Monday, 18 May 2015

Dear Britain: It's a bit more complicated than that. Love, The Surrender Monkeys.

So, these days it is pretty much agreed that political correctness has gone too far, that we can’t even say anything anymore, right?

Well, I’ve got good news for you people, you may not say anything about disabled people, Black people or Asians, but, hey, at least you can hate on the French!

Great, right?!

Couldn't find a cheese-eating one.

But, Isabelle, surely you are, maybe, I don’t know, a little bit too sensitive to it? Surely, it’s just banter, right?

Oh, probably.

Here’s banter:

We were in a bar a few years ago, when a group of people came to sit next to us (I don’t recall why, maybe the bar was packed).
One guy hears me talk to my friends and exclaims: “where are you from?” in a rather annoying and accusatory way. So I ignore him. Then a few minutes later, someone else asks me the same question (but, you know, nicely, and after having said hello or something) so I answer. The first guy immediately reacts:

Guy:_ I said you were French!
Me: _ No you didn’t. You asked me where I was from.
Guy: _ Stop being so f***ing French, or everybody’s gonna hate you.
So that was that.

What followed may have been:

a-   Hahaha, so witty! Such banter!
b-   I threw my drink in his face
c-   I left the bar

I leave it up to you to decide what would have been my most likely course of action.

Unfortunately, this happens quite a lot. And most of the time, it takes a pseudo-historical slant, as they explain to me how the French just didn’t fight the Second World War, because, Surrender Monkeys.

Now, I am a very meticulous fake historian, so let’s analyse that idea.

Are the French surrendering particularly often?

So, here are the last few wars fought by France (I’m excluding the colonial wars, mostly because they don’t have very much to do with surrendering).

WWII – surrendered

WWI – won (Before you start saying that it was only with America's help, may I point out that before the US joined, the French fought grueling battles for 3 years? That may demonstrate poor soldiering, but not excess surrendering.)

1871 – partly surrendered, although Paris chose the option to eat elephants instead (ask Kendra’s kids, it’s a great story)

1859 - won

1853-1856 - won (aah, the siege of Sevastopol, my - geeky - childhood)

1790-1815 – Conquered most of Europe. Was eventually limited to its own borders. Had to be thoroughly beaten twice before agreeing to the idea.

Let it be said that I do not approve of Europe-conquering. I am making a point.

1775-1783 – won (Froget us God / If we forget / The sacred sword/ Of Lafayette, right, America?)

I’ll stop. Out of these, most people calling me a Surrender Monkey only know the first two. A couple had known about Napoleon (the WORST Surrender Monkey there ever was. The guy was obsessed with it. Went to surrender all over Europe). The other wars have not yet been mentioned to me (but one lives in hope!). So basically, we are Surrender Monkeys, because we lost against Germany in WWII. But hey! So did most of Europe! Let’s all be Surrender Monkeys together! No?

All the monkeys


Just you, France.

So let's explore this further. Why just France?

Was France’s surrender in 1939 particularly remarkable/shameful?

See above. Most of Europe! But let’s be thorough.

So, France was allied with Britain. They decided to attack Norway first. It went badly. For both (especially the Brits with no skis, but I digress).

Then Germany attacked, with the Blitzkrieg tactic, which no army yet had managed to counter. They also bombed the French air force still on the ground. So that was that.

Basically: planes destroy the rear whilst tanks + infantry push on one point then turn back and attack the armies from the back. No back-up or retreat possible as the rear is already destroyed. The tanks push on immediately to undefended and unprepared locations.

As you can see, Britain might have had a slight advantage there, with all of that blue thing going on around it. Tanks don’t float brilliantly I hear.

Most of the French troops where en-circled in the East, then the rest, with the British, suffered the same fate in Dunkerque.

So, eventually, due to woeful tactical errors trying to counter the blitzkrieg (I’m happy to claim them all for the French High Command – let’s say Britain knew better but didn’t dare say anything because the French are such scary Surrender Monkeys) the French and British armies got cornered in Dunkerque.
Churchill managed to get enough boats to get the British out of there. Great! Miracle of Dunkerque!

Can anyone explain to me how that’s not buggering off, leaving your ally in the sh*t? (Pardon my French.)

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad they did, and France was indeed conquered, so might as well not let two armies get captured, right? Right. But it does seem a bit rich to then turn round to your abandoned ally and say, “you Surrender Monkey!”

