France Without the Gestapo



A JEEP that was going to Holland gave me a lift. This was my second journey across France within three weeks, and already — so quickly do most of us take the phenomenal for granted — it seemed quite natural to be traveling the routes nationales that make motoring in France simple even for back-seat drivers.

At first the country was similar to that I had seen: green and brown and beautiful, with villages whose depopulated state gave them a ghostly look. The flak towers, the occasional German vehicle moldering in a ditch, the jerrycans waiting to be collected, the occasional bridge that could not be crossed — these were the usual evidences of the war.

Presently the road curved down among hills, soft and wooded, all menace concealed. There was a town in the plain ahead, and above its sunlit roofs the lovely towers of the cathedral where Joan of Arc crowned Charles VII. We drove in, past walls on which were painted, in letters a foot high, the names of famous champagnes: Pommery & Greno, Roederer, Mumm.

To walk around Reims was a curious experience. In Paris something of the holy week of liberation remains in the air; and this fact, together with the numerous foreigners, the lorry loads of tired, excited men on a 48-hour pass, the accesses of approval or disgust produced by the épuration trials, creates an atmosphere very different from that of 1940. But in Reims change is less evident.

The Germans were less nauseating here than in some parts of France. Less nauseating. Not unnauseating. They did not wish to interfere with local sugar-beet production — alcohol can be used as a substitute for gasoline, of which it has about two thirds the power; nor with the champagne industry — champagne can be used as a substitute for conviviality and courage. So the streets are full of people who still have lawful occasions to go about; the handsome, prosperous buildings are undamaged; and the cathedral’s injuries are historical rather than topical — they were inflicted, not in 1940, but in 1914. Walking there I had, for the first time since my arrival, an illusion of being in prewar France — an illusion which lasted only until I noticed the many houses set aside as reception centers for displaced persons and prisoners of war.

From Reims I went to a place concerned with one of the most essential, and superficially least romantic, aspects of this war: a depot in the Advanced Communications Zone where millions of dollars’ worth of clothing and field equipment are being saved from the scrap heap. The first warehouse, until recently occupied by the Germans, would have been high as a church had our precision bombing been less accurate. In it hundreds of our own soldiers, French civilians, displaced persons, and prisoners of war were working. In one huge room GI’s were not only repairing boots but using captured German leather to make boots for displaced persons and prisoners of war. One of them showed me, with justified pride, a beautiful pair of boots he had almost finished making for a paratrooper who had had part of one foot shot away and so needed shoes not identical in size.

Another large room was reduced to a pathway between piles of soiled clothing, the color of decaying leaves, that stretched from floor to ceiling. German prisoners of war were preparing bags of these garments for the semi-mobile laundry trailers. There are, possibly, more heroic activities than operating laundry trailers. But there are several front-line jobs I should prefer to that of the soldiers cooped up in trailers that are hot and dim and as shaken with vibrations as the engine room of a ship.

I have learned a new word: “to cannibalize.” It means to strip parts from machines that cannot be repaired and use them for other machines. Over the typewriters in the office of this warehouse was written: “No new part will be used if an old one can be cannibalized.” Similar imaginativeness was being displayed in a drafty room labeled “Reclamation, Repair, Assembly,” where some French civilians were converting lanterns to the use of white instead of red gas. One needs to have been at the front to appreciate the poetry of the words “Let there be light.” Because so often here there is no light — and men exhausted by combat and its attendant strains have to crawl into foxholes or tents without even a stub of candle to make it possible to scribble a letter.

Below ground level was a cavern piled with boxes and parcels neatly tied and labeled. These were personal effects. Some were going to hospitals where wounded men would have their spirits raised by the restoration of the small objects they had kept with them as a testimony that their lives had roots, had not always been committed to the provisional; others were going to travel thousands of miles to bereaved families.


