In My Father’s Words



In My Father’s Words


03/07/1938 – 18/10/2018


Bunch of Old Keys

It was a grey, overcast dawn on 14th July 1789, the heavy clouds threatening rain before the day was out.  The Marquis de Launay stood at the parapet of one the Bastille’s eight towers and sniffed the air.  He could smell the rain, but much more besides, he could smell trouble.  He surveyed his command, the 400 year old prison in the heart of the City, its walls eighty feet high and fifteen feet thick.  De Launay had eighty-two retired French soldiers and thirty-two Swiss mercenaries as his garrison, together with eighteen eight-pound cannon and twelve smaller guns.  In addition he had two hundred and fifty barrels of gunpowder.

From his vantage point he viewed the city.  Even at this early hour, it was alive with noise and movements, the erection of barricades, the shouting of people and the discharging of firearms. The acrid smell of black powder irritated his nostrils. His orders were to hold the fortress, whatever the cost.  It was a stupid order, he thought, as plans were well in hand, before the present unrest had erupted, to pull the building down as redundant.

As the day progressed great swirling masses of flag waving people came and went, bound on some urgent business unknown to de Launay.  Many carried muskets.  He went to breakfast and while thus engaged was informed that a mob had arrived at the gates, headed by a delegation of citizens.

The Governor was gracious.  “Show them in, we will breakfast together.”

The delegates demanded that the cannon be unloaded and pulled back from the fortress walls.  De Launay readily agreed and was pleased that such a cordial atmosphere prevailed.  Before the meal was over a second mob of people, several times larger than the first, arrived, led by a lawyer.  He demanded the handing over of the Bastille to the people.

“I cannot do that, m’sieur.  I take my orders from the King.”

Both delegations withdrew for discussions, but their followers, impatient for action, swarmed across the moat and smashed their way into the outer courtyard, breaking into buildings and seizing axes and sledge hammers to attack the wooden drawbridges.  Some in the crowd had firearms, taken from the storming of the Invalides earlier in the day.  It is not known who fired the first shot, but soon a gun battle was raging, with casualties on both sides.  The attackers set fire to the wagons and dragged them against the drawbridges leading to the inner court, the Swiss replying with cannon fire.

At two in the afternoon, a truce was arranged but it quickly broke down under the weight of the attackers’ demand that the Governor be executed.  One of the leaders of the attackers was a m’sieur Flesselles, who was beaten by the mob for truthfully telling them there was no more ammunition.  From somewhere two cannon were found and lined up facing the Bastille’s drawbridges.  This drew a furious response from the garrison and more attackers fell.  De Launay, however, saw that the position was hopeless, knowing as he did that no help could be expected from the Royal Army where soldiers would no longer obey their officers.  His own retired French Army men were on the point of mutiny and only the professional Swiss soldiers remained as a fighting unit.  He wrote a note offering to capitulate and this was pushed through a crack in the wooden drawbridge.

Lieutenant Hulin, of the Militia, with the note held above his head, and accompanied by Lieutenant Elie, entered through a small door in the drawbridge and accepted de Launay’s sword of surrender.  The Governor, at the point of his own sword was marched into his little room.

“The keys, citizen,” demeaned Hulin.  De Launay opened a small drawer and indicated wordlessly.

“Is that it?” demanded the lieutenant, “Just that old bunch of keys?”

The last Governor of the Bastille nodded.  “There is nothing else.”

Hulin threw the keys to his companion.   “Release all the prisoners.”

“It won’t take long” remarked de Launay dryly.

He was led outside with the remaining members of the garrison, through the masses of screaming Parisians, their faces distorted, their feet and fists raining blows on the captured men.  De Launay was knocked to the ground, kicked and beaten and stabbed.  Finally he was decapitated with a butcher’s knife, as was the unfortunate Flesselles, whose only crime was to speak honestly.  Their bodies were torn to pieces, some of the mob decorating their faces with the dead men’s blood.

The Bastille had been stormed.  Today, the date, 14th July, is celebrated in France as a Public Holiday, and the foundation of the Republic and mother of those Republican virtues of Liberty, Equality and Brotherhood.  Since 1789 France has enjoyed five republics, two empires and four monarchs, five if you count the unfortunate son of the murdered King Louis and Queen Marie Antoinette, whom monarchists call Louis XVII.  The Bastille was knocked down under orders from the people by the same contractor who had successfully bid for the job from the King.

Oh, yes, seven prisoners were released from the Bastille, none of them political.  Four were forgers, one was a sex offender and two were mad.  One of the madmen was an Irishman who believed himself to be God, or, on other occasions, Julius Caesar.  He didn’t want to leave his cell, which he liked, and had to be dragged screaming and shouting into the world of liberty, equality and brotherhood.

Written by BM


Cherchez Le Saint Graal

“Français et Françaises”, Frenchmen and Frenchwomen, so began the famous BBC radio broadcast of 18th June 1940 by General Charles de Gaulle.  He continued, “France has lost a battle, France has not lost the war.”  It was an inauspicious way to commence his quest for the Holy Grail, as the BBC did not rate the broadcast as sufficiently important to record, few people in France heard it, and almost no one acted upon it.  Nevertheless, in later years, this speech as with many other French myths, was transformed, this time into the rallying call which set France alight.  At the time, it was nothing of the kind, and it wasn’t even true.

