First published in May 2014.
A Hilltop on the Marne, which was first published in 1916, presents a far-reaching account of Mildred Aldrich’s experiences during the First World War. Aldrich, a retired American journalist who worked for several papers in the Boston area before moving to France in 1898, had just moved to an idyllic hamlet in France’s Marne Valley before World War One was declared. In Huiry, a ‘little hamlet less than thirty miles from Paris’, she found herself adjusting to life in wartime, volunteering such services as hosting tea for and providing water to local forces. Her farmhouse soon became ‘a safe port in a storm for the various troops stationed in the village’.
Aldrich’s first letter in the volume is dated the 3rd of June 1914, and her correspondence goes through to the end of the war. We do not know who she writes to, and as none of her letters carry her signature or anything of the sort, A Hilltop on the Marne feels more like a diary in consequence. She urges her correspondent, who is evidently trying to coerce her into returning ‘home’ to the United States, to allow her to be content. In her first letter, she states, quite frankly: ‘I did not decide to come away into a little corner in the country, in this land in which I was not born, without looking at the move from all angles. Be sure that I know what I am doing, and I have found the place where I can do it’. She goes on to show how headstrong she is in her decision making, writing in August 1914: ‘I have your cable asking me to come “home” as you call it. Alas, my home is where my books are – they are here. Thanks all the same’.
Throughout A Hilltop on the Marne, Aldrich writes beautifully; each letter is long and has been penned with such care. Through her words, one gets the impression that she was an incredibly warm and witty woman, who valued honesty above all else. Sincerity weaves itself into each sentence which she crafts, and it feels throughout as though her utmost wish is for her reader to understand the things which she does, and the choices which she makes. We learn of such things as the layout of her home, the way in which she fills her days, the history of the Marne region, and the characters who live in the hamlet of Huiry. A Hilltop on the Marne is as rich as a novel in some respects, filled with such a wealth of detail as it is.
Aldrich evokes small-town life in France marvellously. When war begins and she is able to meet some of the soldiers stationed in her area, she begins to reflect upon what battle means for the men in the region, and in France as a whole: ‘It is not the marching into battle of an army that has chosen soldiering. It is the marching out of all the people – of every temperament – the rich, the poor, the timid and the bold, the sensitive and the hardened, the ignorant and the scholar – all men, because they happen to be males, called on not only to cry, “Vive la France”, but to see to it that she does live if dying for her can keep her alive. It’s a compelling idea, isn’t it?’ She goes on to write: ‘I have lived among these people, loved them and believed in them, even when their politics annoyed me’. Aldrich exemplifies the way in which her community carries on regardless, women taking over the ‘male’ tasks like baking bread and seeing to crops. She tells of preparations for battle, the lack of news which reaches the hamlet, the unreliability of the postal service, refugees being sent into France from Belgium, and how wounded soldiers are treated. She touches upon the requisition of weapons, evacuations of entire French towns, and the British cutting telegraph wires. In this way, Aldrich has presented a far-reaching account of life in wartime from a most interesting perspective.
One of the wonderful things about A Hilltop on the Marne is its versatility; it can be dipped in and out of, or read all in one go. It is an important work of non-fiction, particularly in this, the centenary year of World War One’s beginning. It is a chronicle of war in a rural hamlet, which is sure to both charm its readers, and make them think.