Sources on the Fall of France, 1940

Sources on the Fall of France, 1940

‘The last three days have been crowded with such a mass of experiences and emotions that I haven’t had time to settle down to write, nor the ability to see the wood for the trees.  I have left Paris – perhaps for ever.  This is the débâcle of France’. [Alexander Werth]

I recently came across the diary of Alexander Werth, the Russian-born British journalist, while preparing a seminar course on the Fall of France in 1940.  Werth wrote for the Manchester Guardian and was its Paris correspondent during the 1930s.  He authored several books on situation in France at that time, including the excellent France in Ferment.


Julian Jackson’s The Fall of France: the best of recent works on the defeat

It was while I was trawling the shelves of Swansea University library – in a search of English-language sources on French history – that I found for the first time Werth’s Last Days of Paris: A Journalist’s Diary.  The book is based on the journalist’s experiences in France at the time of the defeat and the exodus of millions of French desperate to escape the advancing German army.  The John Rylands Research Institute at Manchester University are currently cataloguing Werth’s correspondence with his editor, and that of other Guardian journalists from the period, too.

Looking for accessible primary sources for British students of French history can be challenging.  There are no real source readers available, as there are for historians of Germany.  Two online resources that I came across provide information on the defeat of France from very different perspectives.

The National Archives has made available a handful of official government papers.  Some of these are records of cabinet discussions from May 1940, and others are official reports.  I haven’t yet been through them all, but there looks to be a lot of information on the British government’s attitude to the situation in France and its discussions with French ministers.  For instance, in the document from 24 June we learn that the French government has informed the British that:

‘… General de Gaulle had been recalled to France for disciplinary reasons.  In view of this fact, the action of His Majesty’s Government in permitting the services of the BBC to be placed at General de Gaulle’s disposal for an appeal to the public over the head of the French government was quite irregular, and had created a most painful impression in France’.



De Gaulle makes his celebrated ‘appeal’ on 18 June 1940

If the National Archives have provided a glimpse into the experience in 1940 at high level, provides testimony from those ‘on the ground’.  It contains a series of testimonies from refugees and civilians who survived the defeat, collected by Prof. Hanna Diamond of Cardiff University.  Indicative of the content of this site is Josette Blodgett’s testimony:

‘L’éxode was bad on many levels.  There was little food or water, no place to use the bathroom. The people who had left their possessions behind often had them stolen when their homes were looted.  Those who tried to bring their cherished possessions, like photograph albums, with them on the exodus either had them stolen, or got tired of carrying them and abandoned them to scavengers.  The roadsides were littered with household linens, sheets, towels and photographs.    It was an unimaginable time.’


French civilians flee in 1940

As my search for sources continues, I have at least found a starting point from which my students can begin to explore the topic more fully.


A paper by Dr Caroline Campbell: Colonial Cultural Technologies in Metropolitan France

On 18 May, Dr Caroline Campbell of the University of North Dakota gave a paper at Swansea University entitled, ‘Colonial Cultural Technologies in Metropolitan France: Ethnography and the Stability of the Republic, 1900-1930s’.

The paper concerned Dr Campbell’s current project that explores the influence of French colonial practices on the metropolitan extreme right.  You can listen to the paper using the panel above.

Dr Campbell’s book, Political Belief in France, 1927-1945: Gender, Empire, and Fascism in the Croix de Feu and the Parti Social Français, was published in 2015.  It is the first book on women of the French far right in the age of fascism, and contributes to the fields of French history, gender studies, the history of fascism, and the history of empire.

The paper featured in the Cardiff-Swansea French History Seminar Series, a joint intitiative run by Dr. Chris Millington (Swansea) and Prof. Kevin Passmore (Cardiff).

The Marshal, the General and ‘The Patriotic Traitor’

Jonathan Lynn’s The Patriotic Traitor has recently come to the end of its run at the Park Theatre in London.  It tells the story of the personal relationship between Charles de Gaulle (Laurence Fox) and Philippe Pétain (Tom Conti) from their first meeting before the Great War to their showdown as leaders of two competing Frances during the Second World War – de Gaulle’s Free France and Pétain’s Vichy France.  The play has received largely positive reviews but is probably most well-known for Fox’s dressing down of a heckler at the end of one of the performances.  I went to see the play on 18 March and thought I share my opinion of it and some concerns I have about its version of history.

