This is a long post, but I'd like to think that it's worth reading if you have time.
I learned this recently, and it's really something to think about when you hear people who knock France as being wimpy "cheese-eating surrender monkeys:"
In World War I, France lost 1,397,800 soldiers during the 1914-18 conflict. They also had 300,000 civilian casualties. Total dead: almost four and a half percent of the population. 4,266,000 military wounded, ten
percent of the population. And we all know that "wounded" from WWI often meant surviving injuries whose treatments would severely handicap the soldier.
In every town in France, -every- town, there's a memorial to their men "mort pour la France." In Milly-la-foret, a beautiful town near me known for its mint production, there's a memorial in the local church, with more than 200 names listed. The town had a population of 2,416 just before the war. That's 12 percent of the town, dead. In my town, population 423 during the war, there's a memorial to 30 men. This country suffered losses that could not be imagined by those of us lucky enough to have been born on a completely different side of the world in a very comfortable place from a strategic point of view, losses that affected every single Frenchman. So next time you hear someone talking about how the French are always giving up, remind them of those 1.4 million, whose gave up nothing else but their lives.
Then there's World War II. Vichy overshadows a lot of the bravery that Frenchmen exhibited during the occupation, and before. The street I live on is named after a fighter pilot and Légion d'honneur recipient who died in 1940, Commandant Maurice Arnoux. He first fought in WWI, first in Serbia where, at 19 years old, he was inducted into the Order of the Serbian Army, received the Serbian Cross for "Vertus militaires," and the French Croix de Guerre with Palm. In 1916, he was sent to Verdun and as Sergeant flew at altitudes that sometimes went as low as 20 feet to provide cover for ground forces. On two occasions his plane was hit and the resulting damage forced full-speed emergency landings, from which he emerged miraculously unscathed. His actions at Verdun and elsewhere earned him five citations in the order of the French Army Air Corps, the Médaille Militaire, and the Légion d'honneur, earned at only 23 years old.
During the space between wars he was promoted several times and finally reached the rank of Commandant. During WWII he took again to aerial engagements, and was wounded on May 10, 1940. After a brief stay in the hospital he returned to the air and on June 6, 1940, after a heroic battle, he was shot down and crashed in a cornfield outside of Angivillers. He left behind a wife, three children, and many friends.
In several places near my house you can find plaques commemorating Free French who were killed at the hands of the Nazis. Here's one of them: http://maps.google.com/?ie=UTF8&ll=48.51839,2.2625&spn=0.001281,0.004128&z=19&layer=c&cbll=48.51834,2.262387&panoid=RAkgXejiUdIo5VaI4fsfFQ&cbp=12,20.21,,0,8.22
(I'm going over there to get a few baguettes after work, I'll post a better picture then, as well as a translation).
And, as an American in France, I'm keenly aware of the role my grandfather and other grandfathers like mine had to play here.
This is the Paratrooper Memorial at a bridge near Saint Mere Eglise. I drank a Sam Adams near here, in their memory.
This is a blockhouse at Omaha Beach.
This is Point du Hoc, which Rangers scaled on D-Day.
This is the church in Ste Mere Eglise - if you remember The Longest Day, Red Buttons got caught on the roof of the church during the invasion. That actually happened, and the guy survived. They put this up in honor of him.
The interior of the church, one of the stained glass windows. This depicts Mary, but I'd like to think that it represents Marianne, the symbol of France, with paratroopers coming to her aid. Makes me a bit teary thinking about it.
This is another stained glass from the interior, depicting saint michael. At the bottom it says "Ils sont revenus" which means, "They have come back." The reason behind it: on the left, the date 6 June 1944, and on the right, 6 June 1969, 25 years later. It was the first time the paratroopers that liberated the town had come back, and was a powerful moment for the people of the town. FYI Ste Mere Eglise was the first town in France to be liberated on D-Day.
Here's a marker for an unknown soldier's grave, in the American Cemetery near the Normandy beaches.