Sunday, May 08, 2005

Never Forget

Sixty years ago today "the war ended" in Europe. Which war ? World War II, as the powers-that-be call it. It's V-E (Victory in Europe) Day, today, le 8 mai.

All over France, in almost every city, town, village and hamlet, there is a commemoration at the monument aux morts. Aged, beribboned veterans, former prisoners of war and surviving forced laborers line up as best they are able. A child, usually female, lays flowers, the amateur fanfare tootles a few bars of of martial music, and a local politico intones thanks for sacrifices made and hardships undergone. The media interview concentration camp survivors, resistance members, and sundry senior citizens who were but callow youths when the Allied forces rolled through France to the Rhine and well beyond. Documentaries with almost-forgotten, grainy footage are dusted off, shown on prime-time TV, and discussed by historians and journalists.

This is right, and as it should be, in spite of the imperfections, inaccuracies, and exaggerations.

George Santayana, the American philosopher, reportedly said "Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it". On the other hand, George Bernard Shaw opined "We learn from history that we learn nothing from history". Il y a de la marge, as the French say. The truth, if truth there be, lies somewhere between the two.

A few historians – with whom Amerloque wholeheartedly agrees - feel that "World War II" is a misnomer. The series of events between 1914 and 1945 should simply be called "The Great World War".

There are certainly grounds for the appellation. The so-called "World War I", the initial portion of the Great World War, resulted not only in rampant irredentism but in the outright disappearance of several powerful empires (Austro-Hungarian, German, Russian, and Ottoman). One cannot isolate the Russian Civil War, the Weimar Republic, the advent of both Mussolini and Hitler, and the Spanish Civil War from their proximate cause: the first half of the Great World War and the disastrous, precarious peace which followed. Moreover, without an unstable, inward-looking Soviet Union, a staggering, impoverished Europe and politically-inspired civil war in China, would Japan have really dared to invade Manchuria in 1931 ?

Quite simply; what is called "World War II" sprung from the failed attempts to deal with the consequences of "World War I". Beginning with Gavrilo Princip's attack at Sarajevo in June, 1914 the globe was riven by strife for over thirty years, until that day in September, 1945, when General Douglas MacArthur on the battleship Missouri anchored in Tokyo Bay accepted the surrender of the Japanese Empire.

Some continental Europeans have a tendency to minimize this, even to dismiss it, just as they forget that the war went on for some months after V-E Day, all the way to V-J Day. As a matter of interest, an American who mentions the Chindits, the Hump, the Flying Tigers, Saipan or Tarawa to a continental European will probably be met with a blank stare, since the Asian Theatre is rarely emphasized in the media.

However, the British know - and solemnly remember every year - what cataclysms they endured for survival and what feats they accomplished to preserve the freedoms we enjoy today. After the bloodletting of the first part of the Great World War, they stood virtually alone against the Axis Powers, from September 1939 to August 1941.

Beyond all the hype and misinformation about la guerre and la fin de la guerre and l'Europe, one would do well to remember that without the British stand, things might have turned out much, much differently.


L'Amerloque


Text © Copyright 2005 by L'Amerloque

8 Comments:

Blogger PTA Mom said...

I was really surprised by the amount of coverage on VE day here in France. I was glad to see that the day is taken so seriously over here.

2:01 PM  
Blogger Frania W. said...

L'Amerloque wrote: "A few historians – with whom Amerloque wholeheartedly agrees - feel that "World War II" is a misnomer. The series of events between 1914 and 1945 should simply be called "The Great World War".

Frania would go even further on both ends. In my opinion, “The Great World War” (European theater) had its roots, at least some of its roots, with the Franco-German war begun when Napoleon III declared war on Prussia on 19 July 1870. The capitulation of the French army of Mac-Mahon at Sedan on 2 September 1870 & the capture of Napoleon III precipitated the fall of the French Second Empire. Napoleon III, the last monarch - king or emperor - ever to reign over France was, I believe, the first to fall of all European kings and emperors in the ensuing years, up to & after the Second World War. Following the destitution of the emperor, the Third Republic was proclaimed. The Prussians took advantage of the upheaval to march on Paris & Versailles. The siege of Paris lasted five months & the war finally ended with the signing of the Treaty of Frankfurt on 10 May 1871 which stipulated France was to pay a huge war debt & hand over to Prussia her beloved Germanic province of Alsace and two-thirds of Lorraine. The seeds of pure hatred of the Germans had been sown deep into the hearts of the French setting up the stage for an encore between the two neighboring countries. The next conflict did come four decades later, in July 1914, on the initiative of the Germans but, this time, it was not only against France. The Front extended from East to West. The Treaty of Versailles, which was signed on 28 June 1919 in the “Galerie des Glaces” (a slap in the face of the "cousins germains") after the defeat, this time of Germany, was an unacceptable treaty for the Germans and, aside from Hitler craziness, could only lead to another war. And twenty years later, *rebelote*.

