In Memory of a French Sailor

In the south east corner of Mill Lane Cemetery, overlooking The Meads and backing onto a spur of Greenacres, is the grave of a French sailor formerly of the SS Lutetia, who died in 1919. There are no other gravestones near to this isolated stone cross marker, giving it rather a sad and lonely appearance, perhaps reflecting the nature of this sailor’s death, a young man from another country who lost his life under tragic circumstances.

The original and shorter form of this article was posted on this site on the 8th November, 2022. This amended version has subsequently been written to incorporate information that has come to light since the original post, through the kind efforts of a specialist French ancestry researcher for (who identified and researched all of the sources quoted herein). This has allowed what was originally just a short, abstract commemorative piece to now be tangibly humanised and given true substance: a real person with a real life and not just a headstone.

Michel Rolland as his gravestone shows, was a Matelot on board the French ship Lutetia, whose death was recorded on his death certificate as the 5th March, 1919. The certificate records that he was 22 at the time of his death and that he was found dead in the sea, presumably off Shoreham, which is named as the location of his death. 

1919 Death Certificate

Michel Jean Marie Rolland had in fact only just turned 19 at the time of his death. He was born on the 10th December, 1899 at his parents’ home in Quincieux (approximately 20km north of Lyon). His father, Antoine, was age 26 at the time of his birth and his mother, Claudine, was age 21 and both worked as bakers . [1] Michel’s parents had previously been married in Les Olmes (approximately 25km to the west of Quincieux) on the 25th August, 1898, when Antoine was still a baker’s apprentice and Claudine was a silk worker. Claudine originally resided in Les Olmes and on being married subsequently moved to Quincieux, Antoine’s domicile. [2] Of particular poignance for Michel’s mother and father is that as far as can be ascertained form the census records, he was their only child.

Regarding Michel’s appearance, military records show that at the time of his voluntary enlistment into the navy on the 8th August, 1917, he was described as having brown hair, grey eyes, a low forehead, with a straight nose and an oval face, of 1m 63cm height (5 ft 4 ins). He was 17 years and 8 months old at the time of enlistment, unmarried and having the profession of metal worker/fitter. He signed up at the town hall in Roanne (approximately 80km northwest of Quincieux), where he had subsequently moved with his parents. He arrived at the Fifth Crew Depot the day after enlistment and was given the service number of 886. [3] [4]

French Defence Ministry records show that Michel was then posted to the Auxiliary Cruiser Lutetia [5]. It has not been possible to find out much more on the ship herself other than through reference to Wikipedia, which shows only one French ship under the name of Lutetia during the First World War. The SS Lutetia was originally a passenger liner which soon after the outbreak of the war in 1914 was converted for use as a troopship. She was then subsequently converted for use as an armed merchant cruiser, then as a hospital ship and thereafter once more as a troopship. Interestingly she was not returned to civilian service until 1920, after a refit during the 1919/20 period. So at the time of Michel’s death in 1919, the ship was likely still in use by the French state/military, despite the war ending the previous year, with the ship still indeed being referred to as a “transport ship” on his death certificate. 

So how did Michel come to be buried in Shoreham by Sea? French Defence Ministry records show that he went missing after going overboard accidentally from the Lutetia whilst in harbour at Le Havre during the night of the 2nd January, 1919. [4] [6] (Le Havre is almost directly in line across the Channel from Shoreham). No further information is provided as to the nature of this “accident” such as the circumstances nor indeed if it was witnessed. The only other tangible information available is the date of the 5th March, 1919 being recorded on Michel’s death certificate, likely the date on which his remains were found off Shoreham? It would be inappropriate to speculate as to what caused him to be lost overboard from the Lutetia on that fateful night in Le Havre over one hundred years ago and this will indeed continue to remain a mystery. But as it stands, we now have enough information to both introduce and commemorate this 19 year old Frenchman who died under tragic circumstances and is buried far from home; a French sailor who has now become known to us and part of our local community. And if you happen to be walking through this very peaceful cemetery just outside of Shoreham town centre and pass his grave, perhaps give him a nod and a few thoughts and he will know indeed that he is remembered. 

Paix à son âme.

Malcolm Bateman
March 2023

Special thanks to Marie-Christine Castre-Wright of for undertaking the specialist research on Michel’s background through French archives, who also kindly directed that due to the commemorative nature of this article, a donation to the RNLI be made in lieu of payment. 




3 / (pages 259/593)

4 / (page 547)

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