Pierre Marie Georges Maréchal was born in Paris, France on 18 January 1883.
His parents, who hailed from Paris and Eure-et-Loir, respectively, were Eugène Albert Maréchal (1840-1904), and Marie Anne Sydonie Alexandrine Deguerry (b. circa 1856), who were married in Paris on 8 April 1874. His father was the Vice Admiral of the French Navy.
A well-known aviator, Maréchal was a representative of the Paris-based Louis Paulhan & Compagnie, an aviation company, the leading member of which was Louis Paulhan, also a noted French aviator.
In April 1912 Maréchal was sent on an errand to New York—his first ever trip to the United States—to finalise a contract with the Curtiss Aviation Company of Hammondsport, New York, whereby the Paulhan company would manufacture and sell the Curtiss motors and other of the Curtiss aviation devices, and sell the same under royalty in all European territories, excepting the empires of Russia, Germany and Italy. He boarded the Titanic at Cherbourg as a first class passenger (ticket number 11774 which cost £29, 14s) and whilst aboard he occupied cabin C-47.
During the voyage, Maréchal came into the acquaintance of other French passengers and made new acquaintances among the Americans and British, including the young newlywed Lucian P. Smith. On the night of 14 April Maréchal was joined for a card game in his stateroom by Paul Chevré, Alfred Omont and Lucien Smith (another account places the men in the Café Parisien or in “the saloon”). Before leaving his cabin for the last time, Maréchal swept up the playing cards, which were White Star Line-branded, and placed them in his pocket (expecting to return to the game shortly), as well as a book he had been reading during the voyage, The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. A New York newspaper later said of his escape:
He [Maréchal] said in substance that he was in his stateroom with four companions engaged in a game of whist, when the ship collided with the ice. The shock, which was slight, was yet apparent to each man about the card table. Mr. Marechel [sic] with the others passed out of the stateroom and proceeded through the series of decks. Aside from encountering other inquiring passengers, among none of whom was any alarm exhibited, he was able to discover nothing amiss, and shortly he returned to his card game.
A few minutes elapsed when the party was again disturbed by the sound of hurrying feet on the decks above and by the shouts of stentorian orders rising above when (sic) was then growing to be a babel of noise and confusion. Again Mr. Marechel and companions issued to the decks, to find the wildest confusion prevalent.
Marechel hurried his way to the bridge in close proximity to Captain Smith. Marechel remained there until he heard issued the order for all passengers to avail themselves of life belts. Even then, he said, he did not feel that there was cause for alarm, as he had heard the boasted invincibility of the Titanic so exploited that he had come to regard the ship as practically unsinkable.
However, he went to his stateroom, donned a heavy coat and placed his lifebelt on over his outer clothing. He then went on deck and when he saw a boat descending from the davits, with but a partial load of passengers, Marechel dropped the height of one boat and landed in the boat. The first person he encountered was a woman in a decoleite gown, who had been in the salon enjoying the concert when the collision occurred. Marechel removed his, overcoat and placed it about the woman, and then busied himself at the oars. There were only three other men with him in the boat, and Marechel says that he and his male companions devoted themselves entirely to a strain of bombastic talk of how soon their rescue would come in order to assure the minds of the women passengers.
Elmira Star Gazette, 25 April 1912
Maréchal and his French friends Chevré and Omont left the Titanic in the first lifeboat to be launched, lifeboat 7; early interviews state that the boat pulled Maréchal out of the water after a forty-minute swim in the Atlantic, his chilly bath not even dislodging his monocle, but interviews only a few days stated the truth that he jumped into the boat as it was lowering. Maréchal observed that his lifeboat could easily have taken more people aboard, stating that there were only around twenty persons in total within the craft. Speaking of the sinking, he said:
“When three-quarters of a mile away we stopped. The spectacle before our eyes was in its way magnificent. In a very calm sea, beneath a sky moonless but sown with millions of stars, the enormous Titanic lay on the water, illuminated from the water line to the boat deck. The bow was slowly sinking into the black water.”
“Resting there, we watched her disappearing foot by foot.”
“By 2 o'clock the stern alone was visible. Suddenly every light went out.”
“What was happening on her after deck at that moment must have been heartrending, for we heard for more than a half hour unceasing cries which to describe would pass the power of language. A cry still more terrible and long was heard, and the Titanic disappeared forever.”
