100 years later: Man finds WWI soldier's wedding ring, gives it back
A farmer named Lionel from the little French village of Charny-sur-Meuse, lives near the fields where one of the bloodiest WWI battles took place, the Battle of Verdun.
He enjoys walking through the woods looking for mushrooms to enliven his cooking…
But people walking in the forest of Verdun often encounter more than nature:
"People often find the decaying bones of soldiers who fell on the battlefield during the Great War. The government is supposed to look for their families and, if possible, to organize a burial."
In fact, on one fine day in 2001 as Lionel was investigating what looked like a mushroom he discovered something astonishing:
"There was a ring on the ground, in plain sight. It was gold. It was shining as if had come directly from the store."
It was obviously a wedding ring. Looking to see if there was an inscription inside it, Lionel read, "Martha et Léonce, 18.7.14." It was hard to believe. The "14" could only have meant 1914 — it must have belonged to a soldier! He thought of leaving it there out of respect, but then decided to take it with him.
The couple had gotten married 15 days before the declaration of World War I. How devastating that must have been. Without a doubt, the ring had later been lost in battle, along with an untold numbers of lives.
Lionel was determined to return the ring to its rightful owner. He realized of course that this would now almost certainly mean descendants of the soldier who'd worn it, so he asked a friend of his, a teacher called Cedric, to help him out.
They did some research and found out that more than 1,200 young men named Léonce had died at Verdun between 1914 and 1918. Their task seemed impossible. How would they ever find the correct one?
Time passed and they slowly gave up, discouraged by the difficulty of searching without enough information.
Eventually a decade had gone by.
Then in late 2016, Cedric called Lionel to ask him again about the ring. He hesitantly explained that they might be able to make more progress now: certain archives had recently been made available that included all the soldiers' identification numbers.
When they searched through these, reading in more detail, they found one Achille Léonce Bourrelly: he had died in 1916 not far from where Lionel found the ring.
Next, Lionel tracked down phone numbers for two possible descendants. The first trail went dry in Nîmes. So he left a voicemail at the second number, belonging to Alain Bourrelly.
"I got a voicemail," Alain recounted. "A man asked if there was anyone in our family who died at Verdun. I called him back immediately."
Lionel told him about that day in the forest 15 years ago.
"He told me my grandfather’s ring had been found and that if we wanted to, we could come pick it up. It kept me awake all night long. I knew my father hadn’t known his father. His mother rebuilt her life after the war. We didn’t talk much about it."
In honor of his grandfather's memory, Alain Bourrelly and his family decided to go to Verdun and meet Lionel and Cedric, who had looked for them for so long.
"We waited until the autumn so that we would see the same conditions that he saw during the war. It’s already frozen by then in Verdun."
All together, they went out to the old battlefield where Lionel had seen the ring.
"When you see it, your stomach twists into a knot. My grandfather died in an area between two villages completely destroyed during the war. They dug trenches in the frozen ground. It was total butchery."
Alain was overwhelmed by the discovery. Moved by the reappearance of his family's history, he looked through his own papers for the marriage certificate as well as his grandfather's death certificate.
"On December 15, 1916, after a freezing night and snowy morning, French forces took advantage of a clearing to launch an offensive but the German artillery was ready for them. Léonce Bourrelly was struck during the battle and died of shrapnel wounds. The hospital porter Albert Comproux, native of Connaux (Gard), and soldier Émile Bourbon, of Châteauroux, declared him dead. On the official documents, Léonce Bourrelly is 'Dead for France at La Côte du Poivre (Meuse), December 15th, 1916 at 10:10 a.m.'"
Here is a local news report about the discovery (in French):
It's such a touching story, a reminder as well that most of us have a family connection to war and loss. Hardly a continent has been free of war for long. The vestiges of armed conflict last far beyond the date that one side surrendered and the other declared victory.
Modern warfare has left staggering casualties that most of us can hardly comprehend. But when you see Léonce Bourrelly's wedding ring being returned one hundred years later to the grandson he never met — or think perhaps of someone in your own family's history — you realize how great the loss is and how it resonates through the generations... even for a century.
The beautiful part is that Lionel and Cedric were dedicated enough to hold onto this tiny object and keep searching. And that a piece of the Bourrellys' history finally came home.