November 11, 1918. WWI: a family account

Després archives_E080702R

This coming Sunday, a hundred or so heads of states will celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the end of WWI. The meeting will be in France. The war started in August 1914, and ended on November 11, 1918. An approximate 16-20 million died in the conflict. 1.4 Million French, 1.1 million “British Empire”… und so weiter. This is a personal account of the members of the family who fought – or not – in the war. Above: My maternal grandmother’s little brother, Alexandre Després, born in Brittany in 1891, died on August 22nd, 1914, at the very beginning of the war, aged 23.

I have spoken of this branch of the family in “1916, the bride wore black”. I will come back to them. Let us turn now to my father’s side. My paternal grandmother, Julie Onraet had 5 brothers, all born in India. Frank 1a

Frank Onraët, the eldest, was born in 1872 in Etah, near Agra, in what is now Uttar Pradesh. Despite the fancy Indian Army uniform, he was 42 at the outbreak of the war and was not drafted. He spent the war in India, working for Scindia, the Maharadjah of Gwalior.

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Gaston, left, was born in Etah as well, in 1873. He had emigrated to Canada at the turn of the century. In Saskatchewan. Quite a move from India to Canada! I have close to 100 cousins in Canada, none of whom I know. Though he escaped the war, I don’t know why he is wearing a uniform, in Capetown, of all places. Capetown, where my Kenya-born cousin John now lives. (What a Gipsy family!)

Jean Onraët, born in Agra, lived in France but was not drafted: as a child, he’d been mauled by a panther in Gwalior, who’d torn half of his face away and ripped an eye. Not fit for duty.

37 rene

In 1914, René Onraët, born in Agra in 1886, was in Singapore, an officer with the Straits police. (I’ve mentioned his incredible story in another post: “A road in Singapore, epilogue”). He spent the war in Singapore, climbing the ranks to become head of the Special Branch. In 1939 he retired to the UK and enlisted in the Army when WWII started. “Duty is duty, old chap!”

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So the only one “left” to fight was the youngest brother: Philippe Onraët, (1891-1968). He was the same age as my great-uncle Alexandre, but he made it in one piece through the war, earning the Croix de Guerre, the highest distinction awarded to soldiers. Ever so dapper wasn’t he?

Women also played a role but we’ll come back to them. On the other side of the family, my mother’s, WWI was a bloodbath.

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A family wedding in Brittany, 1916. My grandfather, Louis Prodault is second row from the top, between the groom and bride. The likely father of the bride is either my great-grandfather Prodault, or Després. (Do ask your parents and grandparents all the details and names and write them down!) Note that the bride wears black. My mother, born in 1926 would say that she spent her childhood among women in black, all, or most her aunts. Also note that there are only three young men, all in uniform, at the wedding. The others are either dead or fighting.

Of all the Prodault brothers, only my grandfather Louis (left) and his brother, Uncle Julien, both of whom I later knew, made it alive. The others were killed in action. “Mort pour la France”. The French Ministry of Defense has digitalized the death certificates of all those fallen for France, a unique source of history:

Prodault Jean-Baptiste, Died for France, June 23rd, 1915; Prodault Jean-Marie, September 25, 1915.

Prodault Marie Joseph archives_J130737R

Prodault, Marie, Joseph. May 30, 1918. The last year of the conflict. Less than 6 months before the end. I’ve said it elsewhere, but I can imagine my great-grandmother Prodault crossing herself whenever she saw the postman coming to her house.

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Meanwhile, the women went to war too. Jeanne Onraët, my grandmother Julie’s little sister, was a nurse through the entire war.

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Jeanne died of tuberculosis on December 2nd, 1918. After serving the entire war.

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Marthe Goutière, Julie and Jeanne’s first cousin, (My great-grandmother Wilhelmine, was a Goutière,  all India born for more than a century) was also a nurse. Here in Thessaloniki around 1918.

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Marthe, with the Croix de Guerre. She died in Thessaloniki at the end of 1918, of the Spanish Flu. The so-called Spanish flu claimed 50 to 100 million lives. More than the war itself, though some might think the flu was opportunistic and took advantage of five years of deadly conflict, bad hygiene (no showers in the trenches really), bodies left out in the field for days until a truce could be negotiated to bury them.

Soooo. Wrapping up a long post. WWI cost the lives of about 20 million people. WWII? About 60? How many would die in WWIII? I figure between 600 million and 2 billion people. And yet, so many idiots seem to have forgotten and have their finger on the trigger. Whatever you do next Sunday, stop for a minute and think of those who fought for us.

On Sunday, close to 100 chiefs of state will attend the celebration. The “Tramp” said he would go. A Forum for Peace, hosted by Macron, will follow until Tuesday. The “Tramp” will not go. Does he have war in mind? Fortunately, our American friends have regained control of the House. Congrats. And keep a close watch on the man.

Have a peaceful week-end.

