They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.
The Padré is quite definitley drunk. The surfeit of red wine has loosened his tongue and we are now in full communion on his youthful sexploits with a girl from South East London. He obviously got the coming before he got the calling, but when he had been called, he was still coming – ah the sexual benefits of being an Anglican Vicar.
Previous to his large intake of wine, the Padré was standing in a war cemetery pronouncing a glowing eulogy for an SAS commando, killed in July 1944. As he concludes, those that have grown old, lower their flags and banners whilst a trumpeter sounds the Last Post.
We are in early September at the cemetery in the small French village of Villequiers in the Cher – right in the heart of France. There is one lone English war grave, with it’s white stone cross – around the grave, the surviving comrades of the dead soldier – those that are left and who have grown old - in their eighties and nineties – a handful of veterans paying homage to their “ever youthful” brother in arms.
It started in May 1944 – 49 soldiers of the SOE (future SAS) were parachuted in seven teams of seven from Sancerre right across to Poitiers. The task of each team was to help and train the French resistance for the forthcoming Liberation. And organise “actions” to disrupt German lines of supply. – Anything to stop the Germans sending troops north to reinforce their numbers in Normandy when D Day finally came.
So, every year, even though their numbers grow few, the brave young men of the SAS come back to France as old men and visit all those sites where they did battle in 1944. In solemn ceremony they pay hommage to their fallen comrades with words of pomp and comfort from the Regimental Padre, and then they all go for lunch – good French fare washed down with lashings of wine, and this is why the Padré is drunk.
I am here, because it sometimes my privilege to come along and translate for the veterans. They sit with their former Resistance comrades and as old soldiers do, they reminisce on former battles. Brothers in arms, half the time, they don’t even need a translator. In spite of the language barrier, theold warriors understand each other.
This is living history that is dying. This is the history that they never teach in schools and I am “honoured” to be with those who made history.
On this, the 70th anniversary of the Liberation of Paris. I wanted to take time to dwell on all those everyday reminders. Those plaques, monuments and statues that are art of everyday life all over France – those tokens of rememberance that I walk or drive past everyday without stopping, without thinking –
It starts on the way to work – I cruise into town on the ring road. A few hundred metres before I turn off there is a large sign on the road indicating the spot where the “Nazi Occupier” executed 40 French men and women from 1940 to 1944. The exact execution spot is not open to the public, it is now within the grounds of a secure local military installation. One day the place might be opened up. The local authorities might see fit to put up plaques with the names of those executed by the Nazis.
In work; in my classroom. A reminder of an older war – the Great War. On the entrance to the building, the date of construction – 1914. My classroom, with its four metre high ceilings and 30 centimetre thick walls (that’s 12 to 14 feet high ceilings and 15 inch thick walls) – built in 1914 to store artillery munitions – there are several buildings like this on the base – Bourges is and was a major production centre for artillery munitions – though in 1914, though in 1914 they were making far more than today.
A walk into town – passing what is now a large private school, but used to be the German Kommandatur. Darker memories further on – in a side street near the post office, the former Gestapo headquarters – an uninspiring building with a grey façade, it could do with a lick of paint. And where the Gestapo once interrogated and tortured, there is now an adult learning centre offering, amongst other things, yoga sessions and evening classes in foreign languages – not sure if they teach German.
There are those official war monuments – a separate monument for each war from the 1870 Franco Prussian war through to the war in Algeria. On November 11th there are ceremonies at the Great War Memorial. On May 8th, there are ceremonies at the WW2 memorial. I’m not sure on which day local dignitaries and veterans hold ceremonies for the war in Indochina or the war in Algeria – those wars are still “fresh” and even a little controversial – wars that some might call “wars of independence” and other might qualify as “colonial wars.” S for the Franco Prussian war – it is far from living memory, but there are still those who pose flowers and wreaths on the war memorial. Perhaps we should pay heed the this Franco-German conflict, which in its way sewed the seeds for later conflicts. It was in this war that the Germans annexed the French territories of Alsace and Lorraine – the defeat of the French and the loss of territory nurtured a gnawing national hunger for revenge. Until war erupted again in August 1914, the inter-war generations were brought up in a spirit of revenge and taught to mistrust, even hate their German neighbours.
On a walk round the lake, I regularly pass by a discreet, lone headstone, marking the place where a young man was killed by the Germans on September 18th 1944 during the battle for the Liberation of Bourges. I can’t remember his name, but as an ex-pat, as a Brit, living in my small town, it always feel stragnge that the War came this far, that Bourges was occupied, that this town qualified by many as being off the beaten track was occupied, fought over, liberated – people died for this place. The monument to our young friend lies on the far side of the lake between the car park and the tennis courts.
It is the same though, when I drive cross country to see friends, or, as last weekend, just go for a drive, I regularly come across monuments to those members of the Reistance who fell in the bloody battles of August 1944. On the road to Marmagne, near the level crossing, a monument to four Resistance fighters, killed by German forces as they sought to may a charge on the railway tracks. Just last Saturday, coming into the village of Graçay – a stone plinth bearing thr nales of eight locals “betrayed” and then executed by the Wehrmacht on August 15th 1944.
All over the countryside there are monuments to those who fell in August 1944. Why so many?
