Thursday, 11 November 2010

Inheritance :: the war stories

Inheritance :: possession by transmission from past generations
Chambers Concise Dictionary

It is Remembrance Day today.  It is ninety-two years since World War I came to an end, and our opportunity to remember with gratitude those who have served our country in wars and conflicts over the past century.

We will all have inherited war stories from somewhere - relatives, neighbours or friends.  Some stories are amusing - my Granny used to tell me very entertaining and self-deprecating stories about driving an ambulance rather ineptly around the Lake District during World War II.  And some war stories are incredibly moving.

When we were in France this summer we went to the annual village fête.  In rural France the fête is a party for the whole village - it begins with a short speech by the local mayor, and the laying of flowers at the village war memorial, and then moves into a long weekend of pétanque contests, eating, drinking, dancing and socialising.

As we sat with my parents' neighbour, Renée, in the village square at lunchtime on the last day (eating local sausages, drinking red wine and muscat and listening to the band), I asked her what the date carved on a stone in one of the houses meant.

It puzzled me, because I thought that France declared war on Germany on 3rd September 1939, the same day that Britain did, following the German invasion of Poland on 1st September.  And yet here was a stone commemorating the day before the start of the war - 2nd September 1939.

"Have I got the dates wrong?"  I asked Renée.
"No," she replied.  "It is to mark something else."

I asked her to tell me more, and she explained briefly that 2nd September 1939 was when a group of young men from the village hid a cache of arms in the basement of that house.  The arms were later taken from their hiding place and used locally as part of the French Résistance against the Vichy regime which controlled that part of France from 1940 to 1944.

"So the Résistance was in operation, right here in the village?" I asked.  " I didn't know that.  What happened?"
"Ils ont été fusillés," she replied briefly.  They were executed.  Fusillé is a very strong word to use in French - it means executed and shot, as opposed to just killed.

And I probably knew the answer to my next question before I asked it, but I still had to ask.
"Right here.  Under that stone."

The stone itself is an act of defiance - not commemorating the date of the men's death or the end of the occupation of the village, but rather the date that arms were hidden in preparation for fighting. 

The names of those young men do not appear on the village war memorial, because war memorials remember those who served in the army, not in the Résistance.

This is the village war memorial, and like so many war memorials it has far more names from World War I than from World War II.  Twelve men from the village who joined the French army died during World War I, and one died in World War II.

But the men and women from France who served and died working for the Résistance are still remembered as well.  When we drove out of Nancy very early in the morning, on our way back home through France at the end of our holiday, the children and I saw an enormous roadside memorial to Résistance fighters, and there is a national one at Fort Mont-Valérien in Paris.

And in a tiny village in the South of France, local heroes are remembered by a simple, defiant date on a house in the village square, and in the memories and stories of those who enjoy living in the village today.
Mum and Renée, singing at the village fete.

The village fête in full swing, at lunchtime on the third day.

The church bell tolling, after the mayor laid flowers on the village war memorial at the start of the fête.


  1. How brave they were and how fortunate are we.

  2. You have captured the mood of the fete perfectly. Having been going to the fete almost every year for the last 13, it always makes me thank God that we are living in a unified and peaceful Europe. How lucky we are....


  3. Thank you, a beautiful story

  4. This is a lovely piece Nancy. My great gran lost 6 of her 7 brothers to the IWW, 4 of them at Mons, and it cut a swathe through her whole village. I always look at the family photos of them all in their uniforms at this time and have a weep.


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