No mail the past couple of days – but they have been a bit hectic; nothing serious – but on the go. My driver, jeep and I are still with the battery, dear, but we’ll return tonight to battalion. After trekking all over the place yesterday – we lighted in a beautiful spot by a small lake. The battery has been pulled out for a short rest and cleaning up period and they couldn’t have picked a better spot. I’m going to take advantage of the fact that they’re all together and give some inoculations this p.m. After that they can go swimming – if they can. That’s not so cruel, darling. I’ll have an inoculation myself – because it’s time for it.
|Picture of Greg|
"France - August 1944
Old estate with small lake. Just after a swim."
|"France - August 1944 - Lake where I went swimming"|
Slept under the stars again, last night and it’s really better than in a hole or under a tent – for letting you project yourself across the spaces. It seems as if I can look all the way home and not feel so far away, dear. The distance is so damned discouraging at times ––. If our love is so strong at such a distance, darling, just think what it will be like when we’re near one another! It will be terrific, dear, and that’s an understatement – because I do love you so much now. So long for a while. Love to the folks and
It is 3pm on Saturday 26 August 1944. Paris is liberated. Under a blazing sun, General Charles de Gaulle, in full dress uniform, is standing at the Arc de Triomphe. He is at the head of a massive parade to celebrate the end – the previous day – of Nazi rule in the French capital. He also wants to show who is the new master in the country. To the left of de Gaulle is Georges Bidault, head of the Conseil National de la Résistance; to the right, de Gaulle's personal delegate, Alexandre Parodi. Behind them can be seen the leading figures of the Free French army and the Resistance. Out of sight, behind the camera, are four tanks of General Leclerc's 2nd Armoured Division, which the day before had entered Paris and helped seal victory. Beyond them, a million joyous Parisians line the sides of the Champs Elysees. This is a moment, and an image, that will go down in history.
But there is another figure in this iconic photograph, taken 67 years ago today (and shown above). On the right there is the only black person in the photo – indeed, one of the few black people on the demonstration. He is wearing a mixture of civilian clothes and military puttees. His right arm is in a sling. In every respect he is different from the smartly-dressed white men who dominate the demonstration. His name was Georges Dukson, he was only 22, and he was not supposed to be there.
Caught up in the enthusiasm of the moment, convinced that he had as much right to be there as anyone else, Dukson had simply invited himself on to the head of the parade. His presence was completely unscripted, a piece of spontaneous bravura, and it was soon snuffed out by protocol. Newsreel rushes show Dukson being unceremoniously kicked off the march, at gunpoint, shortly after the photo was taken. The Resistance members who lined the demonstration – and who, the day before, had been fighting the Germans in the streets – were not the disciplined troops de Gaulle wanted to see. At first, de Gaulle was furious. "What a shambles! Who's in charge here?" he barked. But when the Free French leader saw the enthusiasm of the hundreds of thousands of Parisians, he soon realized that something quite extraordinary was happening – he later claimed that his presence on the march showed he was "the instrument of destiny".
Throughout the parade, the tumultuous chaos and indiscipline of the crowd irritated de Gaulle. At one point, de Gaulle noticed a young résistant, one of the thousands who had risked their lives in the fighting, and who were lining the Champs Elysées. The young man wore an FFI (Forces Françaises de l'Intérieur) resistance armband, had a cigarette hanging from his lips, and was mad with joy. De Gaulle beckoned him over and spoke a few words into his ear; the résistant returned to the edge of the crowd. "What did he say to you?" he was eagerly asked. "Don't smoke on the procession," was the reply.
Was de Gaulle aware of Dukson's audacity in getting to the front of the parade? Perhaps. As he later wrote in his memoirs: "Some people with minor walk-on roles joined the cortege of my comrades, even though they had no right to. But no one paid them any attention." Dukson was undoubtedly the most notable of those "people with minor walk-on roles"; but he was not ignored, he was thrown off the procession. His face did not fit, even though, like many other resistance fighters who were also absent – women, communists, ordinary workers, foreigners – he truly had a right to be there.
In 1939, when the Second World War broke out, Dukson lived in Gabon, in what was then French West Africa. As his father had in 1914, Georges joined the French Army to fight in Europe. Captured shortly before the fall of France in 1940, Sergeant Dukson spent two years in a German prisoner-of-war camp before escaping and making his way back to France. Exactly how he managed this feat – a black man on the roads of Nazi Germany would surely have attracted attention – has been lost to history, but by 1943 he was a fugitive in occupied Paris. While the Nazis goose-stepped along the streets, rounding up Jews and members of the Resistance, Dukson simply tried to survive. Then came the Paris insurrection of August 1944, and Dukson's moment of glory.
In the week of bloody street fighting that preceded the German surrender, Dukson had played a vital role for the Resistance in the 17th arrondissement in the north of Paris, earning the title "the Lion of the 17th". When fighting broke out near his home on 20 August, Dukson rushed to help out and was put in command of a contingent of FFI Resistance fighters. Together with his comrades, Dukson destroyed several German troop lorries, and even captured a tank, leaping on to it and killing the driver. When the Resistance seized a new tank from a factory, they sent it out on to the streets to help the uprising; Dukson's group, armed only with revolvers and grenades, bravely accompanied it. In spectacular newsreel footage that was taken during the Paris insurrection, Dukson can be seen grinning on top of the vehicle. On 21 August, Dukson was wounded in the arm by a bullet, and he was again filmed on the newsreel, being helped by his comrades, clutching his rifle. As a consequence of his bravery, Dukson was rapidly promoted to the rank of sub-Lieutenant, and his fame soon spread through Paris. Holding court each night in a bar on the rue de Chéroy, he became a minor celebrity.
But there were to be no medals for Dukson. In the chaos that followed the Liberation of Paris, he took over an abandoned German garage and started selling the supplies he found there. Then he began "requisitioning" goods for the black market. Arrested on the orders of the Military Governor of Paris, he was shot and wounded while trying to escape, was taken to the hospital and died on the operating table. Despite his sad end, Dukson's role in the liberation of Paris represented the true spirit of the Resistance. In those famous images, full of pomp and politics, populated by white men in suits and uniforms, Dukson's unscripted appearance, bloodied but unbowed, audacious and full of verve, showed the role of ordinary French people in liberating their country.
Although black soldiers from French West Africa had formed the original heart of de Gaulle's Free French army – nearly 20,000 had joined up by October 1942 – none of Dukson's comrades from Africa were with Leclerc. We now know that the British and the Americans wanted Paris to be liberated by white faces, and took steps to remove African soldiers from the Leclerc division. Allied High Command claimed that the Parisians would be hostile to black fighters. Dukson's role, and his fame in the capital, proved that the Allies were wrong about this – but to no avail. The appalling way in which hundreds of thousands of Free French Arab soldiers were treated was highlighted in the harrowing feature film Days of Glory (2006). The story of the African fighters, and of men like Dukson, has yet to be told. Dukson was not the only African in the Resistance. Of the 1,030 members of the Order of the Liberation created by Charles de Gaulle, 14 were African. Hundreds of other black people played vital roles in the struggle. Most are long forgotten.
In the heroic days of August 1944 a new French myth had been forged; at its heart was de Gaulle. Throughout the war he had belittled, ignored or undermined the Resistance, yet he had finally ridden it to power, brushing aside those ordinary people whose sacrifice had helped bring about Liberation – people like Georges Dukson.