Brexit, Britain, and Mainland Europe

I have noticed on Twitter a certain propensity among the metropolitan elite, particularly journalists, to claim that Britain is now the laughing stock of Europe and that everyone on the Continent thinks Brexiteers to be delusional. I imagine that in their world this is actually true: most of them will speak French, German, or Spanish and will spend much of their time in Europe for work or visiting families and friends. Only you can be sure they’ll be swanning around the nicer areas of Paris, Berlin, Frankfurt, and Geneva with wealthy, middle-class journalists and the sort of “businessmen” whose nose is never more than half-an-inch from a politician’s arse. They sure as hell won’t be hanging around a Portuguese dock or drinking vodka in a Latvian bar with a bunch of ethnic Russians.

From what I can tell, Europeans don’t seem particularly interested in Brexit. I think everyone was rather surprised initially, but now they’re so resigned to Britain leaving that it barely gets mentioned. I work in a very international company with major operations in the UK, and talk of Brexit is conspicuous by its absence. When the subject comes up, usually over lunch with colleagues who ask me for my opinions on the matter, there is some disappointment but in general they don’t see it as a big deal. For a lot of mainland Europeans, Britain was never really part of the club anyway. We were always complaining, we seemed to prefer the company of Americans, and a few are not even sure why we joined in the first place. It’s a bit like Australia being in the Eurovision Song Contest, nobody is quite sure what they’re doing there. The attitude of everyone seems to be slight confusion as to why Britain voted to leave but now they have, can we just get on with it ASAP and if we can still work, travel, and trade that would be grand.

Unlike perhaps our lofty metropolitan elites, the mainland Europeans appreciate that Britain is quite different. The mainland Europeans, particularly the French and Dutch, still have bad memories from the war and are willing to do anything to avoid a repeat. They truly believe the EU is responsible for keeping the peace, whereas in the UK we think that was down to Nato. There are reasons for this.

Britain had the enormous advantage of not being occupied during WWII, which had a major effect on how we viewed the war afterwards. We lost a lot of men and saw our cities bombed, but we never had to deal with the messy compromise of an occupation. The excellent book Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of WWII goes into some detail on this subject, and explains the effects of prolonged occupation on a population. At some point people cooperate, because they have to: the book cites an example of a French baker accused after the war of selling bread to the Nazis. He asks what choice he had, and points out that he was also providing bread to the French population who would otherwise have starved. It discusses the issue of young women who engaged in relationships with the occupying soldiers, and met the full fury of their countrymen when the war was over. One girl protested that as far as she could make out the Nazis were the local government and had been for some time, and plenty of other people were interacting with them. How is having a relationship with a soldier of the de facto regime a crime? She had a point.

Few people in the occupied countries wanted to dwell on matters of collaboration and cooperation after the war: there was a period of retribution, much of it vicious and used as a pretext for power-grabs and the settling of old scores, but the various governments quickly found themselves establishing a semi-believable narrative that made them look good and running with it. To be fair, they had little choice: the late 1940s was not the time for hand-wringing, there were nations to rebuild and Soviets to keep out. This is why the French, even to this day, skip over the small matter of the Vichy regime when celebrating Charles de Gaulle and the heroic Resistance. It’s why the Dutch never point out that quite a few of them welcomed the Nazi occupation initially, seeing them as Germanic cousins. Britain avoided all of this, and their particular tale of heroic resistance and defiance against all the odds was much easier to weave.

Britain also didn’t get wrecked like Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, parts of France, and other countries on the mainland. Our cities took a pounding, particularly London and Coventry, but there was not the sort of devastation seen in those cities which first saw aerial bombardment and then ground fighting as they were liberated. We also didn’t have the hunger: there was a famine in the Netherlands in 1944-5 which claimed the lives of 22,000 people. There were major food shortages in Austria and Germany after the war, and it was years before food supplies were back up and running across the continent again. Britain had rationing, but nobody starved.

The mainland European view of the war is very different from the British: our culture makes light of the war – Dad’s Army, and ‘Allo ‘Allo being two examples – because for us it was a jolly old ruck with the Bosch that we won. Our families, homes, and communities weren’t wrecked, for the large part. So when we talk about keeping the peace in Europe, we’re not haunted by the same memories as mainland Europeans. We saw the priority as keeping the Russians from occupying all of us, hence Nato. If Europe got demolished in the meantime, then meh. Whereas for the Europeans, particularly the Dutch and French, they are equally if not more concerned about keeping the peace among themselves because that is what caused so much destruction last time. It’s hardly surprising, then, that they see the EU as a greater guarantor of peace than Nato.

The way people think, vote, and behave differs wildly between nations, regions, groups, and individuals and there are usually very deep cultural and historical reasons for these differences. It is not a lack of intelligence, information, and values which drive the French to maintain a political and economic system which is unfathomable to an Anglo-Saxon: they simply have a different history and culture than us. This is why I find the self-righteous posturing of London’s elites over Brexit so irritating. They may share pro-EU views with their counterparts in mainland Europe, but they have no idea why. If they did, they’d understand why so many people don’t share their views. They hope that by writing puff-pieces about pro-EU attitudes on the mainland while sneering at their own people they will ingratiate themselves with the former and show themselves to be superior than the latter.