THE next depot I visited had been set up early in October, and in it were being sorted, classified, and consolidated into bulk storage warehouses all the captured medical supplies of France and Belgium — about six thousand tons of material from fourteen warehouses. The first main room was large, cold, patched-up, and leprous-walled. The battered tin chests marked with the faded tricolors of 19391940, the new German first-aid kits, the wooden boxes marked “Pharmacie Centrale Madagascar” (or “Marseille”), the operating tables and dentists’ chairs — this was a scene to make one murmur:

“‘If seven maids with seven mops
Swept it for half a year,
Do you suppose,’ the Walrus said,
‘That they could get it clear?'
‘I doubt it,’ said the Carpenter,
And shed a bitter tear.”

But the four officers and fifty-two enlisted men of this Medical Depot Company had wasted no time on bitter tears. Already they had sent two thousand tons of medical supplies to displaced persons camps and prisoner of war stockades, thus saving Army medical supplies for our own men.

Next day I saw one of the strangest relics of the German occupation — a set of underground installations covering about a hundred square miles and designed, according to the deported Polish workers who were forced to build them, to serve as Hitler’s headquarters for the invasion of England. To my mind the strangest thing about the beautifully camouflaged barracks was not the walls and the roofs of four-foot concrete reinforced with steel rods, not the sunken guard posts protecting the approaches to the buildings, not the double doors of inch-thick steel, the steel-shuttered windows or the bomband gas-proof officers’ quarters with their electric lights, steam radiators, and wall plugs for telephone and radio — not these, but the alarming manner in which they illustrated the fact that the Nazi faith produces works congenial to adolescence in the phase of being attracted by cruelty. These buildings were a nasty schoolboy’s dream made concrete.

Near-by was a Polish village whose inhabitants had been forced to work for the Germans and now choose to work for us. I am not using “choose” euphemistically. These Poles have the right to be housed and fed in a displaced persons camp, but they are eager to fight the Germans and glad of the chance to eat American meals. I doubt if it is possible for even an abnormally imaginative American who has not left home during this war to realize the emotional as well as the nutritive value that PX rations have for the European. It is natural — or it was in 1939 — for a cultivated human being to think that a few cigarettes, a few candies, couldn’t matter much. But in 1944 they do. And anyone writing a social history of this period will do well to devote imaginative investigation to the repercussions of the PX ration.

Superficially the most amazing thing about this might-have-been German HQ was the camouflaging. It was a damp, misty day. Railroad tracks and cars were veiled with green net, so that from the hillside they looked like toys just put away because the store was going to close. We saw gun emplacements covered by hollow cottages upon whose walls bricks were painted as cunningly as upon the bestquality stage scenery. Factitious haystacks concealed the entrances to champagne caves reinforced with concrete and veined with lines for ammunition trucks. Described in a spy story or reproduced in Hollywood, this place would not convince. It scarcely convinced me as I listened dazedly to our escort saying, “Of course we’re still discovering new hide-outs. Someone treads on a nifty stretch of autumn leaves and goes through the camouflage — and there you are.”

Almost as strange as the mingling of engineering efficiency with adolescent mentality displayed by these installations is the fact that, having built a fortress from which it would be impossible to dislodge an army of the size for which it was constructed, the Germans failed to occupy it in time. It took the slave laborers from 1942 to 1944 to get it ready — and a month before the appropriate German troops were due to move in, our First Army arrived. The only Germans who did try to move in around the appointed time were some paratroopers seeking cover.

On the way back we stopped at a very different HQ — the HQ of one of the many Allied groups that are helping to make nationality a source of inspiration instead of insulation. This was a party of Frenchmen, 70 per cent of whom were in the resistance and acting on radio instructions, who are now voluntarily driving British trucks for the American Army. To complicate matters still further, they wear Canadian uniforms. They were one of the most contented and unfatuously optimistic groups of Frenchmen I have met — perhaps because they have the highest operating record in the Oise section and, judging by the attitude of the Civil Affairs Officer who told me of them, have no reason to feel that their work is unappreciated.

