|Maurice Chevalier, 31st R.I.|
On August 1914, a young Parisian star called Maurice Chevalier was stationed in Belfort, north-eastern France, with a year of national service to complete before he could return to where he really wanted to be—the stage. Chevalier had made his name as a singer and dancer in musicals as a child and hooked up with two of the era’s biggest actresses/singers, Fréhel and Mistinguett—the latter 13 years his senior when he became her 23-year-old lover and dance partner at the Folies Bergère.
But then war broke out. “That meant putting aside my stage ambitions for a while. For how long, who could guess?” he told the journalist Percy Cudlipp in 1930 when compiling his memoirs. As an infantry private, Chevalier kept in practice by entertaining his comrades. “But when we went into the trenches, there was no more singing or dancing,” he said. “Our losses were severe. One by one, my friends were killed or wounded, and I was beginning to think myself a very lucky fellow to remain unscathed.”
In the first weeks of combat a shrapnel shell exploded in Chevalier’s trench, hitting his chest, and entering his lung. “Then it was, as the English Tommies used to say, that I got my packet.” He recalls the pain, blood oozing from his mouth, and soldiers carrying him to a village behind the lines. The next day the Germans took the village: those too badly injured to move, including Chevalier, were captured.
|His Prisoner of War Accommodations|
Do Not Seem Too Uncomfortable
Chevalier was in hospital at Magdeburg before being moved to Altengrabow prison camp. “That was a bitter experience for discipline was strict,” he said. He feared the injury had ruined his singing voice, but he was relieved to find he could still entertain his fellow prisoners, “just as I had done some months before, when we were all free men”. Chevalier learned to speak English in Altengrabow from Ronald Kennedy, a teacher who had been with the Durham Light Infantry. “I suppose just as I welcomed any opportunity to sing or dance, Kennedy longed for work in which he could apply his teaching gifts. He found it by starting a class at which French prisoners could learn English. Every other day we met, and made great strides. Kennedy was a wonderful teacher, and a very real friend,” Chevalier said.
But he was desperate to escape and found a way involving King Alfonso XIII of Spain, the only king of a neutral country related to both British and German royal families—and an admirer of Mistinguett. “Through the King, it had been arranged that the French and Germans should exchange prisoners who were ambulance workers,” Chevalier told Cudlipp. “So I became an ambulance worker. That is, I altered my identification papers, then claimed a mistake had been made in that I should have been sent back to France. Had the deception been discovered, my punishment would have been severe.’’
|Chevalier with Mistinguett|
After two years and four months as a prisoner of war, Chevalier was free. He returned to Paris and was declared unfit to carry out further war service. He was discharged and awarded the Croix de Guerre. Soon after, the theatre called—and so did Mistinguett, with whom he rekindled his stage partnership. Chevalier captured the spirit and imagination of postwar Paris like no other before, enjoying fame in London, Broadway, and Hollywood. But he didn’t put his wartime past behind him entirely. In the Second World War, he returned to Altengrabow to perform for the prisoners, liberating 10 people in return for his services. Chevalier died in Paris in 1972, aged 83.
P.S. Here is a small tidbit of interest regarding Maurice Chevalier. In the movie La Grande Illusion the actor Julien Carette plays the role of the funny guy (Cartier), always wisecracking and making jokes. Cartier is a POW who in the movie was in the music halls before the war, which is why he gets to do several musical numbers when the soldiers put on a play.