Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Mystery of the French Count

There are hundreds, or more, statues in every city throughout the world and for the majority it's easy to find out the reason why they have been erected, sometimes however it's not that easy and it some cases the reason is lost , here is one such case.

At the junction of Abbey Road and Abbey Lane. The first name listed amongst the dead of World War 1 is that of Comte Robert de Lesseps, Legion d'honneur and Croix de Guerre.

Robert was the son of Ferdinand, Vicomte de Lesseps, the man responsible for digging the Suez Canal and Robert was also the great-nephew of Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III.

The memorial is not a municipal one but that of the Crocketts' Leather-cloth factory, which used to be sited here. Robert died in 1916 and had been an early pioneer aviator and a friend and student of Bleriot. But why should Crocketts directors wish to remember him in this way?

Why indeed, that's the question I set out to answer but failed, the factory has long gone it was demolished in the 1960's and replaced by a council estate called Leather Gardens. So what of the man himself ? As it notes in the piece above he was the son of Ferdinand, Vicomte de Lesseps who was responsible for the building of the Suez canal which linked the Mediterranean to the Red Sea. The origins of de Lesseps' family are traceable back as far as the end of the 14th century. His ancestors, it is believed, came from Scotland, and settled at Bayonne during the region's occupation by the English.

Robert was born in Paris on the 23rd May 1882, he was one of five brothers and six sisters, his mother, Helene Autard de Bragard was Ferdinand's second wife they married sixteen years after the death of his first wife Agathe Delamalle with who he had five children, only two survived to adult hood. Helene was twenty one when she married Ferdinand who was forty three years her senior, as well as the eleven children who grew to adulthood they lost one child in infancy.

The de Lesseps children grew up in an age when it was the fashion for aristocratic families to dress their children, whether they be boys or girls in an almost identical way. Robert was the tenth child born, but as one of his siblings, his sister Eugenie Marie had died in infancy in 1874 it meant Robert was the ninth child at the time the photo was taken. Therefore as he was at the time he must be the child in his mothers arms.

On the 27th February 1902 he married Marthe Sophie Alland in Belgium and they had two children, Nicole and Robert jnr.

As the brothers grew to adulthood were swept up in the frenzy of manned flight, as it seemed were the rest of the world, and maybe it was the flying feats of fellow countryman Louis Bleriot who inspired the de Lesseps brothers.

He was the first person to cross the English channel in manned flight, this happened in July 1909 and as news of the successful event happened Louis Bleriot became world famous. 

Amazing as this seemed to the people of that time it was less than a year later in May 1910 that Jacques de Lesseps had following Bleriot's path and crossed the channel. Perhaps it was then that his brothers realised that Jacques would always be the 'star of the show'.

Today when we have seen man walk on the moon and probes sent throughout
the universe we may find it hard to understand just how unbelievable it must have been for people in those days when they saw men flying these tiny machines, in the past they may have seen, or heard of, balloon flight but this relied on the weather to propel them through the air but planes were under the sole control of the aviator.

Back to the meet I think we can assume that Jacques wasn't the type to conform to the constraints of a flying meeting and we would be right. On July 2nd Jacques climbed into his La Scarabee and for nearly fifty minutes flew over the city of Montreal, becoming the first person to fly over a Canadian city. The local newspaper 'The Observer' recorded his flight as such ''Startled people in the streets cheered loudly at the sight of La Scarabee turning circles in the sky above them. Some women standing in a field near Valois waved a French flag as they cried "Vive le comte!"So impressed were the Mohawk elders of the Caughnawaga reserve that they made de Lesseps an honourary member of the tribe.''

1910 proved to be a busy year for the de Lesseps brothers. That year they decided to try a design that had been used a couple of years before for their next aircraft, it was based on the a bird in flight, the frigate bird as can be seen in the picture of Robert de Lesseps taking it for a test flight. Three 'La Fregate' monoplanes were built.

Also in 1910 Jacques attended a meet in Toronto where at the following dinner in one of the cities most exclusive clubs he met Sir William MacKenzie president of the Canadian Northern Railway. The two men got on so well that Jacques was invited to the Mackenzie which was a large rambling home in Kirkfield. It was while Jacques was at the MacKensie home that he met Grace the youngest of the railroad president three daughters. Whether there was an instant attraction is not known but over the coming weeks the two grew very close. 

Later in the year Jacques went to compete in New York and the three sisters went to support him. While there he took Grace for a flight which made her the first Canadian woman ever to fly, news of this was carried in the New York Times and when Sir William read this he ordered his daughters home at once.

In spite of this their affair continued and the following year on the 25th of January 1911 Grace and Jacques married at the Roman Catholic church of St James , Spanish Place, London. The reception for their guests was held at Claridges, afterwards they spent their honeymoon in Egypt before making their home in Paris. Their first child was born in December 1911 and three followed, the last child born in 1918.  All four children were born in France.

The link that the company had a branch in Paris might be tenuous but there is nothing else to be found to link Robert to the company.
 Leathercloth was first patented by J.R & C.P Crockett of Newark New Jersey. In 1857 Leathercloth co obtained the sole rights. They then built a works in Abbey Road Stratford, The site had previously been a gutta percha works but originally the  the site of the parish workhouse. In 1955 the firm was taken over by a Lancashire company and eventually closed in 1961.

The leather cloth was advertised for all public service vehicles such as trains, coaches and in 1860 for use on stages. The New Jersey company where the leather cloth was invented and patented was later sold to their parteners in West Ham. As biplanes came into being it's not such a stretch of the imagination to see the material could also be used for the seating.

