Workers chip away at a wall of bricks, sending cement and rubble flying. Slowly, the outline of a door reveals itself. We’re in a grand house in central France, and its owner, Daniel Fabre, is watching eagerly; he’s never seen beyond the mysterious doorway. But as its secrets are finally revealed, Fabre’s in for a haunting surprise. He spots a moth-eaten military jacket. Service medals. Weaponry. The room appears to be some sort of secret shrine to a fallen soldier, still perfectly preserved after more than a century… and it’s a seriously unsettling sight.
Until Fabre opened up the bricked-off room in his house, he didn’t know exactly what was lurking behind it. And he was surely amazed to discover that the sealed entrance was hiding a sort of portal back to 1918. Though coated in cobwebs and dust, the room’s purpose was clear. Fabre’s house was hiding a hair-raising shrine to one of World War I’s many fallen.
Yes, the parents of the perished soldier had left the room exactly as it had been when he went off to war. Stricken by grief, they had resolved never to disturb it again. And to keep it untouched, they had bricked up the doorway. That way, they figured, the memorial that they had created for their lost son would remain intact. And that’s exactly what happened!
The house is a fitting place for a shrine, as Bélâbre mayor Laurent Laroche told U.K. newspaper The Guardian in 2014. He said, “It is a magical place, which we believe was built using stone from the Middle Age ramparts of the village and has a superb little garden that is like something out of a fairytale.”
The soldier was one Hubert Rochereau, who had in fact entered the world in this very room in October, 1896. The Rochereaus were something of a military family, tracing their martial lineage all the way back to the days of Napoleon Bonaparte. So it was perhaps to be expected that Hubert would end up as a military man.
The village that is the site of his birthplace, Bélâbre, lies a bit more than 30 miles from Chateauroux, the nearest big town. This is the capital of the east-central region in which it can be found and is located nearly 170 miles from Paris. In the village’s square Rochereau’s name can be found on the memorial to those who gave their lives in World War I.
Rochereau had begun his military career at the Saint-Cyr academy. This is something similar to West Point, serving as the school for French officers in both the infantry and the cavalry. The school was in those days in Fontainebleau, near Paris, where it had been established by Napoleon in the early 19th century.
The young soldier was destined to serve in the cavalry, and he was assigned to the 15th Dragoons. This regiment had its base in the town of Libourne, not too far from Bordeaux. But of course Rochereau would not stay there long, as he was posted to the Western Front.
In fact, the young mounted soldier found himself involved in the fight over the Belgian village of Loker in April 1918. The cavalry were renowned for their dash. The commander of Rochereau’s unit fell himself when he caught a shot to the head just after he had ordered the dragoons into the attack on the village.
We can imagine the brave young cavalry officer charging into the fight at Loker. Tragically, though, it was this courage and boldness that would hasten his end. He was mortally wounded in the clash over the Belgian village. And as the English drove him away from the scene in a field ambulance, he passed away. He was only 21 years old.
The fighting over Loker was particularly bitter, with the site switching between Allied and German control more than once in the last days of April 1918. In the end, a few days after Rochereau’s fatal wounding, it finally rested in French hands. But this would be little consolation to his parents.
All the same, Rochereau’s mom and dad would doubtless have felt pride that their son had served bravely. He was granted the Légion d’honneur – the Legion of Honor – for his gallantry in action, and the Croix de Guerre – the War Cross – marked his sacrifice. This decoration is given in France in the same circumstances that an American soldier would be “mentioned in dispatches.”
At first, the noble second lieutenant was interred in Flanders. He was originally buried in a British cemetery, having passed away in their soldiers’ care. His bereaved parents did not even know the location of his grave for four years. But as soon as they learned where his remains lay, they made plans to bring him home.
So now Rochereau lies in the cemetery at Bélâbre, where his final resting-place is marked by a large gravestone. Sadly, it is not tended these days, and the stone is falling into ruin. Ivy twists around it, obscuring the details of how he gave his life for his country in Flanders.
As noted, in the square of Bélâbre, a memorial lists the names of the men whose fate was Morts pour la France. And you can find Second Lieutenant Hubert Rochereau among them. You can also find his name in Libourne, where he is remembered alongside other members of his regiment. But these are not his only memorials.
Rochereau’s parents decided to turn his bedroom into a shrine to his memory. The plan was to keep it just as it was when he went to war. They even included a clause in the contract when they sold the house that forbade changes to the room for five centuries. But the clause “has no legal basis” according to current owner Daniel Fabre, who served as a local bureaucrat.
The Rochereaus had made a bequest of the house – a decently sized residence – to a friend from the army, General Eugène Bridoux. The general went on to become something of a villain, working for the French Vichy government. In his capacity as Secretary of State, he had taken care of rounding up local Jews and sending them off to the now-infamous German death camps.
Needless to say, when World War II ended, Bridoux scarpered. And his house was snatched by the French government. It was let out privately to a lawyer and his family for a while, but come the 1950s Bridoux’s family wanted it back. So Bridoux’s granddaughter recovered ownership of the home, and Fabre married her.
Fabre and his wife weren’t unaware of the room, as Mayor Laroche shared with The Guardian. He said, “They knew about the room at the end of the corridor but had never seen it because it was bricked up. So they broke down the wall and made this strange discovery.”