De Gaulle had been born in Lille in 1890, and became a devout, right wing, Roman Catholic.  He joined the Army and was a captain at the start of the Great War in August 1914.  He was wounded and captured at Verdun in May 1915, some time before the struggle for the town and fortress became symbolic as the struggle for France.  The remaining three and a half years were spent as a guest of the Kaiser, thinking about the future.

After the War he became a devoted admirer of Marshal Petain, France’s saviour and hero.  In a series of staff positions he rose rapidly and was in command of an armoured division in Alsace when Hitler’s War began.  In May 1940, the Germans stormed through Belgium and Holland and defeated the British and French in Northern France.  De Gaulle who had little part in the fighting was invited into the Government and sent on a mission to Britain, where he was when France surrendered.  For the third time in seventy years, France had been overrun by the Germans, and in 1940 was forced into a humiliating so called Armistice.  Petain, who had accepted the German surrender in 1918 in a railway carriage at Compeigne, was forced to go the same carriage to bow his head to Hitler.

Despite the appeals of Churchill, the British Prime Minister, and his offer of joint citizenship with France, the French Government believed that if their one million men had not been able to stop Hitler, lesAnglais would not be able to do either, and in two or three weeks would sue for peace.  As so often with the French, they miscalculated, a fault going back to Crecy, through Agincourt and Blenheim to Waterloo.  The British character is different from the French, and besides, Churchill could not even spell defeat.

So the Fascist, collaborationist Government of Marshal Pertain was formed.  De Gaulle’s old hero ordered Charles to return, and when he refused, he was tried for treason and condemned to death.

Charles de Gaulle had long nursed a vision of France as the most important, most sacred country in the world, and in June 1940, he went in search of his Grail.  To use an old Irish saying, “I wouldn’t start from here, if I were you.”  His beloved homeland had been occupied in the north, west and east by the Germans, who also seized Alsace and Lorraine.  In the south the Italians, arriving after France had been defeated, took Savoie and the Riviera.  The Government of Marshal Petain controlled the centre part from Vichy.

In addition the French showed no stomach for fighting on.  As an example, some 2917 pilots flew in the Battle of Britain.  2334 were British, and 290 from the British Empire.  From the occupied countries came 145 fanatically brave Poles, 88 Czechs and 29 Belgians.  France supplied 13, slightly more than the neutral USA, 11, and Ireland, 10.

De Gaulle had 5000 soldiers, clothed, fed, armed and transported by the British.  Things did not improve easily, as he tried to wrest French colonies from Vichy.  He was rebuffed at Daker, and Philippe Leclerc began his march from Chad with 17 men to conquer Africa in de Gaulle’s name.  He emerged in 1942 in Algeria as a general with 20,000.  The British and Free French invaded Syria and Lebanon to prevent these lands being handed over to the Germans.  A young Australian lieutenant, Roden Cutler, later Governor of NSW, gained the Victoria Cross and lost his right leg fighting against men who had been allies only a year before. The 30,000 Vichy soldiers refused to surrender to the Free French, insisting they gave themselves up to the British.

De Gaulle was a shrewd politician.  After Germany invaded Russia, he sent a mission to the French Communists offering to work together towards the common goal.  The USSR recognised him as the leader of the French Government in exile, which Britain had already done.  Eventually Roosevelt reluctantly came to the same conclusion.  De Gaulle was haughty, arrogant and self-centred.  Churchill once remarked, “Of all the crosses I have to bear, the Cross of Lorraine is the heaviest.”

De Gaulle was a long way from the Grail but was at least moving in the right direction.  His next great leap was not of his making.  The Americans and British invaded French North Africa in November 1942, and with Monty sweeping west across the desert after his stunning victory at El Alamein, the soft underbelly of France was threatened.  Hitler occupied the unoccupied zone of France, and all the apples tumbled in General de Gaulle’s basket.  France really was in flames now, and the Resistance movement gathered strength as Vichy’s troops flocked to the Free French

In August 1944, the French and Americans invaded the Riviera and eventually linked up with the Allies from Normandy.  General Patton held back to let the heroic Leclerc to liberate Paris.  The following day de Gaulle walked up the Champs Elysee to the Arc de Triomphe with German gunfire still rolling around the City, and Wehrmacht snipers everywhere.  The General was about 6’6” tall, an easy target.  He did not lack personal courage.

The French invaded Germany with the Allies, and France became one of the occupying Powers.  De Gaulle became leader of the French Government, but resigned in disgust in 1946 as the pre war squabbles continued.  He sat at Colombey les Deux Eglises in a sulk until 1958 when he answered the nation’s call and became the first President of the Fifth Republic, a role he held for ten years.

De Gaulle was still as prickly, arrogant and unbending in his seventies as he had been during the War, but he had reached his Grail.  France was supreme.  He died in 1970.

Recently I had lunch at a restaurant in Hertfordshire, where the Maitre d’ was from Bordeaux.  He said, on being complimented on his English, “If you don’t speak English, you can’t go anywhere in the world.”  English is now the first foreign language in every country in Europe, including France.  The old General might reflect that the Grail is illusionary, as he turned in his grave.

Written by BM


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