 

 

69 thoughts on “November 11, 1918. WWI: a family account

  1. A great post re WW1 Brian. My great grandfather was gassed fighting in France. He lived but suffered horrible breathing issues his whole life I’m told. Great pics, I have some of him too. The Tramp will make his appearance though he has never served his country nor cares what happens here unless it serves him. Have a great weekend ! ♥️

    • You too m’dear. (At least the Tramp will be outta town!) 🙂
      Yes, for someone of your tender age, that would be your great-grandfather’s generation. That war, and the gas were horrible. My grandfather was gassed too. But that generation never complained. 🙂 They weren’t whiners.
      What was your great-grandfather’s name? (To think of him on Sunday)
      Be good Coeur de Feu. ❤

  2. C’est toute une histoire, et oui, une de milliers. There is little doubt that we are heading for more war, it’s the nature of the beast to love violence rather than peace. As to the Tramp, he has in mind whatever he thinks will aggrandize his ego. He is devoid of empathy therefore “après moi, le déluge” for that imbecile and his equally imbecilic followers.

  3. Extrêmement touchant, Brieuc ! J’aime ces photos, même un peu jaunies, surtout celle de Gaston (un de mes anges) et John. Ce sont des personnes, pas seulement des pourcentages. Originaire de Champagne, ma famille est plus rassemblée. Elle a subit des pertes considérables, pendant les deux guerres. Je vois encore des conséquences de la deuxième dans l’inquiétude permanente de certaines, beaucoup plus que de certains, et dans la transmission chaotique des héritages.
    Merci infiniment, Brieuc, pour cette massive injection d’humanité bienveillante.

    • C’est bien ça. Des personnes. Pas des chiffres. Gaston (un de mes anges)? Pourquoi un ange? Référence personnelle? Par contre (j’ai vérifié) “Y’a pas” de John. Qui voulais-tu dire?
      Quand à la Champagne, c’est comme les Bretons, vous avez “douillé”. N’oublions jamais.
      Bonne soirée Gilles.

      • Gaston_1 : Celui qui veille sur moi quand je suis en voiture.
        Gaston_2 dit Lagaffe : Celui qui veille sur mon travail sur aeolus.
        John : troisième photo, premier paragraphe après la photo, un cousin.
        Une toute belle journée à toi, Brieuc.

      • Gaston Lagaffe, Saint Patron d’Aeolus? Super. Au fait, tout va bien avec ton “bébé”?
        Et John, bien sûr, mon cousin de Cape-Town. (C’est une famille tellement “tentaculaire” que je m’y perds parfois un peu… A + Gilles.

      • La célébration de Gaston tous les 6 févriers a une histoire. D’une part, je suis dessinateur, j’adore Gaston et Franquin est un génie à mes yeux. D’autre part, l’ingénieur mécanicien de l’instrument, côté industrie, est belge, de Liège. Nous travaillons ensemble depuis le début des années 1990. Nous nous connaissons bien et nous nous apprécions mutuellement. Comme toutes les bêtises possibles semblaient nous tomber sur les épaules, nous avons décidé de célébrer Gaston … pour exorciser la m
        mécanique du projet. Et ça a marché !
        Une recherche de mon blog en tappant Gaston donne : https://gilscow.wordpress.com/?s=gaston
        Merci, Brieuc, et un bel après-midi à toi.

      • Gaston, alias St-Vaast était le catéchiste de Clovis? (Google) L’aube de la France, donc… Franquin: pas de discussion. Cet été, à paris dans une galerie, j’étais à deux doigts d’acheter un crayonné de Franquin… Mais j’ai reculé au dernier moment. Si je commence à acheter des planches originales, je suis fichu! Je regarde to lien. A +

      • J’ai vu. Magnifiques hommages. Dans ma collection de BD (prés de 1000) les vieux albums de Spirou figurent en bonne place (avec les Tintin bien sûr). J’en achète tjrs qqs uns chaque été. Et les premières apparitions de Gaston sont hilarantes… Mes félicitations pour l’avoir choisi comme Saint Patron.

  4. What a wonderful journal you have of your ancestors who helped make your life what it is today. I am envious, for I have only half-told stories barely remembered from childhood when I was too young to realize the importance of those stories. You are pondering the writing of a book, yes?

    A final word … do no trust the Tramp … do not trust anything, anywhere, for a single moment. Would that you could ban him from the EU entirely!

    • There is a lot of material. My parents dedicated many years to the family history. On both sides. They have volumes! There is a short version of the Onraet family story going back to the 15th century! That account was typewritten… I managed to find a good app to scan it. It’s now in Word and the scanning mistakes are corrected. Now I need to edit it. And translate into English, as it is bl..dy French! And more than half the Family are English-speakers… I was thinking I could share chapters on the blog. ‘will let you know. Take care Jill.

      • When my father retired, he and my mother launched themselves in this quest for our ancestors. Spent close to ten years on it. it had become their main hobby. 🙂
        I will share as soon as I can.
        Meanwhile, I just posted something you might find intriguing…
        Cheers

      • I dashed immediately to your blog and became so lost in the story that I was a bit surprised when it ended and I realized that I was still here, in my chair, and not somewhere in France! I loved it … will be looking for the next part on Thursday!

