Mort pour la France has a weight and tone not dissimilar to lest we forget. It is reserved for those who have died in the service of that country. A chance discovery when searching the Trove newspapers database has revealed a Mosman man who fought with the French and bears this sombre honorific.
On Saturday 23 December 1916, The Sydney Morning Herald1 published another of its innumerable columns listing WAR CASUALTIES. Among the brief biographies is one for Leon Barbur.
Corporal Leon Barbur, only son of Mr. Charles Barbur, of Mosman, has been killed at Verdun. He left Australia at the beginning of the war, and was 23 years old. His father went through the Franco-Prussian war in 1870-1871, and wears the medal of that campaign.
A search of Mémoire des hommes, the archive for the French Ministry of Defence, has no match for “Barbur” but one for “Léon Charles BARBU.”2
The circumstantial evidence that they are the same man is strong.
Barbu’s second name is that of Leon’s father, and he has the same rank Caporal and place of death — Verdun, Fort de Douaumont (Meuse) — as the man in the SMH. The date of Barbu’s death — 27 October 1916 — fits the timeline. His birthplace — England — also points to an expat Frenchman.
A further search for “Barbu” in Trove delivered the proof. Here is the obituary3 for the father, published in 1924.
Mr. Charles Louis Barbu, a veteran of the Franco-Prussian war, died at his residence, Holden-street, Ashfield, on Sunday. He was 70 years of ago, and was born at St. Lunaire, France. When the Franco-Prussian war broke out he volunteered for active service, and gained the General Service medal. Later on he went to England, and commenced business as a dyer and cleaner, and successfully carried it on for 40 years. The business is still being carried on, with numerous branches in London, by his successors. Having disposed of the business, Mr. Barbu came to Sydney in 1910, and shortly afterwards he commenced business on the same lines as in England.
Mr. Barbu married in 1878 Miss Amy Broome, after whose uncle the town of Broome, in Western Australia, is said to have been named. Mrs. Barbu survives her husband. Their only son, Leon, joined his regiment in France when the Great War broke out, and gained the Medaille Militaire avec Palm. He was killed at Verdun in 1916…
Léon Charles Barbu
Léon Barbu served with the Colonial Infantry Regiment of Morocco (Régiment d’Infanterie Coloniale du Maroc) or R.I.C.M.
The regiment was formed from French colonial battalions in Morocco, later reinforced with Senegalese and Somali troops.
Disembarking in France in August 1914, they fought for four years, and distinguished themselves at Verdun, recapturing Fort Douaumont from the Germans on 24 October 1916.
For this feat of arms the regiment was awarded the Légion d’honneur and a third palm to its Croix de guerre.
« Le 24 octobre 1916, renforcé du 43e bataillon sénégalais et de deux compagnies de Somalis, a enlevé d’un admirable élan les premières tranchées allemandes ; a progressé ensuite sous l’énergique commandement du colonel Régnier, brisant successivement la résistance de l’ennemi sur une profondeur de deux kilomètres. A inscrit une page glorieuse à son histoire en s’emparant d’un élan irrésistible du fort de Douaumont, et conservant sa conquête malgré les contre-attaques répétées de l’ennemi. »
The 1e R.I.C.M would end the war the most decorated of all French units.
Léon Barbu was killed shortly after the regiment retook the Fort. They stayed to secure and clear it, rebuilding the defences as best they could. Unfortunately the pages for the unit’s war diary are missing from part of the way through the account of 27 October (his date of death) until 21 November 1916. In the description that remains it does mention losses due to shelling by heavy calibre artillery on 27 October:
Léon Barbu was one of 852 casualties suffered by the regiment, his death recorded as tué à l’ennemi — ‘killed by the enemy’ — the French equivalent of ‘killed in action’.
He is not found in France’s database of war graves but may lie in the Douaumont ossuary that houses the remains of some 130,000 unidentified French and German soldiers who died in the Battle of Verdun.
Léon Barbu has been added to the Doing our bit, Mosman 1914-1918 database. If you have further information or photos of the Barbu family, please get in contact.
1 1916 ‘WAR CASUALTIES.’, The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954), 23 December, p. 12, viewed 23 April, 2014, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article15674114
2 BARBU Léon Charles — Mémoire des hommes, Ministère de la défense
3 1924 ‘OBITUARY.’, The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954), 17 January, p. 12, viewed 23 April, 2014, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article16122876
Many thanks to Steve Marsdin and the Great War Forum for help with French sources.