French. A brave sailor returns from war and stops at an inn. The hostess cries; she recognizes him as her husband. He asks why she has more children. She had reports that he had died and so remarried. He leaves silver and returns to his regiment.
Lehr/Best: Best says "It dates from the wars of Louis XIV (the late 1600s) and was very popular in the southwest of France." Lehr/Best makes "Le Jeune Militaire" a version of "Brave Marin"; while the themes are very close the words are not. - BS
Colcord theorizes that this is the ballad from which "Snapoo" and subsequently "Mademoiselle from Armentieres" were derived. The tune is similar (though slower) and the lines end with the words "tout doux" which could have been transliterated into "snapoo." Tennyson used the same theme in his classic poem "Enoch Arden" in 1864.
Hugill (in _Songs of the Sea_, 1977) says that the song comes from the days of Louis XIII (1610-1643) and that the theme may have been derived from the story of Martin Guerre, which took place around 1560, though a significant difference in the two is that in "Retour du Marin" (and in "Enoch Arden") the returning sailor eventually goes on his way, rather than impersonating someone as Martin Guerre did. - SL
Obviously none of these theories of origin can be proved, though in some ways, the earlier, the better, as long as the song is of French/Catholic origin. By the eighteenth century, a Catholic woman could not remarry unless she could not only show her husband was dead but could point out the body -- a cause of much distress at Trafalgar, e.g.; the English would bury their dead at sea, but the French and Spanish wanted to stack their ships full of bodies.
Incidentally, in "Enoch Arden," the returned sailor dies for love. Whether that is a better ending is, I think, debatable. - RBW