Holidays. Yes, it’s time to get away from it all. I know what to do - just grab some time to do something trivial. Rest the brain cells. Focus on something restful, like walking in the woods with the kids. Read railway timetables. Study spiders. Kill flies.
We’ve been in France. Perfect time for lengthy sessions of looking at clouds. Well, that is, until I started reading the local paper.
I noticed a set of events in the next village commemorating the Resistance. Next Monday at 9am in front of the war memorial. It’s only ten minutes away.
We turn up, the sun is already out and we park by the war memorial.
Strange, no one’s there and it’s only about a quarter of an hour to go. An old guy drives up and gets out. Surely there’ll be more than one?
He looks up and down the road and spots a car some hundred yards up the hill. “Ah, no, it’s going on up there at the other memorial.”
Other memorial? You only have one war memorial in a village, don’t you? So we drive up the road and, yes, there is another memorial. It’s for 23 people killed on 7 August 1944. Victims of the Nazis. People are gathering.
Some are very, very old, wearing berets and medals, carrying flags. There’s a lot of hand-shaking going on, and every now and then someone comes round to everyone, including us, greeting each of us in turn.
Then the guys carrying flags form two lines facing each other. There’s a flurry of microphone testing, a small sound system is put on and there’s a welcoming speech.
They play a military air, then the Marseillaise, followed by the Song of the Partisans. A man kneels down in front of the memorial and reads out each name, followed by “Dead for France”.
Then comes the main speech. The speaker tells how a column of German soldiers came through the village and the Resistance was under instruction to delay its progress towards Normandy, where the landings had happened a few weeks earlier.
The Resistance did what it could, but came under fire and that was how 23 came to be killed, including a woman and her child. He then said that it was time now for a commemorative day in France.
Why is there a day for the war in Indochina, a day for the end of the Algerian War, but no day for the Resistance? He proposed that it should be 23 May, in memory of the day in 1943 when Charles de Gaulle and Jean Moulin signed an alliance that united the right and left resistance movements.
That was it, all over. My curiosity was aroused now. Who were these people who had fought a column of the German army? What else did they do? A trip in search of ice cream the next day got seriously delayed by diving in to a bookshop and coming up for air with a heap of books.
It turns out that the area where we were staying was dubbed “Little Russia” by the Germans for being a hotbed of Communist-led Resistance.
I started to read about the Resistance leader, Gingouin, who it turns out, yes, was a Communist, but refused to abide by the Party line. When the German army invaded France, the Russo-Nazi pact was still intact and so Communists under occupation were supposed to respect that too.
Gingouin wasn’t having that and started organising. As war broke out, he had quickly gathered together paper and duplicating machines and hidden them in a garage. It probably helped that he was a primary school teacher. The book I was reading said that his mother was a “revolutionary primary school teacher” too.
Gingouin led the liberation of Limoges (done without allied troops) where he was elected mayor. He was expelled from the Communist Party (CP) in 1952. What? A hero of the French Resistance, someone known as the “First Maquis-fighter”?
It turns out that as the left was knocked back in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the right decided to cover its history of collaboration with accusations that at the end of the war there were savage and terrible reprisals against suspected collaborators.
Gingouin had blood on his hands. The CP responded, it seems, with charges of their own and he was chucked out.
It took until 1998 for the CP to apologise to Gingouin for this and he responded by saying that it was their problem, not his. He died last year at the age of 92, having spent much of his life trying to organise other left groups, writing and speaking, and on occasions defending his record.
But hang on, I said to myself, how come this area became known as “Little Russia”? Now here’s an interesting book, I said to myself on my next foray to the bookshop. “Red Limoges, 1905.”
I flick through it. Blimey, all the towns and villages in the area went on general strike, the barricades went up, even in the little town down the road…
“Dad! Dad! Come in the paddling pool! Dad!”