So far the brothers had used their skills for the amusement and amazement of other but fate had a very different use for those skills, On the 28th June 1914 a shot rang out in Sarajavo which was heard around the world and drew the de Lesseps brothers were drawn into the chaos and slaughter that was world war one.

Robert was recruited at Châteauroux as a lieutenant in the cavalry of the 27th regiment of Dragons, later he was seconded to the 7th armored cars and cannons. The bloodiest battle of the war began of the 1st July 1916 and ended on the 18th November the same year, today its name encapsulates the sheer waste of young life, it was the battle of the Somme.

On the first day there was a loss of 58.000 British troops a third of them killed, others badly wounded. The death toll continued rising through the summer months until the beginning of winter when finally it was deemed as ended, the ground gained was a mere 25 miles long and 6 miles wide but the cost in human life and suffering was immeasurable 420.000 casualties for the British, 195.000 for the French and 650.000 for the Germans. Among the French casualties was Comte Robert de Lessep who died of his wounds on the 4th of September 1916 of war wounds. Legion of honour and posthumous Croix de guerre

Robert wasn't the only one of the brothers who died during the war, his elder brother Ferdinand died a year before. Ferdinand was born 27th of November 1871, he was forty two when the war was declared.

Ferdinand hand represented France in fencing and Sabre at the 1908 olympics. In world war one he served as a cavalry officer. A year after the war had begun he was a captain in the third regiment cavalry unit serving in Africa. It was in the same year that Ferdinand was killed. His death certificate states he was killed during trench warfare on the 30th. September 1915.

The war lasted for four years from 1914 until 1918 and the measure of slaughter during those four years is the number of casuaties, although no-one has been able tocalculate the number correctly it's accepted that of the allied forces over five million troops were killed and suffered nearly nine million casualties plus over four million prisoners or missing. When the war ended in 1918 the world would never be the same again for a generation had been lost in a war that solved nothing.

Bernard was the last brother to die in warfare, he died on he 28th August 1918 just six weeks before the war came to an end. Like Ferdinand he was recruited in Paris, and also like Ferdinand he too represented France at fencing in the 1908 olympics. He was also accompanied Jaques to Canada in 1910, for he was just as enthusiastic about aviation as his brother.

Bernard was 'killed in action' at the battle of Catiginy Oise, this was the first time that the American troops, who fought along the French troops, had been involved in a sustained offensive. Jacques also served in the war using his skills as a aviator he flew at night to defend Paris against the German threat of Zeppelins.

He also flew reconnaissance missions enabling the allies to gain much needed intelligence of the German lines. In the last year of the war he had flown at least ninety five bombing missions not counting reconnaissance or photography flights. For his service he recieved the Croix de Guerre and the Legion d'honneur from the French government and the Distinguished Service Medal from the government of the United States.

When the war ended Jacques his former squadron leader form a company offering aerial photography, he asked Jacques to join him which meant using flying boat to get the photographs, sometimes the camera was mounted on the plane other times it was hand held out of the plane by a crew member.

In 1926 he was employed by Quebec's Ministry of Forests to photograph the Gaspe penninsular to enable the mapping of the area. In less than two years he and his mechanic had photographed over 80,000 square kilometers.

In October 1927 while on an exploratory flight over the Gulf of St Lawrence Jacques and his mechanic Theodor Chichenko. The wreckage of the plane was soon found, but for several weeks the body lay undiscovered in Newfoundland, the body of his mechanic has never been found. The funeral of Jacques de Lesseps was held in Gaspe on December 14, 1927. In 1932, and five years later a monument was erected in his memory in the town.

The last remaining de Lesseps brother Paul, who was the first man to fly around the Eiffel Tower died in 1947 following a spell of imprisoment The 14 Jan 1947 Time Magazine said about him that: ''Paul de Lesseps, 63-year-old son of the famed Suez Canal builder, was down with heart trouble and a sense of persecution in Fresnes Prison. The French Government said that Prisoner de Lesseps, who owned land in Turkey, had offered to sell it to the Germans, for bases from which to bomb Suez. De Lesseps' reply: the Government owed him five billion francs for land confiscated in World War I, now condemned him 'to avoid paying.' 

Perhaps I haven't answered the question as to why the Compte Robert de Lesseps is remembered at Stratford, and maybe I've spent too much time on his brothers, but by doing so hopefully there is a little more substance to a brave man than just a forgotten name carved in a monument far from his native land.

The memorial was paid for by the directors of the Leather Cloth facory in respect for their workers lost in two world wars. There are two sides to the memorial on one side 'In memorial to those who gave their lives for freedom 1914/1918.'  On the other side is ‘In Memory of those Service and Civilian Employees who lost their lives in 1939/1945.

Comte Robert de Lessops, Legion De Honnere and Croix de Gueere.
Private HT Baker
Private F Bishop
Private F Bristow
Rifleman F Cooper
Lance Corporal Charles Edwards
Private JG Finch
Private WF Grey
Private H Holding
Sergeant WG Holmes
Private H Honeybell
Rifleman R Johnes
Private Edward Rice
Rifleman H Turner
Private George Wright

Mrs A Baker
O/Tel Seaman JJ Beadle
Mr F Bishop (note there is also an F Bishop on the WW1 side)
Mr W Burdett
Private RA Cook
Sgt Pilot AE Fisher
A.B Seaman NH Pitts
Mrs A Rapley
Sgt A/G WC Thomas
Private J Walker


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