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The forgotten French

Exiles in the British Isles 1940–44

Nicholas Atkin

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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The context of exile

Communities, circumstances and choices

Nicholas Atkin

the Chartist demonstrations in Hyde Park. After the collapse of the Second Empire in 1870, he set up an ersatz court at Chislehurst in Kent, where he died in 1873, not so far from Petts Wood, the temporary home of General de Gaulle in autumn 1940. For many years afterwards, the Orpington Museum proudly displayed a copy of de Gaulle’s bill for coal deliveries.7 The upheavals that toppled kings and emperors also uprooted revolutionaries and artists. The political activists Godefroy Cavaignac, Louis Blanc, and Alexandre Ledru-Rollin all took shelter in London, as did

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The tradition of exile

La colonie Française

Nicholas Atkin

, however piecemeal, one overriding characteristic nonetheless stands out. While there was general dismay at the rapid collapse of their homeland, there was little initial enthusiasm for de Gaulle who was looked upon with either scorn or indifference. As Lady Astor’s son David explained in an interview with Jean Lacouture, one of the general’s most famous biographers: The English people admired de Gaulle, their companion of the darkest days, and they respected his courage. In political circles it was neither his ideas nor his character that was criticized but rather the

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Nicholas Atkin

least supporters of de Gaulle and resolutely opposed to Vichy has remained more or less intact. It is a myth that has remained untouched by the huge literature that has carefully scrutinised the general’s every move throughout the war years, from Bordeaux to London, from London to Algiers, and from there, via London again, to Normandy and Paris. Admittedly, something of the intellectual opposition to de Gaulle, fronted by Labarthe and Aron, has been noted, as have the quarrels within the Free French movement itself. Nonetheless, it is still the general and his

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Nicholas Atkin

willingness to join General de Gaulle’.2 These men were, of course, the majority. When, on 18 June 1940, de Gaulle emitted his ‘call to honour’, the response was feeble, a fact acknowledged by even the most unreconstructed of the general’s hagiographers. It has been calculated that, in mid-August 1940, the numbers of Free French, ‘volunteers of the first hour’, in both Britain and across the world, numbered approximately 8,000.3 It is, though, these initial ralliés whose stories have been told over and over again, both by historians and by themselves.4 History remembers the

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The surveillance of exile

The Vichy consulates

Nicholas Atkin

game’ strategy, the notion that Pétain hoodwinked the Germans by professing his genuine interest in collaboration while persuading Britain to ease its blockade on France and so allow General de Gaulle to carry the torch of resistance overseas. Contrary to what is sometimes thought, the double-game theory was not an invention unveiled at the marshal’s trial in 1945 by his defence lawyer Jacques Isorni; instead it originated in the minds of those Pétainists of the first hour who refused to believe that their hero was consorting with the Germans unless he possessed some

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Series:

Geoffrey K. Roberts and Patricia Hogwood

reform package affecting the Senate and the regions (53 per cent vote against). 9 November 1970 Death of de Gaulle. 27 June 1972 Socialist and Communist parties agree on a ‘Common Programme for Government’. 21 September 1977 Socialists and Communists fail to renew ‘Common Programme for Government’, but agree to a pact for the general

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Series:

Geoffrey K. Roberts and Patricia Hogwood

. He made a career in the army, and was a prisoner-of-war in the First World War. When France was defeated in 1940 by the German military, de Gaulle, at the time a General with a post in the Ministry of Defence, fled to London and set up a committee of the Free French to continue resistance to the Germans. Following the liberation of France in 1944–45, de Gaulle became head of the provisional government, until the Fourth

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Nicholas Atkin

until the time comes for you to return once again to your country.’28 Depending on which version was being relayed, it ended, ‘Long Live Queen Wilhelmina’, ‘Long Live King Leopold’, and always ‘God save King George’. There was no ‘Vive, la France’; nor later was there ‘Vive, le maréchal Pétain’, or for that matter ‘Vive, le général de Gaulle’. Reading the minutes of the local government authorities in London, it seems that the reception of refugees went without a hitch. ‘An intimation from the Ministry of Health that about 1,200 refugees will be 2499 Chap2 7

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The French Communist Party

From revolution to reform

David S. Bell

PCF was the biggest party in the system polling 26.2 per cent to the Christian democratic MRP’s 25.9 per cent and the SFIO’s 21.1 per cent. It had participated in governments under de Gaulle and its leader, Maurice Thorez, made a serious bid to become Premier, falling short by only 51 votes. But the onset of the cold war meant that by 1947 the principal cleavage in the party system divided the Communists from the Socialists. It pushed the Socialists into alignment with the MRP and with other moderate and centrist groups willing to participate in a centrist programme