The staging of the play was very effective.  A large map of France was displayed behind the actors, showing the locations mentioned during the play such as Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises (de Gaulle’s home) and Verdun (scene of the Marshal’s famous victory in 1916).  The demarcation line (France’s wartime internal border) is also traced along the centre of the map reminding the audience of the temporal setting.  At various points throughout the play flags drop down over the map – the tricolour when de Gaulle is speaking to French refugees in England in 1940, and the flag of Nazi Germany after Pétain signs the armistice in the same year.

The play is staged largely as a series of reminiscences as Marshal Pétain sits in his prison cell awaiting trial at the end of the war.  Both in conversation with the prison chaplain and sitting alone in his cell, Pétain’s mind wanders to his relationship with Charles de Gaulle, whom he appears to have considered a surrogate son.  In a series of flashbacks, we see this relationship develop from their first meeting to their final encounter after Pétain has been sentenced for treason.  There are fleeting scenes when de Gaulle speaks to the audience in the form of an inner monologue yet the majority of the play focuses on Pétain either in conversation with himself or in scenes depicting his memories.

The overall merit of the play is in educating the audience in a subject with which they are likely to be unfamiliar.  In fact, I overheard a conversation near to me in which someone stated that they had not known that France had been divided into a northern and a southern zone, and that the Vichy zone was ‘free’ from German control.  If the play encourages the audience to go away and learn more about the subject then that can only be a good thing.

The Marshal, played by Tom Conti (left), and de Gaulle, played by Laurence Fox

Some of the scenes in the play are very effective.  We are shown Pétain’s struggles with the army high command during the Great War as he strove to end the murderous bloodshed at Verdun.  A year later, the Marshal speaks to mutineers in the French army – and then orders the ringleaders to be shot (in a rare moment of cold brutality from the character).  Later in the play, we see de Gaulle speaking to the French from London in 1940, urging his compatriots to resist.  These scenes were particularly well recreated and the latter was quite affecting.

As for the characters, De Gaulle is portrayed as an arrogant and bookish know-it-all, believing absolutely, even before 1914, of his importance to the destiny of France.  In one scene, we see him coming to terms with the birth of his daughter Anne (who had Down’s syndrome) while at the same time experiencing frustration with his apparently stalled military career.  He attributes both to some sort of punishment from God for which he has been specially selected.  By the end of the play, de Gaulle has come to speak about himself in the third person.  He is thoroughly convinced that he embodies France itself.

We see glimpses, too, of de Gaulle’s personality – or lack thereof.  He is awkward in social situations; painfully so upon the first meeting with his future wife Yvonne.  Yet even with his peers his lack of sense of humour leads him to take everything with deadly seriousness, leading him to ask on several occasions, ‘is that a joke?’  By the end of the play he has developed a sense of humour, but a bad one, and I found myself cringing in my seat at his attempts to be funny.

The infamous handshake at Montoire, 30 October 1940

The general feeling we have for Pétain is sympathy.  To some extent, this sympathy stems from the narrative device used throughout the play.  We are seeing Pétain’s own memories and hearing his point of view.  He speaks to himself and the audience in a conversation in which he justifies his own actions.  From my point of view, Pétain came across as a kindly old man, carried along by events out of his control (such as when he is called upon to save France in 1916, having planned to retire).  In contrast with de Gaulle, he is the one with a personality and a sympathetic one at that.  When de Gaulle is in the throes of anguish over his daughter and his career, it is Pétain who urges him to think first of Yvonne.

We see all too little of Pétain at Vichy, trying to reshape France and the French in the image of the National Revolution.  If anything, the audience is encouraged to take Pétain’s side in his dealings with the slimy presence of Laval (de Gaulle in fact refers to him as a ‘slug’, a point of view with which Pétain agrees).  In one of the later scenes in the play, we see Laval and Pétain discussing the former’s decision to make his infamous statement in support of a German victory in Europe (in the play this discussion seems to take place in July 1942 when in reality Laval made the statement in June).  Pétain is palpably more reluctant than Laval to move closer to Germany.  While this is not necessarily untrue, the audience gets the impression that Laval is the evil presence at Vichy, sympathetic with Nazi ideology, while Pétain is more or less forced to react to events.

