In memoriam: Societe Generale's heroes of the Great War

Summer 1914. Amidst a widespread show of patriotism, France goes to war. Over the next four years, nearly two-thirds of Societe Generale's staff were called to arms, where an unexpected and deadly experience awaited them.

On 28 June 1914, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was assassinated in Sarajevo. This activated a series of political alliances and triggered a war – first in Europe, then around the world – the horror of which was unlike any seen before. In France, the government called for a political truce known as the "Union Sacrée" (Sacred Union). On 1 August, President Raymond Poincaré ordered a general mobilisation. Two days later, Germany declared war on the Republic of France. Within the space of a few days, Societe Generale's headcount plummeted as over 8,000 of its 15,000 employees were called up. And this figure does not include older members sent to the front line later in the war. In an environment of general exaltation, the conscripted soldiers were expected at their posts as soon as possible in order to defend France's borders. Societe Generale's Chief Executive Officer, André Homberg, gave the bank's staff an emotive send-off, assuring them that in their absence, "those they are leaving behind would not be forgotten". Nobody imagined that they would have to wait over four years to leave the army and return to the comfort of home. The "Belle Époque" was drawing to an end.

Against all expectations, the war dragged on in a bloody stalemate. If some soldiers were initially eager to fight, they soon discovered the true face of war, far removed from the chivalrous ideal still perpetuated by the romantic tradition. Triumphalism soon gave way to a more intimate reality. Their letters reflect their frustration and the dangers they faced on a daily basis. "The thunder of cannon fire is rumbling," wrote one of them. "The enemy used their tear gas on us yesterday," said another, "but we are going to the front line tomorrow night". "Despite all the horrible sights I see every day," confided a foot soldier, "I am trying not to lose courage and to keep my faith in the future". In their horizon blue uniforms, the soldiers shared all the French army's fortunes and misfortunes. They experienced the hell of life in the trenches, field hospitals and prison camps in Germany. They suffered all kinds of hardships, surrounded by the constant noise of cannon fire, and on occasion rose up against the procrastinations of the high command. On the battle lines, murderous folly confronted heroism. Societe Generale's heroes stood proud. From the Battle of the Marne to the Gallipoli campaign, the Second Battle of the Aisne, and the Battles of Éparges and Verdun, they performed their duty honourably. No fewer than 76 staff members were awarded the Legion of Honour, and two thousand others were decorated for "Bravery in battle".

© Archives historiques Société Générale

When it came to take stock, the losses were devastating. Societe Generale's management, which had immediately approved measures to support the widows and orphans of employees lost in action, counted its terrible death toll. In spring 1919, when the last soldiers were demobilised and veterans gradually returned to their pre-war positions, the bank was in mourning. Nearly two thousand conscripted employees were lost on the battle field. The victims included the Olympic athlete Jean Bouin, who was killed by shell-fire in Lorraine in September 1914. The Lyon branch alone counted 32 dead and 6 missing in action. Injured, mutilated and disabled ex-servicemen added to the number of victims. The survivors never ceased to honour the memory of their comrades in arms. At Societe Generale, the veterans' association, the Amicale des anciens combattants, was formed in 1929, and had up to three thousand members. Every year, the association continues to rekindle the eternal flame of the tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the base of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. In the same spirit of remembrance, the Haussmann Memorial, located in the lobby of the Central branch in Paris, was inaugurated in 1948 in memory of the victims of the two World Wars.
In memoriam.

© Jean-Marie Cras