On the other end, 8 May 1945 which saw the end of World War II in Europe with the unconditional capitulation of Germany was really not the end of the conflict in Europe. It was the end of the armed conflict, but the Conference of Yalta in February 1945 & that of Potsdam in July 1945 gave Eastern Europe to Stalin on a silver platter. For the people of Eastern Europe 1945 was not a year of Liberation, it was the year when the Western powers abandoned them to the big Russian bear. It was the beginning of World War III, also known as the Cold War. Every attempt to free themselves ended in blood baths & long years in the gulag. The Soviet Union had intimidated the world & terrorized its own people into a war of subjugation. The events in countries like Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland… up to the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 came to the final victory of the people of Eastern Europe against the Soviet Union not only because of their courage, but also because the Soviet empire was crumbling from within.

In conclusion, according to my calculation, “The Great World War” with its roots in the 19th century lasted over one hundred years. Maybe it should be renamed “The Modern One Hundred Year War”.

Frania W.

12:30 AM  
Blogger PutYourFlareOn said...

I did not know that you had a blog! Yay! I, too, was very impressed with the coverage in France.

2:37 AM  
Blogger Frania W. said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

3:44 PM  
Blogger Frania W. said...

Frania would like to add a Post Scriptum to her previous comment:

L'Amerloque wrote: "All over France, in almost every city, town, village and hamlet, there is a commemoration at the monument aux morts. Aged, beribboned veterans, former prisoners of war and surviving forced laborers line up as best they are able."
In many towns in France, mostly above the Loire River demarcation line, in the Rhone Valley & in Eastern France, the regions where the Allied fought the Germans after 6 June 1944 landing in Normandy & 15 August 1944 landing in Provence, there are many monuments where people gather on June 6, May 8, 15 August or other dates when these towns were liberated in 1944. These are not municipal “monuments aux morts” honoring the French soldiers killed in WWI, WWII, the Indochina or Algerian wars, but steles and monuments erected in memory of Allied military personnel such as those whose vehicles were blown up in an ambush or airmen whose planes were shot down before the liberation of France or at time of the liberation. Some of these monuments do not bear the names of the Allied soldiers & airmen who were killed because people do not know who they were, just that on such a date a jeep was destroyed & its occupants killed, or that on such other date, a plane fell in flame & the body of the pilot was retrieved & buried in the municipal cemetery. In other instances, people have done research to find out who these men were & when the names are known, they are inscribed on the steles or monuments. Another particularity is that these monuments are erected not in the middle of the main square of a town, but at the very spot, or very close to where the Allied soldiers lost their life: side of the road, forest... The most touching part of the ceremonies held on the date anniversary of the event is that old American & British veterans come to pay tribute to their fallen comrades while, quite often, the families of the men who were killed make the trip from the British Isles or the United States to the small village or town in France (or Belgium, or the Netherlands) where their relatives are honored.

I am unable to say how many such monuments have been erected in France, but there are many many & a few more are being built every year.

Frania W.

4:07 PM  
Blogger L'Amerloque said...

Hi Frania !

… just added a post-scriptum to a piece I posted a few days ago. However, I had forgotten something, so I edited it & sent it again, which means that my first PS should be deleted & only last one kept …

OK, I've deleted your comment #4 as requested, leaving only the second one ! (smile)

Rereading your first post, I immediately thought of la ligne bleue des Vosges and the huge patriotic fervor connected with Jeanne d'Arc in the years between 1871 and 1914. (smile) Your words put them clearly in context !

Other comments:

The Prussians took advantage of the upheaval to march on Paris & Versailles. The siege of Paris lasted five months ...

The French government moved to Versailles and the army was known as les versaillais. Although our (US) envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary, Elihu B. Washburne, moved the US legation out to Versailles, too, on the rue Mademoiselle (it's in his two-volume memoir of the Franco-Prussian War, Recollections of a Minister to France, published in 1887), he commuted between Paris and Versailles during the Commune, and was reputed to be "the only foreign envoy who stuck to his post". As far as I am aware, there is no plaque on the building. (sigh)

For the people of Eastern Europe 1945 was not a year of Liberation, it was the year when the Western powers abandoned them to the big Russian bear. It was the beginning of World War III, also known as the Cold War. Every attempt to free themselves ended in blood baths & long years in the gulag.

Intermittent armed partisan anti-Soviet activity went on in some parts of Czechoslovakia, Lithuania, Poland and the Ukraine well into the 1950s. That's one of the reasons the Soviets repressed the Hungarian uprising in 1956 with such ferocity.

Some of these monuments do not bear the names of the Allied soldiers & airmen who were killed because people do not know who they were, just that on such a date a jeep was destroyed & its occupants killed, or that on such other date, a plane fell in flame & the body of the pilot was retrieved & buried in the municipal cemetery. In other instances, people have done research to find out who these men were & when the names are known, they are inscribed on the steles or monuments.

Sometimes, too, the bodies were removed for reburial, either in one of the military cemeteries in Europe or even in the soldier's country of origin.

Another particularity is that these monuments are erected not in the middle of the main square of a town, but at the very spot, or very close to where the Allied soldiers lost their life: side of the road, forest ... I am unable to say how many such monuments have been erected in France, but there are many many & a few more are being built every year.