To the play’s credit, there is a scene in which Pétain is notified of the infamous Vél d’Hiv roundup of Jews in July 1942 and informed of the terrible conditions in which Jewish families are being held.  He is seen to approve of the round up, arguing that he is not discriminating solely against Jews but against other groups too.  Yet this is a fleeting moment in the production and does not undermine greatly the overall sympathetic light in which Pétain is cast.  The play thus falls into the trap of propagating the ‘two Vichies’ interpretation – the evil Vichy of Laval and the benevolent Vichy of the Marshal – a view of the history of the Dark Years that historians moved away from long ago.

I was left with mixed feelings after watching the performance.  On the one hand, if plays such as The Patriotic Traitor bring this period of French history to a wider audience while (hopefully) encouraging further research, then so much the better.  However, I was not satisfied with the portrayal of Pétain.  The ‘Patriotic Traitor’ of the title of course refers to the Marshal – but given the sympathetic light in which he is cast, I did think that the character of de Gaulle himself could fit this moniker, too – having betrayed the father-like Pétain for his own vision of France.


The memory of the French resistance – Prof. Robert Gildea

On 16 March Prof. Robert Gildea of Oxford University spoke at Swansea University on the subject of the memory of the French resistance.  His paper was sponsored by the Conflict, Reconstruction and Memory (CRAM) research group.  Prof. Gildea is author of numerous ground-breaking books on modern France.  His most recent work is Fighters in the Shadows: A New History of the French Resistance.  His paper at Swansea examined the various ways in which the resistance has been remembered since 1945, with a particular focus on three types of memory – a) societal memory; b) group memory; and c) individual memory.

Societal memory – or what we might term the dominant narrative or ‘myth’ (helpfully defined by Prof. Gildea as a ‘story with political traction’)  – was for a long time dominated by the version of history propagated by General Charles de Gaulle.  This was the story of a military and male-dominated resistance led by de Gaulle from London, which ignored or downplayed both the diversity of resisters and the resistance in France itself.  It was reinforced through devices such as public ceremonies and commemorations, reaching its apogee in 1964 with the interment of Jean Moulin at the Panthéon – the Republic’s ‘temple’ for great men and women.

This memory, however, could not bear the weight of scrutiny during the 1970s and 1980s (after de Gaulle’s death) when academics and filmmakers increasingly challenged its version of history.   A history of Occupied France developed now in which the majority of French preferred to ‘wait and see’ which way the war was going before deciding to back either side; this was far from the Gaullist conception of a ‘nation of resisters’.

During the 1990s, resisters attempted to ‘recover their honour’ by associating themselves with other victims of the war – and especially those French and foreigners who were deported.  There was also a refocusing of the definition of resistance to include rescue.  Ideas of ‘Resistance’, therefore, moved from being narrowly masculine and military towards a more humanitarian understanding of the phenomenon.

Prof. Gildea moved on to explain the memory of particular resistance groups; these memories often came into conflict with the dominant narrative.  The communist memory of the resistance as a popular insurrection sat uncomfortably against de Gaulle’s London-led non-communist history of Resistance.  The climate of the Cold War in France ensured that communist memory remained marginal at least until the 1980s.  Likewise, the Gaullist version of history emphasised the Frenchness of the resistance, excluding those foreigners who had fought.  Only during the 1970s and 1980s did foreigners such as Spaniards and Eastern Europeans begin to assert the memory of their role in the liberation of France.

Women also found themselves left in the cold by the myth of the Gaullist resistance.  Far fewer women were decorated after the war for resistance than deserved to be.  In some instances, the civilian and non-violent roles played by women in underground groups were simply not recognised as resistance.  Prof. Gildea suggested, too, that the male-dominated idea of resistance prevented women from telling their story until the 1970s; he also wondered if women were less likely to come forward to talk about their experience than men.

