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Exiles in the British Isles 1940–44

It is widely assumed that the French in the British Isles during the Second World War were fully fledged supporters of General de Gaulle, and that, across the channel at least, the French were a ‘nation of resisters’. This study reveals that most exiles were on British soil by chance rather than by design, and that many were not sure whether to stay. Overlooked by historians, who have concentrated on the ‘Free French’ of de Gaulle, these were the ‘Forgotten French’: refugees swept off the beaches of Dunkirk; servicemen held in camps after the Franco-German armistice; Vichy consular officials left to cater for their compatriots; and a sizeable colonist community based mainly in London. Drawing on little-known archival sources, this study examines the hopes and fears of those communities who were bitterly divided among themselves, some being attracted to Pétain as much as to de Gaulle.

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Servicemen

London. The British government had serious doubts about the reliability of French servicemen and their worth in battle. Yet, as will be seen, the reasons behind the failure to rally were far more complicated; and it is significant that the attitudes of many exiled servicemen reflected those of their comrades-in-arms in metropolitan France.8 Arriving: Narvik, Dunkirk, Compiègne and Oran In explaining why large numbers of French servicemen were to be found in Britain during the summer of 1940, it is necessary to read the roll call of Narvik, Dunkirk, Compiègne (where the

in The forgotten French
Open Access (free)

, marked out by their clothes, inability to speak English and the stigma of measly state handouts. As MassObservation observed, they were especially conspicuous in shops where the French habit of prodding food to test its freshness before purchase was seen as evidence of greed and ‘wanting a lot for their money’.4 French servicemen likewise retained a separate identity, arrested in ports at the time of the Armistice, and soon gathered together in makeshift camps, principally in the north of England where they were visited by Vichy consular officials, another group whose

in The forgotten French
The Vichy consulates

, when most non-Free French servicemen had been repatriated, that real efforts were made to improve life in these barracks. Thus it may well have been that, in his complaints about Chartier, Muselier was exercising a more general frustration about recruitment. This did not stop yet another round of enquiries into the activities of the consuls, although once again this produced little incriminating evidence. For instance, in January 1941 the Cardiff police filed a report on Pierre Chesnais, the local attaché in the city.116 A professional diplomat, he had first served

in The forgotten French
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La colonie Française

them in a Mercedes, rushing along a motor road.’ It was now eight months since the French collapse, yet no machinery was in place to keep track of French servicemen discharged from Ministry of Health hospitals, or for the police to monitor the opinions of the colony. This was even more vital given the changing circumstances of the war. It was not unlikely, suggested the War Cabinet representative, that three French authorities could soon emerge: de Gaulle in London; a Laval regime in Paris; and a Weygand or Pétain government in North Africa, which might well be

in The forgotten French