Long ago part of the land called Varaville that reaches across marshland to the sea, was known as le Homme. Tucked between the estuaries of the Dives and Orne rivers, its soft coastal dunes were a kingdom of rabbits.
A desolate place, Homme was disturbed only by birds, animals and occasional hunters, creeping through the marshland reeds.
In 1066 the sea here churned as a battle fleet gathered around nearby Dives-sur-Mer, under the command of William Duke of Normandy soon to be Conqueror of the English. But for centuries Homme was undisturbed.
Family St. Pierre
Someone always owns a place and in the 19th century the lord was the Marquis Théodore de St. Pierre, a noble of the ‘ninth grade’ in the French register of nobility. On the noble list, but at the bottom. Théodore had won his noble papers by hard work and royal decree in December 1826 and would now leave a title to his heirs. He married, in Paris on 16 May 1808, Agathe Aimée de Pernon and they were blessed with three sons;
- Ladislaw-Marie Marc de Saint Pierre, born in Caen on 1 March 4, 1810
- Aldéric-Jean Marc de Saint Pierre, born in Caen on 20 December 1818
- René-Maurice Marc de Saint Pierre in Saint Pierre du Fresne on June 4, 1825
The family slumbered in genteel respectability until 1839 when Aldéric made their presence known across the newspapers of Paris. He, with his brother and some friends were arrested. Their case was heard at the highest court in the land. What the ambitious Théodore thought of his middle son we can only imagine.
All because of a letter
Aldéric had been living the sort of silly life in Paris that ends dynasties. We know this because the entire debacle of 1839 was recorded in the Paris Gazette des Tribunaux, 8 April 1840. In court, lawyers set the scene:
“On March 7, 1839, a pre-arranged meeting took place in the forest of Saint Germain between Aldéric-Jean Marc de Saint-Pierre and Marie-Eugène-François-Tiburce Tristan Savary, Marquis de Rovigo and officer of the Lancers, age 22. They were assisted by Aubin Soubzrnaigue, Frederick-Joseph Bazancourt, Ladislas Saint-Pierre and Armand-Henri-de Macarty Macteig.”
The meeting was a duel. Aldéric had been insulted!
Apparently swords were barely crossed when Aldéric’s broke. A replacement was found and the duel continued enthusiastically. Witnesses stated that the battle took three quarters of an hour and only stopped when one of the combatants was hit, gave a shout and fell. Both combatants received injuries but neither was badly hurt. De Rovigo stated he was back at work within the month.
In court, all the defendants were present, with the exception of M. Aubin Soubzmaigne who was on military service. They were questioned together.
Unhelpful under oath
M. le President faced Aldéric; do you acknowledge having had a duel with the Marquis de Rofigo?
Aldéric; Yes sir.
M. le President; What was the cause of this duel?
Aldéric; I desire M. le President not to answer this question.
Mr Perin, judge: Which of you two caused the duel?
Aldéric; I cannot answer.
Mr Perin, judge: You are being provocative (the defendant did not respond but was probably advised not to annoy the judge further). What was the cause of the duel?
Aldéric. A letter sent, and received.
M. le President: Rovigo, you received an injury in your collision with Mr. St. Pierre?
Rovigo: Yes, sir.
M. le President: Do you admit to provoking this duel ?
Rovigo: I did not provoke it, there was a ‘discussion’ between us after which I wrote a letter to my opponent. He then asked to meet me, which was what I wanted.
M. le President: In the beginning of the fight one of the two swords broke. Your assistants found another and the duel began again with a new liveliness.
Rovigo: The sword broke when we had barely started. It was necessary to find other as we had met in the forest of Saint-Germain with a mutual desire to achieve a satisfactory conclusion to our disagreement, and we had not yet done so. Our meeting was perfectly fair. I was met [injured] by my opponent, but slightly, and after six days I was quite well.
M. le President: However the battle, says a local witness, lasted three quarters of an hour. A sword breaks and you simply rearm and continue. All this indicates extreme eagerness…
Rovigo: We were not, believe me M. le President, relentless in our meeting. Since then M. Saint-Pierre and myself are on the best of terms. Certainly if there was any resentment between us, this could not be the case.
Baron de Bazancourt confirmed the fight did not last more than five or six fierce minutes. He suggested witnesses who claimed the duel took longer had misunderstood the time taken to find another sword in the nearby town….
The Court, after deliberation in the Council Chamber, made a judgement.
