“Respectful of the military’s priority, the caravan docilely pulls over to the right. At first we would stand at attention for a moment, we would salute these officers who are going ahead to prepare our defense. Except we are a little surprised to see so many women in the military vehicles. But they no doubt belong to the Red Cross. One of the vehicles from the caravan veers a little to the left. An officer leans out, yelling and pointing a revolver at the tires. Stuck in the road like a snail to its rock, the caravan doesn’t react.
“That’s when for the first time I see isolated infantrymen, unarmed heads down, dragging their shoes, sometimes their sandals, along the grass on the roadsides. Avoiding a bicyclist, skirting a stopped auto without seeming to see them. Walking like blind men, like disheveled shadows. Strangers to the peasants in their carts, to the city people in their cars, to military units, they are alone, like beggars who have renounced begging. This is the beginning of the rout. We don’t realize it. We take them for stragglers; we believe that their regiments are far ahead.”
– Leon Werth, 33 Days, page 19
It is always striking to read memoirs or firsthand accounts by individuals of their experiences in various parts of World War II, especially those written or recorded at the time of the events. For modern readers, it places us in a position to imagine and understand experiences that most of us have not encountered in our own lives, particularly when in the setting of war. In my last post, I was struck by the perspective of a young American diplomat in Prague in October 1938, right after the Munich pact had made the city’s future precarious before the rising power of Nazi Germany. In keeping with that theme, the above passage describes a scene witnessed by a French civilian fleeing in a caravan from Paris before the Wehrmacht on June 10, 1940.
What makes the passage so impactful to my mind is Leon Werth’s description of a scene that has occurred many times in history, but less frequently in our modern world: civilians fleeing a great metropolis in the shadow of an advancing, hostile army. It raises a number of questions and tests for anyone in those circumstances: What do you take with you? Where do you go? How do you interact with others on the road, trying to get away? What do you believe when you hear different accounts—rumors—of what is happening?
What rings truthful in Werth’s account is his acknowledgment that he and others on the road fail at first to understand or recognize what is happening around them. The women in the officer’s cars are seen as a curiosity, and an easy rationalization is seized upon for people trying not to panic in a stressful situation. But even when he witnesses defeated soldiers, he still does not recognize the meaning and immensity of what is happening. Again, a rationalization takes precedence—surely they are stragglers, headed for the front to battle, to protect all of the innocents in this caravan. It is wishful thinking of the best-case scenario. His thinking is human, understandable, and perhaps even admirable in spirit as he holds onto hope—but completely and utterly wrong in reality.
In this brief description, we not only can see how Werth fails to confront the reality of the situation, but also should come to question ourselves: Do you think you could do better if ever placed in the same circumstances today? But there is one more passage from Werth’s experience on the road that should be brought to attention, and that experience will be the subject of the next The Words of War post.
“A place can evoke the history that occurred there, but through words our minds truly gain perspectives and understanding of what it was like to know, feel, experience, hope, fail, triumph, and live through events from which we ourselves were absent. The written word is our most intricate map to retrace and reconstruct what we think happened, and ultimately brings us back to ourselves.”
– Keith Huxen, PhD, Senior Director of Research and History, The National WWII Museum
Keith is the former Senior Director of Research and History in the Institute for the Study of War and Democracy at The National WWII Museum.