Monday, November 8, 2010

The Liberation of Paris: Black and White Photos, and Whitening the Troops

August 26, 1944, the French Second Armoured Division passing through the Arc de Triomphe, along the Champs-Élysées

During this "Remembrance Week", November 6-11, 2010, I will be doing a number of posts on aspects related to the World Wars in particular, and to Remembrance. In general we remember what we have been taught about these wars, whether in school or in public discourse. I have been surprised by learning about them anew, as history reveals itself further, or is re-written.

As magnificent as the Liberation of Paris--or Battle for Paris, August 19-25, 1944, spelling the beginning of the end of WWII-- was, both in fact and in its carefully constructed timing, parades, and speeches, two "off the record" aspects of the liberation have captured my attention. One is the revelation by Life Magazine of unpublished photos showing the ongoing resistance and sniper fire from German troops, even as the Liberation was being celebrated. The other is the racial and racist composition of the liberating troops on parade, as revealed by the BBC.

Paris Liberated: Rare, Unpublished

The photographer Ralph Morse, pictured on assignment in 1943

Paris, August 25, 1944: Sniper Fire
In a Ralph Morse photograph taken during the Liberation of Paris, a "Free French" soldier races to aid a Resistance fighter firing at a German sniper. The sniper had opened fire during a tour of the city by Gen. Charles de Gaulle. Sniper fire, it turned out, was a not uncommon peril, even after the city's liberation on August 25. "Everywhere in Paris that day," Morse says, "people were cheering, dancing, filling the streets. But every once in a while, some German -- some guy who hadn't heard that it was over, that the Germans had surrendered -- would start shooting, and all hell would break loose."

Paris, August 25, 1944: Free, But Not Free From Fear
A family seeks safety beside a Jeep as French Resistance fighters and Free French troops try to take out a German sniper during the Liberation of Paris. "There was definitely a holiday feel in the city," Morse says of the few days he was in Paris, before he and Patton's Third Army continued north toward Germany. "But there were still signs everywhere that the war went on. Snipers, for example. They were unnerving. If you're out in the street and someone opens fire, you get down behind a car, or whatever you can find, pretty damn quick."

Liberation! A Republic Rejoices
In the long, cruel conflict that was World War II, opportunities for jubilation were scarce. But even among the era's handful of "wish you were there" moments -- VJ Day in Times Square; Russian and American troops meeting at Germany's River Elbe in April '45 -- for sheer, cathartic elation, none came close to the Liberation of Paris. On August 25, 1944, after a week of street battles, the German military garrison in the French capital surrendered to Allied forces. LIFE photographer Ralph Morse was there, and on the anniversary of the liberation, he spoke with about the atmosphere in and around the city; his trek with American troops (and Ernest Hemingway) through France toward the Rhine; and the photographs -- some seen here for the very first time -- that he shot during those extraordinary days in 1944 when Paris was, once again, free. Above: A previously unpublished photo shot by Ralph Morse, Paris, August 25, 1944.

Paris, 1944: Grand Celebration
Parisians fill the streets on August 25th, 1944, after occupying German forces surrender. The capital was ultimately liberated by a combination of French troops; resistance fighters who had been battling the Germans for, quite literally, years; and the 4th Infantry of the U.S. Army. Ralph Morse, now 93, recalls being outside Paris in a press camp -- he was covering George Patton's Third Army and its sweep toward the Rhine for LIFE -- when Ernest Hemingway, who was also in the camp, offered a suggestion. "I knew Hemingway pretty well because his wife, Mary, had worked for LIFE, and she had reported with me on a few stories," Morse says. "So, we're in this camp, waiting, and Hemingway says, 'You know, the Germans can't possibly have mined every road into Paris. Why don't we find a back road? We can be at the Champs-Élysées before the troops get there.' Of course, we did make it into Paris ... but not the way Hemingway wanted."

Covering the Liberation: LIFE in Paris, August, 1945
Allied troops and journalists -- including LIFE photographers Robert Capa (on the back of a Jeep with a camera in front of his face) and George Rodger (with camera, wearing a beret) -- in the streets of Paris during the city's liberation. "One thing that stands out," Morse says, recalling those few indelible days in Paris almost 65 years ago, "is the feeling of certainty in the air. Everyone knew it was over. And I don't mean the battle for Paris. I mean the war. Sure, we all knew there was a lot of fighting left. The Battle of the Bulge a few months later proved that, and who knew what was going to happen in the Pacific? But when the Germans surrendered in Paris, everybody sensed that it was only a matter of time before we pushed on and took Berlin."

