Photograph of Gilberte Montavon in a military album, c. 1915.
Photograph of Gilberte Montavon in a military album, c. 1915. Swiss National Museum

A waitress becomes a legend

During World War I Gilberte Montavon from Courgenay was a ray of light for Swiss-German soldiers, easing the drudgery of their day-to-day life on the border.

Beat Kuhn

Beat Kuhn

Beat Kuhn is Regional Editor at the Bieler Tagblatt and pulls out the occasional exciting news story from the archives.

Website: Bieler Tagblatt
During the Ancien Régime, France had Gallia (also called Francia) as its national figure. After the Revolution turned France into a democracy, Gallia was replaced by Marianne. Marianne is a liberal beauty, often depicted bare-breasted in paintings, with a bust that changes in appearance every few years; it’s modelled on a contemporary sex symbol, such as Brigitte Bardot, Catherine Deneuve or, more recently, Sophie Marceau. Switzerland’s official national figure is Helvetia, a warrior armed with spear and shield and clad in a Roman gown that covers her almost from head to foot. During World War I the nation also had an unofficial national figure. Gilberte Montavon, a young waitress from the Jura village of Courgenay, who not only served food and drinks to countless soldiers, but also cheered them up and provided a listening ear and a kind word. Her outfits were always high-necked.
Marianne in a painting by Eugène Delacroix, 1830.
Marianne in a painting by Eugène Delacroix, 1830. Wikimedia
Sensuality in France, modesty in Switzerland. This is, of course, a cultural difference – but it’s not a complete contradiction. Gilberte, essentially, had the same function as Marianne. No one put this into words better than Anne-Marie Blanc, who died in 2009, and who played Montavon in the 1941 feature film “Gilberte de Courgenay”: “She embodied the female element, the very thing that made the soldiers’ life of privations at the border worth the struggle.” Thanks to the film, and the song from which it takes its title, Gilberte hasn’t been forgotten. But the effect that she had during World War I as a real person, and during World War II as the main character in a film, of creating a sense of identity, has faded.
Film poster featuring lead actress Anne-Marie Blanc in the role of Gilberte de Courgenay.
Film poster featuring lead actress Anne-Marie Blanc in the role of Gilberte de Courgenay. Swiss National Museum
Gilberte-Elisa Montavon was born on 20 March 1896, at the beginning of spring – very apt given the breath of fresh air into which she would blossom. She was the youngest of three daughters, and there were also two brothers. In 1906 her father, a watchmaker by trade, bought the Hotel de la Gare opposite Courgenay railway station, one stop from Porrentruy, the capital of the Ajoie region. In 1908 he had the large hall built on. It was a very lucrative investment, as it turned out. When World War I broke out in 1914, the Ajoie bordered not only on France, but also on the German Empire, through what was at that time German Alsace. Due to the exposed location of the Ajoie, hundreds of troops were deployed to protect the border between the two warring factions. Appropriately, the region’s German name is Pruntruter Zipfel, because it bulges outwards, markedly lengthening the border. It was mainly soldiers from the German-speaking part of Switzerland who were transferred to this area which was, for most of them, a foreign place.
Federal Councillors Giuseppe Motta and Edmund Schulthess inspect the border fortifications in Boncourt, 1914.
Federal Councillors Giuseppe Motta and Edmund Schulthess inspect the border fortifications in Boncourt, 1914. Swiss National Museum
The township of Courgenay became one of the bases for the troops on deployment. In their off-duty time, the soldiers and officers frequented the Hôtel de la Gare, whose restaurant was the station buffet. The hotel also had the largest hall in the village. But the bar also became popular with the troops because the Montavons were friendly bon viveurs and great musicians. To enable the hotel bar and restaurant to cope with the onslaught of soldiery, the whole family had to pitch in: the parents, the five children and even their cousins. The then 18-year-old Gilberte was put to work as a waitress, because she had once spent a year in Zurich – the counterpart to the earlier Welschland year for girls from the German-speaking part of Switzerland – and was therefore able to converse in dialect with the soldiers from “outside”, crossing the language barrier. At best, the Swiss-German soldiers spoke a “Français fédéral”, struggling along on their schoolboy French. Gilberte’s phenomenal memory for names, thanks to which she was able to greet the soldiers by name as early as their second visit to the bar, also made her popular.
