Tuesday, 26 February 2013

France's living unknown soldier

On 1 February 1918, a soldier was supposed to have been found wandering around the railway station of Lyon-Brotteaux. He had lost his memory, and had no papers on him that would provide his identity. When questioned, he seemed to say his name was Anthelme Mangin, and that he lived on the Rue Sélastras, in the spa town of Vichy. But there was no such street, and the man was confined in the asylum at Clermont-Ferrand.

gallica.bnf.fr
Seeking to identify his patient, the director of the asylum placed the man's photo in the Petit Parisien newspaper of 10 January 1920 (his photo is on the bottom right of the six). After the end of the war, some 300,000 men remained officially 'missing', so it is unsurprising that many, desperate for news of their loved ones, claimed 'Mangin' as a member of their family. A couple named Manzenc from Rodez were so definite in their identification of the unknown man as their son Albert, reported missing at Tahure (Marne) during the Champagne Offensive of October 1915, that the man was transferred to the asylum at Rodez (Aveyron).

Once there, the departmental prefect made his own enquiries, and came to the conclusion that the man was not Albert Manzenc after all (on 16 July 1921, Manzenc was officially declared as having been killed in action). In February 1922, the man's photo was circulated to every town hall in the country, and over 300 families responded.

Monjoin, from www.blamont.info
After thirteen long years, the most promising response was from a family named Monjoin, who lived at Saint-Maur-sur-Indre (Indre), who identified the unknown man as their son Octave Monjoin, who had never returned from captivity in Germany. When taken to Saint-Maur, the man appeared to recognise the village and the road to his parents' house. A tribunal of 16 November 1937 concluded that the man was indeed Monjoin. The decision was confirmed by the appeal court at Montpellier two years later, although one woman, Mme Lucie Lemay, remained convinced that the man was her husband Emile.

Monjoin had been wounded and captured near Blâmont (Doubs) on or around 14/15 August 1914, serving with 5th Company of 95th Infantry. After treatment in Karlsruhe for a broken leg, he spent time in the prisoner-of-war camps at Rastatt, Nasburg, Darmstadt and Wachta. He developed worrying symptoms whilst in captivity; diagnosed as suffering from an extreme form of dementia, the Germans decided to repatriate him, but on 31 January 1918, he disappeared from a convoy returning to Lyon via Switzerland. (In fact, he had not disappeared, as legend would have it, to be found wandering at the railway station - a roll call had been taken when the convoy reached the hospital at Bron, outside Lyon; Monjoin did not answer his name, but then was recorded as an extra, nameless, man. It was a simple clerical error.)

The man was released from the asylum at Rodez to the care of his family. But in 1938, his father and brother were both killed in an accident. Having no-one to care for him, Monjoin was recommitted, this time to St Anne's hospital in Paris. He would remain there for the rest of his life. He died on 10 September 1942, and was placed in an unmarked grave. In 1948, his body was exhumed and reburied in Saint-Maur.

Monjoin's story served as the basis of a character in the play Le voyageur sans bagages by Jean Anouilh, which opened in Paris in 1937. More recently, in 2002, the historian Jean-Yves Le Naour published Le soldat inconnu vivant (Paris, Pluriel, ISBN 9782012794641; English edition here). This has now been turned into a BD, released this month, with art by Mauro Lirussi (Paris, Roymodus, ISBN 9782363630094).

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