It’s that time of year again. You only have to park the car for five minutes and you find your windscreen bristling with flyers for vide-greniers (jumble sales). Around here, there’s at least one a week for the foreseeable future. Not that I mind. You might pick up a bargain. The SF and I were looking for a log-splitter at the Caylus vide-grenier on Sunday. We didn’t find one, but I did stumble upon something rather more interesting.
A couple of small books on a stall caught my eye:
- Instructions for British Servicemen in France 1944
- Instructions for British Servicemen in Germany 1944
They were facsimile copies of pamphlets issued to servicemen during World War II, republished by Oxford’s Bodleian Library. With my passion for history – and the fact that I am researching a second novel based during World War II – I snapped them up.
They are fascinating. Both provide a brief introduction to the respective history, politics, culture, and national character of France and Germany. They also include practical details about currency and useful words and phrases. The audience was the average ‘Tommy’ and the books are manuals about what to expect and how to behave to the liberated – and the vanquished.
The French version was issued just before the D-Day landings. The German version came out later, as the defeat of Germany became inevitable. The 21st-century preface to the German instructions says:
“Whereas the underlying aim of the earlier [French] booklet had been to bring together two allies who, although they had not always had the easiest of relationships during the war, had many common objectives and values, the principal aim this time [the German version] was to condition the troops against the effects of German propaganda, and to restrict the contacts between the occupiers and the occupied to the minimum.”
The tone of the two booklets is, therefore, quite different. The denouement of World War II and its immediate consequences is a huge subject and I can’t possibly hope to do it justice in a short blog post. We are still reaping what was sown during the end-game of that catastrophic war.
However, to the ordinary serviceman, who had probably never set foot out of Britain before, these booklets were intended as basic primers for dealing with two peoples who had probably suffered equally, but in different ways.
I can only give you a flavour of their contents. For example, each booklet contains a section entitled, ‘What are the French/Germans like?’ The German version is not generally complimentary about the Germans, stating that their militaristic history developed respect for authority but not good human beings.
“[The] mixture of sentimentality and callousness does not show a well-balanced mind. The Germans are not good at controlling their feelings. They have a streak of hysteria.”
The French version shows much more sympathy for the French people and what they had suffered under the occupation. It explains that the French have a strong attachment to their regional cultures within a framework of national patriotism and a strong individualistic bent:
“The French are not tolerant of authority – as the Germans have found to their cost. Their first reaction to a uniform of a regulation is …to ask whether it is necessary and make disrespectful comments if they decide it is not. This is all part of the Frenchman’s deep belief in the individual.”
Both booklets warn against careless talk and continuing espionage, saying that English was widely understood across Europe. In Germany, attractive women may be operating under orders. In France, women “are clever at this kind of work and may be used”, i.e. to spread anti-Russian and pro-German propaganda.
The French words and phrases section – complete with phonetic spelling – is a hoot. What does ‘oo mane set root’ equate to in written French? Answer: où mène cette route (where does this road go?). Or ‘Pouvay-voo mer pretay daze oottee?’ Answer: pouvez-vous me prêter des outils (can you lend me some tools?).
And under the ‘difficulties and enquiries’ section, ‘sir bwah ate-eel epay’ equates to ce bois, est-il épais (is this wood thickly-forested?).
You can imagine the scope for misunderstanding between the hapless Tommies and the bemused French.
A final quote from the French booklet, about ‘Drink’, spurred by complaints about the inability of the Brits to take their drink (plus ça change):
“If you should be offered wine or spirits, remember that this will be stronger drink than you are used to.”
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