Remembrance Day – November 11 – French amnesia

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Today is a holiday in this country. To honour veterans who fought for France in the wars.  Small French flags, attached to city buses, flutter in the breeze. Large French flags, lining both sides of the Champs Elysées, snap in the cool November air.  And the question I ask every year is the same….where are the British flags?  The American flags? The Canadian flags?

Because as far as the events of World War II are concerned, I think that French memories need refreshing.  To honour the Allied forces – those who died on the D-Day landing beaches and those who liberated Paris from four years of Nazi occupation – I’d like to see British and American and Canadian flags flapping in the breeze alongside the French ones every year on November 11 on the Champs Elysées.

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A brief recap.  On June 6, 1944, better known as the D-Day Invasion of Normandy, American, British and Canadian forces landed on the beaches of Normandy.  Two months later and with the aid of the U.S. 4th Infantry Divisionthe French 2nd Armored Division entered Paris. On August 26th, 1944, General Charles de Gaulle led a celebratory march down the Champs d’Elysees.  He then delivered his famous speech at City Hall that attributed the liberation of Paris entirely to the French.

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“Paris!” he declared, “An outraged Paris! A broken Paris! A martyred Paris! But…a liberated Paris!  Liberated by itself, liberated by its people with the help of the armies of France, with the support and the help of all of France, of the fighting France, of the only France, the real France, the eternal France!”

Within 24 hours Charles de Gaulle had conveniently forgotten who had done what. I suppose he figured that since he was orating in French, none of the Allies would understand.  (It’s also true that he was treated despicably by Roosevelt and Churchill, so the speech was no doubt his commuppance.)  And today, of course, the myth of la grandeur de la France just gets bigger. While aggrandizing the valour of Charles de Gaulle to monumental proportions, they’ve downplayed the role of the Allies to the point of erasure.  Ah well, every country needs its hero.

I strongly recommend that visitors to France go to Normandy to view the Allied war cemeteries.  I went years ago.   It’s a deeply moving experience.  In fact, I should return for a new visit because the subject would make an excellent blog post.  Do they transport busloads of French teenagers to visit the Normandy war cemeteries as part of the school History curriculum?  No, they don’t.  Instead, they glorify General de Gaulle and the Resistance movement which, according to historian Robert Paxton, was only 2% of the French population.

Years ago, I drove to Vierville-sur-Mer and stayed at the Hotel Casino which is located on the shores of Omaha Beach.  The D-Day museum located there and the nearby American, British and Canadian cemetaries are impressive and worth visiting.  Take your handkerchiefs because the inscriptions on the modest gravestones (primarily in the British cemetaries where the gravestones are made from English limestone) will make you weep.  The next day we moved on to Bayeux, a jewel of a town.  I must say that Normandy, aside from its tragic history, is a lovely region, one of my most favourite regions of France.

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For info, the British war cemetery in the town of Bayeux records around 4,648 burials, the largest known British war cemetery. The other two cemeteries are the Canadian soldiers’ cemetery in Cinthaux and the cemetery in Ranville. Ranville is known to be the first French village to be liberated from German occupation during the Second World War.

The Allied invasion of Normandy, code-named Operation Neptune, was the first stage of the larger Operation Overlord, intended to liberate Western Europe after nearly four years of German occupation. The start of Operation Neptune, known a D-Day, was made on June 6, 1944.  More than 5,000 ships and 13,000 aircraft carried 160,000 Allied troops across the English Channel to a 50-mile stretch of Normandy beaches, code-named Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha and Utah. The first air attack was launched under a nearly full moon shortly after midnight. The British and Canadian forces were successful in seizing Gold, Juno and Sword beaches, as were the Americans at Utah beach. However, at Omaha beach, where the German defense was strongest, American forces suffered heavy losses. Air assaults missed their mark and landing crafts were unable reached the intended destinations near the beach, leaving invading soldiers with little protection.Though they suffered an estimated 2,500 casualties, the Americans were able to establish themselves on Omaha beach by the end of the day. In all, more than 100,000 Allied troops had reached Normandy, forcing German forces inland and opening a new theater of war in Western Europe.

4 thoughts on “Remembrance Day – November 11 – French amnesia

    • Sword Beach, really? Was he a Canadian or British soldier?

      My English parents, too, served in the war. Dad joined the RAF and was a desert rat in North Africa, and mom was a radar operator in the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) stationed on the southern coast of England. It kind of annoys me that the French downplay the heroism of the Allied Forces in order to build up their own “importance.” For years now I’ve seriously considered writing to one of the ministries here about the absence, every year, of Allied flags during the November 11 commemorations.

      • My dad was a French-Canadian (there’s some irony) in the British Army and my mom was also a WAAF as a radar operator outside London. Amazing. I don’t know of anyone else whose mom did the same work during the war.

        It annoys me as well. They didn’t do it on their own – no one did in that war – and I know that Eisenhower also saw many of the French as collaborators. You’re right that de Gaulle probably made a national response to a personal issue.

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