Unpublished: The Streets of Paris, Exultant
Thousands of Parisians -- and untold numbers of refugees from other countries, trapped in Paris since the Germans captured the capital in 1940 -- poured into the streets on August 25, 1944. They had been primed for liberation for months. Strikes -- by railway workers, cops, postal workers -- and a relentless, guerilla resistance had shown that the Germans' hold on the city was tenuous, at best. When word spread that the Nazi military garrison in the capital had surrendered, the streets erupted. Wine flowed. People laughed, sang "La Marseillaise," wept. "It was an amazing sight, and an amazing feeling," Morse recalls. "So many people in the streets, holding hands, everyone headed for the Champs-Élysées and the The Arc de Triomphe, the same way that everyone in New York heads to Times Square, for example, when something momentous happens. It really was ... liberating."

Unpublished: Paris, August 25, 1944
A young man watches liberation celebrations from atop a Parisian light pole in this never-published Ralph Morse photo. "Hemingway's idea," Morse recalls, "to get into Paris before U.S. troops headed in was scuttled because someone -- Maybe a reporter who wasn't invited along? Who knows? -- someone leaked the plan to Patton, and before we knew it, the press camp was surrounded by MPs [military police]. Patton walks in and says, 'If any of you make a move toward Paris before the troops do, I'll court martial you!' Anyway, it turns out Patton didn't make it into Paris himself, but we went in shortly after. It was a quick trip from the outskirts, because there were so few Germans left to stop us."

Paris, August 25, 1944: Eternal France!
Above: General Charles de Gaulle, who led the French government-in-exile for four long, occasionally despairing, always defiant years, at the Arc de Triomphe during the Liberation of Paris. That same day, de Gaulle gave perhaps the most famous speech of his long, controversial career, addressing a crowd of thousands from the heart of the city's civic life, the Hôtel de Ville: "Why do you desire that we hide the emotion which seizes us all, men and women, who are here, at home, in Paris ... ? No! We will not hide this deep and sacred emotion. These are minutes which go beyond each of our poor lives. Paris! Paris outraged! Paris broken! Paris martyred! But Paris liberated! Liberated by itself, liberated by its people with the help of the French armies, with the support and the help of all France, of the France that fights, of the only France, of the real France, of the eternal France!

Paris liberation made 'whites only'

By Mike Thomson
Presenter, Document, BBC Radio 4

Many of the "French" division which led the liberation of Paris were Spanish

Papers unearthed by the BBC reveal that British and American commanders ensured that the liberation of Paris on 25 August 1944 was seen as a "whites only" victory.

Many who fought Nazi Germany during World War II did so to defeat the vicious racism that left millions of Jews dead.

Yet the BBC's Document programme has seen evidence that black colonial soldiers - who made up around two-thirds of Free French forces - were deliberately removed from the unit that led the Allied advance into the French capital.

By the time France fell in June 1940, 17,000 of its black, mainly West African colonial troops, known as the Tirailleurs Senegalais, lay dead.

Many of them were simply shot where they stood soon after surrendering to German troops who often regarded them as sub-human savages.

Their chance for revenge came in August 1944 as Allied troops prepared to retake Paris. But despite their overwhelming numbers, they were not to get it.

'More desirable'

The leader of the Free French forces, Charles de Gaulle, made it clear that he wanted his Frenchmen to lead the liberation of Paris.

I have told Colonel de Chevene that his chances of getting what he wants will be vastly improved if he can produce a white infantry division
General Frederick Morgan

Allied High Command agreed, but only on one condition: De Gaulle's division must not contain any black soldiers.

In January 1944 Eisenhower's Chief of Staff, Major General Walter Bedell Smith, was to write in a memo stamped, "confidential": "It is more desirable that the division mentioned above consist of white personnel.

"This would indicate the Second Armoured Division, which with only one fourth native personnel, is the only French division operationally available that could be made one hundred percent white."

At the time America segregated its own troops along racial lines and did not allow black GIs to fight alongside their white comrades until the late stages of the war.

Morocco division

Given the fact that Britain did not segregate its forces and had a large and valued Indian army, one might have expected London to object to such a racist policy.

Yet this does not appear to have been the case.

Charles de Gaulle wanted Frenchmen to lead the liberation of Paris

A document written by the British General, Frederick Morgan, to Allied Supreme Command stated: "It is unfortunate that the only French formation that is 100% white is an armoured division in Morocco.

"Every other French division is only about 40% white. I have told Colonel de Chevene that his chances of getting what he wants will be vastly improved if he can produce a white infantry division."

Finding an all-white division that was available proved to be impossible due to the enormous contribution made to the French Army by West African conscripts.

So, Allied Command insisted that all black soldiers be taken out and replaced by white ones from other units.

When it became clear that there were not enough white soldiers to fill the gaps, soldiers from parts of North Africa and the Middle East were used instead.

Pensions cut

In the end, nearly everyone was happy. De Gaulle got his wish to have a French division lead the liberation of Paris, even though the shortage of white troops meant that many of his men were actually Spanish.

