Diary of the War: March 1917

Mousse Le Moyec

This is the tale of two events across the Channel – one in French waters on this day a hundred years ago (29 March 1917) during the First World War, and a later wreck in English waters from the Second World War, linked by a name.

The latter was one of the very first wrecks I ever encountered on the database 20 years ago, with the unusual and evocative name of Mousse Le Moyec. The name has stuck with me ever since: mousse means ‘ship’s boy’ in French (“a young sailor under the age of 17”, according to Larousse) so I always wondered who he was and why he was commemorated by having a ship named after him.

On 29 March 1917 a French sailing trawler, the Irma, took up her station 15 miles SSW of Cordouan, off the Gironde, France, with her crew of five. As she was preparing to shoot her nets, a U-boat commenced shelling the vessel, approaching closer with each shot. The ship’s boat was shot away and mousse Maurice Le Moyec, aged 14, was killed.

 

Enfant Moyec2
Commemorative plaque for mousse Maurice Le Moyec, stating his date of death as 29 March 1916 (in error for 1917). La Rochelle © and by kind permission of M Bruno Baverel

The master was seriously injured, but the other three members of the crew, the mate, aged 18, and two boys, aged 15, remained calm under fire, even though also injured, and got the little ship back to the Gironde under a jury rig. The survivors were decorated for gallantry.

After the war, a number of French colliers were built for the French Government to a standard design, each named in honour of one of those who had fallen for France. The vessel named after mousse Le Moyec was built for a company which had also lost a ship called Irma, in 1916, so it may be that there was some confusion over the ship on which young Le Moyec was lost.

This collier, commemorating a victim of the First World War, would play her part in the Second. In the 1920s and 1930s she regularly criss-crossed the Channel to pick up Welsh coal for France. After the fall of France in 1940, she was therefore a natural candidate to bring over a number of young Frenchmen to Britain, answering de Gaulle’s call for Free Frenchmen to join him in the fight against the Nazis. Their story can be read here (in French): one of those passengers was André Quelen, who is remembered here (in English).

As with so many other vessels which escaped to Britain from occupied Europe, she was then placed at the disposal of the British Government (my own father travelled on a Dutch trooper under the British flag, which had escaped the night Amsterdam fell). Mousse Le Moyec continued to ply her usual trade as a collier, but solely within English waters on the Bristol Channel – Plymouth run, until she was wrecked near Hartland Point in December 1940.

When I first encountered Mousse Le Moyec all those years ago, the internet was in its infancy and it was difficult to find out more. Thanks to the power of online resources, in particular the French pages14-18 forum, I have been able to discover the moving connection between a wreck in English waters in 1940 and the French counterpart of Jack Cornwell, of Jutland fame, who died 100 years ago today, a reminder of cross-Channel co-operation in time of war.