A POCKET watch belonging to a French soldier who died in the First World War is to be presented to his grand-daughter, following months of detective work after it was found almost 100 years later.
Micheline Aubry was digging her vegetable plot when she found the watch last summer at Souilly, near Verdun, in Meuse – and discovered it had inscriptions on it giving the name and battalion of the “Poilu”, as the French veterans are called.
That let her find out more details of the man, Sergeant Paul Alfred Vallart, and eventually be able to restore the watch to his family.
Mrs Aubry said: “When I found it, it was still in its leather case and I knew it was something special.
There were two inscriptions. One gave his name and battalion – ‘Sergeant Paul Alfred Vallart’ – and on the other was written ‘Madame Vallart’ and an address.
“At the time soldiers came to Souilly when they were off duty and there were hundreds of soldiers passing through.
I took the watch to my friends at the local Association des Anciens Combattants and they took up the challenge to find out about Sgt Vallart.”
Noël Boltz, president of the veterans’ association in Souilly, said: “We started by going to the town in the address on the watch, Ivry-sur-Seine near Paris and found his name on
the war memorial.
He had been reported missing and the family had never had details of his death.
“We then went to the memorial at La Crouée [France’s third largest war cemetery, in Marne] and found his grave – number 6321. He died aged 28 in October 1915 on the battlefield near to Souain in the Marne.
“I believe that the watch didn’t work when he had it – as the hands and the glass front were missing – but that he kept it as a piece of identity in case he died.
However, it is possible he lost it when he came to Souilly as it was here soldiers could change louse-ridden uniforms.
“In the end we have been able to trace him through his watch as he probably intended – even though we found it 98 years after his death.”
At his birth place at Neuville-en-Tourne-à-Fuy in Ardennes the trail went cold but a mairie worker kept trying and found the Madame Vallart on the inscription was his wife.
Eventually they traced his surviving grand-daughter, now 78, and she will be presented with the watch.
Mrs Aubry said it had been an emotional experience: “When I stood in front of Sgt Vallart’s grave with his pocket watch in my hand it was poignant – I am 75 and I had two uncles in the Great War who never came back – it was quite something to be there.”
Veterans’ groups (associations des anciens combattants) are dotted all of France, representing veterans and their families, educating the young and organising memorial services.
You can find a list by region at http://www.union-federale.com