The same officer spoke with exemplary vividness of the formidable problem constituted by displaced persons. As he did so I looked around the walls of his office. Among maps labeled La France, France, and Frankreich hung something called a Flow Chart — sprays of color fountaining across dark lines on white paper and indicating the movements of thousands of dazed human beings who, having survived wounds, imprisonment, bereavement, torture, deportation, and forced labor are now being cared for not untenderly by a country still lacking necessities for its own people.

At a supply center, I was given an opportunity to meet one of these displaced persons — a young Russian girl. She had blue-gray eyes, agreeably shaped bones, and fair hair. She was neither big nor tough-looking, but this had not deterred the Germans from deporting her to France and forcing her to do road and harbor labor of the kind for which we employ strong men.

We could not speak to each other directly, but she told me through the interpreter that she was delighted with her change of occupation — she was sitting among a group of Russian girls mending American uniforms — and that she was longing to return to Russia. She had been a schoolteacher in Leningrad; and when the interpreter told her I was happy to make the acquaintance of someone from that city, she made, with the hand holding the needle, the gesture of a courteous hostess. It was hard to imagine her doing hard labor.


DESPITE the evidences of destruction around the bridges, one small town on the Marne appeared, superficially, to be reacquiring a peaceful atmosphere. In the town hall where the invaders had contrived death, the Civil Affairs Officers were coaxing back life. From here we were directed to an ordinary-looking house — solid, evocative of bourgeois standards, with a shallow flight of stone steps giving dignity to its entrance, and laurel bushes around the fretted balconies of the ground floor. Here lived until recently some members of the Gestapo.

One of the mysteries of this war is how human beings not certified as maniacs could sleep and wake and get up and wash and shave and dress and eat three meals and work and in the intervals play cards and write letters and feel as if they were touching hands with normal human processes — how they could do this not for days or weeks or months but for years — while in the cellars beneath their feet was being enacted a fantasy that will never, I am afraid, be adequately described.

The cellars of this house are now a small museum. They have been made into a museum by Frenchmen who were members of the resistance and are now members of the town’s civil administration. Many of these men are elderly, none are addicted to retrospective dramatization, but they think it desirable that as many Allied soldiers as possible should see this place. We went down a shallow staircase, across a tiled floor, and through a door that looked as if it might lead to a cloakroom. It led to a cellar.

This cellar was long, narrow, well lit, and clean. Along either wall were fixed, crisscross, pieces of straw-colored wood one to two inches thick and about six to eight inches broad. When the Germans could not get satisfactory answers from the Frenchmen they brought here, they tied them to these pieces of wood. In a glass case hanging on the wall were a leather whip, a wooden stick, a bludgeon, a revolver, and a pair of knuckle-dusters. Halfway up several of the beams were bloodstains. They were not spectacular. Bloodstains fade comparatively quickly. In one corner was a brown wooden post with a narrow tricolor ribbon tied around it halfway up. Several men had been tied to this post before being shot. In these surroundings it looked like an instrument of mercy.

At the further end of the cellar was a little room with an entrance only about four and a half feet high. Everyone entering it had to do so with bent head and back. From the German point of view this had obvious advantages. Around the walls were letters, sometimes accompanied by snapshots, in cheap frames. Many of the Frenchmen detained here were allowed to write farewell letters, and these had been lent by their families. They were heartbreaking in their lack of variety, their heroic banality. Most of them were written in pencil on the cheap squared paper that is found in school exercise books.

One long one, written in red crayon on several sheets of foolscap, had been smuggled out. Its writer described how he had been beaten, how surprised he had been to discover himself able to refrain from giving away what he knew, — he supposed this was because after one had endured a certain degree of agony one can stand anything; it is simply a question of getting to that point, — how the Germans had then tried flattery, telling him that they had seldom seen so brave a man and offering him food and rest and a cigarette, and how after they had given him an impression that the worst was over they had begun again, but this time it was worse. (We learned that after three days and nights of torture the writer was shot.) Like those of every other victim whose testimony was in this cellar, his last written words were of love for his wife, exhortation to his child — and Vive la France!

