My Story... the true story of the Dignands et al


Jean Kessler came from, and lived most of his early life in, Ipling, a tiny village in Lorraine, a northern province of France. In 1870 the Franco-Prussian War broke out, in which the Prussians succeeded in annexing Alsace and Lorraine , taking them into the German empire. 

The populations of Alsace and Lorraine were quite different, the Alsations (yes, that's where the dogs came from) being already very Germanic. They still are, actually, as you would see if you went there.

But those in Lorraine were very French indeed, and for them life became very difficult. 

The Germans realised that if they wanted Lorraine to continue a relatively peaceful existence, they would have to find a way to stop the people thinking they were French; and, as had been a regular proceedure in many colonies, they decreed that speaking French was henceforth illegal on pain of death. This, of course, would take more than a generation to work. In fact, when I was in Ipling in 1950, age seven, to visit my rellies there, several of the villagers including my mother's uncle, could still speak no French, only German. 

At least one of the ways this decree was carried out was to get schoolchildren to talk about how their parents talked at home, with obvious disastrous results. Parents were arrested and shot.

There was one other rather crafty way in which they sought  to Germanise the province: anybody that didn't want to live as a German had a short period, I think it was about six months, to leave Lorraine for ever.

Needless to say, large numbers, mostly the young, left almost immediately. But you can imagine the way this decree affected a huge proprtion of the population. Parents didn't want to loose their children, and many of them tried to keep them in Lorraine. And children too young to leave within the stipulated period, as they grew older, decided that for one reason or another they wanted to get out, to live as French people.

And though I'm not certain about any of the above details, I'm pretty sure Jean Kessler, my maternal grandfather, and his wife Madelaine escaped to live in France.

Ipling, of course, was an agricultural village. Every house in the village was in fact a farm house, cattle living downstairs, people above. I'm not sure of the exact numbers, but my mother told me that my grandfather was one of twelve or thirteen children, his wife Madelaine coming from a family of similar size. 

Born in 1861, he would have been eleven years old at the time of the end of the Franco-Prussion war, too young at that time to have left home. He was 31 when he married Madelaine Bock in 1892. The Germans held Lorraine, and Alsace too, until the end of the first world war in 1918.

Shall I tell you about Ipling as I remember it, mostly from my first visit with just my Mother? As I said, I was seven years old. I've no real idea why my brothers were left at home in England, but that's what happened. This is going to be a bit of an aside, and it'll take some scene setting.

In 1950 we were living in England, where my brothers and I were born.  We had survived the bombings of WW2 in Plymouth, one of the most heavily bombed cities in England. By that time my father, a marine engineer, was part of the crew of a small trading ship 'Freedor'. They were mostly engaged in bringing tomatoes from Jersey to Weymouth, back and forth, back and forth. In the winter and spring they went elsewhere, but I don't remember much about that. 

So my mother wanted to visit her family in France, and the easiest way to do it was to sail with my father to Jersey, then fly to France. That was the plan. But when we arrived at Jersey airport, such as it was, we were told that despite having tickets, the flight had been cancelled because they were holding the official opening ceremony of the airport. And my Father's ship was already on its way back to Weymouth!

I remember being a little frightened by this cancellation: what were we to do? Adding to the failure of the flight, there were no beds to be had on the island due to officials visiting for the opening. Even worse, then: no planes and no beds.

We found ourselves at the police station, I suppose appealing for help. Unbelievably, help came from Police Inspector Gentilhomme (good man), who's sister, he said, had a spare room and could put us up. Mr Gentilhomme had a bit of fun with me, taking me to the cells and saying he could lock us in there if we wanted. My mother smiled, I quaked.

The next day (this is turning out to be a boy's own adventure, I suppose) we went back to the airport. Once again, no plane. 

But then we were introduced to a RAF pilot and his off-sider who were flying to France, just a hop over a tiny bit of sea, in a ... and now I'm trying to remember the aeroplane type... single-wing above the cabin, four-seater, canvas body, single engine... anyway, a very small aeroplane, possibly a Piper Cub from the illustrations. The Pilot, I remember, had a big curly moustache, the epitome of an RAF pilot.

'Problem is,' he explained, 'we only have seats for me and the co-pilot.'