Finally, Jewish memory was largely excluded from the dominant narrative.  For one thing, Jews in France were regarded as victims of Nazism rather than as heroes of the resistance.  Many Jewish French also wanted to assert their own Frenchness and they thus played down the notion of a separate Jewish resistance.  Again, the 1970s and 1980s proved a watershed as historical focus shifted onto the Jewish contribution to the resistance.  Furthermore, the rise of the anti-Semitic Front National in French politics saw some Jewish French begin to tell their own story of how they had risked their lives for France.

The final section of Prof. Gildea’s paper concerned individual memory.  He explained that he is very interested in the use of oral history and testimonies from the past.  The use of these sources for studying the resistance went out of fashion during the 1970s and 1980s when historians privileged the ‘facts’ to be found in the archival records over supposedly unreliable personal stories and memory.  However, Prof. Gildea made a strong case for the use of testimony, stressing that testimony is a way for the individual to make sense of the past – if this changes over time it is because the individual is making sense of the past in a different context.  The paper ended with the fascinating stories of Lecompte-Boinet, Madelien Riffaud and Cécile Rol-Tanguy, and how each of them came to be involved in the resistance movements.

Overall, it was a fascinating paper, and it was great to see so many students in attendance.

Free access to my latest article


I’ve just had an article published in the Journal of War and Culture Studies, entitled ‘Communist veterans and paramilitarism in 1920s France: The Association républicaine des anciens combattants’.  The publisher has made 50 free electronic copies available.  Click this link to access a copy:

Here’s the abstract for the article:

‘This article investigates the French communist veterans’ association the Association républicaine des anciens combattants (ARAC) during the 1920s. Historians have paid little attention to the ARAC, preferring instead to investigate both larger Republican associations and the extreme right-wing leagues of the period who appealed to veterans for support. The ARAC differed from other veterans’ associations: from its founding in 1917, it denounced the war as a needless sacrifice in which millions of men had been duped into fighting for international capitalism. It associated the material demands of the veterans with those of the broader working class and the ARAC persistently challenged the view that veterans deserved a special status in society. However, despite its internationalist and anti-war stance, in the mid-1920s, the group threw itself into paramilitary politics. In response to the founding of fascist-style leagues in 1924, the ARAC established the Groupes de défense antifascistes (GDA), uniformed shock squads intended for street confrontation with right-wing thugs. The article argues that the legacy of the war in France was therefore complex. The ARAC can neither be subsumed into notions of a ‘culture of victory’ in the postwar years nor can its paramilitarism be traced solely to the conflict. The GDA emerged in the postwar context of extremist politics, while bearing resemblance to pre-war manifestations of left-wing activism.’

Sources on French terror attacks

The French Colonial Historical Society has recently published an excellent bibliography of sources relevant to the terror attacks in Paris in January 2015 and November 2015.  It includes links to a lot of online articles too.  You can access it here:

Historian of France Emile Chabal has also written an excellent piece in today’s The Conversation, to mark a year since the Charlie Hebdo killings:

The aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks

On 30 November the Politics and International Relations Society at Swansea University held an event to discuss the domestic and international consequences of the Paris attacks. There was an excellent turnout with lots of students and staff.  The panel included myself, Dr Luca Trenta, Dr Matthew Wall, and PhD students David Mair and Lloyd Hopkins. Topics discussed included:

Domestic consequences –  the attacks in historical context; domestic political consequences and the impact on the 2017 French Presidential election.

International consequences – the French military, political and security responses to the attacks; the U.S. foreign policy response. ISIL, their origins, capabilities and future; the connection to Syria.

You can listen to a podcast of the panel discussion here:


French march against terrorism

A week on from the Paris Attacks

In the week since the attacks in Paris there have been several articles published by historians that both set the violence in context and analyse the response to it.

I recommend reading:

Dr Caroline Campbell (University of North Dakota), ‘A postcard from Paris’,

Prof Mark Humphries (Swansea University), ‘The Paris attacks and the abuse of history’,

Dr Gavin Murray-Miller (Cardiff University), ‘The Paris attacks and France’s Republican tradition’,

The Paris Terror Attacks

Following the terrible attacks in Paris on 13 November I’ve had a short piece published in The Conversation about the historical context of terror in France.  You can access it here:

I also wrote a couple of pieces in January about the Charlie Hebdo attacks, one for History Today (reprinted below,, and another for the French History Network:

Terrorism in France

On 7 January 2015, armed gunmen killed twelve people in an attack on the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in the centre of Paris. French President Francois Hollande immediately condemned the violence as ‘cowardly murder’ and an act of terrorism.

