La Navale is a song by French pop singer William Sheller; it is set in the early days of the 20th century, and the lyrics are about a letter sent to a young woman who cannot read by a sailor in love who loses his life when his ship founders. The lyrics read: "All what you leave behind you / Does not stand engraved on the sea" ("Tout ce que tu laisses en arrière / Ne reste pas gravé sur la mer").
The icy waves of the North Atlantic might have forever erased the name of the Lefebvres, a French family who boarded the Titanic and were all lost.
Since that night to remember when the largest and most magnificent liner that ever sailed an ocean foundered, the Lefebvres, Marie, Mathilde, Jeanne, Henri and Ida, never were officially commemorated in France or anywhere else, where, as a supreme insult, very few people could precisely spell their name.
Left behind by History and the passing of time, anonymous bodies abandoned on the flotsam of time, they were nothing but five names on the list of those passengers no one cared for, I mean 3rd class emigrants.
Then, in On vit tous la même histoire, the same William Sheller wrote: "If I linger in your memory / It means that I still live somewhere" (Si je te reste en mémoire / C'est que j'existe quelque part). In a way, I felt this sentence was a cry for help from the French passengers who were victims of the Titanic and were utterly forgotten by Anglo-Saxon historians. Here is the biography (oh! what a big word!) of the Lefebvre family, because their names are now engraved on the sea, in order to survive for ever in our memory.
The French Nord Pas-de-Calais region has many connections with the Titanic.
Cellist Roger Bricoux was living in Lille late in 1911, and early in 1912, just before he boarded the Titanic on her ill-fated maiden voyage; he was a member of the band.
Berthe Leroy was Mahala Douglas's maid, and she was born in the small village of Hersin-Coupigny, in the Pas-de-Calais department.
Maurice Debreucq, "assistant waiter" on board the ill-fated ship, was born in 1894 in Solesmes, which is a town close to Cambrai.
Samuel Goldenberg and his wife ran a business and their offices were situated in Calais, "Rue des Soupirants".
But it is in Lievin that the story of the Daumont and Lefebvre families unfolds.
At the start of the century, as if by tradition, the northern region of France was a nest of "maids", or "ladies' companions", who were really valuable to wealthy American ladies who were on holiday in France. Many of these young girls were in fact uneducated and had few demands in life; they often preferred to severe their roots and accepted to be just "Madame's maid", rather than having to take care of their home, bringing up a penniless family who was a burden to worn out parents, or having to work at some spinning factory, the only way to get a job in the region.
Marie Daumont certainly was one of these girls.
We know little of her childhood, and in fact we know quite nothing of her background. Had this mother and her family not been 3rd class passengers on the Titanic, nobody today would remember them. Her life certainly was that of a poor and joyless girl; here are the main pieces of a puzzle which will remain unachieved for ever.
Bringing up a family
Marie Daumont was born on March 18th, 1872 in Escaudain, near Valenciennes, the daughter of Anselme Daumont, a 33 year old coalminer, and of Catherine David, a 34 year old housewife. When Marie was born, neither of Anselme's witnesses could write or sign and instead the registry officer wrote: "Both witnesses state that they cannot sign". One of the witnesses was Louis Daumont, Anselme's brother, and this could prove that the family were uneducated and poor, which was typical of the region at that time.
Today, a few yellowed papers bearing the name of Marie Daumont can still be found. Leafing through them, we discover that she was a "day labourer" ("journalière"), and that she was the eldest of a large family.
We can only surmise how she met Franck Lefebvre, a collier in the region of Lens.
Franck Marie Joseph Lefebvre was born on April 14th, 1871 in the town of Aubert, near Lille. He was the son of Jules Lefebvre, a collier, and of Hortense Elise Joseph Fouant, a housewife. He was an orphan at the age of 8 (his father Jules had died on May 8th, 1879), and we can suppose that after his father's death, Franck was responsible for earning a living and supporting his family.
We can imagine that Franck and Marie met at a colliery ball, as the one which is described in Didier Decoin's excellent novel The Chambermaid of the Titanic. Perhaps did they meet after Franck left the army? He is recorded as doing his military service from 1887 to 1889.
