant.

Marthe met her Australian sweetheart in Armentières not Saint-Sulpice-les-Feuilles as I said before in my previous update. Armentières had been briefly occupied by the Germans, in October 1914, but was taken back by the British, who occupied the village until the 10th April 1918. Amongst the troops in Armentières were Australians and this is when Marthe appears to met her ‘Darling Little Sweetheart’.

Jean Marc Gylbert has always known that his aunt had an Australian sweetheart as his father has told him the story since his childhood. Unfortunately, this was a long time ago and he cannot recall the man’s surname other than it ended in ‘on’ and his first name seemed, to the young Jean Marc, a common Anglo-Saxon name.

During the summer of 1917, the Germans heavily bombarded Armentières, including the intense use of gas shells, and the military authorities decided to evacuate the civilian population.  The Gylbert family, without Marthe’s father who had died, was sent to little village in the centre of the south of France called St-Sulpice-les-Feuilles where life for the family was not easy. The refugees were not welcomed by the locals who equated these northerners with Germans. Jean Marc Gylbert describes it as ‘the life of peasants’ during which his father, then 12, worked at various agricultural jobs including as a shepherd and a butcher.  

Courtesy of Jean Marc Gylbert and Rose Rae

It was amongst these difficulties that Marthe sent her sweetheart the letter that is now in the Australian War Memorial’s collection. Jean Marc Gylbert believes that someone else must have written the letter on Marthe’s behalf as he knows that his aunt would have been unable write a letter like this at the time and certainly not in English.

It is not clear when the family returned to Armentières but Jean Marc Gylbert does know that the civil authorities insisted that the inhabitants of the town come back after the war.  The houses and factories needed to be rebuilt and they needed as many people as possible to do this.

Coutesy of Jean Marc Gylbert

The living members of the Gylbert Family do not know what happened to Marthe’s sweetheart and cannot recall his name. So his identity and fate seems destined to remain a mystery.  But we do know what happened to Marthe. After the war, Marthe married twice and went to live in Paris. She died in Issy les Moulineaux (part of Paris) on 27th February 1977. She had one child who died in infancy during her first marriage.

The letter is on display as part of the Memorial’s Of Love and War exhibition which is showing at the Memorial until 5th May 2010. The exhibition will travel to other venues but these are yet to be confirmed.