Some letters are highlighted in shades of green, some crisply raised in neat tufts of moss, others nearly obscured. Henri du Pont de Gault de Saussines was an author of lyric and romantic poetry, so perhaps he would appreciate the gentle colonisation of the lettering on his tombstone.
The letters in moss also commemorate Henri’s wife Marie Gabrielle de Villedieu de Torcy, and their youngest son Pierre Henri Septimes Bertrand du Pont de Gault de Saussines, mort pour la France at sea in 1940. Here the moss is growing strongly and it’s difficult to make out some of the words. A web search to clarify the names led me to the life story of Bertrand de Saussines. It’s a tale of nobility, heroism and tragedy that reflects the divided loyalties of the times.
(You’ll find the story told through French press cuttings here.)
Bertrand de Saussines joined the French navy in 1922 and by 1938 was commander of the submarine Poncelet. Tributes after his death described an intelligent and courteous naval officer, committed to values of idealism and nobility, unanimously appreciated by his fellow officers and subordinates.
In the early days of WW2 de Saussines commanded the Poncelet in the successful capture of a German cargo ship, the Chemnitz, laden with wheat and oats from Australia. Before leading a boarding party onto the captured vessel de Saussines insisted on his crew shaving and dressing in formal uniform. Then, once the ship was secured, the German colours were lowered ceremonially and the French colours raised in their place. The Chemnitz was escorted into port at Casablanca where captain, crew and cargo were (courteously) handed over to the French authorities.
By June 1940 the French navy was under the control of the Vichy government and the enemy at sea were the British. De Saussines was clear on his duty to the French navy and the orders received from his superiors but he took personal responsibility for the consequences of following those orders. The Poncelet was ordered to Gabon to take part in a coastal patrol, intended to prevent British ships supplying Free French forces. On November 8th the submarine was badly damaged after ‘courageously attacking the English naval forces supporting the rebel de Gaulle’. As water leaked into the control systems of the crippled vessel through holes in the hull, De Saussines took the decision to save the crew but to scuttle the ship.
Seeing the Poncelet surfacing with its gun ports closed and the crew lined up for evacuation the British ship, HMS Milford, ceased fire. De Saussines gave the order ‘tout le monde à la mer’ then himself returned down the ladder to the control deck, telling the engineer who tried to stop him ‘you cannot prevent me from doing my duty’. As the submarine started to dive for the last time, taking the captain with it, the crew flung themselves into the water where they were soon picked up by the Milford. All were brought safely on board where les anglais gave them dry clothes, cigarettes, sandwiches and tea.
In 1941 Bertrand de Saussines was posthumously awarded the rank of Officer of the Legion of Honour. On his memorial that distinction is hard to decipher now under the tussocks of moss. An honour from a dishonored regime is maybe best forgotten under the gentle cloak of time and new life.
The moss that obscures the words led me to this history but the moss-filled letters don’t need a back story. Click on any photo for a closer look at a landscape in miniature.