From their relationship, a daughter, Marie, was born in Lievin on May 11th, 1889. Her mother was only 18 years old at the time, and Franck 19. By that time, Marie and Franck may not have been living together, as the young mother's address in Lievin was that of her parents at "63, rue Germain Delebecque".
On October 20th, 1890, Marie gave birth to Franck, again at her parents' address.
On June 30th, 1892, Celina, their second daughter, was born and the young couple's address was then "Rue de Lens", in Liévin, which supposes Marie and Franck had a home of their own.
It was strange, deciphering handwritings from another century on the children's records of birth, to note that all three were born at two o'clock in the morning; a few years later at the very same hour, their mother's and siblings' fate would be sealed
Franck and Marie's wedding was celebrated on January 25th, 1896, in Lievin. Why did it take so long for them to marry? Maybe the marriage would have been too expensive before that date for a family of poor colliers? When the marriage was registered, Franck and Marie acknowledged that their children Marie, Franck and Celina were born out of marriage bonds. One of their witnesses was a 29 year old collier named Desire Leroy. At the time of their marriage, Franck and Marie Lefebvre were living at "23 rue Montgolfier", in Liévin.
On May 4th, 1899, Marie Lefebvre gave birth to Mathilde.
Another son, Anselme, named after his grandfather, was born on May 22nd, 1901.
Another daughter, Jeanne, was born on October 14th, 1903.
Then, another son, Henri, was born on July 14th, 1906. The family lived then at "10, Cité Nouvelle", in Lievin.
At last, on December 26th, 1908, Ida was born; she was the couple's eighth child; their address then had changed again, to "10 rue du colonel Renard", in Liévin.
The American dream
It is not difficult to imagine the financial problems the Lefebvres must have faced bringing up such a large family. At that time, Franck considered emigrating to America. What led him to take such a decision? Le Petit Journal, a French newspaper dated Sunday June 16th, 1907, gives us an idea of what emigration involved at the time:
«From the regions of Nord, Alsace and mainly Franche-Comté, more than sixty thousand people, men of all ages, women and children, leave every year for Le Havre, where they board ships to find new jobs in America. Emigration officers roam the country, mostly populated areas where people are poor, doing the same job as when touting sergeants recruited soldiers in the past. They promise easy work, land that you never gain, high wages, riches and happiness. They certainly never mention the difficulties or misery caused by expatriation. Emigrants sign agreements and are asked to pay some money in advance before being driven from their villages in France to New York."
Perhaps the American dream and the call of fortune enticed Franck to leave his home for Mystic, Iowa. Then, during the winter months of 1910, Franck left his colliery in Lens, Lievin county, and his family, for another land, that of America, where he thought, as so many other emigrants, that he would just have to hit the ground to find a reef of gold and become a rich man. From La France du Nord, a newspaper dated April 21st, 1912, we learn that:
"Eighteen months ago, Mr Franck Lefebvre, a collier from Lievin, settled in Mystic, North America. He first asked his sons, now aged 21 and 18, to join him; then lately, he sent his wife and family a ticket ( ) in order to join them in America".
There was a mistake in the article, as Franck could not have left for America with his sons aged 21 and 18; indeed, by 1912, Marie was 23, Franck was 22, Celina was 20 and Anselme was only 11. Marie was then on the Titanic with her four youngest children, who were born after the marriage: Mathilde (born 1899), Jeanne (born 1903), Henri (born 1906), and Ida (born 1908). Then, we can state that Franck left France for Iowa with four of his children, who were old enough to work, and maybe if we except young Anselme to marry.
In the spring of 1912, although Franck was still unemployed in Mystic, he had saved enough money for his whole family to join him in America. He had not realised that the liner would stop in Cherbourg, and bought tickets for a departure from Southampton.
On the Titanic
We have no record of Marie and her four children's departure; the only hint we have is from La France du Nord, dated April 21st, 1912:
"The emigrants, following the indications of the White Star Line, went to Le Havre on April 8th, and boarded the Titanic in Southampton."
Why did Franck choose the White Star Line and the Titanic? Combination of circumstances? Chance? Yet, "thirty five shipping lines are fighting over this profitable kind of travellers", do we learn in the press.
