The Great War and Cardiff: A French Connection

Opened in 1859, Cathays Cemetery in Cardiff is the third largest municipal cemetery in Britain.  I used to live opposite the cemetery – not as creepy as you might think – and now and then I have the opportunity to walk through it.  Last year I noticed a memorial in the graveyard (my eye was attracted by the tricolour).

Commemorative stone, Cathays Cemetery, Cardiff

Commemorative stone, Cathays Cemetery, Cardiff

The simple plaque remembers the French sailors who died for their country during the Great War.  This was not the first connection to the history of France that I had stumbled upon in Cardiff; a plaque on Park Place in the town centre commemorates the contribution of the local Franco-British society to the war effort during 1939-1945.  Still, it seemed odd that a stone should be laid in Cardiff to French sailors of the Great War.

Last month, I discovered the reason behind the placing of the plaque: there are about 20 graves of French sailors in Cathays Cemetery.  According to John Farnhill of the Friends of Cathays Cemetery (http://www.friendsofcathayscemetery.co.uk), each grave lists the name of the sailor and his ship, as well as the date of death.  The graves are maintained on behalf of France by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.  The information that John has found shows that one sailor (Julien Marie Le Mituard) died in 1919 in Cardiff docks when his boat capsized, while several others died of ‘flu.  It’s likely that illness and injury accounted for the deaths of the other sailors too.

I have posted here photos of several graves that I have found in the cemetery. We’re more used to seeing such white crosses in the huge cemeteries of northern France; the graves in Cardiff are evidence of an unexpected international dimension to the war.  I wonder if the families ever visited the graveside of these men.

Jean Leaustic - 'St Thomas' - 3 May 1916

Jean Leaustic – ‘St Thomas’ – 3 May 1916

Pierre Gouzer - 'Constance' - 15 November 1914

Pierre Gouzer – ‘Constance’ – 15 November 1914

Celestin Buttez - 'Ville de Dunkerque' - 23 March 1915

Celestin Buttez – ‘Ville de Dunkerque’ – 23 March 1915

‘Here lies a good Frenchman’: A victim of 6 February 1934

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In the south west corner of Paris’s Père Lachaise cemetery lays the grave of Raymond Rossignol. Aged 37, Rossignol was mortally wounded during a riot on the Place de la Concorde on 6 February 1934. On that night, thousands of extreme right-wing paramilitaries and war veterans took to the street to protest against a centre-left government embroiled in the so-called ‘Stavisky Affair’. The Affair had implicated several high-profile parliamentarians in the dodgy financial dealing of conman Alexandre Stavisky. For the extreme right, the Affair, along with Stavisky’s convenient suicide on 9 January 1934 (thus silencing any potentially damaging revelations), epitomised the rottenness at the heart of the democratic regime. Demanding strong authoritarian leadership guided by ‘French’ values, several groups including the monarchist Action française, the nationalist Jeunesses patriotes, and the fascist Solidarité française fought with police in front of the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of the French parliament. They ultimately did not gain entry to the building and make good on their threats to ‘string up’ the deputies inside.

The rioters failed largely because the police responded with brutal violence as officers tried to stop the invasion of the Chamber. The police  had come under constant attack from projectile-throwing demonstrators in the early evening –between 5pm and 7.30pm, the majority of injuries were suffered by constables and officers of the riot police, the Mobile Guard. Nevertheless, the most serious violence occurred during two episodes when police opened fire on and charged the crowd: between 7.30pm and 8pm (when 47 people were shot) and 11.30pm and 12am (when 23 people were shot). The total injuries amounted to: 969 police constables, 695 Republican Guards, Mobile Guards and Gendarmes, and 655 demonstrators. Two-hundred-and-eight people were admitted to hospital, 82 of whom had suffered gunshot wounds.[1]

Three demonstrators were killed outright during the riot, while twelve more victims succumbed during the following week. One of these men was Raymond Rossignol, a member of the Jeunesses patriotes. I stumbled upon Rossignol’s grave quite by accident during my stay in Paris while researching my PhD in 2006/7. I was in fact drawn to the grave by the surname because Henri Rossignol had for a time led the Union nationale des combattants, the veterans’ association that was the subject of my thesis.[2]

Upon seeing the grave, two things struck me. Firstly, the epitaph. It is typical of the way victims of the six février violence were memorialised by the extreme right during the 1930s. The text reads:

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Here lies a good Frenchman

Raymond Rossignol

Fell Place de la Concorde

6 February 1934

At the age of 37

The extreme right made martyrs of the dead, and the text here apes that of the memorials to the much-revered dead of the Great War. Like a soldier killed defending France from the Germans, Rossignol was a ‘good Frenchman’, who had ‘fallen’ for France. In fact, the Jeunesses patriotes renamed their veterans’ association in his honour. Rossignol’s son was enlisted in the league, and told that he could live with his head held high safe in the knowledge that his father was a hero.[3] All of the leagues, except for Colonel de La Rocque’s Croix de Feu, self-consciously linked the martyrs of February to the dead of the Great War, all the better to demonise the left-wing government whom they held responsible for the deaths. The left was linked with the wartime enemy, demonstrating that socialists and radicals were somehow ‘anti’ France. Below is a poster illustrating this – the dead man can be seen to be wearing medals won during the war.  The legend reads, ‘He dodged German bullets, but the bullets of the Cartel got him’ (the Cartel was the ruling left-wing coalition).

