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6 Feb 2009

Don't mention the war

In the same way as the disaster of Omaha Beach means that the other four invasion beaches can often be overlooked, the enormous importance, and overall success, of the D-Day landings obscures the fact that for the preceding four years, France was occupied by foreign soldiers.

The occupation had many implications for ordinary people. Some were active collaborators, as in Vichy and the Petain puppet government, some were passively cooperative, some avoided the German rule as much as they could, and of course some joined the Resistance. Every town and village had people in all these categories, and even now there are sensitivities and undercurrents not obvious to outsiders.

Many people do not want to talk about the war and the occupation, including those who were not born then, but who know of aspects of that time and how what members of their families did, or did not , or were suspected of doing. Who knows how we would have behaved in that situation? Certainly, the example of the occupation of the Channel Islands shows some of the issues.

If you look carefully in many of the towns in Normandy, you will find the occasional plaque on a wall stating that the person named was shot by firing squad at that place, or hanged, or otherwise killed. Many people were taken away, to prison, forced labour, or worse.

If you visit St Lo, you will find the centre, where the Saturday market takes place, inside the wonderful medieval ramparts, but completely destroyed by the American bombardment in June 1944. All that remains of the old town centre is the church tower, deliberately not repaired, and part of the gatehouse of the old castle. In the gatehouse is a large brass plaque, recording the names of everyone from St Lo who died during the war. It starts with French soldiers killed in action during the defeat by Germany, then has members of the resistance killed in action, resistance members executed, and all those deported to concentration camps: many of these are just the family name 'and 4 children'. The last two categories are civilians killed during the bombardment, and members of the resistance held in the prison. Liberation was not cost free.

My now deceased neighbour, Madame Laforet, was one person who had lived through the occupation, and able to talk about it. She mentioned that her eldest son had to be hidden in effectively a pig sty at the bottom of a distant field for some months, because the Germans were rounding up all the teenage boys for slave labour in Czechoslovakia; virtually none returned. She talked of other occasions when animals and crops were taken, of people disappearing.

She also talked about the invasion itself, pointing out where an allied bomb had fallen just the other side of the garden, and how a German sniper had killed two British soldiers in the lane. The sniper was killed by a German tank, commandeered by a young woman from the village.

Some other people, mostly women, who were children during the war, have memories of fear, hunger, and people vanishing, some to other areas to resist, some to prisons, some dead.

By the time the invasion moved away from Normandy, many towns were completely destroyed, many people had been killed, and a few scores were settled.

A French politician, I believe – I can't trace the quote – said that after the war, there were more members of the resistance than there were people. Human nature being what it is, I don't find that surprising, and there could have been few people who did not emotionally support the resistance, even if they like most of us lacked the courage, or the freedom from responsibility for others, or the right opportunities, to participate actively.

The Memorial museum at Caen is a museum to peace, not like the Imperial War Museum with its toys for the boys, and has a hugely moving range of displays of life under the occupation. It is at junction 7 on the Caen Peripherique (ring road) and is informative, sad, and ultimately I think encouraging, and an excellent antidote to many of the other commercial museums which glorify the fighting, the weapons, and the glamour of combat which is experienced only by the uninvolved, the uncaring and the unimaginative.  It has produced a film of the D-Day events, with archive film from both sides shown on a split screen. One side shows the landing craft, the other the blockhouse and gun emplacements being manned. Where one side shows soldiers being machine gunned by planes, the other shows the view of the piloy=ts at the same moment. More reality.

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