Friday 22 August 2014

Liberation of Provence

Seventy years ago today, the American-led liberation of southern France reached the town of Apt. The previous day, the tanks and Jeeps had rolled into Aix-en-Provence (above), chasing the fleeing German army of occupation. But today is the day remembered in Apt, with a plaque on a small roundabout planted with cypresses and flowers where the main road, the old N100 now the D900, arrives from Céreste.

This plaque is no anniversary special; it has been here for as long as I can remember, passed daily by the locals as they go about their business, and the tourists who swell the town's life during the summer. It is a poignant reminder not only of the event itself, but that - contrary to myth - the French remember it with profound gratitude. In the villages and small towns of the Luberon, the wartime cooperation between the brave members of the resistance and the RAF is recalled with pride and enduring mutual respect. Should the war be discussed with visitors from Britain, the US and Canada, it is with a sense of shared history.

This was the starting point of my novel The Sea Garden, in which the story plays out against the background of the Liberation which began with the Allied invasion on the coast at St-Tropez. The settings in the book can be seen here: the island of Porquerolles just below Hyeres, and Manosque to the north-east of Pertuis.

For weeks, the local newspaper La Provence (from which this map is taken) has been telling the story day by day. Yesterday's page included a fascinating piece by Yves Reynaud about the day the Americans arrived in the village of Tour d'Aigues near Pertuis on the southern slopes of the Luberon mountains.

What the French noticed first of all was that the harsh sound of hobnailed Nazi boots had gone from the silent streets, to be replaced by the soundless rubber of the American footwear - and music! The "Yanks" chewed gum nonchalantly as they offered cigarettes and chocolate to the villagers - the French offered fruit in return. In the village centre, the whole population clamoured around the Jeeps and Dodges, vehicles so modern as to be curiosities in themselves. Upbeat tunes were playing from the Jeeps: songs they had never heard before.

The momentous day ended in the Café Innocenti - today, the Café du Chateau - with laughter, talk, drinking and dancing. One of the GIs sat down at the old piano and started pounding out Boogie-Woogie. Two days later the Americans had pushed on north, but the villagers continued the party by collecting eggs from every farm and smallholding. An immense celebratory omelette composed of more than a thousand eggs was cooked and shared by the whole community.

This evening in Apt, the town's liberation will be marked by two parades through the town with some of the original vehicles; the laying of wreaths and honouring of the dead; the unveiling of a new memorial plaque in the Place de la Mairie in the presence of Lieut-Col Tim Stoy and Captain Monika Stoy, representing the US Army; a showing of a newsreel film of the event; an aperitif outside the Hotel de Ville; and dancing under the trees to a swing band.

For more about the activities of the French resistance in this area, you can read more in these past blog posts about Céreste, and Samuel Beckett at Roussillon. More on Apt tomorrow.


Amanda said...

France owes so much to Americans and Brits. The new generation probably doesn't even care about the past events. That is just too bad as history always repeats itself when lessons haven't been learnt.

Yvonne Osborne said...

I've always thought the French have an undeserved reputation as being unfriendly to Americans. I think it's the ignorant, arrogant American tourist who thinks everyone should speak English who says this.

I do like the contrast you've brought up about the hob-nailed Nazi boots vs. the soft-soled American soldiers. I've always wanted to visit Normandy, and France in general and hope to still get there one day.

Thanks for a great post!

Patricia said...

Such important moments in history deserve to be repeated often. I am always touched when I pass a plaque in France commemorating an event that occurred in that precise spot. Nothing is forgotten.

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