I checked with one of the Ministries here a few years ago to see if there was a master list, but no luck. There doesn't seem to be one, although one would think that it would be easy to make, given the number of veterans' and commemmorative organizations. One would simply have to combine the available lists, surely.



L'Amerloque

4:02 AM  
Blogger Frania W. said...

L’Amerloque wrote: “Sometimes, too, the bodies were removed for reburial, either in one of the military cemeteries in Europe or even in the soldier's country of origin.”

When Allied military personnel were killed in an ambush or a plane crash over the country side or in a forest, the bodies were either buried on the side of the road with a marking on which the helmet was placed, or in the closest local cemetery whenever possible. The French were very respectful for these fallen men & would try to “beat” the Germans to the site of fateful action in order to (1) save any survivor; (2) retrieve the dead for proper burial. On the other hand, the Germans would try to get there first in order to (1) identify the unit of the men who had been ambushed or of the downed aircraft; (2) take prisoners if there were survivors.

In time of war, a necessary and most painful task is to localize the bodies of soldiers killed in action (KIA). In France, after the landings in Normandy & Provence, the War Department American Graves Registration Service performed the grimly task for the United States Army. The Quartermaster General of the Army was entrusted the actual work of recovering bodies buried on or near the battlefield where they had fallen and transporting them to the nearest Casualties Clearing Station, also called a Dead Collection Point, where the rigorous task of identification (from dog-tag hopefully found on body) and body count was performed. Identification was not always possible. Men listed as Missing in Action (MIA) may have been killed, taken prisoner, never recovered, or unidentified. In many cases, official status was arrived at long after the war’s end.

From the Dead Collection Point, the bodies were transferred to temporary military cemeteries. One cemetery in Normandy was at Saint-André-de-l’Eure, between Dreux & Evreux. As the U.S. Army advanced toward the Seine River, another cemetery was created at Villeneuve-sur-Auvers, west of the Seine and about fifty kilometers south of Paris. And so on in an eastern direction until the end of the war.

After the war ended, Graves Registration continued its search for Allied personnel, such as airmen shot down with their aircraft, and still buried in communal cemeteries in ETO countries before and after the Normandy landing.

From 1947 until 1954, and in agreement with the families’ wishes, the bodies of American military personnel were either repatriated to the United States (approximately 60 percent) or interred in military cemeteries created not far from the large battlefields. The American Battle Monuments Commission, created in 1923 by order of Congress at the request of General Pershing, has the responsibility to create & maintain American war memorials & military cemeteries outside the United States. Twenty-four cemeteries have been created for WWI & WWII dead, twenty of them in Europe alone, in England, France, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg & the Netherlands.

Most of the dead soldiers of the British Commonwealth remain in the European cemeteries where they were originally buried, not so much as the wish of the families but because the British Government would not assume the expense of shipping the bodies back to Britain or any of the countries of the Commonwealth. That expense was left to the families. This is why graves of British Commonwealth military can be found in many municipal cemeteries of France and I presume the same of Belgium & the Netherlands.

As for the Germans killed in France, many were also buried in local cemeteries. After D-Day, those found by the Americans became the responsibility of Graves Registration Service & received decent burial. (There is more to say about the fate of German dead.) After all American bodies had been either repatriated or interred in the new American military cemeteries, some of their temporary cemeteries became the permanent ones for the Germans, for instance, the one at Saint-André-de-l’Eure.


L’Amerloque wrote: “I checked with one of the Ministries here a few years ago to see if there was a master list, but no luck. There doesn't seem to be one, although one would think that it would be easy to make, given the number of veterans' and commemorative organizations. One would simply have to combine the available lists, surely.”

There is no list of the monuments & steles erected in France. One learns of them by looking for them or hearing about them because of a ceremony. Contacting all veterans & commemorative organizations would not be that easy as they do not necessarily link one with another; they may even attend various ceremonies at the same place on different occasions. A friend of mine had a suggestion: send a letter to the Maire of every town & village of France asking if his/her commune has a monument erected to the memory of Allied soldiers killed for the liberation of France in World War II. I am wondering how many would answer out of the 36,851…

Frania W.

12:09 AM  
Blogger L'Amerloque said...

Hi Frania !

Contacting all veterans & commemorative organizations would not be that easy as they do not necessarily link one with another; they may even attend various ceremonies at the same place on different occasions. A friend of mine had a suggestion: send a letter to the Maire of every town & village of France asking if his/her commune has a monument erected to the memory of Allied soldiers killed for the liberation of France in World War II. I am wondering how many would answer out of the 36,851…

This sounds like an absolutely ideal project for an Association 1901. To keep postal charges to a minimum, it would certainly have to be organized with correspondants locaux, much in the manner of, say, Maisons Paysannes de France. A website could be implemented to collect information. Undoubtedly a small subsidy would be forthcoming from the relevant Ministries and les Conseils Généraux. A bit of money might be solicited aux USA.

If you start it up, I'd be quite happy to be a membre fondateur. My schedule wouldn't leave me time for much else … quoique … (smile)


L'Amerloque

4:49 AM  

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