Underneath this cellar was a smaller one, reached by a rickety wooden ladder. Its ceiling was too low to allow a human being of normal size to stand upright there, and it was usually between ten and fifteen inches deep in water. But on this particular day the Marne had risen, making it impossible even to climb around the cellar. Recalcitrant Frenchmen often ended their stay here — it saved the German ammunition.

This was a mild Gestapo HQ. In Struthof in Alsace the Germans are said to have hanged people by the chins, on meat hooks, to see how long it took them to die. But I haven’t been to Struthof. So I am writing of what I saw, of a place where it was quite likely that nothing worse would happen to you than being beaten to death.


THERE was a boxing match that night. It took place in what had been a circus and was packed with GI’s, many of them just back from the front. An Air Corps band was ensconced in the stand high up at the rim of the domed roof and — whether or not deliberately, I was not able to discover — it played music appropriate to a circus. Ta-ta-ta, ta-ta-ta, ta-ta-ta, ta-ta — one could almost see the untidy line of dwarfs tumbling into the ring with uncouth cries and clasped hands uplifted in the ritual circus greeting, the long-maned, brilliantly caparisoned horses cantering behind them. Sturdy soldiers, white and black, had temporarily abandoned uniformity: one soldier appeared in the ring in bright-green shorts decorated with shamrocks, which drew hearty cries of “Put the scissors on him, Mickey!” from many an Irish-American throat.

One could tell the good fighters, as one can actors, by their look of isolation from those around them. But no one roused more enthusiasm than a very young Negro featherweight who, though not yet a technically accomplished fighter, was a magnificent loser. After every knockdown he bounced up again, looking as mystified as Topsy, to be greeted by yells of approval. I do not think I have ever liked an audience better than these grubby, noisy GI’s, many of whom had only recently learned something of blood and sweat and nervous strain, but all of whom had the psychic control required to make an overwrought man delight in the voluntary and limited violence of boxing and abhor the unlimited compulsions implicit in that little cellar on the Marne.

On the way back I stopped at Compiègne and while there was given an opportunity to visit the castle, a building whose beauty is particularly moving now because of the tranquillity of its exquisitely formal architecture. The first room had shutters of pale blue-gray wood inside its windows. On one of these a German had scribbled, in pencil. Feeling in my pocket, I found a captured German eraser given me by a GI. It was of good quality and had not been used before. It gave me an immense pleasure to use it now.

Being eager to get an idea of what traveling in France is like now for civilians, I asked if I might go from Compiègne to Paris by train. This journey, before the war, took about forty-five minutes. We left Compiègne at half past four and reached Paris at nearly half past eleven. The train was not luxurious. The seats were upholstered — I think that is the word usually employed — in horsehair that bore an extraordinarily close resemblance to wood, the single shaded bulb in the middle of the ceiling did not give enough light to read by, and there was no heating.

But my journey was not like that of the average French civilian on the train, because my fellow passengers were seven infantry lieutenants, Americans as gay and comely as the young officers in advertisements for cigarettes or whiskey.

Whenever the train gave a slight quiver, suggesting that it might one day move, and forward at that, they closed their eyes and held their breath and intoned, “Careful — don’t put it off.” And they did not allow alarm or despondency to get hold of them on any of the many occasions when the train stopped for no apparent reason and at no station. After one of these halts, we passed a small house with a light in the window and five minutes later stopped, for three quarters of an hour this time. We had considered cheering when the train started again, but thought better of it when the resurgence of the little house with the light in its window showed that we were going in the wrong direction. Altogether we passed it seven times.

