The Fall of France
Do not be afraid ! I am writing about history, not current affairs. After reading Alistair Horne’s book on The Siege and the Paris Commune [see TaGD 22], I thought I’d look again at his book To lose a battle: France 1940. But this has gone. Probably a casualty of water damage in the garage. But I did find two books called Assignment to Catastrophe by General E.L. Spears. The second volume has a Shakespeare and Co bookseller’s stamp, so I guess I bought them when we were living in Paris back in the 1970s.
Edward Louis Spears had been born in Paris, was brought up largely by his grand-mother in France and Ireland, and spoke French fluently. There is evidence that his forbears were Jewish, something he always denied. Spears joined the British Army in 1906 aged twenty, and was commissioned in the Royal Irish Hussars. He acquired the nickname Monsieur Beaucaire in the Mess, where his unconventional childhood ensured that he remained something of an outsider. Very few military men spoke two languages. [It is said that when General Sir John French spoke French from a prepared text at manoeuvres in France, his accent was so bad that listeners assumed he was speaking in English.] So Spears was swiftly appointed to liaison duties in 1914 between the British and French armies. Although he was initially quite a junior officer, Spears’ liaison work brought him into contact with a host of influential military and political figures; among the French he came to know Generals Georges and Petain and Foch, and Clémenceau; while on the British side he worked with Lloyd George and Douglas Haig, and developed a close friendship with Winston Churchill. After the war Spears published two well received books about his liaison work, became a Conservative MP, first for Loughborough and then for Carlisle, and aligned himself to the so-called Eden group, of Conservative backbenchers who were opposed to appeasement policies.
In August 1939 Spears visited the Maginot Line in the company of Winston Churchill as the guests of General Georges. With the country was on the verge of war the following month he was on a motoring holiday in the Dordogne valley. When war was declared he explored the possibility of returning to service in liaison work but was rebuffed by the War Office. During the so-called Phoney War he and other members of the Eden group pressed for a more energetic government policy; for more robust support for Poland and more vigorous action against Germany.
In May 1940 Germany invades Belgium and France, Chamberlain promptly resigns and Winston Churchill becomes Prime Minister. Ten days later Churchill sends Spears to France: “I have decided to send you as my personal representative to Paul Reynaud [the French Prime Minister]. You will have the rank of Major-General.” He looks out the missing portions of his uniform, and flies two days later to Paris in a Bristol Blenheim. The greater part of the two books are a detailed, day-by-day account of Spears’ mission.
The most striking feature of the books is that Spears seemingly knows everyone. It is a small world. Sir Ronald Campbell, the British Ambassador, is a former colleague. A sad-eyed Reynaud greets him as an old friend; “vous êtes le bienvenu”. General Maxim Weygand, the new French Commander-in-Chief [aged 73], and Marshal Pétain, now Vice-President of the Council [aged 84], are known to him from the First War. [He notes that Pétain a son of Picardy naturally loathes Weygand who was born in Belgium.] Spears is soon given an office in the French Ministry of War. He attends meetings of the French War Committee. Georges Mandel, the Minister of the Interior, offers him a frank assessment of the lack of will to fight in the French Army, and of the low morale of his cabinet colleagues. One of the phrases that recurs in conversations is“ecroulment moral”. As a welcome break from the prevalent mood of defeatism, Spears enjoys dining with Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, now a Captain in the French Air Force, and his cousin “a very charming woman and a friend of twenty years’ standing”.
Spears, a long-time admirer of the French Army, is saddened by their unwillingness to fight. Which brings out all his reactionary prejudices: “Were the weaknesses, the disorders, the lack of leadership and the dearth of fighting qualities, the result of a dying patriotism, poisoned at its root by political corruption and pacifist-cum-communist slobber ?”