  5. This was really so interesting! I am just wondering about that uniform of Gaston in Cape Town. It is terrible that so many people died in senseless wars and it is not impossible that another war is looming ahead. I also see it as nature’s way of trying to balance, although it seems a very cruel way of doing so.

    • Sometimes I wonder whether war isn’t mankind’s ultimate goal. 😦
      And yes it is quite “efficient” in curbing the population… re- 😦
      Capetown is a mystery. He was born in India as all the family (all the way down to my little sister). His parents sent him to Dublin to study medicine but then his father (my great-grandfather) died in India and my great-grandmother relocated everyone in Brittany. He then emigrated to Canada, and I have no contact with those cousins. So Capetown isn’t exactly “on the way” to anywhere. Another family mystery. 🙂
      Tot ziens Dina

      • Cape Town is on the route to India, though. Before the Suez Canal was built, it used to be the trade route between east an west. That is the main reason for the establishing of Europeans in Cape Town in 1652.

      • True. I thought about that too. But the Canal was opened in 1869. Actually my grandfather Pierre, Gaston’s brother-in-law worked at the Canal all his life between the two wars. I think the only way to know is to get in touch with my Canadian cousins… 🙂

  6. Much respect to your courageous family, and to you for telling their story. There is a saying among veterans here in the USA. It goes “All gave some, some gave all.” When I go to the Veterans hospital, I see men and women, some who could be my grandfathers, some who could be my sons or daughters, with those words written behind their eyes and I am reminded that I am one of them, though I was fortunate enough to never have to bear witness to the horrors and hardships of battle. May we all someday be so lucky.
    Remember well tomorrow, Mon Ami, and be proud.

    • Hi Julie. Lovely to be back in touch. 🙂
      I agree with Lisa Dorenfelt that we should get together – over a beer or whatever – and rehash the world. (She must be on her way to South Africa now.
      And yes, millions fought that war. Their names must be kept alive. (Though I know that the actual memory of our grandfather will die away with my brother and I. Meantime, their names and looks are “forever” fixed on the Web.
      I trust you are happy back home?

  7. What an interesting story, even in times of war. My family’s a bit obscure, but I know from my dad that his grandfather was given the grades as he knew how to read and write, and put into a regiment of Sardinians. He was from Piedmont, spoke in a pseudo-French dialect; the Sardinians obviously only spoke Sardinian. Must’ve been “fun”.

    • The panther story is quite something. Poor Jean was only a little boy then. 7 or 8. He survived and had a happy life. I knew one of his sons. And his grandchildren, my cousins now live in South Africa. Gipsy family I tell you. Peace and love for the week Kim. ❤

  8. Wonderful family pictures and narrative, albeit very sad that your family lost so many due to the war. The nurses were such heroines during wartime. It must have been so gruelling for them too. On a lighter note…….you had some very handsome men in your family. Good genes which no doubt have bee passed down.

    • Haha! I wouldn’t know about the latter. 🙂
      Now about the family losses? I saw the monument to the dead in the little village where my Breton ancestors were from. My family covers almost half of it. You might say it is a “Family property”. 🙂
      What they’ve taught me was that, a) They did their duty. b) Many, many families went through the same or worse. c) So, never whine! 😉
      Take care.
      B.

  9. It must of taken you an age to collect all of this family information and photos.

    A beautiful tribute and you’re so lucky to be able to document everything. I’m still trying to get information on my mother’s family, but will need to travel to Rijeka. After the war, it was given to Croatia and no longer a part of Italy.

    • One of my brother’s helped me scan most of the family albums when he came on a visit. Then I scanned most negatives (to find unprinted pix) then photoshopped individual photos… I’d say a period of 5 years. Not a full time thing, you get crazy. 🙂
      That sounds like a good excuse to travel to Rijeka. 🙂 As soon as you get your Italian visa…
      (I looked it up. The name Fiume rings a small bell)

      • It’s a labour of love but such a treasure to pass down the generations and so important to know your roots.

        Ha, ha the ever-illusive visa…it will be up for renewal again before I have the card in my hand. And yes, I will go to Rijeka for a week or two – hope they still speak Italian there (or English). 🙂

        It was Fiume when my mother was born in ’37 and her family also lived in Trieste. That part of Italy has such a tumultuous history. Then again, a lot of Italy does including here in Calabria. Her family fled from Tito to Australia, after the war.

      • And the more complicated the roots, the more important. 🙂
        I doubt they still speak Italian, though you never know.
        Italy since the Roman Empire was split up in so many tiny states. Then gradually taken over by the Austrians. It’s only been Italy since the 19th century… So the territory has… evolved.
        It will be interesting to hear about your trip.

    • All well thank you Paul. Glad you liked the story. To me it just exemplifies the role of “normal” people in the corridors of History. 😉
      There were secretaries to type the memos. Interpreters between Churchill and Stalin. And so forth.
      Cheers.

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