It was a time without motorways and the roads as they were all went through this region – Bourges, Vierzon, Sancerre, Chateauroux – this region which is the geographical heart of France, by road or by rail, everything going from north to south or east to west came though the centre. We were one of the main crossroads on German army supply routes.
In August 1944, roughly 250,00 Germans troops went through this region – by road or by train. The Resistance (with a little help from the SAS) were there to disrupt German movement as much as possible – attacking trains, attacking road convoys. The Germans were head north to reinforce their troops in Normandy. Some troops were going from West to East – to reinforce their lines from Nice to Strasbourg after the Allied landings in Provence. As they went, they must have realised that he War was lost and therefore didn’t hesitiate to … the Germans went with “nothing to left to lose” – they were not tender in their retreat.
Round here ther were no large battles. This was not Normandy, this was not the Plateau de Vercors, this was everyday workaday Occupied France, where people still tried to go about their daily business, despite the War, but Resistance was strong and though the area had little strategic value it still attracted the attentions of the RAF – August 15th, the RAF raid on Bourges – an attempt to destroy the local aerodrome and the arms factories – 16 members or RAF bomber crews lie buried in our local war cemetery along with two Canadian Lysander pilots – I suppose the relative remoteness of this region and the very flat local geography made it a perfect place to land agents and supplies for the Resistance. It’s not written anywhere, but 15 kms out of Bourges, large flat fields served as regular landing sites for the RAF Lysanders. On August 12th 1944 one of the Lysanders was shot down – the 2 Canadian pilots are also in the local war cemetery. Yes, you think of those vast war cemeteries in Normandy or Picardy, but we too have our local Commonwealth War Cemetery where over 20 members of British and Commonwealth forces are buried.
And so a few words on the Demarcation Line. It is always glossed over in history lessons, but, when the Germans invaded, defeated and then occupied France in May to June 1940, they occupied the North down to the Loire and the Cher rivers and they occupied all of the Western seaboard. That part of France from Bourges to the Med and up to the Italian border was not occupied by the Germans, but left to the French and ruled by a puppet government under Marshall Petain, exercising power from the spa town of Vichy in the Massif Central. Unoccupied Vichy France was administered by the French from June 1940 to November 1942. Strangely enough, Jews were not rounded up in Unoccupied France and the place did not suffer the same hardships as Occupied France. The “game” therefore was to get to Unoccupied France – an option open to many French people who could prove they had family ties in the “Free” zone. Needless to say, there was also a lot of illicit traffic – Jews, Resistants, refugees, who tried to pass into unoccupied France by clandestine means. The old Demarcation line lies just a couple of miles away from my house, and there are still those alive who tell stories of “passing” people from Occupied France into Vichy France – fake funerals, fake weddings – any excuse was good. I have a friend whose house lies directly on the old demarcation line. He has stories of his grand parents hiding British airmen hidden in the cellar ready to cross the line into Unoccupied France. And where did the airmen go afterwards ? Spain, Switzerland, Portugal and strangley enough, Lyons and all the region up to the Swiss border, because thatwas the part of France occupied by the Italians (yep, you didn’t know that the Italians had occupied parts of France - well they did up until 1943, and then after the Sicily and Anzio landings the Italians went home and the Germans took over (look up Klaud Barbie – the Butcher of Lyons on the web) – as for the Unoccupied Zone – the Germans occupied it in November 1942 after the Allied landings in North Africa.
I reckon that’s enough history for now.
Just to say that whilst we talk about the Liberation of Paris, whilst we will mark the Liberation of other major French cities, every town and every village in France was “liberated” at some point and every village bears the scars of war, in every village men have gone to war and never come home. In every village, however isolated there was an act of resistance, there was an execution, there was perhaps some kind of local atrocity, and I think in the British mindset, this is something that we find hard to realise. Britain got bombed, Britain suffered, but it never underwent the day-to-day attrition that was Occupation – Resistants, Collaborators and in the majority, just ordinary people trying to get on with everyday life in very difficult circumstances.
Now don’t believe that everyone in France was in the Resistance – as mentioned, most people were just trying to survive, but there were probably more collaborators (however passive or active) than there were members of the French Resistance. The biggest flood of members to the Resistance came in 1943/1944 when it became obvious that German days were numbered. What fuelled the flood of members to the Resistance was when French males were forcibly conscripted for labour service in the Reich- thousands of French males went – some of them quite willingly, but thousands also disappeared, melting away into the arms of Resistance cells, even just living in forests hoping not to be picked up, with little thought of joining the Resistance.
Well look back at 1944. Most of the killing of French Resistance members was being done by the French and not the Germans. The Vichy-run and Nazi inspired Milice – an interior French military force armed by the Germans and run by Vichy actually fighting the French Resistance. Most of the killing was Franco German but Franco French. There is a school of thought that says from 1943 onwards, France was actually in a state of civil war – Fascists against Communists – Vichy France against Resistance France – the old political cleavages of the 1930’s all armed up and willing to fight each other. I’m not quite sure if the French did more harm to themselves tan the Germans did to them. (Contreversial I know)
Okay more history in another post. As for my town though, it was liberated by the French Resistance. Not a Brit or an American in sight.
And in reference to a Great War – just 20 miles from my house, in 1917 there was a huge American camp and supply depot, and according to family legend, my wife’s great Grandmother went out with a Doughboy.