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AWOL in the Orne, in 1918

Le chateau de Fontaineriant
Le chateau de Fontaineriant

In between quiet villages and charming towns in the Orne, Normandy, are vast swathes of forests and fields.

Here quite a lot happens, but people generally keep it to themselves.

We were therefore rather baffled when a postcard match took us to a very private house on a rarely travelled lane.  Unsurprisingly information about the Chateau de Fontaineriant near Sées was very very sparse.

But we find a small story, just an inch high in the Journal de l’Orne dated Saturday 2 February 1918.

journal de L'Orne 2 Feb 1918

A few words that speak of a larger tragedy

“Tuesday evening, an orderly policeman at the station arrested two soldiers belonging to the Public Works workshop at Fontaineraint near Sees, from which they had escaped. They are: Desprez Moses. 30 born in Lille, and Francis Masson, 23 of Saint Brienc.  The first sentenced to 15 years’ hard labour for desertion, the second 14 years for dereliction of duty.”

Arrestation de deux tp

The newspaper article doesn’t reveal the secret of their duties.  They could have been guarding a factory whose workers were prisoners of war. Or one of the many internment camps that assessed undesirables for prison or freedom.  The workshop does not sound like a military camp, although many sprang up across the Orne to retrain farmers into soldiers.

We do know that by 1918 the dead and injured French numbered thousands and away from the front in the Orne people were going hungry as food production could not keep up with the demands of war.

Perhaps one day when rations were particularly low, they looked out over the vast forests of the Orne and thought ‘a man could lose himself in there.  Hide out on wild boar and fresh spring water until this terrible war is over’.  Imagining that when that time came they would be forgotten or could think up a tall tale of bravery that would hide them amongst so many honest ones.

The beginning

On 1 August 1914 in the middle of the afternoon bells rang out across France, calling men of fighting age to war.  The Orne already has an army of 4,500; the 103rd Infantry Regiment and 14th Hussars are stationed in Alencon, the 104th in Argentan, the 130th in Domfront.  When the bells ring nearly 25,000 men, aged 23 to 41, return to the army.

Orne training camp, premiere guerre mondiale, the great war.
Orne training camp, premiere guerre mondiale, the great war.

By 11 November 1918 45,000 Ornais have respond to the call, just over a quarter of the population. They will leave their green fields and fragrant woods and march away from home towns and villages accompanied by the loud cheers of friends and family.

As flags fly optimistically above them the first few battalions cannot know they will suffer the heaviest losses.

Departure of the 104 from Argentan
Departure of the 104 from Argentan

The deadliest day

On 22 August 1914 on what becomes known as ‘the deadliest day’ 27,000 die in the Battle of the Frontiers. 750 are from the Orne.  In September 1000 Orne soldiers die, 400 in October.  The majority are Infantry sent into cannon fire.

The Hairy ones

The French infantry are typically from the countryside, healthy outdoorsmen with a fondness for wearing their beards bushy and their moustaches as large as possible. They soon gain the fond nickname ‘Poilu’ the Hairy ones, a term of endearment still used today to describe French infantry of WW1.

The poilu were known for their bravery and endurance if not always their blind obedience. During one particularly calamitous offensive in 1917 at Chemin des Dames the poilu are said to have made baa’ing noises as they marched towards the enemy across no man’s land, knowing their own fate as lambs to the slaughter.

Their love of pinard, the cheap ration of wine, has also gone down in history.

Orne Infantry, le Poilu, the Hairy!
Orne Infantry, le Poilu, the Hairy!

Norman soldiers earn respect for their bravery and ability at the highest level. During the Battle of Mount Kemmel, Belgium in April May 1918 General Foch is heard to say “Je suis tranquille, les Normands sont là!” – “I am calm, the Normans are here!”

Supporting an army first, themselves second

During those years the Orne is not protected from the war.  It may not see battles but life is unrecognisable.  Women and the older children take on the men’s jobs in factories producing munitions, uniforms and all the accessories of war.  By 1917 35 industrial sites across the region are working day and night to support the army.

