Posts tagged “biography

How Dunkirk Brought the de Gaulles Together Before France Fell

Posted on August 1, 2017

Christopher Nolan’s World War II tour de force “Dunkirk” has captivated moviegoers and reviewers since its release on July 21. It’s the story of the harrowing, heroic rescue of 400,000 Allied troops from the French port city of Dunkirk after German forces stormed into the country. Nolan’s film focuses on the rescue mission itself, not the aftermath in France. In THE GENERAL’S NIECE: THE LITTLE-KNOWN DE GAULLE WHO FOUGHT TO FREE OCCUPIED FRANCE , I write about the havoc Dunkirk wrought on the French population, and how it brought the de Gaulle family together before their beloved country fell to the Nazis. Here is an excerpt:


If there was to be a last stand in France against the German forces that laid waste to the country, some military men believed that it would take place in windswept Brittany. Xavier waited for his marching orders that June in a home that teemed with family members. Armelle, her two small children, Genevieve, and Roger awaited the arrival of Xavier’s frail, eighty-year-old mother, Jeanne, who was fleeing German attacks on the port of Le Havre, not far from where she lived with her daughter, Marie-Agnes; son-in-law, Alfred Cailliau; and their children. Jeanne had been a widow since May 3, 1932, when her husband, Henri, died at age eighty-two. In the years after Henri’s passing, Jeanne’s health had begun to decline too, and she became consumed with seeing her sons before war separated them again.

It was not an easy feat, given the situation on the ground. The German Luftwaffe had begun bombing Le Havre on May 19, 1940, and continued their attacks for the next two evenings. British troops fired antiaircraft guns as Nazi planes dropped bombs on warehouses, factories, shipyards, and Le Havre itself. When large numbers of Dutch and Belgian refugees began arriving in the town by train, locals panicked and thought that the Germans were winning. A dark mood descended over the public as air-raid sirens became commonplace.

The bombing continued in June when the British began evacuating at Dunkirk. Not all troops could be rescued, so they escaped to other ports along the country’s northern coast, striving to find a way back to England. Nazi planes tried to prevent their return by bombing Le Havre ten more times. Bedlam ensued as local officials tried to evacuate residents. Many wanted to flee incoming Nazis by heading for Brittany, but trains could not long travel in that direction because they had to go through the train station in Rouen, which was almost sixty miles to the east. That station was closed, but Jeanne was so determined to see her boys that she traveled 475 miles south to Grenoble to see her son Jacques before getting one of her grandsons to drive her 571 miles north to see Xavier.

After Jeanne’s arrival in Paimpont, nineteen-year-old Genevieve comforted the delicate old woman, whose anxiety gave way to vivid memories from her girlhood of France’s humiliation by the Prussians at Sedan in 1870. She felt like she was reliving those dark days, and her weakened heart couldn’t bear it. Her granddaughter reassured her that it wouldn’t happen like that, not again. Charles would come to visit his mother and Xavier’s family en route to London, where he’d meet with British prime minister Winston Churchill on June 15. After that visit Genevieve assured her grandmother that France would fight back — yes, right there in Brittany.

Brittany. The very shape of the peninsula on which the French army hung their dwindling hopes jutted out toward the English Channel and Atlantic Ocean like the hand of a drowning man begging for help. Two weeks before Petain’s radio address, the military devised a plan that would gather forces along Brittany’s Rance and Vilaine Rivers to fend off an enemy assault. As French troops kept up a stiff resistance along those rivers, allies from Great Britain could stream through the ports west of that line of defense to come to the country’s aid. A prolonged fight under this strategy would allow France to keep its lines of communication open with its allies and, in case of trouble, make it easier to relocate the state’s armed forces and government ministers to London or North Africa.

Two days after Petain addressed the nation, Charles de Gaulle, who had been recently appointed undersecretary of war and national defense, held secret meetings with commanders about the feasibility if this scheme. The overwhelming consensus: Such resistance was futile. There were simply not enough troops to hold off a German advance. General de Gaulle bid farewell to his wife and children. He was headed to London, he told them because things were very bad.

“Perhaps we are going to carry on the fight in Africa,” de Gaulle told his wife, Yvonne. “But I think it more likely that everything is about to collapse. I am warning you so that you will be ready to leave at the first sign.”

The signs were everywhere. After securing passports, Yvonne and the children left on June 18 to join Charles in England.

On the morning of June 18, Xavier de Gaulle and several other reservists were ordered to march west in an effort to regroup against the enemy. His family joined him on the crowded streets in an procession riddled with anger, shame and fear. All around them there was a growing feeling that whatever came next would be in vain. Genevieve lingered close to her grandmother, “this little old lady, dressed in black, so tiny and easy to miss,” so she didn’t fall behind and get lost in the crowd. Throughout the day the young woman reassured the matriarch, as she worked through her own tormented emotions about this turn of events.

By evening, they had walked forty miles to the town of Locmine and faced their first Nazi soldiers. They looked like war gods, Genevieve thought; their smart black uniforms and chiseled features exuded strength and pride as they breezed past on motorcycles and tanks. Some reservists cried because it was clear that there was no hope left and no will to fight this aggressor. As the crowd grew numb with dismay, a priest ran toward them from the other side of the town square. He was excited because he had just heard a French general speak on BBC radio.

“He said we may have lost a battle,” the priest cried, “but not the war. The general’s name was de Gaulle.”