Terrorist violence has a long history in France. The term ‘terrorism’ itself was coined in the wake of the 1789 revolution as a term to describe the government’s bloody campaign against counter-revolutionaries. Only during the late 19th century did the label acquire its modern, more negative connotation. At this time anarchists around the world, inspired by their counterparts in Russia, targeted heads of state, whether presidents or monarchs, during the so-called ‘Decade of Regicide’ between 1892 and 1901. US President William McKinley, assassinated in September 1901, was the most high-profile victim of this spasm of violence.  Civilians were not spared the anarchists’ attacks.  Thus in February 1894, Frenchman Emile Henry tossed a bomb into a plush Parisian restaurant and fled.

As anarchism receded after the First World War a new ideology, fascism, inspired home-grown terrorists in France. In November 1937, the Comité Secret d’Action Révolutionnaire, otherwise known as the Cagoule, was exposed by the French police authorities. The Cagoule had emerged from the extreme right-wing street politics of the decade that had afflicted France as elsewhere in Europe. The Cagoule did not commit indiscriminate attacks against civilians; it assassinated several prominent Italian antifascists who were resident in France in return for arms from Mussolini. Yet its master plan was to overthrow the democratic Third Republic and install a fascist regime in its place.  To achieve this goal, Cagoule activists committed several anonymous bombings, notably in Paris, hoping to spread the fear that the communist party had in fact perpetrated the attacks and that social revolution was imminent. Yet the group failed to convince its friends in the army to take pre-emptive action against the left and the authorities uncovered the plot.        

Since the Liberation in 1944 terrorist violence has continued to plague France. Civil conflict in Algeria during the 1950s spawned the Algerian Front de la libération nationale (FLN). This nationalist movement reacted to repression in the territory with the shooting of French police and government officials and the bombing of civilians.  Pro-imperial European settlers founded the Organisation de l’armée secrète and committed their own atrocities in Algeria before moving their campaign to mainland France following French withdrawal from the colony.   

During the 1970s and 1980s, left-wing radicalism saw groups such as Action Directe commit violent attacks.  Action Directe emerged from the European milieu of anticapitalist terrorism that gave rise to groups in such as the Rote Armee Fraktion in Germany and the Brigate Rosse in Italy.  

The spectre of politico-religious terrorism emerge during the 1990s. As Algeria descended into civil war in the early 1990s, the most radical Islamist group, the Groupe Islamique Armée (GIA) committed attacks on French territory both to provide new momentum for its political campaign and to punish France for its imperial past in the territory. Its actions in the mid-1990s included the hijacking of a plane bound for France on Christmas Day 1994 and the bombing of metro stations in Paris, notably the Saint-Michel station where eight people were killed. France’s confrontation with Islamic-inspired terrorism has continued since the attacks on New York in September 2001 and the country has not escaped the actions of Islamic State: hiker Hervé Gourdel was abducted and murdered in Algeria in September 2014 by a group sympathetic to IS. 

France’s experience with terrorism is indicative of the problems encountered by historians. Given the variety of ideologies, beliefs, and tactics employed by violent groups since the 1890s, it is more accurate to speak of terrorisms than terrorism. For, if scholars usually agree on the fact that terrorism seeks publicity for its crimes, they can agree on little else in defining the phenomenon.  A major obstacle to a generic definition of terrorism is that the term is inherently subjective. Consequently, for FLN activists in Algeria during the 1950s, it was the French committed acts of terror against indigenous peoples who simply wanted to liberate their country from foreign rule. ‘Terrorism’ and ‘terrorist’ are thus political tools by which states and non-state groups could discredit their opponent. Nevertheless, while terrorism, as is evident from the French experience, is constantly evolving, looking to its past may offer lessons in how terrorist groups emerge, operate, evolve, and eventually recede.