Marie was bringing in cash £160 (or $800), and £60 (about $300) worth of clothing; Judith Geller also states that Marie left with her household furnishings from Lievin to Mystic: maybe were they in the Titanic's cargo hold?
Titanica Encyclopedia states that Marie's 3rd class ticket, number 4133, cost Franck £25, 9s, 4d (Judith Geller says £35, or $172,26).
It is difficult to describe the atmosphere when the Lefebvres boarded the Titanic, or even what it was like waiting to board in Southampton. Le Petit Journal tells us what a 3rd class crowd waiting at St-Lazare train station in Paris looked like, and it is not difficult to transpose the same scene in Southampton on April 10th, 1912:
"On every Friday, the Saint-Lazare train station becomes a stage where a show which is at the same time colourful and heartrending takes place. It is the day when the emigrants leave. The vast Waiting Room fills with strange groups of people, men with sun-tanned faces, with Tyrolese hats embellished with cock feathers, women in gaudy dresses, multi coloured shawls over their heads and tied under their chins, Hungarians, Greeks, Dalmats, Croats, Calabrians, Sicilians, poor people from many countries who abandon their lands which have been unable to feed them and cross the ocean to find a job. ( ) They will be ( ) stacked with luggage. ( ) In the waiting room they stay for hours, silent, sitting on their flat knapsacks; men smoking their pipes, women feeding their small ones at their breasts. On their faces fatigue and stupor can be read And yet, those poor wretches have undertaken but a very small part of their sad exodus. ( ) Tomorrow, they will board at Le Havre, bound to the New World, where they hope work is awaiting them, and life will be easier, and where they may even make a fortune, maybe and from where a very few will ever come back."
In the same paper, we learn that "in these human herds which every week leave Europe for America, it is rare to meet French folks". Indeed, it seems that the Lefebvres were the only French citizens in 3rd class on the Titanic. Like other women travelling alone, Marie had a cabin at the stern of the ship; she certainly had little time to enjoy the crossing, watching over her four children. However, 3rd class on the Titanic was remarkable in many ways; in 1911, The Shipbuilder, a nautical review, dedicated a lengthy article to it, even publishing photographs of the different 3rd class areas. The Titanic's 3rd class restaurant, situated on F-Deck and divided in two by a watertight bulkhead, could "only" sit 473 people at one sitting, and the restaurant was to organize a second sitting to satisfy the 710 emigrants that the liner carried. Among the larger families were the Goodwins (8 people), the Rices (6 people), the Skoogs (6 people), the Paulssons (5 people), the Kinks (5 people), the Anderssons (8 people) and the Sages (11 people).
While strolling the Second Class deck, Juliette Laroche, a young French passenger who was leaving Villejuif (in the suburbs of Paris where she lived) for Haiti with her husband and their two daughters, caught sight of a family, certainly on a lower deck, in 3rd class. She wrote to her father:
"This morning, I counted the children on the ship, and only in second class, I am certain that there are more than twenty. There is a small family which reminds me of my Uncle's, the youngest child is very much like plump Marcelle".
Was Juliette Laroche writing about the Lefebvres?
Stewards took care of 3rd class passengers; they worked under chief steward James W. Kieran's orders. In order to avoid as many troubles as possible, there was an interpreter, named L. Muller, for steerage passengers: there was on the Titanic over thirty different nationalities and over twenty different languages were spoken!
On the evening of April 10th, after just a few hours at sea, Marie certainly was puzzled to see the Titanic cast anchor in the harbour of Cherbourg, France. Franck could have saved some money had he been aware of the stop over in Normandy, instead of buying a ticket from Great Britain, which had compelled his family to undertake a long and costly trip from Liévin to Le Havre, then by boat from Le Havre to Southampton Had Marie read the French press, here is what she would have found in Cherbourg-Éclair that evening:
"( ) For millionaires who will be willing to book one of the suites with a private promenade and a private deck, the price of a trip to America will be of 21.525,00 French Francs. It is true that for about one hundredth of this sum, people will be allowed to be on the same ship', in third class, but with the same chances of safely reaching the shore".