We were also becoming very hungry. Someone produced a D ration and we divided it with a knife whose owner observed, several minutes too late, “It might have been quite an idea to sterilize it first — considering.” As we sat chewing carefully so as to make it last, Lieutenant Gregory said that his high school teacher would be tickled pink if he could see him feeding the Atlantic Monthly D rations.

For us, getting acquainted with one another, singing Negro spirituals, and exchanging war stories — for us in our good uniforms and warm overcoats, this elongated journey was not without the charm of novelty. But we were all aware — and there was nothing nicer about these noisy, delightful American boys than their awareness of the circumstances of the foreigners of whom they had so little experience — that for the crowded, overladen French people in the adjacent carriages this method of travel was without charm. Delays and discomforts that are tolerable, amusing even, when one is going on leave, adequately fed and clothed, are intolerable, funereal even, to inadequately fed and clothed persons struggling to join families they have not seen for years, or to fetch from the country essential food for which they cannot afford the black-market prices in the towns.

When I got back to Paris I found that an American friend had arranged that I should visit Picasso. His studio on the Left Bank, famous and entrancing, illustrates the validity of a childhood conception: it is a Famous Painter’s Studio that might have been invented by Walt Disney.

A tiny, twisting, ancient staircase leads up to the front door, and to get to the first of the big studios you have to go through a wide passage piled with books and bric-a-brac. In a small, glass-fronted cabinet I noticed two small, dusty china figures of a girl and a boy at their First Communion: the girl in white dress and veil, the boy in Eton suit and white armband; both kneeling on chairs and with china prayer books carefully spread open before them. They look extremely odd beside some recent Picassos.

But the upstairs studio where Picasso works — lofty, with an earthenware-colored tiled floor, a big easel, and, beside it, a trestle table laid with painting materials — has one quality that does not usually figure in a child’s vision of a studio: cold — extreme, excruciating cold. It struck up from the stone floor, seeped in around the big windows, crawled under the warped doors, and was entirely undaunted by the small stove, whose value seemed to be symbolic. At the end of an hour our feet were numb, our fingers also. And it was in this atmosphere that Picasso not only lived but worked during the German occupation. It required character of a kind not always allied to genius to refuse bribes in the shape of coal. But he did refuse. And he did work. And I thought of this background of cold when looking at the famous pictures of the tomato plant that contain so much light and warmth.

Picasso’s only comment on the cold was that evidently one had to dress oneself for it. In his case this meant a rather old-looking pair of gray flannel trousers, a washed-out jersey of pale blue with white stripes, a cardigan of darker blue jersey, a scarf of crumpled parachute silk the color of French mustard, navy blue socks, felt bedroom slippers of brown check — and, as the morning grew colder, a pre-war camel-hair dressing gown and even a scarlet and green knitted beret complete with pompom, the property of his child. He had just muffled himself in this fashion when someone asked him if many of his friends had been shot by the Germans. The expression of mingled craft and benevolence he had worn until then made way for one which looked to me like irony, and he said, “All. All of them.” Then he added softly, “Everyone shot by the Germans I consider my friend.”

From here I went to the Senate to lunch with a Frenchwoman who has also displayed genius, a genius for good conduct: Madame Lucie Aubrac, who was a teacher of history before the war, a leader of the resistance during the occupation, and is now a member of the Consultative Assembly. During her time in the resistance she three times rescued her husband from the Gestapo, on the last occasion waylaying the car he was in and shooting the German driver. She is a small, thin young woman whose quiet, intellectual personality has been uncorrupted by the violence to which the war committed her, her husband, and her two children.

At present her first practical interest is in a plan to provide homes for French children whose parents were murdered by the Germans. There are thousands of these — left behind, cared for by neighbors, and then, often, left behind again, with no adult really responsible for them. Some have not been to school for four years. Many are very wild — the ideas, the virtues, that are in the air when guerrilla fighting is a country’s most honorable profession are not invariably those most beneficial to a growing child. Some of the estates of convicted collaborators are already being used to provide homes for these children, but more money and material than France can at present spare is needed.


