Category: Basques in World War I

May 29, 1893: Birth of Basque adventurer Marga d’Andurain

On May 29, 1893, Marguerite Clérisse was born in Baiona. Known by her married name, Marga d’Andurain, she would go on to gain a certain degree of fame and even notoriety  in interwar Europe as a libertine adventurer.

Born into a bourgeois family in the capital of Lapurdi, she received a religious education, including some time spent at the Ursuline institute in Hondarribia, Gipuzkoa. In 1911 she married her cousin, Pierre d’Andurain, a member of the Andurain family, owners of the Château de Maÿtie or Château d’Andurain in Maule, Zuberoa. Pierre was a lover of exotic travels and on marrying the couple immediately traversed Spain, Portugal, Morocco, and Algeria. In 1912 they embarked on a journey to Latin America, where they intended to take up cattle ranching. However, the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 brought Pierre back to Europe to enlist in the French army and he was wounded in 1916.

After the war, the couple, now with two sons, Jean-Pierre and Jacques, settled in Cairo where they were involved in trade and commerce. With Pierre unable to travel because of his war wounds, Marga decided to carry on exploring the world on her own. In the company of an Englishwoman, Baroness Brault and a member of the British Secret Intelligence Service, she visited Palestine (under a British mandate after World War I) and Syria (under French Mandate), falling in love with the Syrian city of Palmyra. She relocated the family there in 1927, with the intention once more of establishing a cattle ranch. However, the couple ended up running a local hotel there. Here, in the context of the escalating tension of interwar Europe and in a highly sensitive geopolitical area, rumor has it that she was involved in espionage on behalf of Britain, although nothing seems to have been verified on that count. Visitors to the hotel included Agatha Christie and King Alfonso XIII of Spain.

In 1933, she came up with a daring plan to be the first Western woman to visit Mecca, the holiest city in Islam and only accessible to Muslims. In order to do so, she legally divorced Pierre and entered into a marriage of convenience in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, with a Bedouin, Sulaiman Abdulaziz Dikmari, although he died soon after. Subsequently, her plans to visit Mecca, Medina, and Unaizah, before crossing six hundred miles of desert to Hofuf and going on to the island of Bahrain, turned into a nightmare. She was arrested in Jeddah and accused of having killed her new “husband.” In the trial under Koranic law the prosecution demanded that she be stoned to death, but ultimately she was declared innocent and, through French diplomatic pressure, released. The trial itself was somewhat of a cause célèbre, attracting press attention from all over Europe and the US.

On her release, she remarried Pierre but after he died, she returned to France in 1937. One of the many rumors that surround her life there is the allegation that she was an opium dealer in Nazi-occupied Paris during the 1940s, as a cover for her spying duties. She died in 1948, very much in the same kind of circumstances in which she had lived her life. While sailing off of the coast of Morocco, which some observers allege also had to do with drugs smuggling, she was reputedly thrown overboard by the skipper of her yacht in November that year. She was fifty-five years old and her body was never recovered.

Many stories have circulated about Andurain, most of them unverified. In texts she penned herself, she claimed to have inherited the adventurous spirit of the Basques. Sh spoke fluent Arabic and wrote especially about women’s lives in the Muslim world she knew so well.

The Andurain family name lived on, though. Her son Jacques is said to have fired the first shot in anger on the part of the French Resistance in World War II: on August 13, 1941, from a Baby Browning 6.35 mm gun that actually belonged to his mother.  And her granddaughter, Julie d’Andurain, is a well-known French historian.

 

Basques in World War One

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“To its sons who died in the war. The village of Biriatu.” Plaque dedicated to the fallen soldiers in both World Wars of a small town in Lapurdi.

The recent remembrance events associated with Veteran’s Day in the US and Armistice Day/Remembrance Day in Europe serve as a timely reminder of the horrors of war. The origins of these events lie in the close of World War I, the so-called Great War, in which hostilities officially came to an end at the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918.

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“War Declared – Long Live France!” World War I is seen as a catalyst in fostering a more widespread feeling of French national identity. The Basque-language weekly Eskualduna, August 7, 1914, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

As in many other parts of Europe, Iparralde lost a whole generation (or more) of young men in the service of the French armed forces during World War I, in which the loss of life surpassed anything previously thought imaginable. With all able-bodied males between 18 and 45 conscripted to fight in the French armed forces during the war, the rural baserri-based economy of Iparralde also suffered from this conflict. It has been estimated that some 6,000 men from Iparralde died during the war, a figure that was perhaps around 5 percent of its total population. In the words of James E. Jacob:

The war proved to be a watershed for the basques in two essential ways . . . For many rural Basque villages, the war simply severely reduced two generations of males and, with them, the reproductive capacity of the village . . . With the youth went the economic future; if the losses of war were not already enough, many of those who remained migrated to the coastal cities and elsewhere and would not return.

The second consequence of World War I was its impact on Basque culture. In these villages of the interior lay the vitality of Basque culture and the burden of its linguistic population. Loss by death was sudden and abrupt. But the return of demobilized Basque soldiers now committed to cultural assimilation into French society posed a longer threat to Basque culture . . . Coupled with the economic marginality of life in rural villages, the incentive to speak french was doubly persuasive; many parents viewed it as the key to success and upward mobility.

Like elsewhere in Europe, young men from the same local communities served in the same regiments or battalions in order to foster a spirit of comradeship. However, seeing the devastating effect that this had on these same communities during and after the conflict, the policy was reversed in World War II (the difference is telling in the list of casualties from both wars in the plaque above). Europe is at present holding a series of 100th-anniversary remembrance events to commemorate the Great War of 1914-1918. Its historical impact on the society of Iparralde should not be underestimated.

Further reading: 

As well as Jacob’s Hills of Conflict, check out Igor Ahedo Gurrutxaga’s The Transformation of National Identity in the Basque Country of France, 1789-2006.  For a more general overview see Cameron Watson’s Modern Basque History, free to download here.  See, too, Eneko Bidegain’s fascinating history of impact of the war on Iparralde, published in both Basque and French. And if you do read Basque, then Xipri Arbelbide’s 14eko gerla 14 lekuko offers a fascinating oral history of the war in the words of eight men and six women from the Basque Country who lived through it.

 

Maitia nun zira? New documentary about Basque prisoners in World War I

A short documentary titled Maitia nun zira? (Where are you, darling?) has just been presented by the Euskal Kultur Erakundea (Basque Cultural Institute) and Mondragon University (MU). Made by two  MU students, Elena Canas and Ainara Menoyo, the documentary is based on original recordings, made during World War I , of Basque prisoners of war from Iparralde being held by German forces.

The recordings were made between 1915 and 1918 by the Royal Prussian Phonographic Commission, a special body established by Kaiser Wilhelm II to record the different voices–and, indeed, languages–of prisoners of war being held by the German forces. The Royal Prussian Phonographic Commission visited more than 70 camps between 1915 and 1918, recording more than 250 languages and dialects as they attempted to draw an oral map of Europe.

In 2014, recordings of soldiers speaking and even singing in Basque were passed on by the Ethnological Museum of Berlin and Humboldt University in Berlin to the Basque Cultural Institute in Iparralde. This amazing fragment of an important part of Basque history is available online and we encourage you all to take a look. Even if you don’t know any Basque, it’s still an incredibly moving testament. The documentary includes both the original recordings themselves as well as a number of well-known Basque figures reading out transcripts of the soldiers’ thoughts and wishes, and reflecting on what they have read.

For more information on the project click here (Basque) or here (French).