On April 14th, 1912, Marie certainly thought of Franck: it was his 41st birthday and he was far from her; soon, the whole family would be together. The crossing so far was the smoothest one one could have dreamt of, New York being just a few days away, and soon a train would be carrying them through more or less two thousand kilometres of glorious landscapes, along the Grand Lakes, towards Iowa. An amateur of literature would have been delighted at the prospect of a train journey similar to Phileas Fogg's in Jules Verne's famous novel In the evening, the children would have been fast asleep and tired from the fresh ocean air; Marie would have been watching over them in their refreshing sleep. How amazing the bustle and noise that suddenly stirred 3rd class must have sounded The shouts and clamouring, the anxious faces, and the questions being asked in many languages she could not understand certainly puzzled her and alarmed the children Even the word "iceberg" must have sounded strange to her ears: it was not a household word for poor miners from the north of France in 1912. Perhaps did she think for an instant that there was talk of a village she certainly knew, Isbergues, which was situated about 40 kilometres away from Liévin? Could Marie read? How could this young woman looking after four very young children understand the danger that was looming over them? She never managed to reach the boat deck. Walter Lord, in A Night to Remember, described how some of the 3rd class female passengers were saved:
"Down in third class there were those who didn't even have a chance to miss going in (boat) No. 1. A swarm of men and women milled around the foot of the main steerage staircase, all the way aft on E-deck. They had been there ever since the stewards got them up. At first, there were just women and married couples; but then the men arrived from forward, pouring back along Scotland Road' with their luggage. Now they were all jammed together noisy and restless, looking more like inmates than passengers amid the low ceilings, the naked light bulbs, the scrubbed simplicity of the plain white walls. Third-class steward John Edward Hart struggled to get them into life jackets. He didn't have much luck partly because he was also assuring them there was no danger, partly because many of them didn't understand English anyhow. Interpreter Muller did the best he could with the scores of Finns and Swedes, but it was slow going. At 12.30 orders came down to send the women and children up to the boat deck. It was hopeless to expect them to find their way alone through the maze of passages normally sealed off from third class; so Hart decided to escort them in little groups. This took time too, but at last a convoy was organized and started off. It was a long trip up the broad stairs to the third class lounge on C-deck across the open well deck by the second class library and into first-class quarters. Then down the long corridor by the surgeon's office, the private saloon for the maids and valets of first-class passengers, finally up the grand stairway to the boat deck. Hart led his group to No. 8, but even then, the job was not over. As fast as he got them in, they would jump out and go inside where it was warm. It was after one o'clock when Hart got back to E-deck to organize another trip. It was no easier. Many women still refused to go. On the other hand, some of the men now insisted on going. But that was out of the question, according to the orders he had. Finally he was off again on the same long trek. It was 1.20 by the time he reached the boat deck and led the group to No. 15. No time to go back for more. Murdoch ordered him into the boat and off he went with his second batch at about 1.30."
Marie and her four children were not amongst these passengers. Maybe she had been waiting too long for her turn to come, with the third convoy which would never leave? Walter Lord stated: "There was no hard-and-fast policy." The crew had not given up the passengers in 3rd class, they were acting at random.
In France as well as in America, we can imagine what fear must have crushed the spirits of the Daumont and Lefebvre families when the tidings of the sinking reached shore: "We received no tidings of Mme Lefebvre and her children. If nothing prevented their departure, they certainly took passage on the liner. In this case, are they among the rescued' or are they lost ? ? Mme Lefebvre's parents are anxiously awaiting news from the emigration offices", wrote La France du Nord on April 21st, 1912.
The bodies of the members of the Lefebvre family never were recovered, and if so, they were not identified.
There were about 710 passengers in 3rd class on board the Titanic (this number is the official one stated at the American Senate enquiry). Of these 710 passengers, 417 men were lost; 69 survived. 105 women and children were saved; 119 were lost; the families Lefebvre, Sage, Goodwin, Skoog, Rice, Andersson and Paulsson are 45 names on this bleak death roll Many lifeboats such as No. 1 might have saved them all
75% of 3rd class passengers were lost that night.
