Men of Free France (1940)


by Leslie Howard

From the Listener, Organ of the British Broadcasting Corporation

THERE is now with us in England a group of foreigners who, of their own free decision, deliberately arrived at, have committed an act of such inspired courage as even the history of great wars rarely uncovers.
All over the world today, but particularly in the zones of war, men are, consciously or unconsciously, finding out what it is in life that they hold most dear. I suggest that in times of peace and prosperity many of us cannot be quite sure. We think we know, but do we? But, in times of great upheaval, in times of national peril, of common tragedy and danger, when life and security are uncertain and there is no visible future, in such times it is generally revealed to us whether it is money that is chiefly precious, or fame, or power, or religion, or family, or some special possession, or honor, or even a particular and personal vice. In an extreme moment we shall know.
A strange and wonderful light has been thrown on this subject by members of the French fighting forces who found themselves in England or escaped to it after the tragic collapse of their Fatherland.
Let us consider the cases of some of these men. Take, for example, a thick-set little bearded man from Marseilles, who was born in Corsica and hates nothing so much as Italians —except, of course, Germans. He is a sous-officier in the French Army. When he left Marseilles on mobilization, he left his fiancee—they were going to be married after the war—his mother and a good job on one of the local papers. After the stagnation in the Maginot Line he was suddenly shipped off to Norway where he did redoubtable things with the British and was decorated after the evacuation of Narvik. A direct hit from the air landed on the crowded deck of his ship, killed sixty men instantaneously and stupefied most of the rest. The explosion had started such a fire that the magazine was in imminent danger, and it seemed that nothing could save the ship, but in the confusion that small dark figure was seen to rouse itself to frantic action. Calling a few dazed comrades he succeeded in halting the fire, saving the magazine and the ship and thousands of lives. He wears his decoration proudly on a tattered uniform but flatly refuses to discuss it. Later he and his regiment were shipped hurriedly to Brest in a last desperate attempt to stem the German avalanche, but arrived too late.
The scenes at Brest were terrible. The harbor was full of ships, taking off troops for England, and also taking refugees. The Germans had already arrived at Rennes, one hundred and forty miles away, and had captured the railway station and all the rolling stock intact, and it was known in Brest that, at that moment, German troops were on their way, not by marching, or by mechanized vehicles, but actually by train. The scene at the dock was indescribable, but the thing which struck my little Corsican most was the sight of mothers forcing their way down to the edge of the quays and pushing their small sons on board the ships with the words: “You, at least, can live to fight for France.”
The ship on which my Corsican found himself was packed with troops and refugees. As it steamed slowly out of the harbor, someone started to sing the Marseillaise. Instantly, others began to join in and then all of a sudden the great French song died away. Men remembered what the song of the men of Marseilles had meant in the great days of France, but they could not bear to sing it with the Germans overrunning their country. There is something inexpressibly tragic about free Frenchmen who have no longer the heart to sing the Marseillaise. That song has meant so much in the history of free France.

