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The last time they saw France alive


ONE HUNDRED years ago, on April 10, 1912 at 18.35, RMS Titanic entered Cherbourg harbour and dropped anchor for an hour and a half to take on passengers after setting off from Southampton on her maiden voyage across the Atlantic.

Some French passengers were already on board, including the beautiful Parisian model Henriette Yvois, 22, and her lover, a 44-yearold married American film maker William H. Harbeck who had been studying with Frenchman Leon Gaumont.

There was Michel Navratil and his two sons, Michel aged four and Edmond, two. He had snatched them from his estranged wife to start a new life in the United States.

Marie Lefebvre and her children Matilde, 12; Jeanne, eight; Henri, five, and Ida, three, were travelling third class to meet up with her husband Franck who had been working as a miner in Iowa for a year to save up enough money for his family to join him. She was surprised the liner docked in Cherbourg and probably cursed her husband for not realising he could have saved money if they had embarked in France and saved the cost of the trip to Southampton.

There was also a group of young French men employed as chefs, waiters and dish washers for the liner’s first class restaurant. They got to know each other well as they shared cramped quarters and often joked and played cards together.

At Cherbourg other French passengers boarded the tenders Nomadic and Traffic to be taken to the liner. Among them was Pierre Maréchal, a Paris businessman and director of aeronautical company Paulhan et Cie. He was going to open new offices in the US.

Also boarding was the Laroche family who were looking forward to a new life. Joseph Laroche, the only black passenger, was born in Haiti but had arrived in France aged 15 to study engineering in Lille and worked for the Paris Metro after marrying his French wife Juliette.

He had had enough of racial abuse at work and his colour prevented him getting a better-paid job. He decided to return to Haiti with his pregnant 22-year-old wife and daughters Louise, one, and Simone, three. They had been due to sail on the liner France, but changed plans after hearing strict rules meant children were not allowed at the same dining tables as their parents. They decided to travel on the Titanic.

At 20.10 Titanic left Cherbourg lit up like a chandelier en route for Queenstown in Ireland before heading out into the Atlantic. There were 49 French citizens on board – only 19 would survive: six men, eight women and five children.

In first class champagne and caviar was served, there was laughter and music and clandestine meetings. In second class passengers also enjoyed themselves and even those in third class could enjoy reasonable dining and walks in the fresh air on deck.

It wasn’t an easy crossing for Mme Lefebvre and her children in third class. At night she tried to get them to bed early and they would have been on the lower decks when the iceberg ripped open the Titanic’s side on the night of April 14, 1912.

They would have been plunged into chaos and near darkness. Accounts tell how in third class a swarm of men, women and children milled around the foot of the main steerage staircase. It was noisy, restless and frightening with many not able to understand the instructions given in English.

Steward John Hart decided to take small groups of women and children through the maze of passages normally closed to third class passengers: a long journey up to the third class lounge on C-deck; past the second class library and into first class; down the long corridor by the surgeon’s office, the private maids’ and valets’ saloon, finally up the grand stairway to the boat deck. The Lefebvres never made it and none of their bodies were recovered.

When M. Lefebvre later tried to get news the US authorities discovered he was an illegal immigrant and deported him back to France.

All but one of the French restaurant workers died. Survivor, 25-yearold kitchen clerk Paul Mauge from Paris, said they were physically prevented from reaching the upper decks as stewards had been ordered to let women and children up first.

Cold, frightened and in the dark somehow he and a chef, Pierre Rousseau, 48, escaped up a staircase – to find the lifeboats all gone. He told the British inquiry he jumped eight feet onto the last lifeboat that was being lowered and urged M. Rousseau to follow him – but he was too scared and died as a result.

In second class, pregnant Mme Laroche and her daughters did make it and escaped on lifeboat No.14. M. Laroche was lost and his body never recovered. His wife gave birth to a baby boy who never knew his father. Her daughter Louise said she kept atrocious images within her for the rest of her life.

Although just four years old at the time, Michel Navratil remembered being wakened: “My father came into our cabin while we were asleep. He got me dressed in warm clothes and took me in his arms. A man that I didn’t know did the same with my brother,’ he said years later.

The boys were taken up to the deck and put into life craft D, the last to be lowered into the sea. They found themselves in the care of a first class passenger, Margaret Hays.

Their father did not survive and newspapers relayed pictures of the “Titanic orphans” round the world in a bid to trace their family. In France their mother recognised them and was able to travel to New York to be reunited with them.

Those in first class were able to get to the lifeboats more easily. M. Maréchal was playing cards in the Café Parisien with friends when an officer told them to put on life jackets and go up to the deck.

He got into lifeboat No7 and days later told the New York Sun newspaper: “The scene which was taking place before us created a particularly beautiful picture. On a perfectly calm sea, under a sky with no moon sprinkled with millions of stars, the enormous Titanic was lit up from her water line to the embarkation deck as if set down on the water. The bow was sinking into the black water,” he said. He stayed in New York for a week before returning to Le Havre to carry on with his life.

But beautiful Mme Yvois did not survive. Survivors remember seeing her playing cards but she and Harbeck did not make it to the lifeboats. Harbeck’s body was found, clutching her expensive jewelled purse.

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