French teenager finds family link to Great War shipwreck off Norfolk coast
PUBLISHED: 14:48 24 January 2019 | UPDATED: 09:10 25 January 2019
As Europe was drowning in the mud and blood of the First World War, the story of four French sailors dying at sea off the north Norfolk coast remained unknown to many.
But the fate of the ketch St Francois has always haunted 78-year-old Frenchman Eloi Fournier, whose grandfather, Louis Vasseur, was one of the sailors on board.
Now, thanks to research by Mr Fournier’s own grandson, Raphaël Chombart, light has been shed on the mystery of the St Francois, which sank in the North Sea off Sheringham with all hands in March, 1916.
Raphaël, 15, said: “During a family meal between Christmas and New Year, my grandfather, as he usually does, spoke to us about Louis Vasseur.
“He has been wondering about his grandfather ever since he was a young boy.”
Raphaël found a story in this newspaper from 2016 when Sheringham’s town crier Tony Nelson and his wife Hilary appealed for information about the shipwreck after finding a cross dedicated to the four sailors at All Saints churchyard in Upper Sheringham, where they were laid to rest.
MORE: Sad centenary prompts quest to discover more about Norfolk shipwreck
Raphaël said: “It was very much by chance. My grandfather, hearing the translation of the article which I had done, was very moved.
“We already knew that he was lost at sea near Sheringham in England, but we didn’t know how it had happened.”
The St Francois was from the port town of Gravelines, between Calais and Dunkirk, and Raphaël and his family still live nearby in Grand-Fort-Philippe.
Mrs Nelson said she was thrilled Raphaël had got in touch, but saddened that Mr Nelson, who died in 2017, could not share in her joy.
She said: “It is so rewarding that a young man has taken the trouble to follow it up and inform his grandfather. I’m just sad my husband is not longer alive to hear what has happened.”
Raphaël, who is at school, said he and his family hoped to travel to Sheringham in spring or summer to visit the church where their ancestor is buried.
Mrs Nelson said the town would give them a warm welcome, and they could hopefully organise a host family for them to stay with.
Lost at sea: The St Francois
The St Francois was a small, two-mast sailing boat, which Raphaël said they believed was transporting goods, using the coastline to navigate.
Louis Vasseur was its lieutenant and the other crew members were captain Charles Merlen and able seamen Francois Agez and Joseph Minnie.
On the afternoon of March 29, 1916, Weybourne coastguard Henry Satterly spotted wreckage in the water, and later that night a body washed up on Sheringham beach. The bodies of three other shipmates were found the next morning.
In 2016 a ceremony was held to mark the 100th anniversary of their burial at All Saints, with a blessing being said at the memorial there in French.
Mr Nelson said at the time: “They were lost in the middle of war a long way from home and the circumstances that lead to their tragic deaths may never have been fully explained to their loved ones.”
Honour from the king: A mysterious medal
Raphaël Chombart’s discovery of his family link to the shipwreck has helped answer some questions about the St Francois, but it has also thrown up another puzzle.
The French student said their family had a medal, which was apparently issued to Louis Vasseur in 1916, the year of the sinking.
The golden object shows King George V on one side and George and the Dragon on the other.
Raphaël said Mr Fournier found the medal at the home of his mother, Louise Vasseur, Louis Vasseur’s daughter.
Why the medal was issued remains a mystery, although Raphaël suspects it may have had something to do with the shipwreck.
He said: “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the medal was dated the year of the sinking.”
“Unfortunately, she had not known her father very long, who died when she was about 10 years old.”