Melancholy Actions

Charles Glass

  • England’s Last War against France: Fighting Vichy 1940-42 by Colin Smith
    Weidenfeld, 490 pp, £25.00, July 2009, ISBN 978 0 297 85218 6

When France fell in June 1940, a small remnant of the French army and navy found itself in England. Most of them chose to return to France, where their government was preparing to capitulate to the invader. Few of the soldiers and almost none of the sailors recognised Charles de Gaulle, an armoured corps colonel temporarily elevated to brigadier general, as their leader. To them, de Gaulle seemed more of a traitor to his fellow officers for siding with Britain than Maréchal Pétain for seeking accommodation with Germany. Pétain, at least, remained on French soil to share the national humiliation rather than join an ancient enemy to sacrifice more lives in a war that seemed irretrievably lost. On 18 June, the day after Pétain announced his decision to seek an armistice that would oblige French officials to co-operate with the Wehrmacht, de Gaulle addressed the French nation via the BBC:

J’invite tous les militaires français des armées de terre, de mer et de l’air, j’invite les ingénieurs français spécialistes de l’armement qui se trouvent en territoire britannique ou qui pourraient y parvenir, à se réunir à moi. J’invite les chefs, les soldats, les marins, les aviateurs des forces françaises de terre, de mer, de l’air, où qu’ils se trouvent actuellement, à se mettre en rapport avec moi. J’invite tous les Français qui veulent rester libres à m’écouter et à me suivre.

Few Frenchmen actually heard the words now taught in French schools, ‘La France a perdu une bataille, mais la France n’a pas perdu la guerre.’ Fewer still responded. French defeat had been absolute: more than 90,000 soldiers killed, another 200,000 wounded, nearly two million taken prisoner, the army routed and demoralised, the population defenceless. Most French men and women distrusted Britain, whom they blamed for bringing France into a war for which it was unprepared, and for skimping on its own military contribution to the Allied cause: France fielded 67 army divisions along the front to Britain’s five. (Germany had 107.) ‘Anglophobia seems to be almost universal in the French army,’ the writer Claude Jamet noted in his diary. When France collapsed, an American living in Paris wrote of de Gaulle: ‘It must be supposed that an officer who seeks shelter far from the situation that he himself has abandoned, who is clothed, fed and financed by a government which has seldom throughout history manifested affection towards his fatherland, is hardly in a position to judge the conditions from which he himself has escaped.’

Jean Monnet, one of France’s more respected statesmen, wrote to de Gaulle on 23 June in London: ‘I share completely your desire to keep France from giving up the fight. But it is not from London that the effort of resurrection can, at the moment, begin. It would look to Frenchmen, in this form, like a movement protected by England, inspired by its interests and, because of that, condemned to a failure that will make later efforts to get back on our feet more difficult.’

Anglo-French distrust ran deep. Each navy had named its ships for heroes in wars fought against the other. HMS Hotspur honoured Harry Percy, who fought the French in the 14th century and had been governor of Bordeaux; HMS Keppel recalled Augustus Keppel, the admiral who defeated a French fleet at Quiberon Bay off Saint-Nazaire in 1759; in the same year, George Rodney, after whom the battleship HMS Rodney was named, shelled Le Havre for two full days and nights. The French navy similarly honoured Jean Bart, who escaped British captivity in 1689 by rowing with 20 of his men across the Channel to Brittany and in the next year razed a castle in Scotland; the Bévéziers recalled a French naval victory over the English off Beachy Head in 1690; and no name resounded with more anti-English ardour than Surcouf, a submarine launched in 1929 and named after Robert Surcouf, le roi des corsairs, who in his long career seized more than 40 English ships.

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