The Sun, 21 April 1912
Speaking of the aftermath in later interview, he said:
… cries from the passengers in the water could be heard, sometimes the cries would be a single call for help and again a wild, agonised chorus for succour. One by one the cries for assistance died away, and at last all was still. Marechel [sic] states the awful solemnity of the moment will dwell with him forever.
Elmira Star Gazette, 25 April 1912
Coming off the Carpathia in New York, Maréchal gave his next of kin as his mother back in Paris and stated his destination as the Knickerbocker Hotel in New York. He was described as standing at 5’ 6” and having fair hair and blue eyes and with a fair complexion. Having lost his baggage, money and identity papers, he was assisted by various relief committees. Several items did survive with him, including a monocle, his Sherlock Holmes book and the playing cards he and his friends had been using at the time of the collision. Whilst aboard the Carpathia he and his compatriots signed the cards and posted them home to friends and family back in France.
Maréchal continued on to Hammondsport where he satisfactorily closed negotiations with the Curtiss Aviation Company, after which he went to Bath, New York to be the guest of Monroe Wheeler, president of that company.
Having planned to spend a month in the USA, the ordeal that Maréchal had lived through gave him second thoughts and he decided to return to France as soon as possible. On 25 April 1912 he boarded the Savoie of the French Line, bound for Le Havre, and the press were there to see him off, noting that that ship had more than ample lifeboats to cater for those aboard.
In the following years several New York newspapers inaccurately ascribed several heroic acts during WWI by another French aviator, Anselm Maréchal, to Pierre himself. Pierre had inadvertently precluded himself from any sort of combat during that conflict as a result of injuries sustained earlier in life.
Pierre settled in London where he began a relationship with Elizabeth Marie Castelli (b. 4 April 1875), although the couple were never officially married (although Elizabeth assumed the Maréchal surname as her own). Elizabeth Castelli, better known as Lily, was born in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul, Turkey) to a Turkish-born merchant father, Ariston Vincenzo Castelli and an English mother from Liverpool, Charlotte Frances Hamilton. She had been married in 1896 to Thomas Dominick Castelli (b. 5 August 1863), a secretary to a public company, who had also originated in Constantinople; there were no children from that union and Elizabeth and Thomas eventually separated, although there is no record that they were ever divorced.
Pierre and Lily had a son together, Jean Pierre, who was born in London on 4 October 1915 and who was destined to be their only child. The family lived together for several years at 21 Sussex Mansions in Kensington, London but Pierre eventually returned to Paris in the mid-1930s.
Pierre Maréchal in 1918, seated second from right, with other French veterans
Second from the left, seated, is Lieut. Garros, the famous French aviator, who recently escaped from a German prison and reached France after a series of remarkable adventures. Marechal, second from the right, also escaped from Germany. The picture was taken at a reception by the French Aero Club in honor of the escapes. - The Sun, 21 April 1918
Pierre Maréchal died in Paris on 22 February 1942 and was buried in Cimetière de Bailly Cemetery.
His common-law wife Lily never remarried and spent her final years living at 93 Langley Hill in Kings Langley, Hertfordshire. She died in hospital on 16 July 1950, having also outlived her son Jean Pierre.
Pierre’s son Jean Pierre in the 1940s
Gloucestershire Echo, 27 June 1949
Following school Jean Pierre Maréchal worked as an automobile mechanic and was married in 1942 to Brigid Zohra MacNamara (b. circa 1920); they had a son named Christian in 1945 and settled at Sydenham Road in Cheltenham where Maréchal opened a small auto-repair business. Also a racing driver, by 1948 he was a member of Ecurie du Lapin Blanc HRG sports car team and competed in numerous races. On 26 June 1948 he made his debut at Le Mans, driving an Aston Martin DB2 in an endurance race with five teammates. It was during that debut race that the brakes of Maréchal’s vehicle failed and the car left the road and overturned whilst navigating a difficult corner. The incident caused him a fractured spine and other injuries, leaving him a serious condition, and he died the following day with his wife by his side. He was buried in France.
His widow Brigid remarried to the renowned racing driver Leslie Johnson (1912-1959), who later died from a heart attack, and later again to Leslie Henry George Waite (1908-1988), an auctioneer. She remained in Cheltenham for a time but died in Sherborne, Dorset on 17 January 2018 aged in her late nineties.
In 1998 the playing cards that Maréchal had mailed back home to France came back into the spotlight; his wife had later had them framed as important mementoes and they remained in the family. They were later put up for sale by Maréchal’s grandson. Expected to sell at over £25,000, bidding stopped £13,000 below the reserve price.