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It is the most touching, the cruelest story of the war that I tell, a story of the purest and most brutal symbolism.” In these words, written in the 1930s, the French journalist Paul Bringuier revealed to his readers the tale of a “living unknown soldier,” the man they called “Anthelme Mangin.” But in his excellent book, Jean-Yves Le Naour shows how much more touching and cruel this man’s real story was, and how impure its symbolism became. Le Naour has achieved the most piercing account I have ever read of the ghosts who crowd the landscape after a modern war.

They found him, so Bringuier related, in a railroad station at Lyon. It was early morning on February 1, 1918. A hospital train bringing exchanged prisoners of war from Germany had arrived at Lyon-Brotteaux a few hours before, but its occupants had long since been welcomed by their families and taken away. Only one man remained, wandering along the silent platforms.

They asked him who he was, but he could only mumble. He was wearing the remains of a French uniform, but the unit tags were all missing. In his pockets, there was no money and no identity papers, nothing but a cigarette lighter made out of an old cartridge case. He was young, perhaps in his late twenties, and had a dark mustache. The railroad staff saw that he was sick, scarcely aware of his surroundings.

They summoned army medics. Equally baffled, the military doctors sent the stranger to a mental hospital at Bron, on the Lyon outskirts. At one point, when asked who he was, he muttered a reply. It was very indistinct, but sounded roughly like “Anthelme Mangin.” So Anthelme Mangin he became.

He was to remain confined in France’s grim empire of psychiatric hospitals for twenty-four years, until his death in 1942. Most of his time was spent in an asylum at Rodez, in the hills of the Aveyron, whose director was Dr. Fenayrou, an exceptionally humane and patient physician. Given the storms of emotion and publicity which were to break over him, Mangin was lucky to have such a protector.

For Anthelme Mangin was about to become a celebrity. The mystery of his identity converged with the grief and guilt of a nation trying to overcome the trauma of the war, the delusions of bereaved families unable to accept their losses, and the fascination of intellectuals who were to construct a small genre of literature around “the only truly free man, as he was without past, without memory, without hatred….” Jean Anouilh wrote a play about him, Traveler Without Luggage, staged in 1937. The Mangin case also became political, as the extreme nationalist right and the liberal left took up the causes of rival claimants to family relations with him. It became a legal legend, as French courts wrangled for years over what should be done with him. And it became a feast for the French press. New “revelations” about him, almost all phony, made regular headlines in the decades between the two world wars. Some good reporters dug up evidence that the bureaucracy could have discovered years before. Others, like the writer Paul Bringuier, invented facts and quotes in sensational articles whose impact often derailed the search for Mangin’s true origins.

The uproar surrounding this lonely victim was one of many outcomes of the most terrible war in French experience. France had lost a million and a half men between 1914 and 1918. But some 400,000 of these had no known grave. Twentieth-century warfare, tearing bodies to fragments or burying them under mountains of mud and clay, had created a new category of suffering for families: they were told that a relative was “missing presumed dead,” or merely “missing.” This in turn created new categories of mourning for the disparus: the cult of waiting in hope, the unofficial search groups with their bulletins and journals, the compulsive public credulity toward swindlers and impostors, the huge boom in spiritualism for communicating with the vanished as well as with the dead. (Both complexes, the new suffering and the new mourning, were to enter New York life after September 11.) Myths abounded. One of them, popular in wartime, asserted that the missing were in secret German prison camps, being used as slave labor and forbidden to write letters home. When they failed to return after the Armistice, rumor spread that the Germans had murdered them.

It was from this need to mourn in new ways that the “unknown soldier” concept emerged. Originally, it was intended to comfort the families of the missing. The tomb of a single unidentified soldier would become a collective grave where the bereaved relations of the lost men could come together and fulfill their need to grieve. It was only later that the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier became in France and other countries a national shrine, in effect dedicated not only to the missing but to all the nation’s Great War dead and their “supreme sacrifice.” As usual in France, politics tripped up the project at several points. The first “unknown” corpse exhumed at Verdun turned out to be Senegalese, so he was reburied and replaced by a white body. Then right-wingers objected to placing the Inconnu in the Panthéon in Paris, because the “unpatriotic” Émile Zola already lay there. L’inconnu ended up at the Arc de Triomphe.

