Growth of the French Resistance by Colonel R?my |
At noon on Monday, June 17, 1940, a young cadet at the Cavalry School at Saumur burst into the room where one of his officer-instructors was taking a hasty meal. The cadet seemed to be in a state of shock, and the breathless words with which he addressed the officer made no sense to the woman servant in the room. She looked on while the officer pushed back his chair, jumped to his feet, and strode to the door, wiping his eyes with the back of his hand as he went out.
Minutes before, the radio had broadcast a proclamation by Marshal Petain which was to be repeated every hour until that evening: "Frenchmen!" "Called by the President of the Republic, I am taking over the direction of the government of France as from today. "Certain of the devotion of our superb army, which is fighting with a heroism worthy of its long military tradition against an enemy superior both in numbers and in arms; certain that by its magnificent resistance it has fulfilled our duties to our allies; certain of the support of our old soldiers, whom I have been proud to command; certain of the confidence of the entire nation, I offer myself to France in order to lessen her suffering. "It is with a heavy heart that I tell you today that the fighting must cease. Tonight I will contact the enemy and ask him if he is prepared to discuss with me, as between soldiers, after fighting the battle and defending our honour, the steps to be taken to end hostilities." Twenty-four years before, the famous old soldier who made this announcement had galvanised the Verdun garrison with his immortal battle-cry "Courage, on les aura!"; and there can be no doubt that his heart was indeed torn by the need for France to lay down her arms in 1940. Those who heard him broadcast at the time still remember how his voice trembled as he concluded his speech. But as his words went out to the French people the roads of France were choked with countless refugees, haggard, desperate, swamping the fighting troops with their numbers and thus preventing any chance of a counter-attack, converting the retreat to a stampede on all sides. To take just one example, terrible scenes had occurred at the bridge at Gien, where nearly a million people had forced their way across the Loire in three days; and those scenes would be repeated as far afield as the Pyrenees and the Alps unless the fighting ended at once. Those who wanted to carry on the fight had to consider not only the chaotic state of the armies in the field. They could not ignore the sufferings of those hundreds of thousands of women, children, and old folk who had travelled (for the most part on foot) from Holland, Belgium, and north-eastern France, pushing their pitiful bundles of possessions on barrows.
It is a grim fact that Petain's premature announcement of his intention to request an armistice only added to the confusion and did nothing to alleviate the sufferings of the civilian population. The Luftwaffe's Stukas and the Italian bombers continued to terrorise the floods of refugees streaming south, while Petain's proclamation only troubled and demoralised the majority of the troops. Very few of them came to the decision that nothing would be changed until an armistice was actually signed, and that their duty was to fight on where they stood. Among these few were the officers and men at Saumur, whose stand on the banks of the Loire was one of the most heartening episodes in the overall tragedy of the 1940 campaign.