The Souvenir Français was created after the war between France and Germany, which began in 1870. The Prussian kingdom and its allies waged war on the French Second Empire from 19 July 1870 to 29 January 1871.
The military campaign began with fierce fighting in Alsace and Lorraine. The French army was forced towards the Ardennes, and was finally encircled in Sedan. It capitulated on 02 September 1870, leading to the fall of Napoleon III’s Second Empire.
The Prussian armies and their allies then swept through the north-east of France and besieged Paris. Despite a last effort from the Loire armies, the war ended in a French defeat. The losses were heavy: six month’s fighting had resulted in 45,000 dead and 90,000 wounded. And one of the outcomes of The Treaty of Frankfurt, imposed by Prussia on 10 May 1871, was the loss of the French territory Alsace-Moselle, also known as Alsace-Lorraine.
In Metz, as in Alsace, part of the population continued to show its allegiance to France. They conducted religious services to honour the soldiers who had died for France, and maintained their graves. In Alsace, on All Saints’ Day, it is a tradition for young girls to leave ‘cockades’ (ribbon rosettes) on the graves of soldiers in their municipality.
An Alsatian teacher, Francois-Xavier NIESSEN (1846-1919) refused to accept Germany’s annexation of Alsace-Lorraine. He wanted to show the strong connection that the people of Alsace-Lorraine had with France and maintain the memory of the lost provinces. He believed that looking after the graves would keep alive the memory of those who had died for France, and contribute to the feeling of national unity.
Persecuted by the occupying forces, Francois-Xavier NIESSEN was obliged to move to Neuilly-sur-Seine. In 1887, he formed the National Association of the Souvenir Français whose aim is to maintain the memory of the war of 1870, and also to uphold the values of France and the Republic.
On 07 March 1888, he invited French people to join the association; it was a great success. Then, in 1889, the Souvenir Français expanded its reach beyond national territory to include Waterloo in Belgium and the Pescadores Islands to the west of Taiwan.
In 1908 in annexed Moselle, a Mosselman called Jean-Pierre JEAN proposed commemorative religious services and the laying of wreaths on the graves of those glorious soldiers who had died for France. At the same time, he made a huge effort to have a memorial erected to commemorate the battles which took place around Metz. In 1907, with the support of 13 municipalities situated on battlefields to the right of the Moselle River, the Noisseville area was chosen.
The German government, after some tough negotiating, agreed. The monument by sculptor Emmanuel HANNAUX was inaugurated on 04 October 1908; it was attended by almost 120,000 annexed French, and for the first time since 1870, French flags fluttered on Mosellan land. It also marked the first big demonstration of Mosellan loyalty and declaration of attachment to their own country: France.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, tensions between France and Germany were again at a dangerous level.
The Souvenir Français in Alsace-Lorraine was brutally dissolved by the Germans in 1913. Most of its members were incarcerated or banished by the occupying forces.
But it was actually the conflict in the Balkans, which would lead to World War 1. The armies fought on the 700 km long Western Front for four years. At the end, the report was devastating. This war caused more deaths and material destruction than in all previous wars. More than 60 million soldiers had taken part; around nine million died and eight million were disabled.
During this period, the Souvenir Français helped families find the corpses of soldiers killed, and supported them in this process. In 1915, it created 200 military cemeteries and 50 memorials honouring soldiers who died on the battlefield.
In 1918, 200,000 graves were maintained, whether in the Front cemeteries or in France. Their inscription is:
« A nous le souvenir, à eux l’immortalité »
‘For us remembrance, for them immortality’
The post-war period was shaped by remembrance of the dead: France lost 1,400, 000 of its sons. All French provinces mourned their deaths and resolved to honour them. From 1920-1925, about 36,000 memorials were raised in France and its colonies.
The Souvenir Français had a prominent role in these commemorations. It instigated proposals and submitted innovative ideas for the construction of the memorials. One of their memorials is named ‘Des Crapouillots’ (small toads) and can be found on the Chemin-des-Dames in the Aisne region. Situated in the ‘Moulin-de-Laffaut’ (Laffaut’s Mill), it is in the shape of a torpedo launched by a Crapouillot, a trench mortar. The name represents the particular curved line the missile will follow, and looks like the leap of a toad. This memorial honours the 12,000 artillerymen who died in the trenches between 1914 and 1918 on the French and Oriental front lines.
The Treaty of Versailles ended the First World War and sealed Germany’s defeat, setting in motion the seeds of revenge which the Nazis were to take advantage of. In 1933, Hitler seized control in Germany and prepared his armies.
Source: Souvenir Français national website (link).