The news from Europe stunned America: On June 22, 1940, France surrendered to Germany.
Just six weeks earlier, Nazi Germany had sent its army into Holland and Belgium. In response, the French army moved north to meet the German advance, and British troops joined the fight. But by June 15, the Germans were marching into Paris. Six days later, the French government signed an armistice with the Nazis.
Americans wondered how this could be. They recalled how during the Great War 25 years earlier, France and Great Britain had stopped an invading German army. The two Allied forces pinned the Germans on a battle line 450 miles long for four years. And despite losing over a million soldiers, France ultimately defeated Germany.
But now, in this new war, Germany’s army pushed Britain’s army all the way back to the English Channel. The British only escaped capture when a hastily assembled fleet of 800 boats withdrew them to England.
Now alone, France struggled on, hoping to avoid the fate of Poland, Norway, Denmark, Luxembourg, Holland, and Belgium. But on June 22, France, too, surrendered to Germany.
In the U.S., the Nazi’s swift victory caused many to reconsider their neutrality. Dismissing the Nazi threat was easy when they presumed France and Great Britain would stop Hitler. But now, with France occupied, one less nation stood between the U.S. and Germany. Great Britain remained defiant and free, but many Americans thought the country had little chance of surviving.
So what had happened to the French?
Post contributor Demaree Bess was in Paris, looking for an explanation. He didn’t find many answers. He didn’t find many Parisians, either. The government fled the capital, along with much of the city’s population. In “With Their Hands in Their Pocket,” Bess describes his days in an eerily empty city awaiting the German conquerors.
Today, you can find several explanations for the French defeat. The most obvious, of course, is the German army, which spent 20 years preparing for the second great war.
When World War I ended, Germany was left with little food, rampant inflation, a government in chaos, and crippling penalties imposed by the Treaty of Versailles. In their grief and anger, many Germans found it easy to believe the myth that Germany had been betrayed by treacherous Germans. As Germans loudly demanded the right to re-arm their nation, the German military began secretly training the next generation of warriors. Given time, training, and weapons, Germany could return to France and defeat it.
Meanwhile, across the border in France, there was no interest in more war. The French found little pleasure in their victory, which they’d purchased at the cost of 1.3 million dead. The nation went back to work, but this proved difficult with so many men missing.
The French government in these years poorly served their citizens. Bitterly divided by political factions, France proved unable to develop an effective policy for national defense. However, it built a massive military structure in anticipation of the next war. It has become the symbol of narrow-minded planning.
It was the Maginot Line; a system of forts, bunkers, and observation posts along the border it shared with Germany. When completed, these hundreds of buildings were considered the most advanced fortifications ever built. France believed the line was impregnable; the country no longer needed to fear German invasion.
Unfortunately, the line left two entry points wide open. At its northern end, its defenses ended where the French border entered the Ardennes Forest. French authorities believed no defense was needed in this area because rivers, broken ground, dense woods, and winding roads made the Ardennes impassible to a modern, mechanized army.
Beyond the Ardenne lay the border with Belgium. The French didn’t extend the Maginot Line into this area because they had a mutual-defense treaty with the Belgians. If Germany invaded Belgium, the French army would cross the border to fight alongside their allies. But as war approached, Belgium declared its neutrality. Hastily, the French and British began extending the Maginot Line to the coast.
On May 10 as French and British troops rushed into Belgium to engage the Germans, another German army group, with a million men and 1,500 tanks, rolled through the impassable Ardennes Forest to strike at the rear of the Allies. The end came soon afterward.
Today some Americans firmly believe France was defeated because it simply did not defend itself. The French army, for the most part, simply surrendered when they saw the Germans. The accusation is conveniently revived whenever Franco-American relations turn hostile.
The problem with the French-didn’t-fight theory is that it doesn’t explain the 290,000 French soldiers who were killed or wounded in only six weeks of fighting.
“Is anything about World War I even relevant today?”
I’ve often been asked that question since I began this blog last fall. I’ve asked it myself. Is there anything we can learn from 100-year-old wartime experiences?
After reading “War and Hallucinations,” by Corra Harris, I can now answer with an assured yes. Because Harris, though writing 100 years ago, describes the challenge we still face in coming to terms with war and terror.
Back in 1915, American newspapers continued to publish atrocity stories from Europe. The German army was accused of mass executions, rape, and slaughtering children. Journalists couldn’t confirm or deny the reports coming out of Europe, but that didn’t prevent American newspapers from repeating the stories.