Even though the house-sale clause isn’t legally binding, the Fabre family have every intention of keeping the promise and not touching the room. But Laroche made clear that its future could not be guaranteed. He said, “We cannot forget that it is a private property. Mr Fabre has two daughters and we don’t know what they will do with it one day. Indeed, they are perfectly free to do whatever they want.”
For now, the room really is just how Rochereau left it. The blue jacket from his uniform lies draped over a clothes stand, exactly as though he had just walked in and taken it off. Only its moth-eaten condition gives away that it is more than 100 years old. It is a haunting reminder of his service.
On Rochereau’s desk, facing the window of the room, sit some of his belongings. Guns that he may have carried lie alongside knives, some keys and a notebook. Next to them is a pipe, which some have speculated is for smoking opium, although there is also some tobacco on the desk.
In the bookcase next to Rochereau’s bed are many different volumes. Intriguingly, the young man seems to have been learning to speak German. Alongside books on the language are steamy novels. There’s also a temperance publication, warning him against the evils of the demon drink. And no sign can be found in the room that the young soldier ever touched a drop.
The second lieutenant did have at least one vice though, as a packet of Country Life smokes attests. Fabre even gave one a go. He told the BBC in 2014, “I tried to smoke one.” But any attraction had apparently paled over time: the home’s owner noted, “It wasn’t very nice.”
On Rochereau’s bed, on top of the comforter made of lace, lie his medals and pictures of friends who also lost their lives in the conflict. Poignantly, his hat, a fabulous creation complete with feathers, sits abandoned on the bed. With the exception of his uniform items, the room is tidy, nothing out of place, as though his parents had it ready for his return.
The only thing that Rochereau’s mom and dad added was a small flask filled with earth. This has a note attached to it that describes its contents. It says it holds “the soil of Flanders on which our dear child fell and which has kept his remains for four years.”
Rochereau was far from alone. The conflict in Flanders, a region that contains parts of north-east France and southern Belgium, was red-hot. As many as 580,000 men lost their lives in the area. And on Armistice Day in 2014 France hoisted one more memorial to Rochereau and the other gallant fallen.
Architect Philippe Prost designed a massive hoop of gold-plated metal that carried the fallen soldiers’ names. It now stands above the cemetery at Notre-Dame-de-Lorette, France’s biggest war graveyard. The “Ring of Memory” embodies both endurance and solidarity, memorializing those who fought bravely not only for France, but for all nations in Flanders.
When Fabre showed Rochereau’s room to Agence-France Presse (AFP) in 2014 he drew the news agency reporter’s attention to one of the knives. He said, “I believe this is a German bayonet from the First World War.” While showing the room, it was clear that Fabre did not share the sentiment that surrounded it, although he was willing to pay his respects.
Fabre told the BBC, “I like to say I live in his house, but not with him. I don’t feel any kinship with him. He was young, a military officer, and I imagine him to be quite provincial, perhaps even narrow-minded. But it’s part of the history of the house, so I keep it.”
What did worry Fabre was the idea that the media interest stirred by the uncovering of the WWI shrine might bring tourists. He really didn’t like the idea of his home being beset by sightseers or by people who had an attachment to martial history. At the time of AFP’s visit, in 2014, he had no intention of making this very private place available to visitors.
Fabre told the newswire, “I especially don’t want to be invaded. Certainly not. After all, this is my home.” Of course, Fabre would not live for the whole 500-year term that the Rochereaus had asked for the shrine, but he was not too concerned. He thought his daughters might well sell the place.
In fact, Fabre’s reaction to the idea that they might do that was strong. He said, “To be brutal: I don’t give a damn. What happens after me, generally speaking, I don’t care.” Even so, he was prepared to admit that it would be a pity if it was changed, and he added, “But I think it would be a shame to get rid of all this.”
One person who very much hopes that the shrine will be maintained is Mayor Laroche. He told The Guardian, “When you walk into it, it’s as if time has stood still. On a much smaller scale, I imagine it’s how the explorers felt when they opened the first pyramid or ancient tomb.”
Laroche hoped that someone might come forward with the money to buy the house – and the room it contains – for posterity. He noted, “It would be a great shame for it to disappear. As someone who loves history, I feel it’s also important not to forget the sacrifice made by men like Rochereau.”
But he explained the money couldn’t come from the village, saying, “We are currently reflecting on what we can do to preserve the room, but to be honest we are a small local authority whose finances, like everyone’s, have been squeezed by the economic crisis. The fact is that while it would be nice to be able to one day buy the property and perhaps turn it into a museum, we simply don’t have the money.”
One thing that gave Laroche hope that a mystery buyer might turn up was the publicity that came when the story of the room first went viral. It had made the name “Bélâbre” travel the world. He said, “Someone even sent me a picture of someone in China reading the story in The Guardian.”
Laroche expressed how it had made him feel, saying, “Our little village is being spoken about the world over, which makes me proud to be mayor. And maybe it will help us find long-lost Rochereau relatives and save the room. It would be a great pity for it to be lost to future generations.”
There’s no denying that the room had instilled a fair bit of municipal pride, as Laroche explained to AFP. He said, “It’s history, but it’s also a form of family worship.” And he felt that Rochereau’s long-deceased parents might have found some comfort in the fact that their memorial to Hubert had survived the passage of more than a century.
After all, Rochereau had for many years been remembered as just a name on a memorial, one of many men who had perished in the terrible conflict of World War I. But as Laroche expressed to AFP, “He reappears 100 years later… And I think that if they could see that somehow, his parents would be satisfied.”