Women run the farms and as horses are commandeered by the cavalry, pulling ploughs by hand across the fields that grow corn for bread.  Centuries old arable fields are put to grass and cows as Camembert becomes a favourite of French armies.  Cider alcohol is used in the manufacture of explosives.

Hospitals

War never crosses the Seine and the Orne is seen as a safe place to set up hospitals to receive the wounded.  The first of the injured arrive in the very first month of the war, after the devastating Battle of Charleroi in August 1914.

In September 1914 over 3700 injured arrive and are sent to fifty centres across the region.  By 1918 58 hospitals have been set up, from large private houses, schools and convents with just a dozen or so beds, to the huge Corn exchange in Alencon with 300 beds and the glamorous Grand Hotel in Bagnoles de l’Orne with 400.

The Mechanotherapy room was in the chapel of the old Sees Seminary.
The Mechanotherapy room was in the chapel of the old Sees Seminary.

An army of refugees

Alongside the injured come the refugees.  During this ‘Great War’, ‘La Premiere Guerre Mondiale’ 14,000 people came to the Orne, fleeing from the fighting, the bombs or frightened by tales of atrocities in the north of France and Belgium.

The authorities, keen to stop large numbers of refugees settling in their cities, distribute them across the small country towns and villages. Here, people damaged by the horrors of war are left in strange surroundings amongst families fearing the loss of their loved ones whose country lives are often very different from those of their visitors.  After initial compassion the sheer number of refugees, straining local resources to the limit, results in pockets of hostility.

Officially recognised refugees will receive a small allowance; 1fr25 per adults and 50 cents for a child.

Food shortages

By the summer of 1918 the lack of food is on everyone’s minds and grumbling in their bellies.  On 6 July 1500 workers from military factories around La Ferte-Mace strike and gather at the town hall demanding their ration be raised from 300 grams to 500 grams of bread per week.

Eventually it is agreed to raise the worker’s allowance to 400 grams.  Those not in the factories; drivers, blacksmiths and other workers receive vouchers raising their allowance to 250 grams of wheat per person in their family per week.

Prisoners

The Orne will also see the arrival prisoners with one of the largest processing camps of the war based in an old seminary at La Ferte-Mace.  6000 internees came through le Ferte-mace from when the camp opened in February 1915 to its closure in May 1919.  Some stayed for weeks, others several months.  They were Germans, Austrians, Russians, Turks, Romanians, Bulgarians, Belgians, Italians, Americans, the English, the Alsatians, also the French.

Divided only by gender, political prisoners are locked up with beggars and prostitutes.  All communication with the outside world cut off.  At La Ferte-Mace their future would be decided; prison or freedom.  With the hope of liberty, few risked escape.

Conditions are unsurprisingly poor.  Life in the camp was immortalised by the American writer Edward Cummings in his book ‘The enormous room’.  Edward had volunteered as a driver with the Red Cross but his friendship and sympathy with a pacifist brought him under suspicion.  He was arrested and was locked up for two months at La Ferte-Mace while his fate was decided. He was freed.  On German occupied soil 3500 Ornais are prisoners of war.

Paper money used by prisoners and internees in Alencon
Paper money used by prisoners and internees in Alencon

The end of war

The end of the war was declared on 11 November 1918 but for Desprez Moses and Francis Masson, those cowardly escapees who dreamt of forest freedom, it will not end for many years.  By the time they are due for release in the 1930’s the unimaginable will be on the horizon, another war.

Between 1914 and 1918 across Europe a generation was lost.  In the Orne 40% of soldiers who were 20 in 1914 were dead.  By the end 10,500 husbands, fathers and brothers would never come home, 4800 Ornais were widowed and 5000 children left without fathers.

They are not forgotten and in every village and town you will see well cared for carved stone memorials and stained glass church windows that mourn and remember the lost ‘children of France’.

Every August the department will remember the deadliest day, and every November give thanks and celebrate peace.

The 104 Infantry, Argentan. More than one quarter will not return home.
The 104 Infantry, Argentan. More than one quarter will not return home.

Online resources and further info:

White horses in a green Orne meadow, Normandy
White horses in an Orne meadow, Normandy

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