‘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.
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’.
If the National Archives have provided a glimpse into the experience in 1940 at high level, fleeinghitler.org 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.’
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.