Thursday, 29 January 2015

France: A Forgotten History

The summer of 1914 found the Moulin family following their usual programme, setting out on the train to Avignon to spend two months in their house in St Andiol. The newspapers were reporting the trial in Paris of Madame Caillaux, wife of a former prime minister Joseph Caillaux who was both a powerful ally of the Radical Party and an ally of the socialist and anti-militarist leader, Jean Jaur√®s. Earlier in the year the editor of Le Figaro, hoping to discredit Caillaux who was considered to be insufficiently bellicose, threatened to publish letters exchanged between him and his current wife before he had divorced his first wife. The minister’s wife, Henrietta, dealt with this matter by calling on the editor in his office and shooting him dead. She was acquitted of murder by an assize jury on 28 July, a verdict which was applauded by radicals all over France, and one which may help explain why France has never acquired a gutter press worthy of the name.

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The German arrival had been expected for two days. The last French unit based in Chartres, the 1st Battalion of the 7th Motorised Dragoons, which had been covering the French retreat, had been ordered to withdraw at midnight, after which nothing stood between the city and the enemy except scattered detachments from the 26th Regiment of Senegalese Sharpshooters. The tendency of colonial troops to stand their ground and fight, with or without their officers, causing considerable German casualties, had infuriated General Koch-Erpach and when soldiers of the 8th Division of the Wehrmacht captured Senegalese soldiers in the Eure-et-Loir they shot them out of hand. There had been a battle between Senegalese stragglers and men of the 8th Division outside Chartres on 16 June, at the end of which the Germans shot 165 Senegalese prisoners, and stripped the bodies of their name tags. A further fifty Senegalese were rounded up and shot near Chartainvilliers, ten kilometres north-east of Chartres.

These infantrymen, speaking little French and abandoned by their officers, usually recruited from Muslim or animist villages in the West African bush, were the last French soldiers to die in defence of the spiritual centre of Christian France.

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In both zones there was an extreme sense of unreality. So, in Bron, a suburb of Lyon, in the Vinatier mental hospital, during the occupation, 2,000 out of 2,890 patients were allowed to die of exposure and starvation. Eight hundred died in the first twenty-nine months between July 1940 and November 1942, and 1,200 in the following twenty-two months. During this period the psychiatrists who continued to supervise their patients noted that their daily calorie level had dropped by forty-four per cent, and used the daily ward rounds to gather data for theses which bore titles such as ‘The delirium of want’. Symptoms of this condition included eating the bark of trees in the hospital grounds, eating faecal matter and drinking urine, habits which had not previously been observed at Vinatier. Starvation was now treated as a novel form of mental illness. What was significant about this situation was not the shortage of food in the hospital of Lyon - there was a general and serious food shortage throughout the city for most of the war - but the reaction of the psychiatrists, who attempted to explain away the fact that their patients were starving to death by means of a bland professional formula. (Patrick Marnham, The Death of Jean Moulin: Biography of a Ghost)

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