Mobilisation of French reservists in August 1914

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Mobilisation of French reservists in August 1914


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French reservists in Caledonia Place, on their way to board vessels to take them to war


This article by Ian Ronayne documents the prelude to the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 and the impact this had on the sizeable population of French nationals living in Jersey at the time


1871 defeat

In July 1870 Napoleon the Third, the ailing French Emperor, was goaded into rashly declaring war on his Prussian neighbours. At the time it was not an unpopular decision. While Paris went into raptures over the prospect of at last bringing these “upstart” Germans to heel, the French army confidently began to mobilise for what was expected to be a glorious war of conquest.

Unfortunately, it soon became clear that not all was going to plan. The mobilisation, which was planned to swiftly bring the maximum number of men to the border with Germany, turned out to be a shambles. Soldiers recalled to the colours were being shunted around France in search of their Regiments, while exasperated officers on the frontier waited with growing despair for the arrival of their allocated units.

“Have arrived in Belfort”, one General telegraphed to his superiors, “Cannot find my Brigade, cannot find my Divisional Commander. What shall I do? Don’t know where my Regiments are”.

As it turned out, this was no way to commence a war with one of the most formidable armies ever assembled. It was quite understandable therefore, that within six weeks, the Prussian army and its German allies had surrounded, captured or killed 90 percent of the French field army, and paved the way for an inevitable crushing victory in 1871.

When the debris of defeat finally settled, one outcome was a steely determination that the chaos of mobilisation would not be repeated next time – with most having no doubt there would be a next time. Accordingly, the deficiencies of 1870 were meticulously analysed, and a number of sweeping changes instigated to prevent them occurring again. One of the key provisions was laws that established a true universal military service.

Universal military service

Under the “Three Year’s Law” of 1913, all 19-year old able-bodied Frenchmen were liable to start a military service that would last for the next 28 years. The first three of these were served with the Active Army, in a full-time capacity. At the end of this period, they were released from the army but retained for the next 11 years as a member of the Active Army Reserve.

At the age of 33 they became a member the Territorial Army: part-time soldiers intended for more static duties. Seven years with the Active Territorial and seven with the Territorial Reserve followed, until at last, at the age of 48, a man was released from his obligations to “La Patrie”.

Given these demands, it was practical – and undeniably reasonable – for most men to carry out their military service with a Regiment based in their immediate region. In the event of a mobilisation order being issued after they had served their first three years, they were legally obliged to report for duty at their Regimental Depot prior to being despatched to the front. This obligation was extended to those French nationals living or working outside of the country, with severe penalties awaiting those who disobeyed.

Reservists leave from Gorey

French in Jersey

By the summer of 1914, a sizeable population of French nationals were living in Jersey. For the most part they worked in the Island’s agricultural industry, which had developed a considerable export market based on its cattle, and more significantly, the Jersey Royal potato. Needing to supplement local labour, Jersey farmers had turned to nearby Brittany where there existed a willing pool of impoverished agricultural workers. Not surprisingly, once in Jersey, they were expected to work long hours and put up with fairly basic living conditions. In his memoirs, Edward Le Brocq recalls that: “On the farm a “doméstique” was nearly always a Frenchman. He had a pretty rough time of it; getting up early to milk the cows, working all day, go to bed late.”

But this did not seem to deter them coming - or staying in the Island: by 1911 there were some 5,610 French nationals present, representing almost 11 percent of the population. Of course, given that their principle purpose was manual labour, a considerable number of these would have been men within the Military Service age bracket; ready for the call up, if and when the need arose.

It was four o’clock on the afternoon of Saturday 1 August 1914 when the first poster appeared in Paris announcing the French government’s decision to mobilise their army. In view of the deteriorating situation in the east, and the obvious signs of German belligerence, they could wait no longer. While Parisians crowded round to take in the momentous news, the order was being telegraphed out to communities throughout France and the wider Empire. French embassies and consulates throughout the world were also to be notified: the war that everyone expected – and many longed for – was starting.

In Jersey, there was a palpable sense of anxious anticipation amongst the French community. The threat of war had increased considerably over the last few days, leading to the Island’s Militia being called out on 30 July 1914 - as a precaution “in view state of feeling among the European Powers”. To many French it seemed only a matter of time before their government’s order to mobilise was issued; others were more sanguine, trusting that it would all blow over. On the afternoon of 1 August both camps were represented in the crowd of foreign nationals gathered outside the offices of the Evening Post in St Helier’s Charles Street waiting for the news to arrive – and hoping it wouldn’t.

French Consul notified of mobilisation

It had been a warm day and when, by five o’clock, nothing was heard, most were glad to slope off and celebrate with a cooling drink. But any elation was premature. Just after six that evening, the office telegraph flickered into life, and the widely anticipated mobilisation order arrived. Recognising the gravity of the news, it was relayed without delay to the home of the Island’s “Consul de France.”

Monsieur Jouve was the French Consul in Jersey, and a well-known figure in the Island’s establishment. He must have received the news with a heavy heart – despite it not being unexpected. His duty was clear, and he set about exercising it immediately.

Notices were placed throughout St Helier: at newspaper offices, in French cafes and at the Town Hall. At the same time, the news was relayed to priests administrating the Island’s French Roman Catholic churches with a request that it be read out at mass that evening, and again at Sunday’s services.

Most importantly, he sought the assistance of the Island’s Parish Constables. Understandably, most French lived in the country, and help would be needed to make sure all were made aware of the news. Throughout that evening, and into the next day, Parish officers went from farm to farm passing on the news to all they found, and informing them of their obligations.

