IN A WORLD of 24-hour news, instant information through the computers we all carry in our pockets, when we can sit at home with do-it-yourself DNA testing-kits to find people we may be related to and yet never seen, where we leave electronic contrails through cyberspace and miles of video images as we walk through our cities it seems impossible.
Even in post-war Paris when the plaques commemorating those who had died in the Liberation of Paris in August 1944 started appearing – complete with names and often details of occupation or how they met their deaths – it must have been strange.
Today, seventy-five years later, when books have been written – the excellent ‘Ici est Tombé‘ by author Phillipe Castetbon and photographer François Rousseau which focuses on plaques relating to 26 men and their lives to the point when they died in the Liberation of Paris springs to mind – and a number of curious visitors have taken the time to write blog posts (1) – it is heart breaking to realise that a man who died in an epic battle in a physically compact European city still is unidentified.
‘HERE AN UNKNOWN FFI FELL FOR FRANCE, 21 AUGUST 1944’. The plaque in Rue de Sèvres, Paris 75006 commemorating an unknown member of the French Résistance. Image Copyright © R Maddox 2019.
The plaque is outside a branch of the Banque de France at the junction of Rue de Sèvres and Boulevard Raspail and across the road from Hôtel Lutetia.
The hotel – built in 1910 as Art Nouveau started to morph into what would become Art Deco and the only Grand hotel on the Left Bank – was one of the many places requisitioned by the occupying German forces after June 1940. (2)
During the war it housed the headquarters of the Abwehr, the German military’s intelligence arm and in the immediate aftermath of the conflict became a reception centre for displaced persons and returning prisoners – many of whom had been held in concentration camps. (3) (4)
In August 1944 the people of Paris had seen the Allies land and fight their way across France.
But the city was to be by-passed by the advancing troops as they planned to dash into Germany.
Charles De Gaulle, heading up the Free French government in exile in London and Henry Tanguy – known as ‘Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy’ a Communist and head of the FFI (French Forces of the Interior) resistance groups in Paris and the surrounding area – saw their chance, albeit differently,
On 18 August Rol-Tanguy mobilised his forces to rise up against the German occupiers.
An initial order from De Gaulle telling his supporters not to rebel was countermanded the next day.
August 19 saw a general strike organised by the Communist Party hit the French capital.
Some 3000 members of the Paris police force – who with Metro workers had taken seperate strike action four days earlier – occupied their headquarters near Notre Dame cathedral.
Over the next week almost 170 police officers (5) – together with members of the Résistance – would die in skirmishes with the thousands of German troops stationed in the capital.
Although an initial ceasefire was agreed on 20 August, many resistants did not accept this and continued their attacks.
It seems likely that the unknown man commemorated on the plaque was one of these, perhaps shot in a skirmish with soldiers across the road at the Lutetia.
As the days past and the fighting intensified, barricades would be built to protect areas of Paris from German attack.
Over a period of some 36 hours more than 600 were built. (6)
Watching events unfold, De Gaulle ordered General Philippe Leclerc and the 2eme DB (French 2nd Armoured Division) under his command to slip away from the American force they were attached to and make for Paris on 23 August.
The first troops of 2eme DB entered the capital late in the evening of 24 August.
De Gaulle arrived the next day in as Leclerc and Rol-Tanguy accepted the surrender of the German forces from General der Infanterie Dietrich von Choltitz, the Military Governor of Paris.
Another view of plaque at the junction of Boulevard Raspail and Rue de Sèvres, Image Copyright © R Maddox 2019.
Somewhere in an official archive, in a private diary, in a bundle of letters at the back of a bedroom drawer or pencilled on the back of a creased photograph could be the clues that could shed light on who this man was.
I have passed the plaque – the only one I know of dedicated to an individual member of the Rédistance killed during the August uprising – that bears no name – infrequently many times over many, many years.
Each time as I draw near I always expect to find a new plaque giving this man his name – and in a way his life – back.
But perhaps in some strange way it is good that this plaque has no name.
Because as it stands it forces us all to think about who this man could be and who he might have become, rather than how his life ended.
I also know that when I stand and gaze at it or point a camera at it and walk away – something I have done many times – and look back I will see someone glance up from their mobile ‘phone, ot slow their city pace and for a moment of stop and stare at the plaque.
And perhaps reflect on a life summed up in so few words.
(1) https://cathannabel.blog/tag/french-resistance/ – retrieved 25 October 2019
(2) https://www.hotellutetia.com/history – retrieved 25 October 2019
(3) https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/paris-hotel-lutetia-haunted-history-180971629/ – retrieved 25 October 2019
(4) https://lutetia.info/?page_id=127 – retrieved 25 October 2019
(5) https://www.france24.com/en/20140819-world-war-2-anniversary-paris-liberation-police-france – retrieved 25 October 2019
(6) https://www.france24.com/en/20190825-75-anniversary-paris-france-liberation-nazis-de-gaulle – retrieved 25 October 2019