Soyecourt and Jersey:A tale of adoption after the Great War

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This article by Christopher Aubin was first published in the 2008 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise


The monument erected at Soyecourt
I

n the aftermath of the Great War a swathe of north-eastern France was left devastated. Homes, families and lives were destroyed, whole villages had ceased to exist, and yet the people returned.

Carnage, destruction and devastation

Living with the carnage, the destruction, the devastation, the death, the unexploded ordnance and the general paraphernalia of war left behind, those who returned started to rebuild their lives and re-engage in agricultural production as quickly as possible.

Over 300 million cubic metres of trenches had to be infilled, barbed wire covered 375 million square metres of land (by comparison, Jersey is only 116 million square metres); even today, in the 21st century, unexploded ordnance is dug up every year and vast forests were left as effectively 'no-go' areas which are still just too dangerous to venture into.

Of over 790,000 (some sources say 850,000) buildings damaged, over 148,000 were gravely damaged and 293,000 private buildings and farmhouses were completely destroyed. In the public building sector there were 17,500 buildings (churches, mairies and schools) damaged with over 6,500 razed to the ground; nearly 23,000 industrial establishments were damaged or destroyed and a total of 620 communes were razed to the ground.

Clout notes a parallel between the reconstruction of northern France in the years after the Great War with the 'four-fold sequence of recovery' model postulated in modern research for reconstruction following earthquake damage: 'initial emergency work is succeeded by a brief restoration phase then a longer period of replacement reconstruction, and a final commemorative period'. It is the latter two periods that created links between Jersey and Soyecourt.

Soyecourt is a small village to the south of the Somme with a population in 1999 of 212. It lies 10krn to the south-west of Peronne, in Picardie; today quiet, peaceful, farming country.

But in 1918 and 1919, in the midst of the devastation, the people of Soyecourt started to return to the site of their village. In the beginning of the recovery period the people would have lived in mend and make-do shelters as best they could; there were various schemes for the provision and erection of temporary shelters and huts but the resources required and the size of the task meant that demand far outreached supply.

Nevertheless, the farmers returned to their land. The French government undertook the initial task of clearing the land of ordnance, of in-filling trench systems and of levelling the land so that agricultural production could resume as soon as practical, with the farmers living in very rudimentary shelters. Again, the early success of clearance and reintegration of farming was very varied across the north-east of France with resources stretched.

Adoption of communities

In 1919 M Marcel Braibant, Conseilleur General of the Ardennes, first suggested that British towns should adopt French communities. Admiral Sir Charles Dundas wrote to the Morning Post in April 1920 on behalf of the Association of Great Britain and France noting that the devastation in the Ardennes was as much due to the retreating Germans as to the effects of war.

From the London office of the Morning Post H A Gwynne wrote to Lady Bathurst, after discussions at the committee, to set up a League of Help; Lady Bathurst was the owner of the Morning Post and had already been involved in giving aid to French communities.

As a result, in June 1920 The British League of Help for the devastated areas of France was inaugurated with an office and headquarters in London.

Meetings were called and on 30 June 1920 all mayors were invited to a meeting at the Mansion House in London.

On 11 December 1920 the Lieut-Governor, Major-General Sir William Douglas-Smith, wrote to the Bailiff, Sir William Venables Vernon, copying a letter and other material he had received from the Secretary of The British League of Help for the devastated areas of France. The Bailiff forwarded the correspondence to the Defence Committee. It was duly discussed at the committee meeting of 9 December 1920 and the committee replied requesting a list of agricultural villages not yet 'adopted'.

The Bailiff received a reply by late January which was passed to the Defence Committee, which appointed a sub-committee to consider the matter on 18 February 1921. The sub-committee consisted of the Constable of St Saviour (J A Perree), and the Deputies for St Saviour and St Brelade (Francis John Bois and John Herbert Orange). The sub-committee responded after its meeting of 4 March 1921 by requesting the States Greffier write directly to the League's Secretary seeking confirmation as to whether the Village of Soyecourt (Somme) had been adopted and if not if it could be reserved pending further communication.

The sub-committee's recommendation was adopted by the full committee at its meeting on 11 March 1921 and the committee agreed to recommend to the States that a sum of £1,000 be sent as the Island's contribution to Soyecourt. The matter was passed to the States which on 15 March 1921 agreed to send via the Lieutenant Governor a cheque for £1,000 payable to M V Gilmer, Secretary of the League. The Bailiff was asked, following the Defence committee meeting on 31 March 1921, to inform the French Consul in Jersey of the donation to Soyecourt.