Harris didn’t believe the horror stories. Rather than recount them again, she gave her opinion of where they came from, and why so many people believed them. The war, she wrote, had caused the people of Belgium, France, and England to lose some of their sanity:
From the day I entered the war zone till this one upon which I take my departure from it I have been aware of a certain psychic condition, difficult to describe yet so powerful that no one can escape its influence … as if all thought had lost its shape, and reason was no longer reasonable. As if all men and all women were somnambulists walking in a black dream.
They speak with calmness of things so horrible that one is amazed that they do not shriek and wring their hands. And one is still more amazed at having the power to listen with calmness. We see terrible sights, we hear of them, we think of nothing else, and yet we do not go mad. For where everybody is mad no one is.
The French newspapers had carried the news of thousands being killed at the front, and an unstoppable German army was marching on Paris. Fear overpowered reason. The citizens’ anxieties were fed by the terrifying stories — “hallucinations” Harris called them — from refugees arriving in the cities.
Harris described Lille refugees traveling for days, defenseless and hungry, with artillery fire from both sides exploding around them. They knew the Germans were right behind them, and they weren’t permitted to stop in towns along the way. They might collapse in exhaustion in a ditch for a few hours’ sleep, but they’d awake at a strange sound or a suspicious form in the darkness. And as they resumed their march, they picked up bits of conversation from other refugees to weave them into their own fearful imaginings.
When they finally came upon relief workers, they recounted their journeys with a vividness that reflected their terror more than their reality. “The awful thing about war for the helpless,” she wrote, was that war “is what they fear, intensified by the horrible things they have heard.”
It wasn’t just refugees. Harris remembered soldiers claiming to have seen 10,000 men killed every day in one battle. The rivers near Calais, they said, were clogged with the bodies of dead Germans. Calmer observers coming on the scene after the fighting found nothing to justify these claims. These “hallucinations” were the attempts of Frenchmen, who had led routine, peaceful lives before the war, to describe the spectacular horrors of what they’d seen.
“When 70,000 Indian troops landed at Marseilles it was incredible,” Harris added. “The sight fired the imagination, so we heard that a force of 800,000 Japanese were already on their way to join the Allied Armies. Only 800,000! You get the contagion for using big numbers from reading the papers and from listening to the average man talk. Figures, which in normal times are supposed not to lie, have become the medium of fiction in this war.”
This exaggerated language was another sign of the derangement from war, Harris wrote. “Language is … designed to convey the commonplace meanings of life.” But the Europeans were experiencing such atrocities that their minds were “completely divorced from reality, because reality itself surpasses the power of even imagination to conceive.” And language became “the war currency of a bankrupt nation. It has no value. All the lies that words can frame are floating in this atmosphere. The truth itself is the greatest fabrication of all, because it belies all we have called truth.”
Today, it’s difficult to keep a sense of proportion when we think of 9/11, the Boston Marathon bombing, or the grisly murders of captives in the Middle East. We calmly discuss these events, and even try joking about them, as if to laugh off our worries. But the uncertainty and anxiety remain because the limits of the-worst-that-could-happen have been pushed far back. Faceless enemies and random attacks have eroded our sense of what to expect, or whom to trust. When reason can’t make sense of our world, dread and fear can take over.
As Harris noted in 1915, “Every ideal by which men aspired and lived is changed. Nothing is familiar and no man is sane — because imagination rules.”
Step into 1915 with a peek at these pages from The Saturday Evening Post February 13, 1915 issue.
Once again journalist Corra Harris slipped past military checkpoints to report on conditions in the French countryside.
In “The Bravest of the Brave” (The Saturday Evening Post, January 16, 1915), Harris was particularly interested in sharing how the women of Europe were enduring the war. She pitied the Belgian women whose homes and families were torn apart by the German invasion. And she was deeply impressed by the women of France, who refused to be cowed by the Germans.
Many of these women chose not to flee when the German army entered their towns. They stayed in their homes, where every day was a struggle to protect and feed their children. Overall, Harris wrote, they showed a tough, resourceful spirit. They could endure much that the Germans inflicted on their property, but they were particularly angered by the German soldiers’ theft of their preserves.
