Cousins raised as brothers — four boys from two sisters who married two brothers — only one would survive the great war.
The ten-year-old boy begins to sob. Quietly at first, it would become a full-blown breakdown. Who could blame him?
With the initial excitement of WW I vintage cannons waning, he learns that we are standing on what had been a voie ferrée. A village was destroyed here. He imagines the loss of his home and his beloved doudous. We exit the Mémorial Verdun.
We’re in the Argonne forest.
The same fight, with little movement, raged around Verdun for four years. In one family are recorded the deaths of 3 cousins. They will be killed in a span of 32 months — each within 50 km of each other:
1st Lt. Pierre Monnier (pictured), cousin of Georges and Bernard Monnier, 46th infantry, born 5 June 1891, killed by the enemy 8 January 1915 in the Fond de Meurissons. He was 24 years old. He is a Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur, a recipient of the Croix de Guerre with 2 palms.
2nd Lt. Georges Monnier, 147th infantry, born 20 September 1895, killed in the attack of the Bois du Trapeze (Champagne), 28 February 2015. He was 19 years old. He is a Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur, a recipient of the Croix de Guerre.
1st Lt. Bernard Monnier, 47th infantry, born 14 January 1894, died for France on 9 September 1917, killed by the enemy at Hill 344 (Verdun). He was 25 years old. He is a Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur, a recipient of the Croix de Guerre.
The recent memorial service of the next generation Bernard Monnier, named for his uncle above, included a mention of his Croix de Guerre for service with the French Resistance during World War 2.
His father, Christian Monnier,3 the great-grandfather of the 10-year-old boy noted above, rests with his brothers Georges and Bernard, and Pierre, his cousin.4 He was born 4 March 1898. He was the only one of that generation of 4 Monnier men to survive the war.
By all accounts their childhood was charmed, coming from a comfortable background where 6 cousins enjoyed the tightest of bonds. Their mothers are sisters and their fathers are brothers. Early loss was felt in the 1909 death of a sister, aged 16. In less than a decade, she will be mentioned in letters from young men at the front.
At times the forest still feels primeval, much like it was when the war began. Pierre Monnier (1891-1915) writes early from the line about his wish to walk in its deep beauty. Not long after his arrival, the forest is transformed into leafless snags in a tortured landscape.
These stories brought us east to the Argonne.
We’re not the first.
After the war, thousands traveled by train to the field of battle to visit the place where they lost sons, brothers, cousins. We know these men from family memoirs. The TGV is our time machine.
Traveling a few days later in the opposite direction, to a place of my ancestors, we arrive in La Rochelle. Just as the villages of the Île de Ré, every town in France has its own monument to their dead from the great war.
We stop when we can and read the names. Surnames are repeated. A generation devastated.
1. Read more about Pierre Monnier (in French).
2. The story of Pierre Monnier continued when his mother, Cécile Monnier (Wikipedia link in French), famously began the “automatic writing” of messages from the spirit of her son.
3. A cousin notes in a genealogical record that Christian Monnier participated in the Great War. In what capacity I do not know. UPDATE — 26 June 2016: Pierre Monnier, son of Christian Monnier (grandfather of the 10-yr-old boy), notes that his father volunteered for the army at age 17. He was assigned to a calvary regiment stationed in Versailles. In 1917, he was attached to an American division as a translator. ↩
4. Pierre is the “double-cousin” of Georges, Bernard, and Christian through both his father and his mother. ↩