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The Channel Islands and the Great War
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The Mobilisation of the French Reservists in Jersey: August 1914

By Ian Ronayne

Monsieur Jouve was the French Consul in Jersey, and a well-known figure in the Island's establishment. He must have received the news with a heavy heart - despite it not being unexpected. His duty however was clear, and he set about exercising it immediately. Notices were placed throughout St Helier: at newspaper offices, in French cafes and at the Town Hall. At the same time, the news was relayed to priests administrating the Island's French Roman Catholic churches with a request that it be read-out at mass that evening, and again at Sunday's services. But most importantly, he sought the assistance of the Island's Parish Constables. Understandably, most French lived in the country, and help would be needed to make sure all were made aware of the news. So, throughout that evening, and into the next day, Parish officers went from farm to farm passing on the news to all they found, and informing them of their obligations.

The instructions were unequivocal: starting the next day, all eligible Frenchmen were to present themselves at the offices of the French Consul without delay in order to obtain passports and arrange passage. Furthermore, they were to be ready to leave the Island immediately if necessary.

French Consulate

The site of the former French Consulate in St Helier's Church Street

In 1914, the French Consulate building was located in St Helier, at No 2 Church Street. It stood on the junction with Library Place, opposite one of the entrances to the Royal Square. By 10.00 am on the morning of the 2nd August, the road outside, and the thoroughfare opposite, was packed with an excited and noisy crowd. Several hundred people were present: a mix of reservists, their families, and curious onlookers. More were arriving all the time.

It was a spectacle "not to be forgotten", reported one newspaper, "young and middle-aged Frenchmen, filled with the fire of enthusiasm, all anxious to rejoin the colours and, if necessary, to fight for the honour of their country had assembled there." Whether they were all "full of fire" is perhaps questionable, but nevertheless, they were admitted to the office in batches and emerged shortly after clutching the appropriate passports and travel documents.

St Helier's harbour was only a short walk away from Church Street and many of the reservists went straight there after leaving the Consul. At noon, the first group of 88 departed for France on board the SS "Laura", bound for the port of Granville, and in the afternoon another party left on the SS "Jersey" for Carteret.

It was clear however that the majority of men would leave the next day, having packed and settled their affairs. To cope with the anticipated exodus the harbour authorities laid on an extra vessel: the SS "Alberta". But they weren't the only ones making plans for that day. Monday, 3rd August was a Bank Holiday in Jersey and many Islanders decided to come down to the harbour in order to watch the reservists depart. By midday they packed the upper walkways of the Albert Pier, and also gathered in great numbers on the quay itself around an area cordoned off to allow the men to board the ship.

Regrettably, no plans had been put in place to separate the curious from the families of departing men, and as a consequence, the reservists were forced to share their final intimate moments amongst the jostling crowd. This was a shame given the poignant circumstances, as reported in the Jersey Evening Post the next day:

"Many pathetic scenes were witnesses on the quay. In several cases a man had to say goodbye to wife and family, or the aged parents all dependent on him, and these partings were of such a tender nature and were accompanied by so much emotion that but few of those in the crowd could watch them unmoved… In one instance a father had to say goodbye to his wife and seven children…In another case a reservist had to leave his wife who is seriously ill. There are, of course, numerous cases where husbands are separated from their wives, and these partings, as can well be understood are heartrending to watch."

But there was to be no exceptions. The issuing of passports and the departures continued throughout the day, and into the next. By the time the final men left on the 4th, the news had come through that war had been declared between Germany and France. For the French families left behind in Jersey, the news must have dashed any hopes of a quick, safe, return for their loved ones. They could now only wait for a letter or telegraph, and pray that it was not from the War Office.

August '14: The scene at St Helier's Albert Pier as the reservists leave for France (Societe Jersaise)

How many reservists left Jersey in those frenetic early days in August is not certain, but a report in December 1915 states that 2,450 Frenchmen had left to rejoin the colours by then. Given the nature of their work, it would be reasonable to assume that most Frenchmen in the Island would have been of military age; it would seem likely therefore that the majority of this number left at the start of the war.

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