France Lives Again
L. S. B. SHAPIRO
WE HAVE been in France 45 days and it has been like a traumatic dream—a dream filled with moments of elation triumphant and rampant horror, with fleeting glimpses of Norman castles rising on noble hillcrests, as though out of Disney’s imagination, and of men lying grotesquely in the dusty ruins of a farmland hamlet. A dream filled with the shattering cacophony of war, blending the deep-throated roars of the big guns with the piercing scream of rocket Typhoons racing low in counterpoint with scudding clouds above. A dream made fraudulent by the hush of dawn breaking over tense men awaiting zero hour to move into the blasting hell of battle. A dream embracing life, death, courage, cowardice, dust, laughter, mud, sunshine, hate and eameraderie and all the things, crazy and noble, shrewd and terrifying, that make war. The 45 days have been filled with them.
Through all these desperate unpredictable days two things and two things only have remained constant in our minds. One is the certainty of victory over anything the Hun can put against our combined Allied Armies. The other is the certainty of the triumph of France. The first consideration is not surprising; we plunged across the stormy Channel on the night of June 5 knowing full well victory lay across an ominous dawn. But the strength, spirit and nobility of France after four years of subjection to the Boche were things we did not suspect. We have come to know them well; they constitute the essence of national magnificence.
It will he remembered that the western nations only a few weeks ago mourned France as a defiled and broken sister, the most pitiful victim of Hitler’s rape of Europe. We prepared to send her basic materials for reviving her national life and we buoyed her with
brave hopeful words. And we also steeled ourselves to find u nation starved of body and desolate of spirit. So many times we said to ourselves, “France is through for .100 years. She can never recover in our lifetime. 11, is a pity; she was so fine, so civilized.”
What we found, I think, may be telescoped into a single incident which occurred to me the other day. I entered Caen close on the heels of the Stormont Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders of Canada and the first thing that struck my eye was the destruction of this famous cathedral city. No wonder. We’d been bombarding German positions within it mercilessly from air and by heavy guns for more than a month. Oh the eve of our attack a force of hundreds of heavy bombers smashed at its outskirts. Germans we captured in the town were “bomb happy.” Even the toughest of them trembled with fear and shell shock. My heart bled for the civilians who’d been subjected to this horror.
IN THE centre of Caen I came upon a miraculous scene. The famous cathedral of Saint Etienne stood unscarred and untouched, as though the hand of God had shielded its magnificent twin towers against the holocaust which spread ruin everywhere around them. I entered the church and here I found hundreds of Caen townsfolk. They’d been living there since June 6, making the cathedral their home and hospital,
"A few weeks ago we mourned France as a broken sister. Today, after a gruesome test of fire, death and desolation, she rises triumphant."—Shapiro
their kitchen and bedchamber. But everything was orderly, even dignified. Men were shining their shoes near the tomb of William the Conqueror and mothers were scrubbing their children’s ears in the pews. All of them were serene and unafraid.
As I walked along the main aisle a little boy, perhaps six years old, dashed out of a pew, shook my hand, as all French children seem trained to do, and asked, “Monsieur, avez vous cie bonbons?” I gave him a bar of chocolate, but before he could remove the wrapper his mother bounded to his side, snatched the chocolate from his eager fingers and handed it back to me. “Ne demande pas de bonbons. Ce n’est pas français,” she said to her little boy. Then turning to me she apologized softly, “I am sorry my little boy bothered you. It is not like a French person to ask for anything.”
The little boy’s eyes were eloquently imploring the chocolate and I tried to press it on the mother. But she was adamant. “No,” she said, “it is enough that vve have our freedom.” And she led her child away.
That was France speaking—France as we found her. Her towns broken—yes. Her young men still prisoners in Germany—yes. And her people subjected to all the horrors of modern war. But her dignity is unimpaired, her spirit still soaring, her faith in herself as constant as the Channel tide.
It is not even pertinent to ask whether this nation can rise again. Those of us who are here will testify that she has never fallen. She has been defeated in a battle but she has not lost the war. She has been fighting the war ever since 1940 and she is now winning it, together with her Allies.
You will ask how one can judge the situation in all of France by the very little strip of rich, self-sufficient Normandy we now occupy. You may point out that the people within our bridgehead were fed well off the land, that they did not starve like the rest of France, and that therefore we cannot judge the spirit of the
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nation by the measure of the CaenCherbourg strip.
