CHAPTER XXXIII

It is not in any way my purpose to write even a fragmentary account of the events that followed.* *(See La Vérité sur l'Armistice by Albert Kammerer, Ambassadeur de France.) Authors and journalists who are competent to do this have said or are going to say, everything that is known of this terrible period of modern French history. They will give you all the details, for your general information, piling fact upon fact for many years to come. All I can do in my humble way is to relate such events as affected our private life here and that of our friends who were situated as we were--enemy aliens in so-called neutral, but actually occupied, territory during the first few years of the war.

The Germans now occupied the whole of France. They met with no opposition. The self-constituted French Government, such as it was, had, by command of the Germans, removed from Paris to Vichy with Maréchal Pétain as Chef de l'Etat (sic) and Monsieur Laval as Prime Minister; Pétain the defeatist and Laval the paid servant of Germany, Pétain whom the venal Press in the pay of Hitler proclaimed the 'defender of Verdun' to whom Clémenceau, then Prime Minister, had put the question in 1917 when it looked as if heroic Verdun could hold out no longer: "What can we do now?" "Ask for an Armistice," had been Pétain's reply. Clémenceau then sent for Foch and asked him the same question: "What can we do now" "Combattre," was Foch's reply; "toujours et encore combattre," and it was Foch who was the heroic defender of Verdun, and not Pétain the defeatist.

Be that as it many, active German propaganda organized in France by Laval and his clique made a tin-god of poor old Pétain. He went about the country patting little children on the head, and receiving bouquets and kisses from pretty girls, until he really thought himself the hero that Laval and Co. proclaimed him to be. And that propaganda was quite active and in a way efficient. Photographs of the 'hero of Verdun' were displayed in the shop windows (some of them) decorated with tricolour ribbons. That noble and patriotic soldier, General de Gaulle had indeed raised his voice denouncing the treachery perpetrated against France by the ignoble armistice brought about by German money and fed by German propaganda.

The Press--such as it was--was both mealy-mouthed and venal, and demonstrated without fear of contradiction that the true welfare of France lay in close collaboration with Germany until the final defeat of the Allies. The word Allies always appeared in the Press in inverted commas those days: this, I suppose, was by way of expressing contempt for 'the military idiots' who were opposed to the invincible might of Germany. To us it seemed perfectly monstrous that such a vast number of better class and presumably highly educated French men and women were collaborationistes, as that infamous party came to be called. In friendly collaboration with Germany (otherwise licking the German boots) lay, according to them, the true salvation of France. Here in Monte Carlo a certain number of our one-time French friends would no longer speak to us. Americans who were not yet in the war were tolerated, but we British were simply taboo.

The Italians had stayed their advance after Mentone, but they had occupied the whole of Savoy. They sent a commission down to the internment camp at Saint Cyprien where their nationals (including my poor chef) were kept in durance by the French. Their liberation was at once effected by their order and our loyal servant was restored to us, much to our joy. He had had a terrible time in camp and even his robust constitution had greatly suffered from privations and cruel treatment and lack of food and shelter.

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The few of us who were still here were left very much to ourselves. We were not molested in any way, but we were unofficially advised not to speak English in the streets, and not to meet in restaurants more than four of us at one table. We were also advised not to cross the frontier into France. But there was no definite order about this and many went over day after day to some favourite restaurant in Beausoleile where meals were decidedly cheaper than in Monte Carlo.

The question of money began to loom unpleasantly ahead by now for some of us, I am afraid. I am speaking of 1941. Our money at home had been blocked for close on two years and many were driven to selling little bits of jewellery to meet necessary expenses. But I want to put it on the record that the Monégasque Government was most kind and considerate to us Britishers and repeatedly assured us that we were under its protection and could count on its help in case of distress.

I think we all of us felt that this sensation of being 'cut off' from everything at home was more cruel to bear than anything else. English and American papers were no longer allowed to come through the post, and very soon even Swiss ones failed us. Just for a few months the Press Department of our Legation at Berne succeeded in getting some papers through to some of us with 'British news and comments', but the French censor soon put a stop to these. And all we had by way of news (sic) in German controlled papers, was a welter of ridiculous lies and garbled versions of what was going on in Egypt and in Greece. And thus we were kept in complete ignorance of what the French--i.e. the Laval-Pétain clique were up to, and what they meant to do. Would they end by turning definitely against us and signing a treaty of alliance with Germany and Italy and declaring war against England or what? Impossible to know. One thing was certain, the collaborationistes were getting more and more numerous, and hatred of the British was fanned to devouring flames by the local papers, dirty rags all under German control. There was the incident of Mers-el-Kebir, and that of Dakar, and that of Dakar, and after a time the bombardments of French factories which were manufacturing war material for the Germans. Every man and many youngish women of whatever nationality living on this coast were forced into travail obligatoire either at home or in Germany under pain of . . . what? Death sometimes . And what could a man do but submit when he had wife and children dependent upon him for daily bread? German factories were set up all over France and our brave R.A.F. were out to destroy them. But this brought many deaths in its train, mourning and wide-spread sorrow, and the collaborationiste Press saw to it that hatred of the English grew into a passion for revenge. On August 13th, 1940, L'Eclaireur de Nice, the leading newspaper on the Riviera published an article by its editor entitled "Responsabilités Britanniques". It is too long for me to quote it in extenso, But a few extracts will go to prove how intense was the hatred of the French for England and everything English at this time. True, German propaganda was at the back of it all, but it must be admitted that its seeds fell on very willing--or shall I say well prepared?--ground.