Neither will happen for the same reason I will always be considered a Brit and never a Frenchman: culture and history matter and shapes who you are, even if you detest them and wish you were someone else.

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Saint-Lô and the Mausoleum of La Famille Blanchet

I first visited the old mill near Campeaux mentioned in the previous post in August 2014, two years ago.  When I was there I took the opportunity to visit the nearby town of Saint-Lô, where I went to the cemetery and then spent twenty minutes or so locating the mausoleum of the Blanchet family.  Readers are entitled to ask why, and so I shall duly explain.

There is not much to see in Saint-Lô.  It was destroyed to the tune of 97% during the battle for its liberation in July 1944, causing one American solider to remark “We sure liberated the hell out of this place”.  It was rebuilt, as Wikipedia puts it, as follows:

The dominant style was a neo-regionalist functionalism which was dominated by concrete. Its dated and monotonous character was soon criticised.

And for this reason there is very little worth seeing in the town.  One thing of interest, however, is the monument to Major Thomas Howie, who was the commander of the 3rd Battalion, 116th Infantry Regiment, 29th Division after the D-Day landings.  As the story goes:

On the morning of July 17, Howie phoned Major General Charles Gerhardt, said “See you in St. Lo”, and issued orders for the attack. Shortly afterward, he was killed by shrapnel during a mortar attack. The next day, the 3d Battalion entered Saint-Lô, with Howie’s body on the hood of the lead jeep, at Gerhard’s request, so that Howie would be the first American to enter the town.

After the war, the town of Saint-Lô erected a monument to Howie, shown below.

However, Thomas Howie wasn’t the only US army major fighting around Saint-Lô on that day.

One of the most influential books I have read, at least insofar as it made an impact on me, is Colonel David Hackworth’s About Face.  During his development as an officer, Hackworth was greatly inspired by the wartime exploits and soldiering abilities of one Glover S. Johns, Jr who would lead the vanguard of American troops sent into West Berlin by John F. Kennedy in 1961 as a show of strength as the wall was going up.  In his book, Hackworth refers to Johns’ own book, The Clay Pigeons of St. Lô, an account of his day-to-day experiences as the commander of the 1st Battalion, 115th Infantry Regiment, 29th Division over a period of one month leading up to the liberation of Saint-Lô.  Hackworth praised the book’s extremely well written descriptions of each military operation and action the battalion undertook, and believed the book should be required reading for all infantry officers.  Having never forgotten its name, eventually I ordered myself a copy and read it for myself.  As a story of the Battle of Saint-Lô it isn’t much good, but as a highly readable account of what life was like for an American soldier fighting in the hedgerows of Normandy and the day-to-day role of a battalion commander in a major war, it is probably the best out there.  In other words, it’s for military nerds but not for the casual reader.  One thing is for sure though, it gives you an idea of the horrendous casualty rate the American infantry suffered while up against a German army that even on the back foot was still highly capable.

Towards the end of the book, as Major Johns’ unit is entering Saint-Lô, he found the place he had chosen for his command post was too dangerous and he was losing men at an unacceptable rate, and so he sent one of his subordinates off to find a better one.  Quoting from The Clay Pigeons of St. Lô:

Half and hour later the S1 came up to lead him back to his new home in St. Lo, which turned out to be an imposing mausoleum in the cemetery!  On the facade were two words Johns would always remember, “Famille Blanchet.”  He balked at the idea of moving in with the Blanchets; but when he looked inside he decided it was the best command post he would ever have.

The walls were of polished marble blocks 18 inches thick, with a heavy door set back under a small but equally solid portico.  There were no windows to be blown in, so that only a direct hit on the front steps by something big would have any chance of hurting anyone inside.  It would take a bomb to damage the building itself.

Inside, on the ground floor, was a small chapel.  Though the room was only about 10 feet by 15 feet in size, it would hold everyone who had legitimate business there.  Furthermore, there was plenty of room outside for the runners to dig foxholes so there would no longer be any excuse for bunching up.  Under the chapel was a crypt, reached by a narrow flight of stairs leading down from one side.

The vault was largely occupied by an enormous stone sarcophagus.  The thing sloped upward towards the entrance, the high end having a flat surface on top which was at an awkward height but would do better than nothing for maps.  A small stone tablelike affair was set into the wall opposite that end, with barely room for one straight chair.  The crypt was cramped, but it would do.

Space around the sarcophagus itself was limited.  A man could walk by without touching, or lie down full length and be comfortable, but two men could never pass one another.

The Germans had used the vault too.  Empty wine bottles lay about, and a half loaf of hard, dry bread took up space on the little table.

Remembering this passage from the book, I decided to find this mausoleum for myself given I was in the area, and take a look at this obscure little piece of military history.  When I did, I looked inside and poked my head down the stairs into the crypt and found it exactly as Major Glover S. Johns had described it having been there 70 years before.

The broken cross on the top bears witness to the mausoleum’s past, as does the shrapnel marks on the exterior walls.  But a small scrap of paper in cellophane off to the side marking it out as a waypoint on some sort of military tour was the only indication that anybody else knew about this tomb’s role in the liberation of Saint-Lô and the battle for Normandy.

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