Thrilled by the news, Jeanne de Gaulle, broke from the crowd and ran to the priest.

“Monsieur le Cure, that’s my son!” she cried as she tugged on the sleeve of his cassock. “That’s my son! He’s done what he ought to have done!”

A country away, Charles de Gaulle couldn’t have known how his mother reacted to his decision to offer France another way, but Genevieve remembered the moment as one of her grandmother’s last great joys. For Charles, it was a lonely affair, because as he heard himself speak into the BBC microphone, he realized his life would never be the same. Up until then he had been devoted to both the army and the nation he served. And yet he was not the sort of man to capitulate, which was why he had broken with his superiors and headed to London, to condemnation. At forty-nine years old, fate had lured him away from all his predictable patterns and responsibilities. He was obligated to the France he once knew, and he summoned his countrymen, uncertain of who might hear or put their trust in him.

Few people caught the general’s broadcast, but the ones who did began risking their lives to spread his word.


Excerpted from THE GENERAL’S NIECE: THE LITTLE-KNOWN DE GAULLE WHO FOUGHT TO FREE OCCUPIED FRANCEpublished by Chicago Review Press. Copyright 2017 by Paige Bowers. All rights reserved.

Falling Upwards

Posted on May 7, 2014


For years, my mother was fixated on taking this luxury hot air balloon trip with a group that promised private luncheons with real-life countesses and afternoons of drifting over Burgundy’s vineyards and medieval castles. When she spoke of it, all dreamy-eyed, it inspired that sort of feeling in me that many eager-to-please oldest children get, the one that screams “Someday, when I’m able to afford it, I will make this dream come true for my mother. Someday I will give her this bird’s eye view of France.”

Years after the fact, I realize that it might behoove me to make a slightly different dream come true for her, because neither of us is so great with heights, let’s just say. But I think we are both understandably swoony about the idea of the idea of a hot air balloon voyage. There’s a certain romance to seeing the world from a different perspective and, well,  drifting aimlessly over verdant pastures with a glass of champagne in hand. There’s also a certain adventurous spirit to getting into a balloon and not knowing just exactly where you’ll land.

fallingupwardsHistorian Richard Holmes captures these sentiments in Falling Upwards: How We Took To The Aira deliciously quirky account of flight before the age of airplanes. He writes:

Throughout history, dreamlike stories and romantic adventures have always attached themselves to balloons. Some are factual, some are pure fantasy, many (the most interesting) are a provoking mixture of the two. But some kind of narrative basket always seems to come tantalisingly suspended beneath them.

Here’s the narrative basket in Holmes’ book: Balloons have not only been important to our understanding of the world, but crucial to shaping our ideas about what the future could — and should — be.  Some of the more obvious ways balloons have been instrumental to this understanding is by offering us new views of our planet, allowing us to study and forecast the weather, and enabling us to spy on enemies during wartime. But balloons have also been useful propaganda tools and muses for the new (at the time) genre of science fiction. And yet, there was still some early sense that balloons could only take us so far, that we would need to develop some sort of mechanized bird of sorts if we truly wanted to soar. Even the writer Victor Hugo declared that “the future lay with the bird, not the cloud.”

The Wright Brothers get all the press for developing the bird in question, but it is only after reading Holmes’ book that we recognize how much the Wrights owe to these early — and largely unknown — pioneers of flight. Holmes’ narrative teems with all sorts of strange characters who took to the air in the spirit of education and entertainment alike. One of my favorite stories is about Sophie Blanchard, a woman who overcame blancharddebilitating anxiety to become Napoleon’s Aeronaute des Fetes Officielles. She was renowned for standing in a silver gondola and drifting high above Paris in a white, low-cut dress and a hat full of colored feathers. Over time, Blanchard’s aerial shows became more daring, involving fireworks, colored smoke and rockets that flew from her delicate rig. Her daring cost her her life on July 6, 1819, when her silk balloon caught fire and sent her falling to her death. The stunned crowd originally cheered because they thought that the flames were all part of the show.

One eyewitness wrote:

In a few seconds, the poor creature, enveloped and entangled in the netting of her machine, fell with a frightful crash upon the slanting roof of a house, and thence onto the street, and Madame Blanchard was taken up a shattered corpse!

Although Blanchard was one of ballooning’s first casualties, she was a trailblazer, and filmmaker Jen Sachs is currently turning her life story into a beautiful animated film that is scheduled for release next year. But there were some near-absent trailblazers in this otherwise delightful book: The Montgolfier Brothers, who invented the hot air balloons that started all the fuss. I would have liked to have read more about them here, but Holmes is such a good raconteur…that it’s okay. Really. Drifting through these tales of a really rich and overlooked period in history was a fun ride.



Fall Reading List

Posted on September 28, 2012

One of my friends asked me what it was like now that I was out of graduate school and could read anything I wanted. I said it was great, but I was still reading plenty of French history. “The difference is, you have a choice now,” she told me. The truth may be that I have no choice at all. It may be that I can’t help myself anymore.

At any rate, here is a list of some of the books I’ll be reading this fall, broken down by genre. I’ll try to review some of these reads here from time to time. If you have any recommendations for me, please don’t hesitate to leave them in comments.

Rock and roll memoirs on my Kindle

Life by Keith Richards — My fondest Keith Richards memory dates back to when I was an undergraduate in college and

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