Gilberte Montavon welcoming a guest, around 1915.
Gilberte Montavon welcoming a guest, around 1915. Swiss National Museum
Hermann Flückiger (1885 - 1960) met Gilberte when he was a young officer. She was pretty, pleasant, cheerful and easy-going, recalled Flückiger – who would go on to become a major general and later an ambassador to Moscow – in a programme on Radio Beromünster. But Gilberte also became a ray of sunshine for these men because of the bleak historical backdrop. Imagine the situation in which these men found themselves: often they were away from home for months on end, away from their wives and children, who were left without a provider. Switzerland didn’t yet have any policy of compensation for loss of earnings, and the soldiers received only a minimal payment for serving their country. The food was meagre and the soldiers slept on straw. In addition, they were subjected to military discipline and drills by their commanding officers on a daily basis. On a personal level, the soldiers’ emotional welfare was not catered to. The oppressive fear that the country would at some point be dragged into the war should not be underestimated either. The border is just ten kilometres from Courgenay.
The daily drill was part of a soldier’s day-to-day life.
The daily drill was part of a soldier’s day-to-day life. Swiss National Museum
The song dedicated to her, “La petite Gilberte de Courgenay” played a major role in the waitress’ fame. It was composed by Robert Lustenberger and Oskar Portmann, two military musicians from Entlebuch, when they were stationed in the Courgenay area in the winter of 1915-16. The piece was premiered on New Year’s Eve 1915 in the hotel’s big hall, where they performed their new song about the adored waitress in front of the assembled squad. Gilberte’s brother Paul, who was only eleven at the time, wrote down the music and the lyrics. Paul later became a music professor and composer, and the street behind the hotel is named after him – while the one in front is called Rue de Petite-Gilberte. The composition eventually found its way into the hands of Hanns In der Gand, who was engaged by the army as a “Soldatensänger”, singing Swiss folksongs to entertain and uplift the troops. The song was incorporated into his repertoire from 1917 – making Gilberte known throughout Switzerland. As the song became more widely known, the not-quite-true part of the story began. Hanns In der Gand’s real name was Ladislaus Krupski, and he was the son of a Polish father and a German mother. He is thought to have adopted the Uri name In der Gand in order to have easier access to the local people as a collector of folk songs. Even today, Krupski is often wrongly credited as the writer of the song.
Hanns in der Gand sings the homage to Gilberte. YouTube
A woman from Romandy who was the darling of Swiss-German soldiers – the Confederation embraced this scenario whole‑heartedly as a cement to bind the two parts of the country. During World War I Switzerland faced threats not only from outside, but also from within. The country was divided by a deep rift: the majority of French-speaking Switzerland sided with France, while the German-speaking part of the nation tended to favour the German Empire. Newspapers on both sides of the Saane adopted the propaganda of the relevant warring party, and accused each other of this taking of sides, citing it as a danger to the country’s neutrality. The so-called “Oberstenaffäre” (colonel’s affair) of 1915, for example, drove a wedge between the two halves of the country. Two high-ranking Swiss-German officers – both colonels in the Swiss General Staff – covertly provided the German and Austro‑Hungarian military attachés with the daily bulletins issued by the general staff and other confidential papers. When this came to light the two were punished by General Ulrich Wille, the head of the Swiss Army, with a mere 20 days of detention, and then dismissed from their roles by the Federal Council. These were paltry consequences for treason, for which the death penalty is often given in time of war. This mild punishment unleashed an outcry in western Switzerland. Thankfully, there was still this lovely waitress from Courgenay who kept the country united in music and legend...
This article appeared in the Bieler Tagblatt. It was published in that newspaper on 10 July 2020 under the title “How a waitress became a legend”. Read here how the legend lived on in World War II.

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