The first stop in my research was the First World War prisoner of war archives of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). As I have described before, these records are not always straightforward to use but can contain detailed information. There were at least eight men called "Ch Poisson" in the ICRC's on-line records (one man can appear on multiple cards, and it may not be immediately obvious if each reference is to the same or a new individual). Further searching in the ICRC records revealed the following details about the man who carved this souvenir of his time in Switzerland:
- Charles Francisque Poisson was born in Paris on 11 May 1886, so he was aged 28 in 1914.
- He was a sergeant (sergent, in French) in 15th Company, 43rd Colonial Infantry Regiment (43e Régiment d'Infanterie Coloniale) of the French army.
- After being taken prisoner by German forces, he arrived at the 'Reserve-Lazarett' (hospital) at Bayreuth, Bavaria, on 21 August 1914, and left there on the 30th.
- He was seriously wounded, and is later described as having a “stiff leg”, presumably meaning that he was left with a permanent disability as a result of his wound.
- He was held by the Germans as a prisoner of war in at “Gef. Btl II St Georgen Bayreuth”, presumably meaning Prisoner of War Battalion No.2, located in the St Georgen district of Bayreuth, Germany.
- In August-September 1915 the ICRC corresponded with his family, presumably to confirm that he was a PoW.
- By early June 1916 he had moved to Vernayaz as an internee (note that the first French prisoners of war arrived in Switzerland for internment in January 1916). His accommodation was at the Grand Hotel des Gorges du Trient, and he was one of 60 French internees kept there.
- On 26 September 1918 he was one of a group of French soldiers repatriated to France.
What of Sergent Poisson's early history, before he became a prisoner of war? I have not found anything about his individual experiences, but the history of the French 43rd Colonial Infantry Regiment gives some clues (Source: tableaudhonneur.free.fr). The regiment did not exist before the First World War. It was formed on 2 August 1914 from reservists from Paris and the surrounding area, with some of the officers and NCOs having served in the colonial army (it is unknown whether these included Sergent Poisson). It began to assemble at the school in rue Huyghens, Paris (the building can still be seen on Google Streetview).
After the French advances of the preceding days, on the final day of the Battle of Morhange (20 August) the Germans counter-attacked, leading to a German victory and thousands of French casualties. Today there is a memorial at Oron to 77 soldiers of the 43rd Colonial and 146th Infantry Regiments who died there. (Source: pierreswesternfront.punt.nl). There is a moving account of the battle (in French) here: www.blamont.info.
It seems most likely that Sergent Charles Poisson was wounded and became a prisoner of the German army on this occasion. However it is strange that the ICRC records apparently show him in hospital in Bayreuth (some 400km away) on the next day. It is possible that the date in the ICRC records of 21 August 1914 refers to him being taken prisoner rather than arriving at the hospital? The other possibility is that Sergent Poisson was taken prisoner before 20 August, although his regiment does not seem to have been close enough to the enemy before that date for that to have been possible.
So Sergent Poisson became a prisoner of war only weeks after the conflict began, and remained in confinement (as a PoW then an internee) for just over four years. Read more about the overall process of interning PoWs in Switzerland on this website here. The men chosen for internment in neutral countries were generally those prisoners who had severe and long-lasting injuries or illness, and/or who had been a prisoner for a long period (the latter point reflected the psychological toll on the individual of long periods of incarceration).
The town of Vernayaz (map) sits in a mountain valley and is in fact only about 13km from the French border. The building that was the Grand Hotel des Gorges du Trient at Vernayaz still exists, though it is now used as offices and is no longer a hotel. Built in 1870, it was the most impressive of a number of hotels built in the town around this time to take advantage of tourists visiting the area to walk in the mountains, prompted by the extension of the railway to the valley. The most prominent local attraction was the 200 metre deep Gorges du Trient (Trient Gorge), which is fed by the Trient Glacier higher up in the mountains. The hotel had space for 80 people in its 50 rooms. (Source: www.vernayaz.ch) By 24 June 1918 there were in fact 80 internees in this building, so it was full! (Source: hopitauxmilitairesguerre1418.overblog.com). Other records on the ICRC website show that there were a further 186 interned former prisoners of war close by at Salvan (just to west of Vernayaz, at a higher altitude), and more at Finhaut (to the south west) and Martigny (to the south east).