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article imageLest they forget: Five families' mementos from World War I

By AFP bureaus (AFP)     Oct 12, 2018 in World

The 1914-18 "War to End All Wars" threw up all manner of fates for millions across a brutalised continent -- from couples torn apart to heroic acts in forgotten battles and even epic quests for long lost family members.

In the second of a two-part series, AFP interviews five people about how their treasured mementos preserve the memory of those who fought in World War I, a century after it ended.

- Legion of Orient -

In a handful of sepia portraits and a letter tucked away in a small box, Elizabeth Sonia Touloumdjian has preserved the memory of how her father crossed continents during one of the Great War's least-known episodes.

Holding black-and-white photographs of a dark-haired young man in a military uniform, Touloumdjian, 91, remembered how her father Sarkis Najarian would recount his time in the "Legion d'Orient".

Elizabeth Sonia Touloumdjian  91  recalls how her father Sarkis Najarian would talk with pride of hi...
Elizabeth Sonia Touloumdjian, 91, recalls how her father Sarkis Najarian would talk with pride of his experience in the 'Legion d'Orient', the unit formed by France in 1916 to fight in areas of present-day Turkey
Amir MAKAR, AFP

"When he told these stories to the family, or to visitors, he talked with pride," she said.

The unit was formed by France in 1916 mostly from Armenians. Some volunteers had already survived the Ottoman-era killings and forced deportations that targeted Armenians from 1915-1917.

The French told volunteers they would be sent to fight in areas of present-day Turkey known to the Armenians as Cilicia, which some hoped would form part of a future Armenian state.

But Sarkis enlisted to find his family. He had emigrated to Boston before the war and had lost contact with his father and siblings.

"He decided to go," Touloumdjian said, "just in the hope of finding his sister again."

The photographs show Sarkis dressed in the smart French uniform given to volunteers -- who at their peak numbered between four and five thousand -- posing with friends as he trained in Cyprus and Egypt.

Touloumdjian's father  who  died in 1985 aged 89  was sent after the Armistice with his unit --...
Touloumdjian's father, who died in 1985 aged 89, was sent after the Armistice with his unit -- seen here -- to southern Turkey, which France had occupied, before going to work in a bank in Beirut and starting a family
Amir MAKAR, AFP

After the armistice, Sarkis was sent with the unit -- renamed the Armenian Legion in 1919 -- to southern Turkey, an area France had occupied.

With mounting resistance from Turkish nationalist forces to foreign troops, France began pulling its forces from Turkey and the Armenian Legion was disbanded in late 1920.

Sarkis built a new life for himself, working in Beirut in a bank and starting a family.

And as the dust settled after the Ottoman empire's collapse, he was eventually reunited with his sister, who had escaped to present-day Syria, and a brother.

In 1980, Lebanon's civil war forced Sarkis to escape once more, this time to Cyprus where Elizabeth had been living since she married.

In his last years, living near his daughter, he penned a letter, four pages of neat, sloped handwriting in blue ink across four sides of vellum paper recording his experiences with the legion.

Since his death in 1985 at 89, Sonia has stored it with the pictures in her home in the Cypriot capital.

"His youth wasn't for nothing. From the age of 16 he fought -- for his life, for his family," she said.

- Traces of fallen empire -

Once a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ukrainian village of Kosino, nestled along the Hungarian border, has endured a turbulent 100 years since the end of World War I.

Istvan Petnehazy, 86, has lived all his life in the mostly ethnic-Hungarian village -- called Mezokaszony in Hungarian -- and still keeps a bundle of photographs dating back to dual monarchy times.

The faded, yellowing pictures show several of his grandmother's brothers as teenage soldiers conscripted into the Austro-Hungarian army.

One was killed during the last days of World War I, according to Petnehazy, while another was imprisoned in a detention camp for Austro-Hungarian soldiers on the Italian island of Asinara.

Since the post-World War I Trianon treaty broke up the Hungarian half of the Empire, Petnehazy's nationality has changed four times -- despite never having moved from the village.

