Sunday, August 8, 2010

A Meeting with l'Resistance

During WWII there was another invasion of France, besides the one in Normandy, and this one took place in Provence. One of the goals of the invasion was to tie up German troops so they could not mobilize to either Normandy or Italy where they would just be a further headache to Allied efforts. In August of 1944 a small group of American commandos parachuted into the area around Puivert, which is several miles from Leran. Among these commandos was a soldier named Paul Swank.

This gentleman, whose name I did not capture, was with Paul Swank, when he died August 17, 1944 during an attack with the French Resistance on the Germans. This morning, we were lucky enough to be a part of a group that went into the mountains south of Léran, to l'Escale, to see where the l'Resistance operated during WW2.This is one of the old men in the village of Leran, Henri Pibouleau, who was 16 during WWII. The Germans tried to recruit him to join their dying war effort, probably in camps in Germany or elsewhere. Henri smartly disappeared and joined l'Resistance, becoming part of a group of fighters that operated south of Puivert in the rugged terrain of the Pyrenees. Imagine, if you can, a 16 year old boy that you know doing this today.

We attended the memorial services in honour of several Maquis, or French Resistance fighters, among them, this young 17 year old who died at the hands of the Nazis. We learned Auguste Escriva was killed by German troops while hiding, alone, after a raid some 66 years ago.

The southern portion of France was in control of a puppet government of the Nazi regime, called Vichy after the town of the same name where the head of government was located. Marshall Pétain and the Vichy regime willfully collaborated with the German occupation to a high degree. The French police and the state Milice (militia) organised raids to capture Jews and others considered "undesirables" by the Germans in both the northern and southern zones. But there were brave Frenchmen and women, like those pictured here, who defied the Nazis and Vichy France. And many paid a high price, like Auguste Escriva. The memorial service was held on the spot Escriva fell, and attended by a good number of French, several British and two Americans.

Perhaps you will remember that we visited the gravesite of Paul Swank about a year ago. He was the young American who died in 1944 during an operation by American commandos and l'Resistance, to harass German troops in the area and delay their response to the Allied Invasions of France. Swank died in battle and had expressed a desire to be buried where he fell.

Members of the historical society of Leran were there to help us understand what had happened all those years ago. They had copies of old documents and photos, and unfortunately I only got a little peek at what was in the folder. It happened to be a document with Henri Pibouleau's information on it. Also on hand were members of the Maquis, the youngest of whom are at least 85 years old. Nancy and I were able to get a few photos of them. I cannot give you their names because I do not know, but it was very exciting and a tremendous honor to meet these honest to goodness heros and shake their hands. I call them heros, and in this day and age it seems an inadequate word, when movie actors and rock stars are called the same thing. But these folks are the "real McCoy".

I was charmed by the fact that the Maquis wore medals. Wikipedia says medals were awarded by General Charles de Gaulle to recognize the remarkable acts of faith and of courage of the French people against the enemy and its accomplices since June 18, 1940. The medal was given to approximately 44,000 living persons and 20,000 posthumously, awarded both for membership of the Free French forces and for participation in the metropolitan clandestine Resistance during the German occupation of France in World War II. Higher deeds were rewarded with the Ordre de la Libération.
From Wikipedia: The French Résistance is the name used to denote the collection of French resistance movements that fought against the Nazi German occupation of France and against the collaborationist Vichy régime during World War II. Résistance cells were small groups of armed men and women (called the Maquis in rural areas), who, in addition to their guerrilla warfare activities, were also publishers of underground newspapers, providers of first-hand intelligence information, and maintainers of escape networks that helped Allied soldiers and airmen trapped behind enemy lines. The men and women of the Résistance came from all economic levels and political leanings of the French society: from conservative Roman Catholics (including priests), from the Jewish community, and from the ranks of liberals, anarchists, and communists.

Many times during the day, as I watched the ceremony, I thought that these incredible people, the ones who survived the difficult years from 1940 to 1945 won't be with us much longer and many are already gone.

After the ceremony, we visited the site of the hut where the members of the Maquis hid during the combat operations. The hut was destroyed by the Germans shortly afterward and has since been rebuilt. Our friend Julian e-mailed us in the U.S. when a couple of spots opened up for this tour, and we were able to join the grooup. Nicky Spurr was kind enough to do some translations for those of us whose French is of the more rudimentary variety. All in all, it was a very fascinating day.


leslie said...

Oh, I wish I'd been there. I admire the Maquis so much. We found a few small monuments along side the road in the vicinity of Vaison la Romaine which were dedicated to the Maquis who had fallen on those spots. It heart wrenching. I became fascinated years ago on our honeymoon when we visited the Chartreuse Monastery which was used by the Maquis then. I doubt that they make the Chartreuse, a very green after dinner drink, there anymore. The buildings had become a retreat center. Did you know maquis is the under brush growing around Provence, that's where the Maquis hid, hence the name. Doug and Nancy, I share your interest and thank you so much for the wonderful post. Whenever I tell a French person that my father flew a bomber in WWII they are so effusive and love to tell stories. Do you remember our speaking of Madame Gaffett, our landlady for the Mas de Micoulary in St Remy de Provence? Her husband was a Maquis and sadly died in action.

Anonymous said...

As always, you have put faces to the history I have studied. Thank you for your curiousity and excellent reportage (sp?). I'm so glad that I know people with similar sensibilities to mine who can appreciate the past and it's relationship with the present.

I am deeply appreciative of your blog and all the wonderful people and place you have exposed me to during your several visits to Leran.

Thanks! Take care. Luke

Peggy said...

I love the picture of the old guys holding the flags along with the close up of the medals on one monsieur. You're right, they won't be around forever to help us put faces on the members of the Resistance. I think this kind of bravery and the strength of the French Resistance speaks to the pride the French have in their country. We sometimes hear that the French are snooty and/or won't speak English but I think that is a misconception that comes from their pride and reserve. They really fought tooth and nail to keep their country French! They aren't going to let go of that attitude overnight.