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Le Paradis apres l'Enfer: the French Soldiers Evacuated from Dunkirk in 1940

Written by Rhiannon Looseley

Rhiannon Looseley’s dissertation, which is now being shortened for publication in History Today, is about the French soldiers evacuated alongside the British from Dunkirk in 1940. Surprisingly, while Dunkirk has been extensively covered in French and British historiography, there has been very little written of the story of those 100,000 French troops. The essay deals only with those soldiers, the majority in fact, who were returned to France immediately. A small number remained in Britain until after France’s armistice with Germany because they were wounded, but their story has already been told. Thanks to the support of the Franco-British Council, who kindly provided financial backing for the project, it was possible to conduct extensive primary research. The study relied heavily on primary sources at The National Archives and at the Service Historique de l’Armée de Terre in Paris as well as using memoirs and accounts from the period and newspapers. In addition to this, and most usefully, Rhiannon made contact with four French veterans who were evacuated from Dunkirk. This provided some very useful case studies as well as a close-up look at how the soldiers felt about their time in Britain, which the military and political archives did not provide The project begins by outlining briefly the retreat towards Dunkirk and the situation on the beaches before the evacuation. It reveals a scene of terror and depression. The beaches were treacherous from enemy fire and moving around them was difficult due to the discarded vehicles and the remains of dead men and horses. It explains that it would have been unsurprising if the moral of the French soldiers had been very low. The evacuation represented an abandonment of their homeland and a retreat, whereas for the British it has been remembered as a triumph and a welcome rest after weeks of hard fighting. The German attack through the Ardennes region had been a complete shock to the Allies and their progress was rapid. This left both the military and the civilian population in turmoil. There was a considerable amount of Franco-British tension both on the beaches and at the political level. The French felt that, by evacuating, the British had given up on them, and British stories of French inadequacy proliferated. Historiography generally agrees that Dunkirk represented a climax in Franco-British relations, claiming that, afterwards Britain realised it was alone in the fight against fascism. The dissertation moves on to consider, first, the logistics of the operation once the French arrived in Britain. Using primary sources it was possible to piece together a version of events that involved a massive train operation which ran efficiently and effectively. French troops were fed and if necessary clothed on arrival in British ports and then sent by train towards the south-west of England. There they were lodged, either in military camps (Tidworth was the main camp used for French soldiers) or wherever room could be found. Some stayed with families and many were accommodated in schools. It was rare for the soldiers to stay longer than a couple of days in Britain. The whole operation was very well-organized, and some were in Britain for less than twenty-four hours before returning by boat to Brest of Cherbourg where they were regrouped with the intention of continuing the fight against Germany. Having considered the organisational aspect of the operation, the study then moves on to the more personal considerations. It looks more deeply at the morale of the men, revealing that, surprisingly, they were mostly in good spirits. It details the amazing and important contribution the British public made to the smooth-running of the soldiers’ time in Britain. Donations of food and clothing were willingly given wherever the soldiers went and stories of the offers of accommodation, boot-polishing, hair cuts and refreshment filled the local papers. The essay briefly considers, then, what motivated this surge in generosity towards an ally that had been becoming increasingly unpopular. The dissertation concludes that, even though morale was low and Franco-British relations were deteriorating rapidly, this operation ran incredibly smoothly and efficiently. The French soldiers were eternally grateful for the welcome they received and the British public excelled itself in its kindness to the troops. Dunkirk has been greatly mythologised in British memory but this dissertation shows that, although perhaps the stories of the ‘little ships’ of Dunkirk have been exaggerated, the idea of a ‘Dunkirk spirit’ was very much in evidence in the week after the evacuation with the welcome, accommodation and safe return of over 100,000 French soldiers to France in a matter of days.

Number of pages/format: A4, 81pp

Published: September 2005

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