Since the post-WWI Trianon treaty broke up the Hungarian half of the Empire  Petnehazy's nation...
Since the post-WWI Trianon treaty broke up the Hungarian half of the Empire, Petnehazy's nationality has changed four times -- despite never having moved from Kosino
ATTILA KISBENEDEK, AFP

He was born in 1932 in Czechoslovakia, one of the new states that emerged from the defeated Empire.

Hungary occupied the Transcarpathia region around Kosino between 1938 and 1944.

It then became part of the Soviet Union in 1945, and independent Ukraine in 1991.

"Life went on somehow," said Petnehazy, holding a photograph of his father posing in Czechoslovak army fatigues.

Another picture shows himself as a Soviet Union army conscript during the 1950s.

Kosino, and the viticulture tradition that sustained its local economy for centuries, also adapted in the aftermath of WWI, according to Petnehazy.

"People walked back and forth in vineyards straddling the new border" after WWI  the still...
"People walked back and forth in vineyards straddling the new border" after WWI, the still sprightly octogenarian said while harvesting grapes in his garden
ATTILA KISBENEDEK, AFP

"People walked back and forth in vineyards straddling the new border," the still sprightly octogenarian told AFP while harvesting grapes in his garden.

"In my childhood, most Mezokaszony people made their living in some way from wine," he said, pointing to a wooden grape-pressing machine with the date 1907 carved on it.

But forced collectivisation of farmland during the Soviet period led to most of the vineyards being gradually destroyed.

- France's Senegalese sharpshooter -

Babacar Ndiaye poses with a photo of his grandfather Abdoulaye Ndiaye  a Senegalese villager who fou...
Babacar Ndiaye poses with a photo of his grandfather Abdoulaye Ndiaye, a Senegalese villager who fought for France in World War I
SEYLLOU, AFP/File

Born in 1894 and enlisted after showing his prowess as a wrestler, Abdoulaye Ndiaye was a Senegalese villager who fought for France as a sharpshooter in World War I.

One of 600,000 soldiers recruited from the French colonies, Ndiaye was part of an infantry unit known as the "Senegalese Tirailleurs" (Senegalese Shooters) which took part in the 1915 campaign to open the Turkish Dardanelles strait between Europe and Asia.

A year later, while fighting in the Battle of the Somme, he suffered a head wound, which still gave him pain years later.

His military service card, now on display at the Army Museum in Dakar, states that Ndiaye hailed from Thiowor, a village with a population of 3,000 about 180 kilometres (110 miles) north of the capital.

On 11 November 1998, the soldier -- who spent the rest of his life a farmer -- was to have been decorated with the prestigious Legion d'Honneur, France's highest honour.

But just one day before, Senegal's last rifleman died. He was 104.

He died aged 104 just a day before he was to have been decorated with France's highest honour
He died aged 104 just a day before he was to have been decorated with France's highest honour
SEYLLOU, AFP/File

Several years earlier, he recorded the story of how he joined the army while working as a camel driver, after a wrestling match in which he was "invincible".

"He did many military exploits," recalled Babcar Sene, another villager in his 80s who fought for France in Indochina.

"He is Thiowor's most famous son."

Decades after his injury, the head wound still bothered Ndiaye, his great-nephew Cheikh Diop told AFP. "He said it hurt to touch."

A memorial stone in his honour stands in the dusty northern village where he spent his life and where children still sing of his exploits.

After the war, he went home and simply returned to his work as a farmer.

A stadium being built on the outskirts of his village will bear his name
A stadium being built on the outskirts of his village will bear his name
SEYLLOU, AFP/File

"He just went back to his life which revolved around this hut and this tree," said Diop, showing a dog-eared photo of his great-uncle leaning on a tree trunk, surrounded by children.

Plans to turn his makeshift hut and an extended family house next door into an Abdoulaye Ndiaye Museum never got much further than the construction in 2002 of a French-funded road.

Known as "Sharpshooters' Path", it is today pitted with holes, while the hut he called home is filled with a tangle of kettles, cooking pots, amulets and rusting teapots.

Two new rooms in the house destined in 2008 to form the museum along with the hut, at the initiative of sponsors of the Army Museum in Dakar, never opened.

"The museum has become a museum piece in itself," jested the soldier's grandson Babacar Ndiaye, regretting much of the memorabilia was destroyed in a fire.

