The Soul of France


By JOHN W. VANDERCOOK, News Commentator

Broadcast over N.B.C., November 27, 1942

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. IX, pp. 190-191.

WHAT happened today in France, will, I think, live as long as there are human minds left to remember, as one of the bravest arid surely, as the most gallant deed in modern history. Toulon, where the French fleet lay, and waited so long for its hour of destiny—is a quiet town. The shutters of its neat, grey-white little buildings are often drawn during the long and drowsy hours of the Mediterranean afternoon. The port, and the people of the port, turn their backs on the main highway by which fashionable travellers drive to those more famous resort centers, farther on to the East, along the Riviera coast. And Toulon does not regret their passage. On the water-front, the sleepy promenade is hard and grassless earth, spaced by those plane trees which are the signature of France. But the old sailors on pension, who sit on the benches that look to the sea, and the young children in their blue pinafores and black aprons who play near them—in the shadow of a big blue and white sign which says "Be Good to Animals," have the sun of the azure coast for company—and they ask for little more. Inland, in the valleys between the nearby hills, are the fields of narcissus and of roses—which supply the perfume makers of the town of Grasse. Beyond—somehow apart from Toulon itself, is the great naval port; a vast clanging basin of moles, and reaching cranes, and of great grey warships—which were the pride of France. But, they too, and the strong Breton sailors with the red pompoms on their blue caps, were a part of that peaceful place, which until today, had never known its hour of glory.

Two years ago, the foolish said, France died. With her motherland's defeat, Toulon grew shabbier, and desperately hungry. And the great ships—in that strange stillness of anation's tragedy, never stirred. The ignorant might have fancied, that they, too, were dead, and the spirits of the men aboard them. But France, where they hate to march, and where they hate all German marching men—was living. Her courage, burnished bright by shame, was glowing, under the ashes of defeat, more brightly—we know now—than it ever had before.

Today—Hitler, that futile fool, who thinks that you can conquer men's and nation's spirits with an iron bludgeon, ordered that Toulon be taken. He had lied again. For he had sworn Toulon and the fleet, would be inviolate. The thundering Nazi columns poured into the Toulon streets without warning, just before dawn this morning. They too—had made the brute mistake of fancying that France, and the French, were dead. Studiously, their masters had starved the bodies, and pressed with all their German surgeons' skill, on the minds of those men of Toulon—for two long years—to mold them into their own robot obedience. And then those invaders met such a scene of fierce courage, and of resurgent life, as they never dreamed could be.

The fleet was ready: to go down, like the sun, in splendor. Explosives, stored in the ships' holds, were touched off—even as the German boarding parties, climbed to the steel decks. French officers stood calm and smiling, as their ships blew up around them. By ten o'clock, the great naval harbor was filled with sunken, burning ships—and France—had beaten Germany. There were sixty or more of those ships. They were of all kinds, from great battleships to slender submarines. Axis patrols outside the port had prevented their escape. But—if ships, or men, or nations have souls—they have joined us now—risen from the bravest funeralpyre in Europe's history. With that glorious gesture, seemingly ended the last pretence that there was a coward government of France, in Vichy. That collaborationist group has had few friends. And those few, one may be quite sure, today sank finally into the mud which bore them—as those Toulon ships went down.

The first accounts of the Toulon affair—came exultantly—over the Vichy radio. Abruptly—that radio went dead. The great story was repeated. Then—the Vichy radio went silent again, and has not been heard since. Perhaps—the Gestapo is in charge. Certainly, few French voices will be found now to mouth the Germans' orders into any microphone. The bewildered Nazis, so superbly tricked by a kind of spirit they have never understood, now have, they say, Toulon, in their possession. The shell, they may hold. Though they have admitted that the task of winning full control of the port took many hours. But—the substance, and the fleet—are gone. Arsenals, munition dumps, and fuel tanks were all blown up. Toulon's very considerable harbor fortifications, the Vichy announcement said, were all destroyed. The French were ready. And let no one say again that the French, unlike others, have a singular respect for property. That fleet—it is a minor aspect—of which they were soproud, cost them, a far poorer people than we are, far more than a quarter of a billion dollars. Yet—they tossed it into the scales of our common victory—like a condemned man's airy flip of a cigarette. In the town itself, the furious, muddled Nazis are piling prisoners into their waiting lorries—which had come on that fool's errand—and blank-faced German troopers stand guard over their proud prisoners.

The effect of this day's work on France, and on the whole progress of the war, is incalculable. France—though she has never died, has been reborn. It takes small imagination to picture the excitement, the tears, the pride tonight—of that whole great people. France's humiliation—and I do not think I exaggerate a particle—has ended. France, tied to the wheel of the conquerors chariot, for more than two bitter years, now can lift her head again, and look any people of any nation, eye to eye. What—they may ask now, have you done, that was any braver, that was any better, than what we did today? What single victory has yours or Britain's navy ever won that cost the enemy sixty ships at once? It is true, it was a strange victory. But the circumstances were shaped—the French would say—not by ourselves, but by fate. And now we—the men of France—have fashioned that fate—to our own—and to your—uses.