A FEW days later I set out to visit a group that contains some of the finest American fighters in this theater — the First Tactical Air Force. There was a courrier going in the right direction and I was allowed to go along with it.

First I paused at the headquarters of a Medium Bomber Wing, which had been set up in an orphanage occupied by the Germans until a month ago. This orphanage had been run by a religious order and its austere, somber-colored buildings and disproportionately large chapel gave it the dramatic air of a monastery in a novel by Ouida. On the dining-room walls the Germans had painted large, crude pictures. The one nearest us showed a huntsman in a Robin Hood hat sitting on a beer barrel in front of a fire — clearly the product of wishful thinking.

While we lunched, a lieutenant told me something about the work of this group which pioneered the B-26 Marauder. The first B-26 to appear in the European theater took off from the Maison Blanche, near Algiers, in November, 1942. Since then this wing has flown almost 2900 sorties, dropped over 40,000 tons of bombs, taken part in five amphibious operations, — including the invasion of the south of France, — and been four times cited as a Distinguished Unit by the War Department. It is the first Allied unit, air or ground, to have been awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French government.

Because of their reputation for precision, B-26’s were chosen to bomb military objectives in Florence. While we finished our mugs of coffee the lieutenant showed us photographs of this operation — large, glossy photographs in three strips labeled “ Before,” “During,” “After.” I was reminded of the advertisements that show first a depressed bald man, then a speculative man rubbing lotion over his baldness, and finally a man smug as a toad on account of his thick, Byronic hair. But in this case the process was reversed: first one saw a long, narrow station full of trains, the whole rather like a filled pencil case; then a long, narrow cloud of smoke; and finally a long, narrow station empty of all but debris — and not a building around the station harmed.

The lieutenant’s pride in his group was immense. Once or twice he murmured dutifully that of course all the boys were doing a grand job and perhaps this outfit had had a lot of attention already. But it was no good. He could not convince even himself. For which justifiable parochialism I liked him very much. As we left to go to the airfield, he opened a door and showed me a room in which there was nothing but a large trestle table laden with PX rations, packages from home, and Christmas decorations. The orphans and their teachers were still living in the neighborhood, so the airmen had been saving rations and presents to give a Christmas party that would, for many of the children, be the first one they could remember.

The buildings around the airfields were in a funereal state — partly on account of our heavies and Mosquitoes, which visited them when they were a German training base, and partly because the Germans did a certain amount of demolition before leaving. The War Room was dusty, cold, and not yet adequately patched up. But its walls were covered with detailed maps protected by cellophane, and so was the top of the one piece of furniture, a large table over which an airman was bending, with what looked like a child’s geometry set in his hand.

In a big and freezing room adjacent to the War Room, battered mud-colored tin stools were lined up before a blackboard. In this travesty of a school, airmen received their briefings. In the Operations Room — two cell-like rooms that communicated with each other by a jagged hole in the wall and had bars over the outsides of the windows — there were desks and teleprinters, a big map across which hung the short-snorter of a navigator now missing, a set of framed pastels showing different types of aeroplanes, a row of new books, — including Katherine Anne Porter’s Leaning Tower and John Hersey’s A Bell for Adano, — a pin-up girl, and a steel engraving of Roquefavour aqueduct. No one present had ever seen this edifice, but the group had had to blow up so many bridges that a spirit of irony made them think it an appropriate present for their commanding officer.