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The second thing that strikes me when looking at the grave is its state of repair: the grave is very well maintained. The marble is clean and (looks) polished, and the plants and flowers are green. It’s possible that this is not the original stone, given that it would be 80 years old by now. If there is still someone who comes to maintain the grave, one wonders who. A handful of groups on the extreme right, including the Action française, still commemorates the night of the riot each year; their night time torch-lit events can be viewed on Youtube, with militants announcing a roll call of the dead to which their comrades respond ‘Present!’ (much like the commemorations of the 1930s). Until the 1970s, the Front National continued to preserve the memory of the riot. Indeed, historian Olivier Dard has called it the ‘foundation myth’ of the modern extreme right.[4] Though there are sporadic outbreaks of politically inspired violence, it is highly unlikely that the Front National would take to the streets against the Fifth Republic, preferring as Dard states, the ballot box to the street.

If the Front National has chosen the route of electoral politics, the grave is nevertheless a reminder that an admittedly small hard-core of activists in France still preserves the memory of the ‘February martyrs’, echoing the calls of ‘Down with the assassins!’ of their 1930s forebears.

[1]This information is taken from the report on the victims of the February 1934 violence compiled for the parliamentary commission of inquiry by deputies Louis Gardiol (SFIO), Jean-Baptiste Amat (Radical Party) and Ernest de Framont de la Framondée (Fédération républicaine). See also Maurice Chavardès, Le 6 février 1934and Pierre Pelissier, 6 février.

[2]Published as From Victory to Vichy: Veterans in Inter-war France (Manchester: MUP, 2012).

[3]Le National [the newspaper of the Jeunesses patriotes], 18 May 1934. Available at the Bibliothèque nationale Paris.

[4] http://www.liberation.fr/politiques/2014/02/06/le-6-fevrier-1934-un-mythe-fondateur-de-l-extreme-droite_978118

1914-2014: The mood in France before the First World War

In July 1914, French newspapers reported that the declining state of international affairs posed no immediate danger of war.  According to French historian Jean-Jacques Becker, French society agreed: the public, the financial world and the government simply did not consider the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand serious enough to cause a wider war in Europe.[1]  Becker’s analysis of four Parisian and two provincial newspapers from 19 to 24 July shows that greater press coverage was afforded to the salacious Caillaux affair.  The affair involved the wife of politician Joseph Caillaux.  Henriette Caillaux had shot dead the editor of Le Figaro, Gaston Calmettewhen Calmette threatened to publish love letters exchanged between Joesph and Henriette.  Even on 29 July, as little as three days before mobilisation, the affair garnered as much press coverage as the European crisis.[3]

Yet as events took their course, the mood seemed to change.  Writing from Paris, Henri Désagneaux revealed that on 1 August 1914: “…people still have a glimmer of hope, but nothing suggests that matters can now be settled peacefully”.[4]  For Marc Bloch, by those early August days, “War seemed inevitable”.[5]  Still, the reality of the situation was difficult to accept: Jacques Bainville reported that “[t]here was doubt until the last moment”.[6]  Anxiety gripped some French: Georges Leroy, a teacher from the Nord bore witness to this, “The newspapers are reassuring, but in the absence of concrete reports (nouvelles certaines), owing to contradictory news, worry is growing, everyone feels unable to get down to work.”[7]

More to follow…..


[1] Becker, Comment les Français sont entres en guerre, pp. 125-127.

[2] Ibid., p. 130.

[3] Ibid., p. 133.

[4] H. Désagneaux, A French Soldier’s War Diary 1914-1918 (Morley, 1975), p. 3.

[5] M. Bloch, Memoirs of War, 1914-1915 (London, 1980), p. 78

[6] J. Bainville, Journal inédit (1914) (Paris, 1953), p. 7..

[7] G. Leroy, ‘Journal d’un instituteur 1914-1919’, in A. Becker, ed., Journaux de combattants et de civils de la France du Nord dans la Grande Guerre (Paris, 1998), p. 109.

1914-2014: France and the First World War

I have added a new page to this blog titled, ‘1914-2014: France and the First World War’.  It’s my intention to publish a series of short posts for undergraduates to mark 100 years since the outbreak of the war.  The first post, ‘Soldiers and Civilians’, examines what soldiers wrote about the home front and what they thought about the people there.

Click the @Students tab at the top of the page, or follow this link: http://wp.me/P2IuYK-5A