The hero of the two books is of course Churchill. He flies unexpectedly into Paris at the end of May, “fresh as a daisy”, and delivers an up-beat message to the Supreme War Council; “Dunkirk has been a triumph for the British Navy and Air Force”. [Reynaud and Paul Baudoin are moved and grateful, but not all are convinced. “Weygand, face resting on his hands, looked like a dried-up lemon.”] Spears is worried that Churchill will lose patience with the French. In early June Spears goes to see the aged Pétain, who tells him: “this time there are no reserves, vous m’entendez, no reserves at all. It is hopeless – c’est sans espoir.”And the Marshal settles into his armchair and reads him one of his old speeches on Joan of Arc.
Spears returns to London to report. He is delighted to fly in Churchill’s own Flamingo with comfortable armchairs, and dines with the Churchill family, and a small black cat called Nelson. The situation worsens. The French cabinet decide to leave Paris. On June 11th Churchill, with Eden and Spears and General Dill and others, flies to France in his Flamingo accompanied by twelve Hurricanes. There is a meeting of the Supreme War Council at the inaptly named Château du Muguet, “the sort of building the nouveau riche French bourgeoisie delight in : a large monstrosity of red-coloured brick and stone the hue of unripe Camembert”. Churchill speaks passionately of his confidence in the French military. There is little response from the French, except for the chain-smoking General de Gaulle, newly appointed to the Ministry of Defence. Two days later Churchill flies back again for one final meeting at Tours. But his speeches to the War Council “conveyed no more reality than would have done a reading of El Cid on the wireless to a brawling audience in a Montmartre cafe”. Spears and his party follow the French government south to Bordeaux. On June 16th Churchill sends Reynaud a dramatic message in which he proposed an indissoluble union of France and Great Britain. In the common defence of justice and of freedom, the countries are to share one government, and one war cabinet directing all their forces on land, at sea, or in the air. But it is too late. The following day Reynaud resigns. President Lebrun asks Pétain to form a government. Spears returns to London, hoisting de Gaulle onto the plane with him. They arrive in London for a late lunch at the RAC, and then on to Downing Street for a meeting with Churchill.
It is an old-fashioned book. [It even has sub-headings in the Contents pages and a professional Index.] And maybe a bit repetitive. It is a book of a different era. Spears had an eye for a pretty girl. He and the aged Marshal Franchet d’Esperey, still in uniform but now in a wheel-chair, share memories of “la belle patissière d’Epernay”. He casts his eye appreciatively at dinner over Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s cousin. At the Château de Muguet he flirts discreetly with the woman telephonist in the village post office. In Paris he stays at the Ritz and dines there with guests. When they get to Bordeaux they eat in the Chapon Fin. I guess this is not the style of Lord Frost !
Churchill, blustering Boris, and BREXIT
In a week when the disastrous BREXIT saga is approaching yet another deadline, I am impressed at the great lengths to which Churchill went to stay closely linked to France, the other major western democracy. Blustering Boris is a self-proclaimed admirer of Churchill, on whom he clearly models his public speaking. But Churchill, as this book demonstrates, and as his post-war speeches confirm, was strongly committed to European co-operation. Even at the cost of a potentially significant diminution of national sovereignty. Brexiteers please note.
Churchill’s views are summarised in a speech made at the University of Zurich in 1946:
“There is a remedy which … would in a few years make all Europe … free and … happy.
It is to re-create the European family, or as much of it as we can, and to provide it with a structure under which it can dwell in peace, in safety and in freedom.
We must build a kind of United States of Europe.”
The fall of France in June 1940 was a tragedy which, as this book recounts, the British government of the time under Churchill did its best to avert. At a time when European democratic values were under threat. By contrast BREXIT is a tragedy which the present British government seems determined to inflict upon us. A tragedy which destroys the ideal of European co-operation for the sake of a spurious [and outdated] notion of national sovereignty
2 thoughts on “Through a glass darkly – 28”
As usual a fascinating read! Thank you and kindest regards to you both. Virginia
Thanks, Virginia. I go on writing these things for my own enjoyment. So it’s good when other people enjoy them too ! I hope you are continuing to survive these strange times.