On Tuesday, May 17, the Argentinian anthem resounds as a stele is inaugurated commemorating the tragedy of the ARA San Juan, an Argentinian submarine that disappeared on November 15, 2017 with 44 crew members, whose wreckage was located a year later, at a depth of more than 900 m, off the coast of Patagonia.
A few meters away, a massive bronze statue, on a stone pedestal, shows General San Martin, “carrying a flag on a trotting horse, with at his feet: The Republic offering him a laurel wreath”, describes the website of the local tourist office.
It was in Boulogne-sur-Mer, about fifty kilometers from the British coast, that José de San Martin breathed his last, 34 years after this brilliant military strategist had enabled the “United Provinces of La Plata” to become definitively independent from the Kingdom of Spain in 1816.
Two centuries later, almost every Argentine town has a “Plaza San Martin”, sometimes embellished with a street or an avenue dedicated to the hero.
“For the Argentines, (Boulogne-sur-Mer) is an obligatory place to visit because it is there that the liberator of Argentina, Chile and Peru died,” Carolina Ghiggino, head of the cultural section of the Argentinian Embassy in France.
A city of 70,000 inhabitants in the large suburbs of Buenos Aires even bears the name of the French city.
For the General Association of Submariners’ Associations, which had two steles built in honor of the men of the ARA San Juan – the first was inaugurated in 2021 on the Mar del Plata military base -, building the second in Boulogne-sur-Mer, “Argentina at heart”, was obvious, says retired Rear Admiral Dominique Salles.
In this city, the “echo” of the tragedy of ARA San Juan “resonated” even louder due to the “intimate history” that binds it “to the great figure of General San Martin”, confirms the first deputy mayor, Mireille Hingrez-Céréda.
– Legion of Honor –
Boulogne-sur-Mer, one of the main fishing ports in France, whose old town is rich in old stones, was not the hero’s first choice.
When he went into exile in Europe in 1824 to escape the political struggles of the young Argentine state, José de San Martin first lived in London and Brussels, says Carlos Ariel Kirilinko, the curator of Casa San Martin, the former General’s house in the center of Boulogne-sur-Mer, now a museum in his honor.
After a brief trip to Argentina in 1829, he then moved to Paris from 1830 to 1848, but left after a popular uprising caused the fall of Louis-Philippe, the last king to reign in France, followed by the he advent of the second French republic and a bloodbath a few months later, continues the 72-year-old former Argentinian officer.
“San Martin decides to come to the coast [of the Channel, the sea facing the United Kingdom] so that he can go to London if the situation gets complicated in France. He and his family arrive in Boulogne, the most important port in France at the time”, narrates the curator.
He will not leave, and will die there on August 17, 1850 at the age of 72. His body, embalmed, will be transported thirty years later to Argentina.
In 1909, Boulogne-sur-Mer inaugurated the first statue in Europe of the hero, in the presence of his granddaughter Josefa Dominga, to whom France would later award the Legion of Honor for his role at the head of a hospital during World War I.
Twinning with La Plata, a town located 50 km from Buenos Aires, student exchanges, cultural activities, tributes to San Martin every August 17 at the foot of his statue… the small French town of 40,000 souls has been farming for more than a century his attachment to Argentina, which is still rooted in the barely inaugurated stele.