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    In 1915, the legislator instituted a judgment worth official recognition of the death, for the victims of war operations. When the body of a soldier has disappeared, but a testimony or clue attests to his death in combat, the pronouncement of the declaration of death by a court of first instance authorizes the opening of the succession and allows the family to make assert their rights (request for pension, request for ward status ...). The archives of the instruction files for these judgments, when they still exist, allow us to trace multiple individual destinies.

  • #2
    Joseph Dulion (born in Saint-Quentin in 1889), a soldier in the 67th Infantry Regiment, disappeared without leaving any trace, in 1914 in the first months of the war. "As a result of exceptional circumstances and in particular the engagement of the Regiment in actions succeeding each other at short intervals, it was not possible for the Corps to determine precisely the date and the place of his disappearance" [Departmental Archives de l'Aisne]. His Company can simply affirm that it appears on the books of accounts of the third quarter, but not on those of the fourth; it is concluded that he must be dead "before October 1, 1914". This soldier, an example among many other cases of disappearance during the war, illustrates well the difficulty of knowing even the date of a death. The exact number of missing is not known, but it can be estimated between 234 and 253,000.

    However, who says disappearance does not necessarily mean death. Wounded, amnesiac or a prisoner, the soldier may be unable to give news. Without certainty, the families do not know which position to adopt: hope for a return or start their mourning and start the administrative procedures, making it possible to obtain the aid planned by the State. But without a legal and regular death certificate, successions cannot be opened, the title of "death for France" cannot be attributed, family councils cannot be reunited, ward status cannot be requested. The financial consequences for families are often difficult to manage.

    As early as 1915, the legislator took up the subject. The Law of December 3, 1915 provided that a judgment could replace the act drawn up by a civil status officer to officially declare a death. But it is cautious : only the missing are concerned, whose death is attested but could not be established in legal forms [Articles 89 to 92 of the Civil Code and the Law of June 8, 1893 already made it possible to declare the deaths of soldiers missing in the Dardanelles. In fact, the 1915 Act extended these provisions to all victims of war operations]. In 1919, the situation changed: "the disappeared today, unfortunately, is almost necessarily dead" [Official Journal, Senate session of June 18, 1919]. The Law of 25 June therefore widens the circumstances enabling a death to be declared in the event of disappearance, no longer solely because of "war operations" but by "acts of war", a broader concept giving more latitude to the judge. In the case of the two Laws, the legislator made sure that the procedure was rapid and, above all, free for families.

    The causes, making impossible a "classic" death certificate, are multiple: injuries resulting in death on a battlefield remained in the hands of the enemy, exhaustion or illness during the time of captivity, accidents, etc. Henri Bellement (born in Saint-Quentin in 1893) thus succumbs to the flu in October 1918, in a prison camp in Cassel [This soldier had almost regained freedom in 1916. He left his prison camp in Cassel (Hesse), he arrives by train at Aachen then walks to the border with Holland. His escape attempt fails 50 meters from the border], when Warrant Officer Abel Rémia (born in Jussy in 1884) disappears off Sardinia in May 1916, when the airship on which he is chief engineer catches fire [Departmental Archives of Aisne]. In both cases, the declarative death judgments date from 1921.

    The death is recognized by a judgment of the court of first instance of the last place of residence of the victim, at the request of the family or the public prosecutor. The investigation carried out during the instruction mobilizes military institutions (regiments, field health service, general pension service), civil authorities (gendarmerie, police, mayor) and various charitable organizations (International Committee of the Red Cross, Belgian Agency information, Swiss Catholic Mission, etc ...). The hearing of witnesses, scheduled when possible, poses the problem of the reliability of testimony. The stories often made a posteriori, can be imprecise or contradictory. According to a municipal councilor, Emile Fuscien (born in Fresnoy-le-Grand in 1879) was probably buried at the end of August 1914 in the cemetery of Mesnil-Saint-Laurent, then exhumed in 1916 to be transported on the way to Sissy, while one of his comrades in combat claims he is buried in the garden of the mayor of Homblières. Verifications on the spot cannot confirm any of these theses ... [Archives Départementales de l'Aisne]

    The identification of the bodies is sometimes facilitated by the presence of the metal plate provided by the army where the name, first name and service number of the soldier are engraved [these plates consist of 2 parts, one of which is sent to the family in soldier's death. It must be worn around the neck, but many soldiers do not respect this instruction] or a personalized object. The body of Xavier Charles Meurisse (born in Bellenglise in 1891) is recognized in September 1916, thanks to the "mask box bearing the inscription Meurisse" and found near him [Departmental Archives]. But sometimes the violence of the fighting does not allow the slightest clue. Two soldiers of the 254th Infantry Regiment testify that they saw Chief Warrant Officer Georges Apartoglou (legionnaire born in Turkey in 1874) having "almost vanished" on August 29, 1914, in Essigny-le-Grand, after the fall of a shell on the artillery caisson on which he was sitting a few minutes earlier [Departmental Archives].

    Once the circumstances of death have been established, other problems may arise, notably related to civill status errors. These are quite common, often due to homonymies. The Public Prosecutor of Saint-Quentin insists particularly on this point to avoid small and large confusions. The file of Auguste Gosset (born in Fontaine-Uterte in 1890) contains, for example, three errors of first names, for him- even his father and his mother [Departmental Archives]. In addition, there are the difficulties inherent in destruction, in invaded regions where many civil status registers have disappeared, and where it is therefore difficult to gather the supporting documents requested by the procedure (copies of certificates of birth or of marriage).

    For Laon, Soissons and Château-Thierry, only the minutes of the declarations of death have reached us. On the other hand, for Saint-Quentin, the investigation files are still present in the funds of the archives of the court of first instance. This extraordinarily rich source makes it possible to trace multiple individual destinies. A nominative inventory will soon be available at the Aisne Departmental Archives.


    • #3

      Born in 1891 in Saint-Quentin, Louis Charles André was incorporated in 1912 into the 155th Infantry Regiment. A simple soldier, he gradually climbed the ranks during the war, and became a non-commissioned officer then an officer. Recognized deceased as a result of his injuries in Stenay (in the Meuse), on February 1, 1915, by the German military authorities, he is officially declared "dead for France". Yet Louis André distinguished himself from February 21, 1915 by brilliant actions and thanks to his calm, his composure and his courage, he was the subject of 6 citations between February 1915 and December 1918. He received the Cross of War then the Legion of Honor in 1920 as "a daring officer and a bravery to any test".
      By letter of January 9, 1920 to the Minister of War, the mayor of Saint-Quentin indicates that in reality Louis André is not dead and now lives in his commune. No doubt the announcement of his death was due to a problem of homonymy.
      Recalled in 1939, Louis André participated in the Second World War. He died in Saint-Quentin in 1966.


      • #4
        Form relating to the death of Elisée Sauvez, from the International Prisoners of War Agency (1916). The chaplain added a touching note to the attention of the soldier's mother to recount the circumstances of the death. [Departmental Archives of Aisne]


        • #5
          Death certificate of Victor Lobjois (1918). In view of the number of Russian prisoners in Germany, the forms are provided in Russian and German. [Departmental Archives of Aisne]
          Image (2).jpg


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