But his memory lives on and soon a stadium being built on the outskirts of the village will bear his name.

- Long lost love letters -

Patrice Retour  who discovered more than 500 love letters his grandparents exchanged   poses with a ...
Patrice Retour, who discovered more than 500 love letters his grandparents exchanged, poses with a painting of his grandfather Maurice Retour, killed a year nto the conflict
LOIC VENANCE, AFP

France was at war and the young couple wrote to each other every day. One hundred years later, their grandson is making the love letters public after discovering them in an old box.

"My beloved Maurice, will I ever see you again?", wrote Yvonne Retour in the very first of more than 500 letters she exchanged with her husband Maurice who was drafted at the start of World War I.

"I can't tell you how proud I am of you and how much you make me happy; you're really the woman I always dreamt of," said Maurice in one of his own letters home.

They alternate between the passionate and the desperate, with Maurice telling his wife how he "cried alone at night" amid the horrors of trench warfare.

"I kiss you with all the tenderness of the most loving of women," Yvonne wrote back.

She was 23 at the start of the war and never remarried after her beloved husband was killed at the front on September 27, 1915, just one year into the war.

She raised their children alone -- her son Michel and daughter Emmanuelle, known as Mawell, who was conceived in the summer of 1915 when Maurice was on leave because of a hand wound.

Patrice Retour, one of the couple's 12 grandchildren, now retired, feels bad about how they failed to ask more of their grandmother who died in 1971.

"We're sorry we never got her to talk. We never imagined how passionate her letters were," he told AFP.

In was only in the late 1990s, after his mother died, that Patrice found the box containing the letters.

"We had to wait a generation," he said.

The letters, which he has since published, "give you a much better idea of the war than any documentary or history lesson, because you see what happens both in the trenches and on the home front," he said.

- Regal memories on canvas -

Ulrich Habsburg-Lothringen  descendant of the former imperial family of Austria-Hungary  poses outsi...
Ulrich Habsburg-Lothringen, descendant of the former imperial family of Austria-Hungary, poses outside the Hofburg palace in Vienna with a copy of a painting by his grandfather Heinrich Ferdinand depicting a Jewish cemetery
JOE KLAMAR, AFP

Ulrich Habsburg-Lothringen, scion of Austria-Hungary's former imperial family, treasures a direct link to World War I in the form of copies of paintings by his artist grandfather of his imperial army postings.

After the outbreak of the war Habsburg-Lothringen's paternal grandfather, Archduke Heinrich-Ferdinand, was sent first to the Russian Front and then to Italy.

In the years that followed he didn't talk much about those years but his memories were committed to canvas in the form of accomplished paintings depicting scenes near the town of Lutsk in modern-day Ukraine.

"In primary school  they said my family was responsible for the first war " remembers Ulri...
"In primary school, they said my family was responsible for the first war," remembers Ulrich, now 77
JOE KLAMAR, AFP

"He painted washerwomen, a military vessel on a river, a Jewish cemetery, but never any battle scenes," says Habsburg-Lothringen, who briefly lived with his ancestor in the 1960s.

Archduke Heinrich-Ferdinand was also a keen photographer and it's likely he painted the images with the help of the numerous photos he took on the front and behind the battle lines.

With the end of the war and the proclamation of the Austrian Republic in 1918, the Habsburgs found themselves dethroned and most of their property was seized.

While Heinrich-Ferdinand -- no longer an archduke -- retired to Salzburg, his grandson, born in 1941, discovered the weight of the Habsburg name even as a child.

"In primary school, they said my family was responsible for the first war," remembers Ulrich, now 77.

Not being overly interested in history earned him a rebuke from his teachers, who told him: "You should know it all already."

Nephew three times removed of Otto Habsburg, son of the last emperor, Ulrich Habsburg laments the abolition of aristocratic titles after the war and for several years has argued for their reinstatement.

While committed to the Austrian Republic, the jovial Ulrich -- who also served as a Green councillor -- is still proud of his blue-blooded origins.

"I can't call myself Ulrich "von" Habsburg, or "Duke", let alone "Imperial Highness". I don't think that's right, it's a part of history, you can't just sweep it away," he explains.

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