Tuesday, 24 Nov 2020

You’ve Got (Century-Old) Mail: Soldier’s Note Is Echo of World War I Era

PARIS — It was an unusual object to spot in the flat grassy fields of eastern France: A small aluminum capsule found in the middle of nowhere near Ingersheim, a town in Alsace.

Inside was another surprise: a message written in ink in Gothic-looking script on a thin slip of paper.

Jade Halaoui, who discovered the capsule while out walking with his partner in September, said that the cylinder had caught his eye in the undergrowth. “I dug it up and I cut it to see what was inside,” he told a local paper, Les Dernières Nouvelles d’Alsace.

But the document, written in spidery handwriting, was difficult to interpret. “We were wondering what the message could be hiding,” Mr. Halaoui said. “A secret? A war operation?”

The couple eventually took the capsule to the nearby Linge Memorial Museum in Orbey, where experts analyzed the note. They determined that it probably had been attached originally to a carrier pigeon, and the note appeared to have been written by a Prussian infantry officer about military drills and maneuvers around Ingersheim when Alsace was under German control. The message bears the date of July 16, but the year is unclear; it could be 1910 or 1916.

Dominique Jardy, curator of the Linge museum, said the discovery was “exceptional,” adding that the message was “impeccably” preserved.

“I’ve never seen this in 40 years,” he said in a telephone interview.

Mr. Jardy said the message was most likely written in 1910, before war broke out, noting that the information referred to a training ground and to an “adversary” rather than an enemy.

“It’s a little report on a battle simulation,” he said, including information on platoons coming under fire and retreating.

According to Robert Gildea, a professor of modern history at the University of Oxford, England, carrier pigeons were important in World War I “as a rapid and fairly secure means of communication.” Finding such a message was rare, and the military descriptions could feasibly be from 1916, when the war was raging, he added.

Mr. Jardy said that several pigeons were usually sent with the same message to ensure the missive reached its recipient. In this case, he added, the capsule probably slipped off the bird’s leg in flight.

The Linge museum, about eight miles west of Ingersheim, commemorates the history of one of the deadliest battles of World War I, waged on a hilltop known as the Linge in the Vosges mountain range in 1915. About 17,000 soldiers died, as German troops attempted to hold off the advance of the French Army toward the nearby city of Colmar.

With the help of a German friend, Mr. Jardy said that he had managed to decipher the handwriting and translate the message from an older form of German into modern French. Because the message refers to military drills, it would appear to have less historical value than records of real wartime conflict, he noted.

With so many battlefields of two world wars scattered across France, remnants and relics of the conflicts are often discovered, including physical signs on the landscape, like trenches and bunkers, and more personal items, such as shreds of clothing or ammunition.

In Maltot, northern France, a team of archaeologists is digging up and cataloging the physical remains of the Battle of Normandy, from World War II, down to pieces of shrapnel and the shreds of a dead soldier’s shoe.

Still, over a century after it was written, the age and excellent condition of the capsule found near Ingersheim stood out, Mr. Jardy said. Though his museum is closed for the winter, Mr. Jardy said he was planning to study the message further and would incorporate it into the memorial’s exhibits.

Alsace, in eastern France, was annexed to Germany in 1871 after the end of the Franco-Prussian War. The region was ceded to France after World War I under the Treaty of Versailles. During World War II, the forces of Nazi Germany occupied the area.

Aurelien Breeden reported from Paris, and Isabella Kwai from London.

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