When Franck Lefebvre rushed to the Cook offices or to the White Star Line offices nearest to Mystic, he was not aware of the terrible news awaiting him: none of his whole family was on any list of "survivors"; when he addressed the Red Cross Relief Committee, they opened his personal file and discovered that he had illegally entered the United States, providing "false and misleading statements" to the immigration officials on Ellis Island! Crushed with sorrow, he was deported to Europe with his children in August 1912. His name appears on the lists of war casualties, but it must have been his son, who, as we know, had the same first name.
What happened to Franck Lefebvre? We do not know precisely, yet it is possible to track him, although the threads are very thin. The first time his name was mentioned after the Titanic sinking was in the city of Lens, but we have no precise date for this. From November 14th, 1914 to August 23rd, 1915, Franck worked in the coalmines of the town of Bruay. Then, he certainly was called up because of the war, although his name still appears "during the war" on the roll calls of the Clarence coalmine; this precise coalmine was the worse one, where they sent Communists and woodenheads, the deepest one, the most dangerous one of the area. The miners dug it down to 3600 feet. Men worked down there naked so scorching was the heat. Franck certainly kept in mind the disaster that occurred at the Clarence coalmine on September 3rd, 1912, when 79 miners died. He did not stay there and was sent to « pit No. 6 » in Bruay.
The fact that the documents we found only refer to the name "Lefebvre" (there are no first-names in the papers) makes it all the more difficult to track him.
Franck and his son Anselme were famous in the area where they lived and they had an important social life. Their leisure hours were spent on typical activities of the Artois and Flandres regions: they bet on cockfights and were members of the city's band, called "Harmonie Municipale" in French. One "Lefebvre" is reported as "the drummer", and again as "the cock fighter", but we are absolutely unable to state who was who, or even if these nicknames refer to one or two men.
It also appears that a man called Lefebvre ran a bar and a shop in the town of Haillicourt; as that man's family situation states that he had "2 children" only, we understand that he was Franck and not Anselme or Franck Jr. (whom we surmise had died on the battlefield). It is only after the war that we can find a tangible evidence on Franck Lefebvre: the archives of Charbonnages de France (the French National Coal Board), section of the town of Noyelles-sous-Lens, still houses his superannuating tax file. In it we learn that he was listed in the Communist section and that from August 4th, 1920 until April 21st, 1929, he was working as a collier at pit No. 1 in the town of Haillicourt. His personal employment book (bearing the number 1701) reads as follows: "Widower. Date of death of spouse: April 14th, 1912". This is the only official notice that Marie died on the Titanic, but nothing about her children. We can imagine Franck as a broken man, worn out by so much sadness and grief. His employment book also reads: "2nd fortnight March, 1929: hurt. 1st fortnight April, 1929: hurt. 2nd fortnight April, 1929: sick". On April 21st, 1929, Franck Lefebvre no longer went to work, after "eight years and ten months" faithful service. The last sentence in his book reads: "Gone without notice" on April 21st, 1929.
Franck Lefebvre died at age 77, on June 20th, 1948, in Haillicourt. That's where he is buried. His record of death was signed by Anselme Lefebvre, "son of the deceased". So far, nobody can tell what happened to him between 1929 and the date of his death.
On October 16th, 1926, Anselme married Joséphine Demont. They had a daughter who, so far, refuses sharing her memories with us. The only thing we know about her is that she married one Mr. Lemaire and that they had a daughter and a son. Anselme died on May 26th, 1970.
What happened to Franck and Marie's daughters, Marie and Celina?
We know nothing of Celina.
As for Marie, she married and had three daughters. One of them married in America one Dr Bury, who used to run the marathon in Paris. Sometimes, he would visit his wife's family in the north of France but they did not keep in touch through the years.
On March 30th, 2002, an important meeting took place on Jules Vallès square, in Liévin. The Deputy Mayor of the city had accepted the project of the Association Française du Titanic and a monument to the Lefebvre family was just about to be unveiled. The ceremony was full of dignity and all the people who attended it were moved to tears. The monument is a small wall of bricks on which a plaque was screwed, on both sides. The names of the Lefebvres are engraved in the metal and the last words are just: "Passers by, remember them". That was all we could hope to pay them a convenient tribute.
Olivier Mendez is editor of Latitude 41, journal of the Association Française du Titanic