Transnational Friendship: James Connolly discusses British aid to French towns after the First World War

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British soldiers enter Lille in October 1918. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

During my research on the occupation of Northern France in the First World War, I came across archival and newspaper documents attesting to the depth of gratitude felt by the formerly-occupied population towards the British, and the latter’s desire to help suffering populations. As an Englishman specialising in French history, I was moved and intrigued to discover more about the ways in which the British helped what became known as the ‘devastated region’ – the area ravaged by combat and occupation – and what the French made of this. The conclusions I have arrived at say much about the long, complicated history of Franco-British friendship (often involving mutual mistrust and disappointment at a governmental level), and highlight a period in which the plight of suffering populations provoked charitable, humanitarian responses that went beyond national interest.

 

The most immediate and evident form of help was ending the occupation itself. This is a topic I will explore in my forthcoming monograph, and which I have discussed in less detail elsewhere (notably in an article for a French magazine and my PhD thesis). The British Fifth Army had liberated much of the département of the Nord in October 1918, including its capital, Lille. Its commander, General Birdwood, was made an honorary citizen of the town in late October, when an official liberation ceremony took place (you can see a video of this here). Later, a statue of Birdwood was erected, which still stands today alongside the ‘Square Birdwood’ – a monument to a long-forgotten liberation.

 

As is often the case, though, one occupation was followed by another: the British remained in the Nord for months, to the chagrin of certain locals who resented a continued military presence (openly complaining of a ‘new occupation’). However, a French military intelligence report from November 1918 sang the praises of the British Army, noting that for 38 days, with the French Army lacking resources, it was the British who fed the 790,000 inhabitants of the occupation zone, distributing a total of 5,084,000 civilian rations via free canteens. Empty trucks were also offered for the transport of refugees. The report estimated that this aid saved the lives of at least 400,000 French people, and concluded: ‘It is a wonderful act of systematic and ingenious charity that the British Army is carrying out […] For this great work, commanders and soldiers have the right to the deepest gratitude of France.’[1]

 

However, civilians got involved as well. In December 1918, the Corporation of Manchester sent Lille (the ‘Manchester of France’) a Christmas tree, plus £500 for gifts for local children.[2] This sentiment eventually morphed into an official act of charity: in June 1920, an organisation was created to facilitate and oversee British towns ‘adopting’ French towns and villages in the ‘devastated region’. That organisation was the British League of Help for the Devastated Regions of France, which became an official war charity the following year. By the time the League of Help officially wound down in 1927, almost 80 British towns had adopted over 90 French towns or villages. The so-called ‘Godparent’ towns sent hundreds of thousands of pounds of aid to their ‘Godchildren’ to finance reconstruction, from water supplies and bridges to schools and hospitals.[3]  Money was raised via voluntary donations or fund-raising events, such as the special Wimbledon tennis tournament in July 1922. Buildings, roads, or local areas were often adorned with commemorative plaques, or named in honour of ‘Godparent’ towns and sometimes ‘Godchildren’ ones (such as the Pont Blackburn in Péronne, and Péronne Crescent in Blackburn). Aid also comprised sending goods such as agricultural equipment, seeds, clothes, or tools, as well as exchange visits between civic representatives and even schoolchildren. Such community bonds were a key aim of the League, and continued in some cases into the 1930s. Many people participated in the movement, whether as members of local adoption committees or by simply donating, but the precise number cannot be calculated. That said, this was not an unreserved success story: for instance, London had adopted Verdun in December 1920 and promised to raise £100,000, but by mid-1922 only £20,000 had been raised despite high-profile fund-raising visits from Prime Ministers (including Poincaré) and Marshal Pétain.[4] Nevertheless, this relief effort occurred during a period of strained official Franco-British relations, largely due to disagreements on how best to deal with Germany and maintain the peace, which makes it even more interesting. It also fits within recent work on the aftermath of the First World War as a significant period for the development of British humanitarianism.[5]

 

The history of the League and post-war British aid to French towns has largely been forgotten. Few academic works deal with this subject,[6] partly because there is very little archival documentation. I have recently attempted to overcome this difficulty and add to the literature by examining the way the British press portrayed the adoption scheme (spoiler alert: newspapers were very supportive and interested!). The result is a chapter in a forthcoming book on European ‘town twinnings,’ a post-1945 phenomenon for which inter-war adoptions set a precedent. This chapter will appear (translated into German) later this year with the provisional title „Alliierte“ über den Krieg hinaus: Britische Zeitungen und „Patenschaften“ französischer Städte nach dem Ersten Weltkrieg. However, I hope to return to this topic in English in the near future, as there is more to be said and discovered, another layer to be added to the tableau of Franco-British relations and friendship, plus British humanitarianism and charity – an important topic to consider given current global events.

 

References

[1] Service Historique de la Défense, 17 N 394, Rapport sur l’aide apportée par les troupes britanniques à la population libérée pendant l’avance du 1er Oct. au 25 Nov. 1918, p.12-13.

 

[2] The Times, 21 December 1918, p.7.

 

[3] See Bryan F. Lewis, ‘Adoptive Kinship and the British League of Help: Commemoration of the Great War through the Adoption of French Communities’ (PhD thesis: University of Reading, 2006).

 

[4] Daily Telegraph, 12 June 1922, p.12.

 

[5] See Emily C. Baughan, ‘“Every Citizen of Empire Implored to Save the Children!” Empire, internationalism and the Save the Children Fund in inter-war Britain,’ Historical Research 86:231 (February 2013), pp.116-137. My thanks to Dr Laure Humbert for suggesting this source.

 

[6] See Lewis, ‘Adoptive Kinship’; Brian S. Osborne, ‘In the Shadows of Monuments: the British League for the Reconstruction of the Devastated Areas of France,’ International Journal of Heritage Studies 7:1 (2001), pp.59-82; Sally White, Worthing, ‘Richebourg and the League of Help for the Devastated Areas of France: The Rediscovery of an Adoption,’ Sussex Archaeological Collections 140 (2002), pp.125-38.

 

 

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