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H2020

FFABFORCE Report Summary

Project ID: 703854
Funded under: H2020-EU.1.3.2.

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - FFABFORCE (The Free French and the British Forces: a case study of transnational military cooperation, 1940-1945)

Reporting period: 2016-11-01 to 2018-10-31

Summary of the context and overall objectives of the project

In British popular memory it is almost entirely forgotten that the British forces of the Second World War were, in fact, a multinational coalition composed of soldiers from Britain, its empire and its European allies. After Germany’s victories in the summer of 1940, Britain became the refuge for exiled military personnel from German-occupied Czechoslovakia, Poland, Norway, Holland, Belgium and France. In spite of objections from senior British officers, the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, insisted that strong national contingents of exiled personnel be organised immediately. This decision inaugurated an unprecedented degree of transnational military cooperation between Britain and its European allies: by 1944 Britain had organised over 230,000 military exiles into land, naval and air forces which supported the Allied campaign to liberate German-occupied Europe. Despite this remarkable fact, we know very little about how the British forces operated on a transnational level – the most fundamental question being how did the British integrate the various foreign units into British combat formations, in order to ensure a cohesive fighting force?

Much of what has been written on the military history of the Second World War in the last 70 years has been dominated by a nationally-compartmentalised understanding of the war. Thus, while there are some studies of foreign contingents in the British forces, they focus narrowly on particular units within the contingents and they generally analyse their service from the perspective of the foreign personnel. FFABFORCE is innovative because it rejects a one-sided, national focus. Rather, it analyses the process of integration from both the host’s perspective and that of the foreign personnel, thereby contributing to the research of a new generation of historians who are seeking to understand and highlight the transnational nature of the Allied and Axis war efforts.

The project’s two main objectives are: to assess the British approach to organising effective multinational forces during the war, using the Free French as a case study, and to analyse the responses of the Free French to their host’s efforts to integrate them.

There are two salient reasons for choosing the Free French contingent for this case study of transnational cooperation in the British forces. Firstly, from August 1940 onwards the Free French represented the second largest exile force after the Poles and secondly, unlike the land forces of most of the other foreign contingents who only saw active service in 1944, the Free French soldiers had been fighting alongside the British in Africa and other theatres since the autumn of 1940.

Work performed from the beginning of the project to the end of the period covered by the report and main results achieved so far

The main work of this project has been research in twelve archives in six countries.

At the Service Historique de la Defense in Vincennes, Paris, I have examined the records of the Free French high command and units, and the private papers of officers. This material was reinforced by looking at the papers of General Edgar de Larminat and General Charles de Gaulle at the Archives Nationales, Pierrefitte, Paris. In Britain, I concentrated on records relating to the Free French at the National Archives, London, at the Churchill Archives Centre, Cambridge and at the Imperial War Museum, London. From this research I was able to understand the British approach to integrating the Free French forces, particularly in the British Eighth Army in Libya, where the most Free French soldiers served under British command. By examining censorship summaries of British and French soldiers’ personal letters, I gained insights on British and French perceptions of the other. It also gave me insights on the day-to-day experiences of the Free French troops serving with the British.

In the National Archives of Australia and Archives New Zealand, I examined files about Free French relations with Australia and New Zealand, in particular how these governments assisted Free French recruitment in New Caledonia and Tahiti. These findings were complemented by research in the United States National Archives, Washington D.C. and the Roosevelt Presidential Library, New York, where I explored files detailing cooperation between the Free French and the American government, including the provision of equipment to French Equatorial Africa, military and naval cooperation in the Pacific Ocean and the training of French naval pilots. In the Eisenhower Presidential Library, Abilene, Kansas, I gathered information on Franco-American military relations from the files of the Supreme Allied Commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower.

As a result of this research I have given four presentations at conferences and seminars in France and Britain and several publications are in preparation.

Progress beyond the state of the art and expected potential impact (including the socio-economic impact and the wider societal implications of the project so far)

The historiography of the Second World War lacks research about the integration of foreign soldiers in the British (and American) war efforts. How does an army integrate foreign soldiers, overcoming the differences of language, culture, training, equipment? My research, which used sources rarely cited by other historians, represents a first attempt to answer this question. As a result of this project I have several publications forthcoming which will shed light on a number of topics: the ordinary Free French soldier’s experience of serving in British Eighth Army in Libya, the problems arising from the British approach to integration and how they were overcome, and cooperation between the Free French forces and the British dominions and the United States.

One of the societal challenges outlined in Horizon 2020, ‘Europe in a changing world’, aims at ‘supporting inclusive, innovative and reflective European societies’. FFABFORCE contributes to this goal by increasing academic and public understanding of the transnational and interdependent nature of the Allied war effort during the Second World War. It demonstrates the weakness of thinking about the war from the perspective of just one country, Britain, France, the United States, which is still an extremely common trend in military histories of the conflict. Therefore, my project, and the future publications resulting from it, offers an important perspective to today’s society in a period of rising nationalism and growing disdain for international institutions, both in Europe and America.

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