£1,000 donation

The States meeting was reported in both the Evening Post on Tuesday 15 March 1921 and in the Morning News on Wednesday 16 March 1921. The report noted that Jurat Payn believed that members would have been aware of the trend in England of adopting French towns and that the matter had been discussed in the Defence Committee, which was requesting the donation of £1,000; it was noted that the village of Soyecourt had been 'entirely wiped out'. The Recteur of St Peter would have preferred a sum of £3,000 or 4,000.

It was noted that £1,000 would be 56,000 Francs and it was hoped private individuals might add to the sum.

The Bailiff's letter of 5 April 1921 addressed to the French Consul enclosed a cheque, No. 251335, for 56,000FF payable to the Prefet de la Somme at the Banque Francaise pour la Commerce et l'Industrie drawn on the States account at the London Joint City and Midland Bank Limited. The Bailiff asked that the cheque be forwarded with the Island's best wishes for the early return to ease and prosperity (a l'aisance et la prosperité) for the inhabitants of Soyecourt and wished for the money to be used for the reconstruction of some of the most destroyed homes and other pressing needs of the villagers.

The Bailiff's letter of 5 April included reference to the Jersey Contingent, which it was thought had fought in the area. However, this is not apparent from the history of the Jersey Contingent. In March 1915 one Company of the Royal Jersey Militia was detached and joined the 7th (Service) Battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles. It formed part of 48th Brigade in the 16th (Irish) Division and took part in the fourth and fifth phases of the Battle of the Somme in September 1916 at Guillemont and Ginchy. Both towns are on the Somme but some 10 miles to the North in the British sector, whereas Soyecourt was in the French sector of the 1916 Battle of the Somme and to the South of the river.

In 1917 the 7th Battalion was at Messines and Langemarck before being transferred to the 49th Brigade in August and then to the 108th Brigade of the 36th (Irish) Division in October and was then absorbed into the 2nd Battalion in November with which it fought at Cambrai. The surviving Jersey Contingent members were then transferred to the 2nd Royal Hampshire Regiment in December and finished the war in Flanders.

The States accounts show the sum of £1,000 for Soyecourt on 2 April 1921. The sum remained in the accounts in the War Loans of 1915,1916 and 1918 until converted to Public debt in 1926.

It is possible to put the sum of £1,000 into context. On 8 October 1921 the property 1 St Luke's Villas in Beach Road was sold for £1,000. The States War Loans of 1915,1916 and 1918 in the 1922 accounts totalled £276,719 5s 8d. However, the first annual report of the League makes further interesting comparisons.

Comparatively large contribution

Although no total figure is given for the monies donated in the first year (and it can not be calculated due to the way the report is presented) it is possible to calculate that at least £32,800 had been subscribed and at least £43,000 had been sent in currency or in goods and materials, and a further 37,000 francs (approx £660) had been sent. Of the monies already sent, the sum of £17,500 came from Mauritius and a further £12,000 was from Newcastle; the rest was from a list of 40 towns and cities throughout the United Kingdom.

Jersey's contribution to the League was big for its size and population. Further monies were later forthcoming.

The correspondence then stops and nothing is heard until a further letter was received by the Lieut-Governor from the officer in charge of the reconstruction service for the devastated regions of France. Although this was forwarded by the Bailiff to the Defence Committee it has not been located, but it did include a report of work to date, though no specific area or town/village is given.

On 2 June 1922 the Lieut-Governor passed on to the Bailiff an invitation from the League to attend a dinner in London to be given by the League and to which Mr Poincaré was the guest on the 17th. Neither was able to attend.

Later in June 1922 the Lieut-Governor received a letter from the League which was again forward to the Bailiff and the Defence Committee. At the committee's meeting of 6 June 1922 it was duly discussed.

Church collections

The League had suggested that collections be made for the benefit of Soyecourt in the various churches in the Island. It was proposed that a collection date be set for the first Sunday in July following and the Greffier was asked to write to all Rectors, Superintendents and Pastors expressing the wish that the suggestion will be well received and worthy contributions made, which were to be sent to the President of the Committee at the States Greffe. On 28 June the Committee decided to request the local press to advertise the collections on the following Sunday in the various churches. A note was duly published in the Evening Post on Friday 30 June 1922 and in the Morning News in the edition of Saturday 1 July 1922.

