Colin Blumenau ponders the First World War in Royston column

09:01 10 August 2014

Royston marked the outbreak of the First World War with two services.

Royston marked the outbreak of the First World War with two services.

Archant

I was just thinking...

...about sincerity. Seventy years ago last Thursday, General George Patton drove into the small Normandy town of Avranches and liberated it. I like to think of that day as one where the liberated folk waved tricolour flags, supplied copious amounts of wine to the Allied troops and were not shy about dispensing kisses and other favours to their liberators. I suspect this is a romanticised view informed by nothing more than a penchant for watching too many films in my youth. In reality the community was probably as exhausted and shattered as the town itself, which had been virtually destroyed by military action of all kinds.

Incidentally Patton’s tank is still there, sitting on a roundabout in the middle of the town, on a piece of land that, officially and curiously, belongs to the United States. Or at least that’s the way the story goes.

These last few days have seen the town celebrate that liberation. Now Avranches is not a demonstrative, sophisticated, metro-stylish place. It has a few parallels with Royston. It is a rural, dour and rather prosaic centre of a farming community. Having the Mont St Michel as its local tourist attraction has done little to add any particular chic to the place. It is as parochial a place as any small town anywhere in the world.

But its liberation really means something significant to the whole populace despite the rapidly disappearing numbers of people who were actually there when it happened. In a surprising demonstration of unity the whole community found itself bound into strong alliance of people that showed both itself and its guests just how committed it was to the marking of such an important anniversary.

The events were nothing particular to write home about. There was a parade of elderly military vehicles, some decidedly odd choices for outdoor musical and theatrical presentation, an honouring of the dead, the inevitable procession and speeches – including one by Patton’s granddaughter – and fireworks. Standard fare in this neck of the Normandy woods.

What was remarkable was the rapt and massive attendance. The whole town turned out. The pavements were many rows deep with watching spectators as rickety men with medals pinned to their chests passed by in rickety vehicles. If you’ll excuse the tasteless choice of noun, there was a full occupation of the outdoor auditorium for a bizarre piece of French live entertainment involving four middle-aged women conducting a séance through song! And, at well past midnight, crowds turned up for a brief but nonetheless impressive display of pyrotechnics which no doubt frightened too many of the dogs and horses for which this part of the world is justly renowned.

French people stood shoulder to shoulder with American, Canadian, English, and, countless other nationalities including, yes, Germans, to commemorate the past. It got me to thinking what makes the French so unashamedly genuine about this type of thing. Generalisations are, of course, dangerous territory and comparisons are best avoided. But nothing ventured …

From a British perspective both world wars were seismic and terrible events. Many towns and cities were bombed and many of our sons and daughters were lost.

But most of our islands were not occupied. We were never humbled in the same way as the French. Royston, unlike Avranches, was never reduced to rubble nor were its inhabitants overrun by alien invasion.

Could it be that our British much-trumpeted sense of ironic humour, our louche cynicism, may not have survived intact had we been forced to suffer the same fate as so many northern French towns? Did the laying waste of the countryside and its people leave a mark of collective devastation on successive French generations that has swept away any temptation to be anything but sincere and grateful that it ended in the way it did?

But then again perhaps this is nothing more than manifestation of a national trait. The French do sincerity rather well.

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