 

But how intolerable was the sensation of living and constantly rubbing shoulders with those who hated us, and our country so virulently, and wrote and published such abominable lies.

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In the midst of all this trouble and anxiety I nevertheless succeeded in completing my romance Pride of Race, which I had begun in the winter of 1939-40, and for the publication of which I had some time ago signed a contract with Messrs. Hodder and Stoughton. There seemed to be the greatest difficulty--impossibility, the post office here told us--to send any typescript or MS. over to England. Luckily for me a kind American friend, Commander Beehler of the U.S. Navy--who still held his appointment here in the International Hydrographic Bureau--suggested my entrusting the typescript to him. The Bureau being International and America was still non-belligerent then, and was in touch with the U.S.A.; and many official papers and documents were still being sent over regularly, and the Commander most kindly sent Price of Race along with the next batch of documents to Washington from whence--he assured me--it would be forwarded to London. And it was.

Pride of Race was published in 1942. At first our Government would not permit the publication of the book on the ground of 'trading with a resident in enemy occupied territory', but that kindest of friends, Lord Plender, put in a word for me, and the ban was lifted.

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On August 11th we had at last the joy and comfort of a service in our little church here. The chaplain of Beaulieu-sur-Mer, came over and gave us Holy Communion for which our very diminished English and American colonies were most grateful. Our faithful organist, Capt. Welton, was still here and three or four ladies sang the hymns lustily. But we were not allowed to sing 'God Save the King' in our little church. Every one of the English chaplains on the Riviera from Mentone to Marseilles had gone away. The only one who remained to look after our spiritual welfare, to visit us if we were sick or to bury us when we died, was the chaplain of Beaulieu-sur-mer, an elderly man who stuck to his post and kept the flag of St. George flying. Travelling from one place to another was always very difficult, and he had only one pair of legs wherewith to do the journey, but he did it, as often as he possibly could, going to Nice one day, to us another, to Vence, and even as far as Cannes. In every case he had to make a start at 5 a.m. because there was only one train in the morning either way to take him whither he wanted to go, and only one later in the day to take him home again. The journey never took less than one hour. He visited the sick and buried the dead whenever he was asked to come, which was not infrequently. He came in all weathers, always in crowded trains or auto-cars, sometimes obliged to stand all the way, often having to wait in rain or snow for a 'bus that was half an hour or even an hour late; he was over seventy years of age. What an example of fortitude, of simple faith and spirit of self-sacrifice! We were all of us very very grateful. There were between eighty and ninety of us in Monte Carlo who supported him in every way we could, and rather more in Nice and Cannes; but in his chaplaincy of Beaulieu the English and American colony had dwindled down to less than twenty.

Our own little set was also getting thinned out gradually. Week by week one or other small party, able to afford the expense, succeeded in getting through to Portugal by car, and ultimately got to England by 'plane. One or two letters from them got through by air, but many kind messages were never delivered. The state of my darling's health made it quite impossible for us to attempt the journey, and so, gradually but inevitably, we were more and more definitely cut off from our friends in England, and from everything English. This being 'cut off' we both found very hard to bear. It would have been much more so but for the fact that there were two of us to bear it together. And we still had our work. My husband, ill as he was, was always at his beloved easel while the light lasted and I made a start on a new book. A friend in Switzerland sent us English papers from time to time--a month old, but still very welcome. Then one day letters began do drop in via the Geneva Red Cross. Only messages of not more than twenty-five words were allowed, but they were a boon nevertheless.

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This state of affairs went on for a little while until food became short. Milk, sugar, and cheese were scarce, and the bread almost uneatable. There were queues in the market where often many were 'sent empty away'. My chef had to run all over the town before he could get a few potatoes and a little piece of tough meat. Bread rations were cut down to a minimum, and there were many days when we could get no butter at all. Black market was now in full swing and prices for such luxuries (sic) as potatoes, butter, flour, and so on, soared to impossible heights. Tea and pure coffee soon became the sole prerogative of the rich. Good food--and plenty of it--could always be got at certain restaurants which dealt with the black market and charged their customers accordingly. There were a number of rich French families living in Monte Carlo now who had sought safety for themselves and security for their money in the Principality, and there were a few old ladies of British or American nationality who could afford to pay fancy prices for their food; they entertained their friends lavishly at luncheon or tea, and enjoyed life morning, noon, and night.

