„The Flag of Joan of Arc floats over England“ – French National days in Exile
On Whitehall in Westminster, London’s government district, the cenotaph commemorates the British soldiers killed in the First World War. Until today, it is at the centre of Remembrance Day service, taking place on the Sunday closest to Armistice Day on 11th November. Here, between the Department of Health and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, a wreath is laid in front of the column. The British monarch and the Prime Minister, as well as veterans, regularly participate in this ceremony dedicated to the Compiégne ceasefire of 11th November 1918. The cenotaph stands for the British war effort of 1914-1918 and is decorated with flags of the United Kingdom, the Royal Navy, British Army and Royal Air Force. On 14th July 1940, however, it was decorated with the French tricolor: Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French Forces, laid down a bouquet with a blue-white-red ribbon in the presence of his officers Muselier and Labarthe. They were cheered by thousands of compatriots. Afterwards, the French military, led by their general, marched to the statue of Marshal Ferdinand Foch. During the First World War, Foch had coordinated the cooperation between the British and French military and symbolizes the common war experience.
The Times reported about cheering spectators of the spectacle: “The men and women marched towards the statue of Marshal Foch in Grosvenor Gardens through applauding crowds which broke through the police cordon in Whitehall to come nearer to the ranks of the Volunteer Legion.” at the same time, the national holiday passed without notice in France, as public celebrations in memory of the storming of the Bastille and the French nation were banned. Neither in the northern occupied part of France nor in the supposedly free zone in the south were celebrations allowed. Thus, the French exiled in London staged their celebration on behalf of their compatriots in their homeland and strengthened de Gaulle’s claim that France was now represented in London. In addition, the transfer of such national festivals and cults into exile in Britain should have a meaningful and integrating effect on the actually heterogeneous French community in exile.
The French exile community around de Gaulle did not wait another year to march through central London in uniform and weapons again: On May 11th, 1941, a military parade at the Wellington Barracks and a service in Westminster Cathedral were held in memory of Joan of Arc. This was surprising for several reasons: Firstly, her myth has been so ambivalently used in French history that one could think there were two different ‘Maid of Orléans’. One is the Virgin of Orleans as a sacred figure, God-fearing woman canonized by Pope Benedict XV in 1920, the other is Jeanne d’Arc, “daughter of the people” and freedom fighter with the bow, disregarded by church and king, but celebrated in the national commemoration. Secondly and more surprisingly, the celebrations of St. Joan’s Day in London related precisely the fighting Joan of Arc; the woman who pushed the English claim to power back to France by driving the English out of the cities. This happened while the French heir to the throne, Charles, was on the way to Reims. Even after his coronation she could hardly be stopped – until she was eventually captured and sold to the English, who subjected her to a politically motivated inquisition process. Joan of Arc was finally convicted and burned as a heretic. In contrast to Bastille Day, the cult around the myth of Joanna expresses a symbolism that arises from a story of the struggle for freedom against the English. The Lorraine cross, once accompanying the reconquisition of French cities, ow decorated the white central strip of the Tricolore of the Free French, hoisted next to the British Cenotaph.
Why would the British government allow a military celebration of Joan of Arc, an anti-English French national her, at the centre of its own capital? The Free French movement was one of the largest, albeit divided and deeply heterogeneous exile community in London during the Second World War. Under its leader de Gaulle it had military power and was involved in the liberation of Paris in 1944. The presence of the French military and the unresolved loyalties of the Dunkirk soldiers stranded in 1940 in their own country unsettled the British government. But this uncertainty was not communicated to the public world. Instead, a media-constructed image of England and France as brothers-in-arms was created for the allied cause.
It is worth taking a look at the staging of the celebration as described in the articles of the Times: the myth of the fighting virgin is simplified and defused by reducing it to a French freedom struggle and thus made understandable and capable of reaching a consensus for a British-French alliance in the Second World War. The same motives were probably pursued by the British government around Prime Minister Winston Churchill, which on the other hand had to do with a serious Fifth column scare around the French exile community. Such a movement could have undermine the narrative of a British-French band of brothers in the British public.
After all, the French are not the only ones to hold their national celebrations during exile in the English capital: on 3rd May 1941 the Poles held a service in the Westminster Cathedral to celebrate their national holiday and the 150th birthday of the Polish constitution. The Belgians celebrated their Independence Day on 21st July 1942 with the veterans of the First World War at Parliament Square, while the Norwegians celebrated their independence of 17th May 1814 with a service at St. Paul’s Cathedral and a celebration at the Royal Albert Hall in May 1941.
On July 14th, 1944, the cenotaph in Whitehall was decorated for the last time with the French tricolor during the Second World War. The Allies are on their way to Paris, which they will reach and liberate on July 25, and Pierre Vienot, the French ambassador, saw a new myth growing in his speech for the national holiday: “France we have to build anew, but above all she will have to live anew”.
This weekend, on 14th July, one day before the French national team plays in Russia for the world championship title against Croatia, French armed soldiers will again cross the Champs-Elysées in Paris. The parade and celebrations will then also commemorate the Allied victory in World War II and the fireworks displayed at the Eiffel Tower on the night of 15th July will perhaps herald a sporting holiday.
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Tombs, Robert, Two great Peoples, in: Robert Tombs / Émile Chabal (Hrsg.): Britain and France in two World Wars. Truth Myth and Memory, London 2013, S. 1-16.
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