The Committee sat on 11 July 1922 and received the initial reports of the success of the appeal.Not all churches had by then sent in their collections, but the sum of £122 15s l0d and 27.75FF had been received. The moneys were sent to the States Treasurer pending further instructions.

The Committee meeting of 11 August 1922 records a further communication and a plan or drawing had been received through the usual channels via the Bailiff and the Lieutenant Governor. The Greffier was asked to place a further note in the media listing the donations received from the appeal and asking any outstanding sums to be forwarded. The list duly appeared in the Evening Post of Saturday 12 August 1922.

By the committee meeting of 13 October 1922 further sums had come in and the total received from the appeal had reached £179 6s 8d. The Committee asked the Bailiff to arrange for a cheque to be drawn for this sum and sent on to the French authorities for the benefit of the Village of Sovecourt.

The Bailiff sent a cheque to the Prefet de la Somme for 10,777.90FF on the States account at the London Joint City and Midland Bank Limited payable at the Banque Prancaise et Italienne pour l'Amerique du Sud.

In January 1923 the committee discussed at length further correspondence that had been received. This had been sent by the League to the Governor and had been discussed in the States on 16 January 1923. At the committee meeting of 23 January 1927 the request to contribute to the ongoing administration costs of the League was turned down and the committee decided it could not recommend to the States that a contribution should be made to the office expenses of the League.

School visit not supported

The second matter under discussion was the suggestion from the League that the Island should send a party of school children aged between 14 and 16 to the Somme to see the devastation and the reconstruction work. Again it was felt that the Committee could not recommend this suggestion to the States. The matters were then raised in the States and the Act of 30 January 1923 confirmed the Defence Committee recommendations.

On 19 May 1923 the Bailiff acknowledged a letter from the Maire de Soyecourt of the 8th inviting him to visit the community. The Bailiff accepted the offer but no date was fixed. The Bailiff advised that he had been in the general area several times before the war.

A short report appeared in the Evening Post of 8 September 1924. An unnamed correspondent reported on a recent visit by a member of the States from one of the eastern parishes and some friends to France where they had visited Soyecourt, unofficially.

When it was realised that they were from Jersey they were introduced to the maire who took them to points of interest. They were told that for six days and nights troops and equipment had passed through the village; this was then followed by a German advance when everything was demolished and the maire himself carried off into captivity until the Armistice. By the time of the visit 60 houses had been built and it was thought that the village would soon be 'its old self in new form'.

The party were informed that the Jersey contribution had not yet been touched but that it was being held back to pay for a new water supply to the village once the housing had been addressed. It appears that in Soyecourt they were even talking of the 'electric light'; it was suggested in the report that 'they will move more quickly in that direction than we in Jersey have'.

Letter from Soyecourt

Towards the end of 1924 a request was received from the President of the Comite charged with the erection d'un Monument aux Enfants de Soyicourt (Somme) morts pour la France and for those fallen on its soil. The envelope, addressed to Monsieur le Bailli de l'sle de Jersey, Iles anglo-normandes and embossed Comite d'Erection du Monument aux Morts de Soyecourt (Somme) remains in the Bailiff's correspondence with 75 centimes in franked postage stamps.

The invitation is a printed form addressed to the Bailiff in manuscript. The Committee agreed on 15 October to a donation of £30 and asked the Bailiff to forward the sum as previously. The Bailiff duly sent a cheque for 2,565 FF (£30) and a copy of his letter and the acknowledgement received from Soyecourt were minuted on 12 December 1924.

The Bailiff's letter, as had been requested, sent the cheque payable to M Delaporte, the schoolmaster (Instituteur) at Soyecourt, The Bailiff's original hand-written letter dated 21 Octobre 1924, enclosing a cheque for 2,565FF on the Societe Generale, has survived at Soyecourt.

Notice of the official unveiling of the Monument was sent to the Bailiff by the Maire for 24 October 1925. The Bailiff was unable to attend but said that the memory of the glorieux morts of both France and Britain was undying and that he and the Island would be present de coeur as Soyecourt was the Island's adopted daughter.

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