Monsieur Jean-Pierre Mennessier was not prepared to sit around twiddling his thumbs in his home in the village of Bourseville, in the Somme department, when France experienced its first confinement during the pandemic.
So instead, he poured his passion for the tombs and graves of French soldiers into more than just caring for his village’s cemetery.
Mr Mennessier is the president of the committee of Souvenir français in Friville-Escarbotin, a French association for maintaining war memorials, comparable with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
As part of his work, he combs through websites like Ebay, Le Bon Coin and Rakuten, on the hunt for evidence of tomb scavenging.
This activity is just one of several commitments he has made to the military: he worked for 11 years in the French cavalry and training service, between 24 August 1973 and 24 August 1984, and finished as a non-commissioned officer.
Many members of his family fought for France in several wars during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Mr Mennessier’s story caught the attention of several French newspapers as well as the president of the Souvenir français. Both have hailed his work and praised his commitment to salvaging the memory of fallen soldiers.
The Connexion spoke to Mr Mennessier to find out more about his endeavours, to ask him to recount the origin of a passion born when he was just five years old, and to tell us about a famous encounter with General Charles de Gaulle.
Once you had trawled through several of these websites, what did you find?
I found advertised on these websites commemorative plaques taken from the tombstones of French soldiers who died during both world wars.
I also discovered flags and objects from the Nazi regime.
I found a lot of these objects on websites such as Rakuten, Ebay, and Le Bon Coin, or within the auction community.
Myself, along with the 500 members of my network, worked this out initially by contacting the sellers to request more precise information on the object, as if we were potential buyers.
You have to play dumb.
If the listing seems dubious, I usually file a complaint to the police, along with personal information listed on the website.
I have filed 37 complaints in two and a half years.
One auctioneer even got a call to order from the Republic’s prosecutor. I saved more than 20 tomb plaques on June 17.
Twenty plaques in a single event?
This particular event happened at an auction. I came forward to ask where the plaques were coming from after having been alerted by a member of the Souvenir français network.
Our discussion heated up a little bit after he told me he was doing his part to commemorate the memory of dead soldiers.
I reckon auctioneers should work voluntarily. The auctioneers take a 25% cut on the seller and 17% on the buyer. I don’t agree with that.
I was almost dumbfounded.
The auction had 20 plaques that were almost in perfect condition on one side, and well-worn on the other since they had been stuck to a wall.
I found out that they were stuck on the same wall, and narrowed my search of departments down before I was finally able to locate their origin.
I then contacted the mayor who was as dumbfounded as me. I then called the police and the press. The auctioneer told me he found the plaques in a box!
Do you think the auctioneer knew about the untrustworthy provenance, or did he simply not want to know?
I would have to go for the second option. The auction listing was for 20 plaques, sold in packs of five. That’s around €1,500 worth of goods.
Am I right in thinking that your pursuits aren’t limited to France, and that you have also recently saved a plaque in London?
Yes. This one was listed on Ebay.
Someone in London had stolen the commemorative plaque of Joseph Clapié, a French soldier from the 112th infantry, who died on 19 December, 1916, aged 20.
We confiscated and returned the plaque to its cemetery in Marseillan (Hérault) after contacting the British police.
The owner who listed the plaque claimed that he had bought it in the large Saint-Ouen flea market near Paris.
Why do you do this work?
I have zero empathy, compassion or diplomacy for the disrespectful and bleak business of stealing commemorative plaques from graves and tombs.
These soldiers are defenceless against such despicable behaviour. To my mind it is a kind of rape.
But for the people who perpetrate these crimes, the money hustle is just too tempting: some plaques, for example, can reach €300 each.
You also hunt down objects from the Nazi regime. What is the state of French law regarding the ownership and selling of such items?
Ownership of Nazi objects is allowed, but they cannot be displayed or shown to others, in a store for example.
Selling is allowed, although no pictures can be uploaded on websites.
I am currently waging a war with auctioneers on this subject, since the problem is endemic on auction websites like Ebay.
Did you make it your business to hunt down such activities before Covid?
No. I did not have enough time as I was always occupied with maintaining the graves in my hometown cemetery, but I already had the idea in mind before the first lockdown happened.
Our primary mission at the Souvenir français is to compile an inventory of the departments that need tombs and graves to be restored, or to organise commemorative events.
Do you wish that French law could be tougher on the criminals?
No. I simply want justice to be served. Too often people get off scot free, even when a crime has been committed.
For example, the auctioneer that I mentioned earlier who was called to order. That is not enough.
There should be an administrative closure of the auction house for a prolonged period. Then you have too many people defending themselves by saying they found the plaques in an attic.
Everybody knows it is rubbish! Some of the situations I dealt with ended up exactly that way, with the person claiming that he found the plaques in a cellar.
Where does your commitment to these long-dead soldiers come from?
I can trace it back to when General Charles de Gaulle gave a speech in Amiens when I was five years old.
After he delivered the speech in front of the mairie, I approached him, stood next to him, and then he took me in his arms.
I will remember it for the rest of my life. I did not know who he was when it happened, but understood his profound importance to French life when I came back home to tell my parents about what happened.
I remember telling them then that I wanted to be De Gaulle!
When I was a kid, I was always siding with the Resistance in the playground. The army is a childhood dream that came true.
After I retired, I could not imagine myself doing nothing. Being responsible for the cemetery in Bourseville fills me with joy.
I restored some graves in the Rambouillet cemetery (Yvelines) as well. Not everybody can do that.
I’m watching out for the people who gave their blood for our liberty.