As the weather was not good for flying, the field abounded in large, beautiful aeroplanes. Most of them had names painted on them: “Little Rita,” “Idiot’s Delight,” “Lucky Lady,” “Sweet Virginia Lee.” And at the far end I saw the famous “New York Central II,” which had recently completed its hundredth mission. I climbed up into the pilot’s seat and sat for a moment fingering the elaborate machinery that is the technical expression of all that remains to the twentieth century of humanism: because of the men who designed this machine, the factory workers who built it, the railroad workers who donated it, and the young men who fly it; because of these Americans, foreigners on the other side of the world, foreigners in little ancient countries to which the American tradition is deeply indebted will have their agonies shortened. Most of us have heard more often than we have apprehended it the dictum that we are members one of another. These planes, which carry hope as well as death, provide an X-ray of its meaning.

From here we went past little villages, set around whitewashed churches and small hills, to the fields in which some of the crews had their living quarters. After sploshing across a lane that closely resembled a gravy boat, we found ourselves outside a small wooden hut. It had “Mabel’s House” printed over the door, a wreath of holly tied to the knocker, and a little Christmas tree in the lighted window. Inside we were welcomed by a pilot and a bombardier who had been writing letters beside a gasoline stove with a chimney they described as strictly GI.

Their home was neatly and ingeniously arranged: four bunks with a little wooden ladder to the top ones; a pole with hangers for clothes across one corner; chairs, card tables; and a real china washbasin, complete with taps. (This last, they explained, not without complacency, was something they had recently liberated.) The little tree in the window was decorated with matchboxes in colored wrappings, cut-outs from magazines, and an occasional packet of gum or Lifesavers. It was illuminated by tiny flashlight bulbs painted over in bright colors and wired — a fine job of engineering.


IT WAS long after dark when we reached the HQ of one of the French groups that make up the First Tactical Air Force. As we turned up the lane, the lights of the Command Car shone on a metal notice saying: “École. Attention aux Enfants.” We had reached the barracks. American uniforms were still in evidence, but there were plenty of signs that they were not being worn by Americans: decorations and Crosses of Lorraine older than the field jackets to which they were pinned, berets instead of garrison caps, dark cloaks. Around the entrance were jeeps labeled, not “Oklahoma Kid” or “Dinah,” but “Suzy” or “Sans-Gêne.”

The mess was in the upper room of a small private house. It was dark and chilly and the food was bad — and it was entirely wonderful because the men who rose from behind the shabby tables to greet us were French aviators with their headquarters, at last, in their own country. Among these officers was a Commandant Raynal, a handsome, energetic man who greeted our French liaison officer with cries of “ Fancy meeting you here, mon vieux” — followed by an inquiry as to whether the lieutenant had, like himself, been parachuted. Frenchmen today often ask each other this question in the tones we employ for “Were you able to get a taxi?”

The lieutenant had been parachuted. The commandant had come from Tunis, and the lieutenant from London. Hearing that I had been in London, Commandant Raynal asked me if I knew his sister. I discovered that I did. She had been an early adherent to the Free French. We looked at each other and with visible self-control refrained from producing the truthful-sounding lie that the world is a small place.

Looking around at these men who had come home from places so wide apart, I thought of what took place in Paris on the evening of Thursday, August 24. An immense crowd was waiting outside the Hôtel de Ville. Suddenly there rolled through the dusk three tanks decorated with Allied flags. A soldier got out of the first one. He put both feet firmly on the ground, managed to say that he was a Frenchman, and burst into tears. His name was Captain Dronne and it had taken him forty-eight months to fight his way home, through Mersa Matruh, Tobruk, Bengasi, Bir Hacheim, the Chad, London, and Cherbourg. And each of these men around me had had similar experiences. I did not wonder that they were excited because Frenchflown Spitfires had today brought down Kraut planes — their first kill from a home base since 1940.

The mentality of these men was the classic mentality of the courageous fighter. It differed in manner but not in matter from that of the best American and British fighters. Because they had known little forced inactivity, they could discuss political issues with a lively sarcasm entirely free from the acidity that means fear. They were less concerned with abstract problems than with practical ones, particularly that of transport, which is at the bottom of all the others making this first winter of liberation a very hard one for France. All this because they had known little forced inactivity. We need to remember this fact whenever we hear of, or come in contact with, French civilians demoralized by lack of the material essential to action.


