The Flood of June the 7th 1904

Printer-friendly versionSend by email

Current Size: 100%

The Flood of June the 7th 1904

 

A small river called the “Dive” runs through the lower part of Mamers, cutting a course between two hills which form a bowl. The Dive eventually flows into the River Orne Saösnoise. In 1904 this gentle stream normally measured a mere two metres wide and half a metre deep and it traversed the town in a channel between house walls and a street called Rue des Tanneries, crossed by a number of stone bridges.

 

Following a number of violent storms, a tempest of intensity virtually unknown in western France swept through the Sarthe department on the 7th of June 1904, causing tremendous destruction. The town of Mamers was to lose seventeen of its inhabitants that fateful day.

It was two o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon and the air was unusually oppressive and heavy. Suddenly a violent storm broke over Mamers, gathering in strength and producing a torrential downpour that went on for hours, causing terrible damage.

Catastrophe du 7 Juin 1904

 

On the afternoon of this great storm, the normally sleepy Dive became a devastating torrent in a matter of moments. Suddenly swelling to a flood more than 120 metres wide and 4 metres deep, it carried all before it and caused untold damage and devastation, even carrying away entire buildings.

The College, the Military and Civil Hospital and the Home for the Elderly suffered massive damage. Several mills were flattened, ironically including one that had been designed to improve drainage in the town.

As the disaster broke, the civilian population joined the local 115th Infantry Corps in a common cause, united in heart, mind and spirit to do everything possible to rescue those whose homes had been washed away. But no amount of heroism could save all of the victims.

 

L'extraordinaire vitesse avec laquelle l'avalanche s’est abattue, les ayant surprises dans leurs courses et leur ayant coupé toute retraite, quelques-uns purent se sauver. Dans leurs demeures même, trois vieillards de l'asile, qui étaient couchés au rez-de-chaussée, furent noyés dans leur lit. Quatre autres personnes furent ensevelies sous les décombres d'une maison qu'elles n'avaient osé quitter.

Catastrophe du 7 Juin 1904

The extraordinary speed with which the wall of water hit them, catching them unawares as they went about their daily business and without means of retreat, meant that few could escape its path. Three residents were drowned in their beds on the ground floor of the old people’s home; four other people were buried under the rubble of a house that they were too scared to leave. On the 9th of June, two days after the storm, fourteen bodies were brought to the Town Hall and laid out side by side on straw, the families of the other three victims having requested that their bodies be returned to them. The sight of so many poor corpses together, livid and swollen, their shape barely discernible under the thick layer of mud that covered them, caused immense sorrow and anguish to those who saw the sorry sight.

 

The victims of the disaster:

Mrs. RICHARD, a person of private means; Mrs Aubry , a farm worker; Mrs Fouquet , a farm worker; Mr DUBOIS-SILL , a farm hand; Mrs Regnier , a farm worker ; Miss LOCHET; Mrs CONTREL, a young wife of nineteen who drowned with her brother in law Maurice CONTREL and her father, René FARCY; Mrs Petrony, Mrs Lemaire and Mrs Angan, three elderly hospital patients; Mr Barbier, a road repairer; Mrs. Pichon and her child, who was found dead in her arms; Mrs Philibien; Mr. DESHAYES, a gardener .

 

The Police Commissioner took charge of organising the burials. Each body was gently rolled in a shroud of canvas and laid in a coffin whose lid was sealed. When all were done, candles were lit between four lighted funeral biers.

 

 

Mamers was witness to many acts of selfless courage at this time.

Corporal DURIF and three soldiers of the 115th called PASQUET , COMOCHE and BERARD dug out of the ground two huge poles which had previously been raised in the garden of St. Paul's College for a fête. The four manhandled the poles to the riverbank and toppled them in the direction of the Mill, so that one end lay on the edge of a window and the other remained on the bank to form a bridge across. Despite the risk that this could collapse under them at any time, with a huge effort they crossed the void above the torrent, rescuing a man and a woman and taking them safely to Saint Joseph’s boarding house.

Elsewhere, the ground floor of a building had been completely flooded – even the floor had been lifted as one piece and was forced up against the ceiling. Police Commissioner DELAVERGNE , helped by a cook of the 115th (Private DELAROCHE) and a Lieutenant in the Reserves (Lt. LOYSSET) ventured into the floodwater and, using whatever materials they could lay their hands on, they climbed to the first floor windows and saved the children, one by one.

 

In a meadow next to the abattoir a man had taken refuge at the top of a tree, having miraculously escaped the collapse of a house in the ruins of which four dead would be found. Father TEYSSIER threw off his cassock, tied a rope around his waist and began to swim. The turbulent waters swallowed him for a moment and under the strain the rope broke. Lieutenant ANTOINE rushed to help; the priest resurfaced and between them the priest and soldier succeeded , with the help of a third rescuer named CHAUDEMANCHE, to pluck the man from danger .

 

The water beat against the walls of the Retirement Home, where twenty of the elderly were taking shelter. It rose to the height of the first floor, cutting off all access to the ground floor (where three unfortunate residents died). The disaster would have been even more terrible but for the presence of mind of the Sub- Prefect who organised an ingenious rescue. He wedged himself in the bottom of a water tank and slid in this improvised vessel into the torrential current. Twisting, swirling, his vessel banged against the wall of the Asylum, and through a skylight in the roof he learned from a nursing Sister that with all other routes blocked, the old folk could only be saved by passing them through the windows of the first floor.

 

Catastrophe du 7 Juin 1904

Beams and other bits of wood together were lashed together to make an improvised raft, and with a ladder in hand four men pushed off in the direction of the Retirement Home - Dr. Blondeau ; Mr GENESLAY, a carpenter; Mr DEMATIES a cement maker; and Sub- Prefect HERSANT.

The elderly refugees on the first floor were brought down the ladder one by one, and the raft brought back to shore. On the second trip the sub-prefect and his dedicated team of rescuers came to get the Sisters. They also boarded the raft and immediately began kneeling in prayer. A strange spectacle indeed, with the civil servant leading a boat full of nuns.

 

At the Hospital the rescue of the sick was urgent. Three women who had been busy washing laundry were in danger. The waters were rising and already the top of a small wall that protected them had disappeared beneath the swirling waters. Without a moment’s hesitation, Sister Anastasia, elderly and far from nimble, volunteered to go to their aid. She sat astride the top of the wall, legs hanging in the water and then, using her hands, she began to crawl along the top of the wall towards women. Captain DEROMME saw the heroic efforts of the Sister. He sprang to the wall , followed by his orderly Pte. HOLLY, and he reached the nun at the very moment when she stretched out her arms to reach one of the unfortunates.

 

Given such a disaster, the obsequies obviously attracted great attention. The President of the Republic sent a thousand Francs. The Prefect and BONFILS, Bishop of Le Mans, to preside over the funeral services. These took place on June 10th 1904, in the presence of a stunned audience.