In my opinion this part of Normandy provides a stiffer test of France’s faith in herself than the remainder of the country. It is natural for the starving Parisians and the decimated Patriots of Lyons to maintain a burning hatred of the Germans. It is as instinctive as self-preservation itself for them to yearn and work for the overthrow of the Hun invaders. It has not been easy for these Normans to hate the occupation and to welcome our vicious onslaught on their shores. They were well-fed because the German transport system was unable to remove the rich Norman foodstuffs for distribution elsewhere. This land, which provided half of peacetime France with its meat and dairy products, found itself glutted with food and its people lived an ideal gourmet’s life.
Moreover the Germans in this area made strenuous efforts to ingratiate themselves with the people. The Huns wanted their loyalty, particularly along the coastline. Therefore the occupation troops were ordered to behave correctly—and they did. I have not heard one report of anj'thing but utter correctness toward the general population by German soldiers. They “paid” for what they ate and drank with money printed by Vichy. They kept their requisitioned billets in scrupulous order, and encouraged romance and marriage between German soldiers and French girls. From a material point of view the Normans lived a comfortable life during the four years of the occupation.
The Thunder Broke
Then the Allied thunder broke on the dawn of June 6. Sea-front buildings were shattered along a 60-mile stretch, hundreds of civilians were killed. We moved inland and soon Cherbourg was wrecked, Valognes smashed to bits, Carentan shattered, Caen blitzed, and hundreds of villages in the path of our advance were crushed into powdered stone. Now thousands of civilians died or were maimed. Normandy, which had not known sounds of war since the French Revolution, was convulsed by our fire.
This, in truth, was a test of the nation’s will to live—a gruesome test by fire and death and desolation. The Normans, who are noted in France, as are the Scots in Britain, for their dourness and possessive qualities, accepted this plague of destruction as a natural price for freedom and for the re-establishment of France. They welcomed us, not always with cheers and smiles, but with dignity and thankfulness. When I entered Valognes in the wake of the American advance, I was approached by a tear-stricken man standing in the midst of the most appalling ruins I have ever seen. “Why did you bombard our city?” he asked. “There was not a single German here.
I do not understand what the reason could have been.”
I explained to him that Valognes was smashed in order to block the main highway running through the town, thus preventing the Germans from racing reinforcements to the beaches while the Americans were still fighting a life-and-death struggle for a foothold.
The man nodded his head sadlj'. “I understand now,” he said. “It was necessary, and that is all I wanted to know, Monsieur. Now I am relieved somewhat. You see, Monsieur, my wife and daughter are lying underneath those smashed buildings.”
Everywhere in Normandy a similar
story is being unfolded. Each day since the invasion I have passed civilian funerals in little churchyards just behind the axis of our advance. And everywhere the reaction is the same. When I stop to speak to these mourners they are sad but cordial, and they never forget to impress upon me how fine is the behavior of our troops and how thankful they are that we have rescued them from the Boche. They have dignity and they have national spirit which brims with faith and overflows their personal sorrow. To them France is paramount.
If this spirit of national pride and relief can rise high above the ruins of the once comfortable Normandy coast, there can be no doubt about the rest of France, where the price of German occupation has been starvation and death and systematic pillage; where hostages have been regularly impi'isoned and scores of thousands shot; where the Maquis defy many German divisions, aixd where Underground Patriots are carrying on effective sabotage of German military establishments ixx support of the Allied Armies. Only those who are in Finance can know the inordixxate love of their owix soil and the tradition of freedom which is an inherent part of the French people. It was no mere dramatic gestux-e when Lieut. Robert Schumann of the French Army, landing with us on D-Day, came ashore and scooped up a fistful of earth and wept tears of joy as he fondled the dirt as though it wex*e a precious treasure. France feels that way about her soil.
But spirit alone cannot X’estore the sovereignty and strength of a country. De Gaulle realized this long ago aixd so did his Undex-ground organization within France. Vast preparations were made in advance, both by the De Gaulle administration and by the Underground, toward the day when liberation armies would arrive. It is no exaggex-ation to say that our invasion chiefs were amazed at the extexxt and detail of purely French readiness to rehabilitate and administer the liberated regions.
