D-Day through French Eyes: Normandy 1944, by Mary Louise Roberts

Victoria Harris on an interpretation of the French experience of the Allied arrival and its aftermath that focuses only on interactions with US forces

June 5, 2014

“We awaited the Liberation just as a young woman awaits her first child – torn between impatience for a course of action she does not yet understand, and fear that it will actually take place,” recalls Yvette Moreau. Her voice is one of many to feature in this account of the Allied landings in Normandy that attest to the excitement and terror of both the idea and reality of liberation. As Mary Louise Roberts deftly enables these French diarists and memoirists to show, the landings brought the promise of freedom to those who had long ached for it. But they also brought danger, destruction and death, at the hands of both the German occupiers and the Allied liberators.

The French experience of the Allied arrival and its aftermath is powerfully conveyed in the personal stories that form the bulk of this volume. In contrast, Roberts’ own brief contextualising narratives serve to weaken the book. In seeking “to reach a specifically American audience”, she presents only interactions with US soldiers. But why exclude everyone else on page one? This narrow focus also serves to undermine her story of D-Day from the French perspective and scuppers her intention to “widen” Americans’ historical understanding. Indeed, this account might leave you convinced that only US forces landed at Normandy, something Americans need no help believing. Worse, stating that the Allied road from Normandy to “Paris to Berlin was no easy journey”, but that “they triumphed over the Germans within a year of the landings”, while focusing only on US actions, bolsters the misapprehension that the Americans, not the combined Allied forces, won the Second World War. Let us not forget that it was the Soviets who first reached Berlin.

At its worst, Roberts’ narrative is uncomfortably jingoistic, as when she compares the “rigidly hierarchical German army” with the American, adding that the French interpreted the “easy relations between Americans and their officers” as “a sign of true democracy”. This is quite a claim, and one for which she provides no evidence. These assumptions about locals’ feelings for their US liberators are accompanied by a sometimes patronising view of the French themselves. Roberts calls the Normans “a stubborn people. Even in the midst of a battle or bombing raid, they insisted that the crops be planted and the cows milked.” Would she have preferred them to starve? To be sure, the fruits of their labours were well enjoyed by the Americans. In two places, it also appears that she has confused her testifiers’ genders, perhaps unaware that certain French names, unlike their American equivalents, can be either masculine or feminine. If not, the open attraction of two young men to the liberators surely deserves comment.

Finally, there is the problem of treating memory as if it were history. Moreau’s metaphor for liberation as birth is compelling, but she was eight years old in 1944 and surely incapable of such an analogy at the time. Her memoirs were written 45 years later. One cannot help but wonder whether the passage of time also softened testifiers’ views of D-Day – for it is the haunting contemporary descriptions of the US forces’ destruction of entire towns and populations that are most compelling in this book.

D-Day through French Eyes: Normandy 1944

By Mary Louise Roberts
University of Chicago Press, 240pp, £17.50
ISBN 9780226136998 and 37049 (e-book)
Published 6 June 2014

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