TODAY I talked to another French soldier of the line—in civil life a famous violinist—who has joined the Army of General de Gaulle. He had just come back from giving a violin recital to men of the Foreign Legion who went from North Africa to fight at Narvik and came from Narvik back to England.
They are now in camp somewhere in England. Tasked the violinist for his impressions of these men. The first thing he said was that, when he arrived, they asked him if there was anything new in the newspapers—because, of course, very few of them could read English. He told them with some diffidence that that morning they had all been condemned to death by the Vichy Government! They were delighted and cheered and cried: “That’s the third time we’ve been condemned to death in the last six weeks.”
My violinist friend said over and over again that the men who have elected to stay in England and fight for General de Gaulle simply cannot understand the ones who want to go back to France. The ones who want to go back have mothers and wives and children and small patches of land and possessions in France. “But are we all orphans?” demanded the violinist. “Are we, who want to see France free from the domination of Germany, are we all unmarried? Have we no possessions in France?” But he also said that there was no shadow of ill-feeling between the two sets of men. There was just an irreconcilable difference. The one set —Time and Tide, London felt that it would be better to be on the spot to protect and feed their wives and children and mothers, even though it might mean working for the Germans, and, in effect, helping the Germans to attack Britain. The other set felt that the time was long past for personal feelings, and that wives and children and mothers were in the front line of this cruel and horrible warfare, and must be regarded as soldiers, who in the long run are less important to the world than the cause of liberty and the future of France itself.
Then I should like to say a word about the parade of French troops in one of the camps in the South of England. An English military band was playing that magnificent marching song of the Revolution, the Sambre et Meuse. The famous Foreign Legion came swinging past the saluting-base, where their Colonel was standing. The Colonel, incidentally, had led them since 1917, and had been twelve times wounded and decorated twenty-five times. In the halfbrigade that went past, the youngest was a Frenchman who has ten years’ service and nine mentions-in-dispatches, and the eldest was a Pole, with twenty-two years’ service and so many medals that he couldn’t be bothered to wear them any more. Behind these veterans came hundreds and hundreds of young men, wearing an extraordinary mixture of costume. Some were in uniform, some in civilian clothes and some in a mixture, of the two. They were volunteers for the French Foreign Legion—Englishmen, Norwegians, Americans and Frenchmen who had escaped from Brittany in the refugee ships. In a week or two they will be marching in line with the veterans of all those medals and all those mentions-in-dispatches.
Then there is the story of the young quartermaster who had retreated with his division to Dunkirk and had there been rescued by the British Navy and brought across to England. The moment that the French Armistice was signed, the quartermaster had only one idea in his head : to return to his wife and his children, and his beloved France. A French comrade of his argued and argued with him. “England,” said his friend, “saved you and welcomed you and looked after you, and has kept you a free man.” The quartermaster replied: “My first duty, all the same, is to go back to my wife and children.” When his friend said that it was impossible to live under the German jack-boot in freedom and honor, the. quartermaster stubbornly replied, “1 want to die on my own doorstep,” and with these words the quartermaster embarked on a ship which was put at the disposal of him, and men like him, by the British Government. The ship was a French merchant ship; it was carrying out the terms of the Armistice; the Germans were informed of its passage across the Channel; the ship was brilliantly lighted and carried French colors. Nevertheless, the Germans destroyed it.
That quartermaster was on the Meknes when it was torpedoed, and he has returned to England again, having been for a second time rescued by English seamen. He has changed his mind now about German good faith and the idea of living under German rule, and he has thrown in his lot with General de Gaulle.
Incidentally, this is something of a real man, this de Gaulle, believe me. He was wounded three times in the last war, the last,time at the inferno of Douaumont, where he was captured by the Germans. He was a young Captain in those days and obviously the man of spirit that he still is. He made an unsuccessful attempt to escape from his prison camp but was caught and brought back and punished. It seemed to have no effect on him, for he tried the same thing five times in succession and was only finally liberated by the Allied victory. This is the man who became the prophet of the war of mechanized movement, the prophet who was recognized by the Germans themselves, but who made apparently little headway against the old French classic school of mass defense and Maginot Line. Today he bears an unofficial title, a title which no Frenchman either at the height of France’s glory nor at the depth of her humiliation, ever bore before, an astonishingly simple title: Chief of all Free Frenchmen. He seems to be worthy of that title, judging by the words of one who followed him through the streets of London on Bastille Day to pay honor to the statue of Foch.
“When he led us to the statue of the Great Marshal, at his command we raised our eyes and we had the courage, we the conquered, to look Foch in the face. And when he explained who we are and what we are doing he said simply : ‘There were two roads open, my companions, and I have chosen the road of honor.’ You see, we are not ‘his men,’ we are not even ‘his soldiers,’ we are ‘his companions’!”

(The Living Age, October 1940, p. 164-167)