We were colonised by the French. We were forced to go to war... France has not been grateful. Not at all.
Issa Cisse
Former French colonial soldier

The British and Americans got their "Whites Only" Liberation even though many of the troops involved were North African or Syrian.

For France's West African Tirailleurs Senegalais, however, there was little to celebrate.

Despite forming 65% of Free French Forces and dying in large numbers for France, they were to have no heroes' welcome in Paris.

After the liberation of the French capital many were simply stripped of their uniforms and sent home. To make matters even worse, in 1959 their pensions were frozen.

Former French colonial soldier, Issa Cisse from Senegal, who is now 87 years-old, looks back on it all with sadness and evident resentment.

"We, the Senegalese, were commanded by the white French chiefs," he said.

"We were colonised by the French. We were forced to go to war. Forced to follow the orders that said, do this, do that, and we did. France has not been grateful. Not at all."


The 2nd Armoured Division (France) under General Philippe Leclerc was created from the troops who fought the "desert war" in North Africa as the Leclerc column. On March 1, 1941 as part of the Free French Forces, the Leclerc column took the Koufra Oasis in Libya from the Italian occupiers, then the next year fought toward the Fezzan (a French colony in the south of Libya, then occupied by Italy), which was taken in 1943.

Joining the British Forces, the "Leclerc Army" fought in the Tunisian campaign against the Germans, and were particularly valiant at Ksar Ghilane in preventing a German advance on New Zealand troops. When the division was formally constituted in Libya (May 1943), and renamed in Morocco (August 1943), it was comprised of some Free French, but primarily of French colonial African troops (2/3's of all troops in the division were West African). At the demand of the Americans and British that summer the division was "whitened".

All black troops were separated off, and only the North African troops (who then made up about 25% of the division) remained. Of the North African troops only about half were Arab, the rest being French colonialists living in North Africa (Algeria was at that time a province of France, and Morocco and Tunisia were protectorates). The rest of the division was comprised of foreign volunteers (~500, of whom ~350 were Spanish Republicans defeated in the Spanish Civil War).

This newly whitened division went to England in 1944, and were part of the D-Day invasion, landing on Utah Beach with the American 3rd Army under the command of General Patton. As part of the American 15th army corps under General Haislip, Leclerc's forces were the lead troops fighting through Normandy and the Sarthe. As they advanced, Leclerc requested permission from the Americans to be the first to reach Paris. Eisenhower eventually granted this permission, and halted the advance of the American troops. The French division was allowed to enter and take Paris, and the Americans arrived 4 days later.

At that point, in late August 1944, according to French historians (eg, Christine Levisse-Touzé and Olivier Forcade), only the Arabs, representing about 12-13% (~1800) of the French division would have needed to be whitened out, replaced with troops, particularly Spaniards, on loan from other divisions.

May 8, 1945: City of Light
Morse was back in the City of Light less than a year later -- his certainty that the Liberation of Paris signaled the beginning of the end for the Third Reich rapturously vindicated when Germany surrendered to the Allies in Reims, France, at 2:41 on the morning of May 7, 1945. The next day -- May 8, ever after commemorated as V-E (Victory in Europe) Day -- European and American leaders announced to the world the Reich's unconditional surrender, and across much of the globe, men and women poured from their homes, into the streets, to revel, to rejoice, and to remember. Above: Thousands throng the Arc de Triomphe to celebrate the end of World War II in Europe, photographed by Ralph Morse, May 8, 1945.

Related Posts
 بلديون Indigènes: le cinéma comme agent social/ Days of Glory: cinema as social agent
[on how the French colonial troops got their full pensions] upcoming
Remembrance and Family Heritage in Bicultural Saudi/non-Saudi Families

Your thoughts, comments, impressions?


Qusay said...

Having known nothing about rememberance day except it being on 11/11 I enjoyed this post and pictures.

I was not shocked to learn about the "whites only" army, you can also have horses and dogs in the army... you don't have to give them all equal anything, I am sure that is what they were thinking.

Good post :)

Majed said...

Nice and informative post good to know that at least patton had not made it to paris first.

It is shamful that masters used people under their bondage, to get themself liberated and yet were so impudent to refuse to acknowledge gratitude.

On the other hand isn't the western civilization ascenstion based on millions of african slaves whose blood and sweat was the Elexir of wealth and luxury and power for Europe and America.

donald howarth said...

Today went to the old roman fort just out of Ksar Ghilane which was the site of the battle where the free French achieved a victory over Rommel's tanks. I was saddened to read of the shabby treatment of the non white troops who were involved in this and subseqent battles which helped bring about the allied victory.

The fort retains the form of a Roman fort but over the arch the rusted remains of a steel flag pole has been cemented presumably from the days of the French Foreign Legion.

Perhaps the French could install a monument to honour those who contributed to their victory there and were subsequently belittled for being not white French.

Donald Howarth


Related Posts with Thumbnails