All towns have something they would like to forget. Valognes is not unusual in this, it was just a little prettier than most, for a while. Until June 1944 when liberator’s bombs obliterated it’s fickle heart.
A glorious past
In the 18th century this country town was fashionable. Here, more than 100 noble families spent their easily earned money on fine houses and entertainment, crowding grandeur into narrow hushed streets. So exclusive was Valognes, so impressive, it was called the ‘Versailles of Normandy’.
Pierre Jallot de Beaumont, son of a corsair and mustaketeer to a king had inherited an estate at Valognes in 1722. By the 1760’s he was rich enough to display his wealth well and commissioned Raphael de Lozon to build him a hôtel particulier, a grand town house; hôtel de Beaumont. Completed in 1771, the family enjoyed it for very few years.
Tumult and neck chopping
Then in 1789 revolution shook France. Everything the revolutionaries hated could be found in Valognes and many of its decadent tenants, including Pierre’s heir, were forced abroad for years until the tumult and neck chopping had subsided. In the early 19th century they crept back, imposing themselves on their old houses and land – if they could. More often trying to maintain a lord’s lifestyle on loans and bitterness. The Beaumonts settled back in Lorraine, leaving hôtel de Beaumont to its fate.
For a while the house was a prison, then in 1818 home to soldiers from Prussia billeted in the town as part of a Europe wide agreement to stop France causing trouble.
Unable to afford the lifestyle of its past, Valognes slipped into genteel rather dull obscurity, remembered only for its excellent butter making. The grand houses still stood, faded, a little chillier in the winter months. They didn’t lack owners, but the new rich were not appreciated by the old, who drifted through their slightly shabby houses conjuring up memories of a glittering past.
Romantic writer of mystery, and horror
A writer, Jules-Amédée Barbey d’Aurevilly knew the town well and sympathised with the impecunious Valognese. Born 2 November 1808 in Saint-Sauveur-le-Vicomte, part of Jules’ childhood was spent in Valogne and he set many of his stories here. Jules was a romantic, a monarchist and a dandy.
A set of six tales ‘Les Diaboliques’ are a good introduction to his writing style and old Valognes. Set in pre-revolution times they describe a stiff world of complex manners and hidden debauchery.
In the ‘Crimson Curtain’ an old vicomte recalls ravishing the daughter of the family he is billeted with as a young Lieutenant, with deadly results. ‘The most beautiful love of Don Juan’ asks an old rogue who was the love of his life, to the disquiet of past conquests seated around him. ‘Happiness in crime’ is a timeless tale of beautiful people whose terrible, treacherous behaviour goes unpunished. ‘At a dinner of atheists’ follows the chaos and horror caused by the lies of an unfaithful wife. ‘Revenge of a woman’ is particularly brilliant. How can the wife of an all-powerful, vile husband get her revenge? In the most profound, if disturbing way.
Then there is ‘Le dessous de cartes d’une partie de whist’ ‘The bottom of the cards in a game of whist’, set in L’ hôtel de Beaumont…
The story starts innocuously enough. A house party, a man obsessed with cards, a woman who appears to despise him. On the surface all is sharply polite. What goes on beneath involves affairs, a mother’s jealousy, poisoning and a decomposing discovery under a planted bowl of highly perfumed flowers. Readers may never look at Lily of the Valley in the same way again.
The last noble town in France
Jules wrote these stories during the French Second Empire, 18 years that began in 1852 with immense economic growth and ended with huge social unrest and invasion by Prussia in 1870. The Emperor was Louis Napoleon, nephew of Napoleon I. After his initial election he declared himself Emperor Napoleon III, a head of state whose people had to rely on his benevolence rather than democratic rights.
The Second Empire heralded a time of prosperity and decadence in Paris, but Cherboug firmly replaced Vologne as the centre of commerce in the region and the old town didn’t regain its 19th century popularity. Perhaps the new Empire with its shiny new bourgeoisie was a little vulgar for Valognes; a place that revered God, monarchy and the lacquered veneer of respectability. In ‘Happiness in a Crime’ Jules described Valognes as ‘the last noble town in France’.
As the second empire began to tumble and France was at war with Prussia, Valognes rallied. Its young men were sent to the front – many never to return. During that time between 1870/1 the Brothers of the Valognes monastery offered food and lodging to soldiers moving to and from the camps at Beneville and Sortoville; regularly receiving 200 in a day, by the end of February 1871 they had lodged over 3000 and tended to 250 sick and wounded [Brothers in the Battlefield 1884].
“Insulting public decency”
By the time ‘Les Diaboliques’ was published in 1874 France was again a Republic. While Jules continued to dream about a life as an idle aristocrat, his writing grated with the new morality that followed defeat by the Prussians. The book was seized by the public prosecutor’s office and Jules accused of “insulting public decency and morality, and complicity” – which gives you an idea of just how entertaining the book is.