Anthelme Mangin was an unknown soldier too, but he was alive. The doctors puzzled over him, and spent hours trying to coax him into coherent speech or writing. They were convinced that his condition was the result of battle trauma. But in the First World War, the French authorities refused to recognize the condition of “shell shock,” which would have put legal responsibility for him on the war itself and on the state that had declared it. Instead, the official line was that symptoms of deep shock, including amnesia, must derive from a preexisting medical condition which was merely rendered acute by combat. At Bron and Rodez, the staff diagnosed Mangin as suffering from dementia praecox—the early term for what was soon renamed schizophrenia. They listed symptoms—persecution complex, silent apathy, and an apparently total loss of memory—and stated that his condition was irreversible.

For a year or so, French asylums held dozens of shattered amnesiacs who had returned from captivity with no papers and no memory of their past. But gradually almost all were retrieved by their families. A new law in 1919 allowed the missing to be presumed dead after two years of silence, so that their widows could inherit their property and remarry. A kind of normality was returning, but in the Rodez asylum Dr. Fenayrou wondered what to do about the silent Mangin, still unclaimed. For one thing, an absurd bureaucratic impasse had arisen. Mangin had been granted the highest level of war-injury pension by one ministry. But another ministry declared that he was not entitled to touch the pension money because, having no official identity, he did not exist. His case reached the French parliament, where the government was blasted for slighting the needs of helpless veterans who had suffered crippling mental wounds “pour la patrie.” After an angry debate, it was decided in 1922 that the newspapers should perform “an act of sacred patriotism” by publishing Mangin’s photograph, along with those of five other amnesiacs.

A rush of claimants now headed for Rodez. Over three hundred families begged to be allowed to meet Mangin. Most of them were mothers or wives, determined to repossess the son or husband whose picture they had “recognized” in the papers. Some of them were in pathological denial. The nightmarish Brille family, for example, told many lies about their son Victor, who later turned out to have died a fully notified death at the front in 1915, followed by burial in a war cemetery. The Brilles told the press that the man at Rodez had spoken to them and had agreed that he was Victor Brille. When Dr. Fenayrou objected that he had been present at the meeting and that nothing of the kind had happened, Madame Brille called him a sadist and a liar.

But the Brilles were not typical. And, remarkably, none of the claimants seems to have been after Mangin’s money, the frozen pension rumored (wrongly) to amount to a fortune. The motive for almost all of them was love, the stubborn, irrational love that refused to abandon hope or to stop waiting for the dead to return. They would meet the inmate at Rodez and then, although he might be entirely the wrong size or the wrong complexion, or lacking the old scars and birth blemishes of their beloved, they would recognize him as their missing man. They “knew” it was he, and only they could know.

Jean-Yves Le Naour’s book not only rediscovers the details of the Mangin case and the cult that grew up around him, but examines—with sharp critical intelligence—their political, scientific, and literary significance. Self-delusion of a similar kind over missing persons has a long history, and it has always had its place in drama, songs, and novels. Le Naour quotes a sketch by Borges about the “Tichborne Case,” which he assumes to be a Borgesian fiction. But the case was real, and it rocked Victorian England. The heir to the opulent Tichborne estates had vanished in a shipwreck. Many years later, an uncouth figure arrived, claiming he was from Australia, announced that he had survived the wreck, and asserted his right to the family fortune. Nobody would have taken him seriously (he was in fact a failed butcher from Wapping, in London’s East End) if Lady Tichborne, the missing heir’s mother, had not declared that she recognized and accepted the claimant as her son.

A mother’s instinct, English juries supposed, could not be mistaken. It took huge sums in lawyers’ fees and years of litigation before the false Tichborne was exposed and jailed. In contrast, Dr. Fenayrou in the Rodez asylum displayed a combination of psychiatric insight and compassion that puts the Tichborne contenders to shame. Very occasionally, he thought that he might have found his patient’s real family. Mostly, though, he knew that the families trying to cajole a word or gesture out of Mangin could not possibly be related to him. But that truth was not the end of the story for Fenayrou. Grief and love had their own rights, and he understood that some of the self-deluding women might give his patient a happy home. He almost managed to allot him to the Mazenc family from Rodez, well knowing that he could not possibly be their lost “Albert.” But new witnesses appeared at the final release hearing who insisted so fatally that this was not Albert Mazenc (no stammer, no tattoo, no Aveyron dialect) that Fenayrou had to drop the plan.

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