Here is the Miracle of Dunkerque seen from the French side: 11,000 dead (including my great-grandfather) the French army fights on desperately for a few days on its own, fails to stop the Germans, they enter Paris. Britain, from the safety of its island, refuses to release France from the agreement to not conclude a separate peace (so what if there’s no France left to fight from? WE shall never surrender! Silly Surrender Monkeys!)  France surrenders all the same (because there really is no France left to fight from). Germany then takes most of the French army (around two million men) and sends them as POWs in Germany. Most of them didn’t return until 1945.

Two weeks later, the British attacked the French navy at Mers-el-Kebir. Nope, no declaration of war happened. Yes, like for Pearl Harbour. So that was a war crime. You Surrender Monkeys!

Once again, I think the British mostly did what they had to, looking out for themselves. But they can hardly claim a moral high ground. Or say that surrendering was shameful.

This image (the man is watching the German army parade in Paris) may or may not make me cry. We'll never know.

Maybe what people really mean is that France sat out most of WWII?

Now, we are finally getting onto something the French ARE self-conscious about. You see, before I came to England, I didn’t for a second imagine people thought we were Surrender Monkeys because they abandoned us at Dunkerque. I was, however, ashamed of what we call L'Occupation. Mostly because of one concept, that of Collaboration.

Once the French were conquered, the Germans set up a dummy state in the southern part of France. And these people, along with most of the population, chose to make do with the Germans, and try to carry on. Collaboration with the occupying forces was encouraged. Fascist ideology advocated.

Many terrible things happened because of this, and I really wish my country had not chosen that path. But it did.

There were, however, some reasons behind it.

a-   It’s hard to fight an occupying army when every single act of resistance is punished by the murder of dozens of innocent people (that’s the hostages system, it was used throughout France). So yeah, 'Allo 'Allo lied to you Britain.

b-   Apart from the specific hostages just lifted from the street to be killed in response to acts of resistance, there were two million French prisoners in Germany. Most families had someone who was a POW. Funnily, they seemed to care what happened to them. So, yes, they sat tightly on their bottoms.

c-   Sitting through WWII under German occupation was not exactly a picnic : France had to pay Germany for its own occupation (and the price was fixed by the Germans, so basically, it was just institutionalised robbery on a national scale). This led to rationing so extreme that unless someone was resorting to the Black Market (which was punishable by death) they would have died of starvation anyway. And all of this was done on purpose by the occupying forces. Now, it wasn't as bad as, say, Poland, but still not a picnic.

d-   Some of France did fight. When the Allies attacked North Africa in 1942, the French troops there didn’t fight back. They joined them instead - if you think El Alamein was a great British victory, please look at the role played by the French troops at Bir Hakeim to make it possible - . Germany dissolved the southern dummy state and just occupied all of France directly as a result of this, because even the dummy state couldn’t be trusted, apparently. And indeed, what was left of the French navy consequently chose to scuttle itself to avoid falling into German hands.

e-   Coventry and the London Blitz were bad. But look up Brest. And Le Havre. And Saint-Nazaire. And Royan. And Lisieux. 


f-    Paris freed itself. It’s a great story. All my A-Level students know about Commandant Gallois on his bicycle.

Liberation of Paris

So here you go. And don’t worry Britain, I still love you. Unhealthy attachment to inaccurate representations of WWII and all.


  1. GG in our hearrrrrrrrrrrrrrt!!

    1. Tonton président! Oh, wait a minute...

  2. I read (in a book about the Polish pilots of WWII), that the French military mocked the Polish cavalry for charging the German tanks when Poland fell...and then proceeded to do the exact same thing just a short time later when France was attacked. Because, really, what could be done?

    I enjoyed reading this; thanks. I'd like to read a bit more about these parts of history. My knowledge gets much fuzzier after about 1780.I had to laugh about Napoleon trucking all over Europe surrendering. :-D Thanks for sharing.

    1. Oh, dear! I hope they didn't actually mock them (it would seem in poor taste when France had entered the war for Poland in the first place)! But it is very true that they were as far removed from countering the blitzkrieg as a the cavalry a battalion of tanks!
      There is a fascinating book, written in 1943 by my all-time favourite historian and résistant, Marc Bloch, called L'Étrange Défaite (Strange Defeat), analysing how outdated the French military actually was. It makes for chilly reading.