Jules defended himself by saying the stories demonstrated the battle of good against evil… He won and the book was an assured success.
Brief peace and restoration
By the end of the 19th century Valognes and hôtel de Beaumont were feeling distinctly battered. The Hotel changed hands a few times and 1897 was bought by Xavier-Louis-Joseph de Froidefond, comte de Florian, a diplomat busy with all sorts of politics no-one is very interested in now. The count and his wife Hélène du Pouget de Nadaillac worked hard to restore the house sympathetically to something close to its early glory.
The first world war affected all of Valognes. 171 young men from this small country town did not return. The local Dorey family lost four sons. When the authorities realised three boys from the same family had died they moved the fourth away from the battles to essential railway work. He died of Spanish flu in 1918. A small square by the boy’s childhood home on rue Neuve is now named for them.
Sadly the Florian’s were not blessed with children and a nephew, Xavier, Count de Florian, inherited the estate after the old comte died on the 13th of March 1931.
We don’t know where the new count was in 1940 when a new enemy marched into France.
On June 19, 1940 in the morning, a car drove at speed through rue Thiers and stopped at Place du Château. Four German officers got out and visited the station, the courthouse and the city hall. Notices were placed around the town explaining new rules for the townspeople. Valognes was under enemy occupation.
Hôtel de Beaumont was requisitioned for Wermacht officers working in the hospital in the next street on Rue des Religieuses. Larger rooms were used as a general officers mess. Apparently Marshall Rommel visited. The town was a centre for German administration.
A mayor was elected, one who spoke German and who was keen to the do the best for his town. Henri Cornat was a successful businessman who believed, along with nearly all of the French politicians in the Manche, that it was safer to support the Vichy government and work with the occupiers. When this was decided, just one Manche PM disagreed. An old soldier who fought hard for his country in the first world war and earned the Legion of Honour. He was comprehensively outvoted.
So when teenagers vandalised buildings housing the occupiers he fined their parents and published a notice on 9 April 1941 in Le Réveil de la Manche demanding “these ridiculous events cease at the earliest. The entire population who will suffer the consequences of acts which, moreover, are irrelevant and meaningless.” Henri followed the occupiers’ guidelines on all things, to the letter.
A terrible secret
Cornat’s capitulation to save his town could be understandable. Harder to explain is how Henri and the town looked the other way as the old monk’s hospital was used, by the medics living in Hotel de Beaumont, as a place to sterilize gypsies and other ‘undesirables’. The only ‘hospital’ of this sort in France [The Routledge Atlas of the holocaust, map 182 p187]. Henri was also instructed to enforce the 3 October 1940 act on the ‘Status of Jews’, a ruling that needs no explanation.
During the night of 5/6 June 1944 the people of Valognes say there was a sudden “hurricane howling, a great roar” as planes filled the sky. Waves of bombs drop on the town on 5, 7, 8 and 12 of June. Valognes was seen by the liberators as an enemy stronghold in the way of their planned advance to Cherbourg, a vital strategic position.
By the time Valognes was liberated the centre of the town has been completely destroyed, most of the old grand mansions are ruined and 280 were dead. The Mayor worked tirelessly through the fires and the battle to save his townspeople.
Valognes was finally liberated on June 20, 1944 by 8th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division, Grenadier Regiment 1057, 91. Infantry Division and Grenadier Regiment 729, 709. Infantry Division.
At liberation Henri Cornat was removed from his position as mayor. A forgiving, supportive, populace voted him back in 1953 and he held the position until his death in 1968. The war was only mentioned to remember the bombing of liberation, they had a lot to forget.
There has been some controversy around a decision to name the local high school after Henri Cornat. As classics professor Jean-Pierre Ponthus said, you could avoid the road named after this “voluntary servant of Vichy”, but was it right for children to be forced to study within a building bearing his name?
Hôtel de Beaumont
During the bombing hôtel de Beaumont was damaged, but in good enough condition to be requisitioned by the Americans. A few years after the war Xavier de Florian died, leaving a house in very poor repair to his neice, la comtesse Claire des Courtils. She, with her eldest son Henri Courtils and his wife, Claire du Pouget Nadaillac, worked tirelessly to restore the exhausted building.
Today Valognes is a charming small town and hôtel de Beaumont it’s jewel. A few museum quality rooms are occasionally open to the public and you may well, as we were, be shown around by the delightful countess. Amongst the extraordinary elegance we were amused to learn that the large gravy boat in the bathroom was in fact a ‘bordaloo’ used by ladies to relieve themselves when their grand dresses made using the usual convenience impossible. Other surprises were the baby’s corset and a set of children’s building blocks that made, of course, a chateau.