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Instructions for British Servicemen in France, 1944

24 August 2008

I ought to have posted this shortly after I finished my review of the 1941 Home Guard Manual, or perhaps saved it for Remembrance Sunday, but I was flipping through it the other day and remembered how much I enjoyed it — so my review’s going up now.

Instructions for British Servicemen in France, 1944

In 1944, a new British Expeditionary Force was being assembled to make the first push into occupied France, and a writer on secondment from the Intelligence Corps to the French Section of the Political Warfare Executive was drafted to write a ‘little pamphlet’ which would be issued to troops preparing for the invasion. The little pamphlet serves as an introduction to France and the French people, and as an explanation of what the BEF soldiers should expect to find on the Continent — and as a result, it contains a good deal of advice and caveats about what kind of behaviour would and would not be appropriate. The Bodleian Library has reprinted the little pamphlet (as well as Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain, 1942, a similar set of instructions issued to American GIs stationed in England) in a serviceable green hardback booklet, and as historical documents they are both fascinating and deeply sobering.

The theme that is stressed most of all is the great suffering of the French people under the occupation and in the Vichy-governed territories. The pamphlet gives figures on the number of French civilians who have been deported to Germany for forced labour or imprisoned in concentration camps, and adds that at least 5,000 Frenchman are shot every year for active resistance — an average of one every two hours, it states. But it also states that even with the killings and the deportations and the general anti-British propaganda, ordinary French people still regard the British as allies and it is imperative for British soldiers to respond in kind:

We must always remember that we have twice fought together in this century on the soil of France: British cemetaries, if you see them, are a permanent reminder….We owe it to our self-respect as British soldiers to show ourselves really well-behaved in every way. But we, unlike the Germans, can be naturally friendly, seeing that the French are naturally our friends.

To that end, British soldiers are advised to remember that the French have been having an even more difficult time of it than the soldiers might have found at home. General warning is given to not take advantage of the meagre hospitality of the French people, and not to purchase things from French shops, because doing so might well mean that some poor French civilian must go without. Particular warning is given about proper conduct toward French women, and how it can affect the war effort: ‘If you should happen to imagine that the first pretty French girl who smiles at you intends to dance the can-can or take you to bed, you will risk stirring up a lot of trouble for yourself — and for our relations with the French.‘ Very sensible advice, that. The back of the book also includes a short phrasebook section, with phonetic (or near-phonetic) translations of French for a soldier’s general use. The pronounciations are a little wince-worthy for someone who has even a smattering of experience with the French language, but in a pinch the phrasebook likely would have served a very useful purpose.

This little book is commonsensical and plain-spoken, and does the best it can in the few words it provides. It would not be easy to determine what kind of impact these instructions might’ve had on the ordinary British soldier going over to fight in France, but it would be nice to think that it helped smooth the transition and possibly even prevented real problems in that crazy, uncertain time when all of Europe was turned upside-down.

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