BACK at American HQ the mess was gay with Allied flags, paper streamers, wreaths of holly, and giant bunches of mistletoe for Christmas Eve. At the end of the meal, Corporal Alexander Jordan of Minnesota led in forty members of the U. S. Army Negro Chorus which excited so much admiration when it sang at the Albert Hall, London, in 1943.

They began their Christmas Eve concert with “We been workin’ on the airfield all the livelong day” — which was a fact. One of the officers told me how impressed he had been when he heard this Engineer Aviation Regiment sing in London; and of the contrast between their spick-and-span appearance then and the next occasion when he saw them, in France, up to their noses in mud and with wire-meshing tools and pickaxes in their hands — but still singing. These fine Negro artists have already built three airfields in France. When I asked for more details, the major asked how long it would be before what I wrote went to press, and when I said, “Probably not for a month or two,” he groaned with mock despair and said, “Then it’s no use giving you any figures. We’ll be reconstructing Templehof by that time.”

The lovely voices went on through “Go tell it on de mountain, dat Jesus Christ is born,” “Silent night,” “Joshua fit the battle ob Jericho,” “O little town of Bethlehem.” We all joined in the chorus of “Jingle, Bells!”; —

“Jingle, bells! Jingle, bells!
Jingle all the way!
Oh, what fun it is to ride
In a one-horse open sleigh!”

At this last line a few of the more cynical among us remembered certain rides in open jeeps and made grimaces at each other.

Eventually it was time to set out for Midnight Mass. We did not talk much on the journey and I think we were all moved when we clambered out of our jeeps and cars and stood, about forty Americans, gathered round an American and a French flag on which we were going to ask a blessing, staring at the little church of Domremy, where, over five hundred years ago, Joan of Arc made her First Communion.

The interior of the church must have been recently whitewashed, for it was as appetizing as a meringue, and this, together with the Christmas decorations and many small statues of the intransigent young saint, gave it a poignantly doll’s-house appearance. With the exception of a nun putting the final touches to the crèche, we were the first arrivals. Presently more nuns came in and sat in neat formation on our right. Then came villagers, and then a crowd of children solemn with excitement due not only to the festival but to being allowed to sit up late. They tried to look modestly down their noses, but few of them succeeded; several of them were visibly torn between the desire to stare at the foreign uniforms and at the crèche.

The crèche was very pretty. Within a framework of brown papier-mâché rocks was a waxen Holy Family of late nineteenth-century design; around them stood domesticated animals — unusually domesticated in the case of a lamb with elegant curls and a dog collar around its plump neck; and behind them someone with a feeling for geography had stretched a backcloth on which were painted palm trees and box-like white houses against a bright blue sky. The figure of the infant Jesus was covered by an embroidered cloth.

At last the priest, venerable, bearded, and richly clad, came in, followed by a choir of which the smallest members, boys of about six, looked like dolls with their scarlet robes, lace surplices, and brightly staring eyes. Not all the singing was done by the choir. Every now and again the village children sang alone, their voices very shrill, not always in tune, and altogether exquisite. Nothing was more moving than the moment when the priest lifted the embroidered cloth from the figure of the Infant, lit the star at the top of the Christmas tree upon the altar, and the children’s voices proclaimed exultantly: “Le Petit Jésus est venu.”

The address was short, pertinent, and very touching because the old priest clearly thought that if he spoke not only distinctly but louder than was necessary in a church of that size he would make the Americans understand him. His voice shook when he asked us to pray for the prisoners, the deported, and those who on this Christmas Eve were fighting not far away from us.

Among the crowd that went up to receive Communion were some American nurses and Wacs. Many of the villagers looked from the statue of the French girl in her armor to the American girls in their green twill trousers and nodded to each other as if they derived pleasure from the fact that girl soldiers could not have been more appropriately situated than in this church.