Harris asked a French housewife about having to share a house with German soldiers (before they were driven back by French troops):
“Of course, they drank all the wine, and they ruined the piano; they played it all night — all night! Such awful thunder they make on the poor thing that now it gives out only a bombardment of noise.”
“The Germans are fond of music?” I suggest.
“Yes; but awful! I do not call it music. I am in the cellar, I put my fingers over my ears, I cannot endure it. And the poor piano, it cannot, either. Its feet” — pedals — “are dead. All that, I can bear; since they did not kill us or burn the house; but why have they stolen my jam — my little, little pots of jam! It is wicked. They did so.” She cupped her fingers and pretended to empty something into her mouth. “One after another, that German he licked out my little pots of jam.”
The story is the same everywhere. They break into the stores and eat all the candy and every sweet cake, even when they do no other damage. … It may be that when men revert to savages they get an abnormal appetite for sugar!
Despite their hardships, the French women devoted themselves to caring for the wounded, both Allies and non-Allies alike. One anecdote Harris gathered from a nurse in Paris shows that as much as the French despised the Germans, they could still admire individual courage:
There is a certain hospital near Paris where every bed in the big ward has a locker in which the patient may keep his few possessions; along with the bullet or fragment of shell that has been taken from his wound. And it is the fancy of these men to stick the flag of the nation to which they belong above their lockers; so that ward is very gay with French and British colors.
Recently a desperately wounded German soldier, in this hospital, lay in the corner bed at the end of a long row. Naturally he had no flag above his locker — not until the pain left him and he was able to perceive his inglorious condition.
One day, when the nurse came to take his temperature, she was amazed to see an English flag sticking out of his locker. She was scandalized.
“Where did you get it?” she cried, snatching the sacred emblem.
The German only grinned up at her, wan and invincible. He had stolen it sometime during the night from the sleeping Englishman lying next to him.
The following morning he had it again.
Laughing, Mademoiselle explained, “It is very good for him — stealing that flag. We thought he would surely die, so dreadfully wounded was he; but he has kept himself alive just to do that.” There was no spite against this fallen foe; only a whimsical French sense of humor at the situation, a woman’s kindness, so delicate and so intelligent.
Harris slipped past the military checkpoints to interview an exceptional woman — Jeanne Macherez. When the Germans swept through the French town of Soisson, this 61-year-old women saved the town’s food supply by stepping in and assuming the role of mayor. When Harris asked how she had accomplished this, Macherez told her—
Everybody was gone from the town. I was alone, very busy in my house. The door is open. The Germans see it and they come — officers in a big car, with the streets full of their soldiers. They ask for the mayor … I am not willing to tell them that the mayor is absent. So I make some excuse. Then they say they must see a representative of the mayor. If there is no government they will go and break open the shops and take all. They must have food, everything, at once.
“I thought of what would happen if no one went with them to save a little perhaps for the women and children, hiding in their cellars. So I said: “I am the Mayor of Soissons. I will go with you.”
“Were you frightened?” I asked.
“But no, not for myself — for the people who might starve. The bridges had been destroyed — no trains; no more supplies.
“We could not live if they took all we had. So I got into the car with those Germans. We went to every shop. They wanted all of this and all of that; but I said: ‘No—you can’t have all the flour in this shop.’ I laid my hands on the sugar; I held back all I could. And the lard … they want all of that. I could save only a little.
“The next day,” she went on, “they came again. They demanded to know why I had not delivered the stores — 50,000 cigars; 50,000 pounds of flour; 500 pounds of sugar — all the lard. But they were absurd. I told them so. ‘How can I, messieurs? You have killed all the horses which you have not taken. Shall I send the women and children to your trenches with these things? But no; it is too much for them. Besides, they shall not go!’
“They were very angry. They made a great fuss. I was frightened then; but I stood before them. Let them kill me too! At last they agreed that we should place all the stores in the railroad station. We did that.”
She began to smile. It was like sunlight on an old gray wall — that smile.
“The next day they were all gone; the French came and drove them out. Then we went and carried all the stores back to the shops.”
This, however, was only the beginning of her gallant defense of Soissons against the ravages of the war. So far as the food supply was concerned, it was nearly as bad to have the French troops quartered there. …
[Since then] she has somehow managed to secure food and clothes for the people for three months. It is not an easy task, with no railroads, and almost no horses to bring in the provisions for them.
Step into 1915 with a peek at these pages from The Saturday Evening Post January 16, 1915 issue.