The instructions were unequivocal: starting the next day, all eligible Frenchmen were to present themselves at the offices of the French Consul without delay in order to obtain passports and arrange passage. Furthermore, they were to be ready to leave the Island immediately if necessary.

The French Consulate building was in St Helier, at No 2 Church Street. It stood on the junction with Library Place, opposite one of the entrances to the Royal Square. By 10. on the morning of 2 August the road outside, and the thoroughfare opposite, was packed with an excited and noisy crowd. Several hundred people were present: a mix of reservists, their families, and curious onlookers. More were arriving all the time. It was a spectacle “not to be forgotten”, reported one newspaper, “young and middle-aged Frenchmen, filled with the fire of enthusiasm, all anxious to rejoin the colours and, if necessary, to fight for the honour of their country had assembled there.”

Reservists leaving from St Helier

Passports issued

Whether they were all “full of fire” is perhaps questionable, but nevertheless, they were admitted to the office in batches and emerged shortly after clutching the appropriate passports and travel documents. St Helier’s Harbour was only a short walk away from Church Street and many of the reservists went straight there after leaving the Consul. At noon, the first group of 88 departed for France on board the Laura, bound for the port of Granville, and in the afternoon another party left on the Jersey for Carteret.

It was clear that the majority of men would leave the next day, having packed and settled their affairs. To cope with the anticipated exodus the harbour authorities laid on an extra vessel: the Alberta. But they weren’t the only ones making plans for that day. Monday, 3 August was a Bank Holiday in Jersey and many Islanders decided to go to the harbour to watch the reservists depart. By midday they packed the upper walkways of the Albert Pier, and also gathered in great numbers on the quay itself around an area cordoned off to allow the men to board the ship.

Regrettably, no plans had been put in place to separate the curious from the families of departing men, and as a consequence, the reservists were forced to share their final intimate moments amongst the jostling crowd. This was a shame given the poignant circumstances, as reported in the Jersey Evening Post the next day: “Many pathetic scenes were witnesses on te quay. In several cases a man had to say goodbye to wife and family, or the aged parents all dependent on him, and these partings were of such a tender nature and were accompanied by so much emotion that but few of those in the crowd could watch them unmoved... In one instance a father had to say goodbye to his wife and seven children...In another case a reservist had to leave his wife who is seriously ill. There are, of course, numerous cases where husbands are separated from their wives, and these partings, as can well be understood are heartrending to watch.”

But there were to be no exceptions. The issuing of passports and the departures continued throughout the day, and into the next. By the time the final men left on 4 August news had come through that war had been declared between Germany and France. For the French families left behind in Jersey, the news must have dashed any hopes of a quick, safe, return for their loved ones. They could now only wait for a letter or telegraph, and pray that it was not from the War Office.

How many reservists left Jersey in those frenetic early days in August is not certain, but a report in December 1915 stated that 2,450 Frenchmen had left to rejoin the colours by then.

Given the nature of their work, it would be reasonable to assume that most Frenchmen in the Island would have been of military age; it would seem likely therefore that the majority of this number left at the start of the war.

Economic impact of exodus

The impact of this mass departure on the Island as a whole was mainly an economic one. At a stroke, the farming industry – the mainstay of Island business - was deprived of over two thousand of its key workers, and the effects of this were to rumble on throughout the war. Although the farmers got by, and actually managed to increase yield, they continuously cited the loss of imported labour as being one of the reasons why their sons should remain on the Island rather than join the forces.

This kindled a sense of injustice: why should the town dwellers be forced to carry the burden of war while the farmers got rich on the proceeds? As the years passed, and the demand for manpower increased, the arguments became more divisive.

“Take a bike and ride round the country, you will never credit that Jersey has conscription,” one commentator remarked scathingly in August, 1917: “Any Saturday afternoon you will meet dozens of young men in civilian clothes airing themselves...”

In defence of their position, farmer after farmer appeared in front of the military exemptions tribunals in 1917 and 1918, claiming that without the help of their families, they would be unable to meet the quotas placed on them. Looking back now, it is obvious that the truth of the matter probably lies somewhere in between the two camp’s views, and it was the Island overall that suffered due to the missing labour.

'Pop' Newman

The impact on the Island’s French community was, of course, far more profound. A memorial established in the French Consul after the war was inscribed with the names of 165 Frenchmen from Jersey who fell “Pour La Patrie”.

It is possible that figure is too low. During the war the French nation suffered 16 percent of the men mobilised killed, and a further 37 percent wounded. Applying these percentages to the figure of 2,450 suggests that as many as 400 men from Jersey could have lost their lives, while a further 900 would have been wounded. Whatever the final figure, itwould have been a truly terrible toll.

Truth of letter withheld

These are just cold figures on a page. Who now can know the anguish and suffering behind each percent? An anecdotal account of what it might have meant to the families left behind in Jersey was provided by 101 year old “Pop” Newman, who has lived for virtually his whole long life in Jersey’s St Brelade’s Bay. When talking about the Island in the First World War, he recalled slowly, but lucidly, that an old French couple had lived a few doors away from him at the time, in a farmhouse that later became La Marquanderie pub.

They only had one son, who had gone off to fight in the French Army. One day a letter arrived, but because they could not read, they asked young Newman to tell them what it said. It contained the news that their son had been killed in action; but he shied away from telling them, saying instead that their son had been wounded.

Leaving them upset, but at least relieved their son was alive, he made his excuses and left. Later, the couple asked someone else to read the letter to them, and the awful truth was revealed. “Pop” Newman didn’t say what they thought of him for trying to cover up; but he did recall that within a month,both of the parents had themselves passed away. It was his view that they had died of broken hearts.
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