In Caen, for instance, these plans were perfected months in advance of our comixxg. The Underground, in closest collaboration with the De Gaulle organization, had trained its personnel for medical duties in case of civiliaxx casualties, had set up a system of food distribution in case of siege, and had px'ovided for cooks, couriers and even liberatioxx tax collectors. So complete was the organization that Allied civil affairs officers entering Caen with oxxr forward troops found themselves to be largely superfluous. Supplies that they carried—oil, pumping machinery and soap—were used but xxot their services.
It was the same in all other liberated communities. Unseen armies of adnxixxistrators emerged from the shadows of the Undergrouixd the nxoixxent our troops arrived, and they took charge with the blessing of De Gaulle and tlxe high approval of the populace. Some were parish priests, some were clerks and mechanics aixd farmers. They were aided by trained personnel sent by De Gaulle from Flngland and Africa. Our civil affairs officers were frankly delighted. They had anticipated chaos and administrative headaches. Instead they found discipline and ordered axrangements.
Our field commanders found an equally efficient organization on the military side of the French Underground. De Gaulle had promised us military co-operation when we laxxded in France and his Resistance Army has made good his promise. Because the
Battle of France is still in progress I cannot reveal details of this organization, but it is possible to reveal that its resistance is aiding us in an efficient military manner. Information brought to our field commanders by regular resistance troops is reliable and accurate, and their sabotage work behind German lines is disciplined and systematic. During a critical period of the battle along the Caen-Bayeux line, the Resistance Army so impeded German movement that certain Nazi divisions required 14 days to travel the 150 miles to the battle line. Who can measure the extent of the military advantage accruing to us when our field commanders, informed that a German formation is moving toward the line, can order the Resistance Army to delay the arrival of this formation for a stated number of days? Yet this is regularly done through General Koenig who commands the Resistance Army.
All this did not become evident the moment we landed. It required many days for the resistance organization, itself surprised by the date and location of our assault, to swing into action. And during those wild days many ugly stories about France were sent out of the bridgehead. Rumors spread through our forces and in our home countries that French civilians, including women, were sniping Allied troops, that the Normans were pro-German and that the Underground was nonexistent. Montgomery himself gravely announced to us that we had caught two women snipers in the act of firing on our troops. It was not until Eisenhower’s Headquarters issued a formal statement to the effect that no single authenticated case of civilian sniping had been uncovered that our shaken faith in France was restored.
These rumors spread easily and widely because during the first days of the invasion we left many pockets of Germans behind our lines and these fanatical Nazis emerged from hiding each night to shoot any troops who came within their gun sights. We know now these stories were untrue and in some cases malicious lies. But all that is past and bitter history. The faith of our troops in the French population has been fully restored.
Flag of Liberation
Of the political future of France there seems to be little doubt. De Gaulle, through his complete control of the Underground workers who are the current heroes of the liberated Norman population, has a firm grasp on the helm of France. There are no rivals on the horizon. The French Tricolor with the Cross of Lorraine superimposed has become the flag of liberation and it Is raised to masts everywhere amid scenes of emotion which are hardly credible to those of us who are not French. De Gaulle the mystic has become De Gaulle the realist. He is the unquestioned leader of France within its homeland and beyond.
Perhaps t he most beautiful picture of the new France fell upon my eyes on Bastille Day in the churchyard of the shattered little town of Thaon, a few miles north of Caen. Against a background of the ruins of the little parish church, the silver-haired Curé of Thaon looked upon children of the parish. He wore the Cross of Lorraine on the breast of his cassock, and over his right arm was folded the Tricolor. He stood at the foot of a flagpole and led his parishioners in prayer. Children fidgeting in their Sunday best joined in responses with studied effect. Then the Curé said, “It is four years since you saw your flag. F our long harrowing years. You will see it now fluttering in the wind beneath the open sky.”
He stepped closer to the children and his clear voice cut through the drone of our fighter planes racing overhead to a nearby battlefield. “Look at your flag and know it! Many of you young children have never seen it flying free in the wind. Look at it now; it is blue for the blood of our soldiers and our martyrs. Look at it, my children; look at it and revel in its glory. Yes, ray children, you may look at it. You are free at last!”
A bearded veteran of the last war stepped up and helped the Curé hoist the flag. The children, reading the words from bits of papers—for they’d never had a chance to learn them— sang the Marseillaise. They sang and sang—three verses and three choruses. The Curé beamed and nodded his head, and tears streamed down his cheeks. I slipped away and walked through the shattered town. There were tears in my eyes too.