Britain and the Defeated French
London: I.B. Tauris, 2012
Hardcover. viii+315 p. ISBN 978-1848854314. £22.50
Reviewed by Julian Jackson
Queen Mary University of London
This is an excellent and well-written account of the way that the British government dealt with France after the defeat of 1940. Aspects of the subject have been covered before by François Kersaudy in his book on de Gaulle and Churchill, and by R.T. Thomas in his study of Britain and Vichy, but this book brings these two strands of the story together into one narrative. Based on a thorough examination of the British archives, it brings in much new material.
From the moment that Pétain’s government had announced its intention to sign an armistice, leading to the arrival of General de Gaulle in London on the same day, British policy was characterised by what Mangold calls ‘the uneasy duality…of supporting de Gaulle while not burning its bridges with Vichy’. Just at the moment when the Vichy option seemed to have lost any traction, and when the Foreign Office had come round to the inevitability of de Gaulle, British policy had to take account of the new pressure from Roosevelt, who was firmly opposed to de Gaulle. Because Churchill had become increasingly frustrated with de Gaulle – even if as Mangold shows his attitude was never one of outright hostility – and because he wanted to do nothing to jeopardise his relationship with Roosevelt, the last nine months leading up to D-Day were, as Mangold puts it, a battle ‘not so much between Britain and the FNCL [French National Committee of Liberation] or indeed Britain and the Americans, but between Churchill and the Foreign Office’.
Unlike some British writers, Mangold is very fair to de Gaulle while not underestimating the degree to which his outbursts at times harmed his own cause. For example, when commenting on Spears’s surprise to be told by de Gaulle that he was interested in the victory of France not the Allies, Mangold notes that Spears, when it came to the Levant states, was himself able to write that he ‘was interested only in the extent to which the British cause would be strengthened by their becoming involved on our side’. As Mangold comments: ‘coincidence of interest, as de Gaulle well understood, was not the same as identity of cause’.
Even if one of the central themes of the book is the conflict between de Gaulle and Churchill, Mangold's immersion in the British archives allows him also to bring in many other protagonists on the British side like Eden, Oliver Harvey and Charles Peake (whose thankless task it was to act as liaison between the British government and the Free French). Since the book does not use French archives it gives less space to the diverse protagonists on the French side like Pleven, Dejean, and Massigli even if they are all mentioned. Although Mangold does not entirely neglect British relations with the Resistance through SOE perhaps he does not give enough attention to the degree to which de Gaulle’s strength derived from the extraordinary degree to which he quickly acquired a mythological status in France. It became clear to Eden early on that however impossible he might be, de Gaulle had become incontournable.
Overall, this is one of the best and fairest available accounts of the subject. Mangold has an excellent eye for the telling quotation and the book is readable and lively.
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