I took this book to the Highlands to read, thinking it would be a little light entertainment after a day of blowing Scottish wildlife off of their dismal wet moors and wondering if I could cash in on our pine forest without denuding the sell-on value of the demesne.
I knew I was in trouble the first night as the clock in the hall struck midnight with a 05.00 start next day and me thinking “I’ll just finish this section”. After that I rationed myself strictly. ‘At 22.00, put the book down and go to bed.’ I devoured this book.
Two things struck me when I got the book to review. First, the title is a tad over the top – written by a Sun sub-editor perhaps? Having read the book I now realise the title is, if anything an understatement.
Second, I knew rock-all about the French resistance in WW2. Such knowledge as I possessed was gleaned from reading about bigger episodes where the resistance had a walk-on part, or from fairly crap black and white films. The true story came as a revelation and the book will stay with me for a long time to come, and this story will haunt me. I love visiting France but from now on I will be looking at the place a bit sideways.
Blood in the Snow, Blood on the Grass is getting an unreserved five mushroomheads. Buy it now. It is a cracking read.
Blood in the Snow, Blood on the Grass is the story of the French resistance immediately before, during and after the D Day landings.
The first third of the book puts the reader in the picture regarding the complex set of groups who made up the resistance; the communists with their sinister Moscow driven agenda, French ex military units with their dogged adherence to military rather than guerrilla tactics, the Gaullists driven by the calculating and cold blooded Charles DeGaulle and the British SOE and allied command who were perhaps playing their own deadly game.
If the characters and plots were written into fiction anybody would say they were over the top. The gorgeous cunning Brit SOE bird who uses guile, sexiness and determination to walk into, and out of the most impossibly dangerous situations. Claude and Claudette with a small pistol secreted in their chic belted trench coats. Swashbuckling and effete Brit Ruperts dropped by parachute into French France then whisked away by cheery RAF kids in a flying lawn mower. An extraordinary USMC officer who ended up being highly decorated by the Brits, the French and the USA then went on to advise Hollywood after the war. The ego’s, the crap tacticians, the warriors, the nut-jobs and most poignant of all, the poor sods who joined the Maquis simply to avoid being drafted to Germany as virtual slave labour.
Then we have the away team. In addition to the usual suspects; the Waffen SS and Gestapo we find the most sinister group of all, the French Vichy government appointed paramilitary Milece who were utterly ruthless in hunting down, torturing and murdering, often in whimsically inventive ways, their fellow Frenchmen.
And so the stage is set. The publishers, The History Press, in their blurb say “(The resistance) assembled small armies of untrained civilians in wild country where it was believed Allied airborne forces would land and help them drive the hated occupiers out of their country. In reality they were being used as bait - to draw German forces away from the invasion beaches”. But I think they have got that wrong. For me, the author simply lays out the terrible facts of events in central and eastern France around the time of the D Day landings then allows the reader to form their own conclusions.
An example – early in the book a network of several hundred resistance activists is wrapped up by the Germans. They are imprisoned, tortured and killed. This could have happened for one of several reasons: 1) Totally incompetent leadership. 2) Double agents or informers. 3) Betrayal by the SEO for the purpose of disinformation (information extracted under torture from several hundred people has a certain credibility, and if disinformation was planted across a network, it becomes ‘truth’ in the eyes of the torturers). 4) Some sort of mass hysteria. 5) All of the above. The author draws no concrete conclusion. Now and then he will tip his hand a little but this is not, as the publisher suggests a revisionist history intended to blame it all on the Brits. Far from it.
And as a history the author has done the almost impossible. Tracked down people who were there and got them to talk about painful, often shameful memories. He started with friends and neighbours in France (the author has lived there for 30 years), then through referral, built up a network of trusted contacts. This in itself is a feat worthy of note since; if truth is the first casualty of war, truth never enters the ring in a guerrilla war where neighbour is betraying neighbour.
I found this book poignant, moving and horrifying in equal measure.
My conclusion? Nah. Read the book. Then ask me. Let us do it in a rain lashed bar in Wester Ross on a winters night with a banked fire and a wee dram to hand, far from invasion by armed men. And far from the horror that was France in 1944.
Blood in the Snow, Blood on the Grass:by Douglas Boyd published by The History Press
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