But we kept clear of all that social circle, nor did we worry much about food. Our faithful chef did all he could for us, and that was that. Somehow our hearts were too heavy to join in with all the gaiety that found its vent in cocktail parties, in champagne and in expensive luncheons. We played bridge now and then by way of relaxation, and we liked sitting out of doors at the Café de Paris, listening to little Lartigot's excellent band playing for our special edification and at our special request, the old tunes that we loved.

Dear friends in Switzerland or Portugal sent us parcels of food from time to time: sardines, a bit of cheese, a little bacon, or some tinned vegetables. This had been quite easy at first, but soon the Swiss and the Portuguese Governments would not allow foodstuffs to be sent out of their country except to their own nationals. I had rather a curious--but oh! so kind--letter from the Unitarian Comité de Secours of Boston, U.S.A., an institution quite unknown to me. The Comité informed that they were sending me the sum of 215 francs (equal to about 25s.), and that they would continue to send me a like sum every month for my personal use. How this came about I have not the slightest idea. I was not even a member of their community, but wasn't it most wonderfully kind? And for the next few months not only did the 215 francs turn up quite regularly but sometimes it was accompanied by a present of chocolate or dried fruit, until America became a belligerent, when all their money was at once blocked as ours had been all along. But those letters and small parcels that came to me from unknown and kind hands will always dwell in my memory as something lovable and very beautiful I hope the Comité received all my letters of grateful thanks which I sent by way of the Geneva Red Cross.

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A few letters were still coming through then from England via Switzerland and Portugal, but they were two or even three months old for the most part, and had been often cut about by the ruthless scissors of the French Censor, pieces of the letters being cut right out, even though everyone, both here and there, was most careful not to say anything that might ruffle that autocratic gentleman's placidity. So we did know a little of what was happening. And there were still the Swiss papers now and again. They told us many things.

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One piece of luck did come our way, however. Our radios were not confiscated, and there was no order against listening in. It was our great joy during these sad and lonely months. The radio calling to us from London: "This is London calling in the afternoon edition of the B.B.C. London calling Europe. And here is the news from the battle fronts." And one had the great satisfaction that at any rate one was hearing was the Truth. Not all the truth perhaps: there was much that was withheld--but the Truth nevertheless. We heard all about the Egyptian campaign, about victorious Wavell, about Tobruk and Benghazi, and about the sad days in Greece.

We heard Winston Churchill's wonderful speeches which always put heart into us even when he warned us against undue optimism, even when he talked of distant 1944 and '45 as the earliest possible end of the war. And we heard that lovely message which President Roosevelt sent to Winston Churchill when Great Britain was left to fight all alone--for a whole year--against that stupendous German army which had been in preparation for twenty years and which had already subjugated nearly the whole of Europe and enslaved her populations. America, as we knew, was not yet ready to enter the war, but we had her moral support. She was our friend. She trusted us. She believed in us to the extent of looking upon us as the bulwark guarding her and all those nations who thirsted for liberty and peace, against the whole might of German military aggression. Thus we were lucky enough to hear President Roosevelt's lovely message to Great Britain in which he quoted Longfellow's lines:

One felt that Longfellow, when he penned those words (on the occasion of the launching of a ship) had actually in his mind a great country like ours, fighting all alone, with 'humanity hanging breathless on her fate'.

And then came to us over the air those marvellous words spoken by Winston Churchill to America when her President had said definitely that she was not quite read to enter the war but that the whole of the U.S.A. was at work heart and soul to provide her brave ally with all the material she required for carrying on. "Give us the tools," was Winston Churchill's simple reply; "and we will finish the job." And we did. And I think--so will all the world one day--that those few words were the most wonderful expression of undaunted courage and devotion ever spoken by any statesman at a moment of crisis such as the one Great Britain was then facing all alone.

Yes! We had wonderful compensations as against all the thinly veiled hatred that surrounded us. Looking through a few old files one day I came across that beautiful article entitled 'England is Herself again', by Louis Bromfield, the great American novelist, in the Daily Telegraph of December 30th, 1931. It gave me a lovely feeling of warmth in my heart, for it seemed almost as if it had been written only yesterday. The author was home from a visit to England and this is one of the impressions which he put on record in that delightful article. He called it: 'Greatness never lost', and went on to say:

The whole of the article was on these same beautiful lines. Yes! there were compensations; but oh! the weariness of those months and years!

 

©Blakeney Manor, 2001