The judge made it clear that by continuing the duel after a sword broke and again after blood was shed, both combatants revealed a premeditated desire to commit murder, not just achieve ‘satisfaction’ after an insult. It was also pointed out that their assistants encouraged the combat (indeed Soubrzmaigne provided the weapons knowing exactly what they wold be used for) and did not stop it.
“Following investigation, questioning and admission by the marquis de Rovigo that on 7 March 1839 he deliberately injured Saint-Pierre and that on that date Saint-Pierre deliberately injured the marquis de Rovigo;
“whereas Ladislas Saint-Pierre, Baron de Bazancourt, Henry Macarty-Aubin Soubzmaigne Macteig were their accomplices, helping and assisting voluntarily;
“Whereas the Marquis de Rovigo provoked Saint-Pierre with a letter and, after a weapon was broken, he refused to stop fighting;
“Whereas Ladislas Saint-Peter and Macarthy-Macteig can be presumed to have deliberately allowed the continuation the battle and that the Baron de Bazancourt procured the replacement sword.
Imprisonment or a fine?
“Applying Articles 311, 59 and 60 of the Criminal Cote, this court condemns the Marquis de Rovigo to eight months’ imprisonment and a fine of 500fr.
“Aldéric Saint-Pierre to a month imprisonment and a 50fr. fine
“The Baron de Bazancourt to six months’ imprisonment, 400fr. fine;
“Saint-Peter and Macarthy to six days’ imprisonment and 50 fr. fine;
“Costs to be shared between the defendants.”
So Aldéric lived to fight another day.
An unwanted inheritance
Aldéric de Saint-Pierre inherited the Homme wilderness in 1848, which sadly suggests his older brother Ladslas died sometime after the duel.
The place was inaccessible and useful for nothing but occasional hunting. So he sold it all to the postmaster M. Jacques Malhéné, with a noble shrug, in 1866.
An eye for a (poor) investment
Malhéné had plans for a new town to rival Cabourg but he failed to make a fortune from le Hôme. A few villas were built on generous plots overlooking the sea, but there were few entertainments to entice the tourists. The ‘Grand Hotel’ was modest and only in summer months. Le Hôme’s sleepy charm was only appreciated by the discerning few.
Health and le Hôme
During the first world war the hotel became a convalescent home for the wounded. Busier with health than holidays, it then became a private hospital run by the Sisters of St Vincent de Paul, for victims of the dreaded Tuberculosis. As medical knowledge improves the hospital becomes a ‘preventorium’ providing sunshine and sea air for Paris children. Families stay close by and for a while Le Hôme thrives.
A narrow gauge train runs between Cabourg, Le Hôme and Dives-sur-mer. There is a butcher, grocery shops, baker, patisserie, two restaurants and the sound of building work. A school set up, first in a room of a villa on Rue des Bains.
War and occupation
After the invasion of France in 1940, occupying forces requisition villas along the beach. From the villa ‘Les Quatre Vents’ a huge gun, incongruous in the elegant salon, faces out to sea. The owners will later joke ghoulishly it is perhaps a gift to replace their missing piano.
On 6 June 1944 le Hôme is at one end of Sword Beach. Most families had left before their home became a war zone. Behind the dunes Rommel has flooded the marshes and unsuspecting Canadian and English parachutists drown. Along the beach placed his infamous ‘asparagus’; long stakes interspersed with barbed wire. Anti tank and anti personal mines are everywhere. During the liberation bombs destroy dikes around Dives-sur-mer and let in sea water. Salt damages the land and will keep it unproductive for years.
Most homes are destroyed or badly damaged during the first few days.
The first Belgian Infantry brigade (the Piron) finally release le Hôme on 20 August 1944. As the town is liberated and families return they find destruction, their surviving possessions looted. There is small consolation from the packages of food washed up on the beach from wrecked supply ships; “There are treasures, things we lost interest after years of restriction: real coffee, tea, rice, rations for soldiers and even chocolate, a treat that the younger children have never tasted.”
A new peace
After the war, prisoners of war are ordered to clear mines and help rebuild. As a local said they “no longer inspire fear, but pity”. Rebuilding Ie Hôme took years. The townspeople didn’t consider it completed until Friday 26 July 1963, when the church was finally re-opened.
Today le Hôme is back to its sleepy secret best; sedate homes, grand behind the dunes of a beautiful sandy beach, and apart from August, quiet.
- Read more about the liberation of Varaville on the town website here (French, read on Chrome browser for instant translation).