Eleven Days In August – The Liberation of Paris in 1944
By Matthew Cobb
Simon & Schuster – 25.00
What I rather like about this history book is that it doesn’t (always) read and come across like a history book. Eleven Days In August – The Liberation Of Paris In 1944 is instead, equally balanced between the parameters of pace and panache. The sort of which is normally found in that of an ‘un-put-down-able’ novel – wherein idiosyncratic intrigue is normally the order of the day.
A quality which one has to readily confess, one doesn’t often find in the sort of publication that could so easily veer towards being far too didactic and dry for its own good.
That said, the liberation of Paris really was a momentous event with regards the Second World War. Even if only from the perspective of the Allies gaining their first initial psychological break-through in pushing German forces out of one of Europe’s most important and influential of capital cities. It needs to be remembered however, that it was only the beginning. My mother for instance, was brought up in occupied Amsterdam – that due to its geographical position in the north of Holland, was bypassed by the Allies – which wasn’t fundamentally liberated until the following May (5th) by Canadian and Polish forces.
Paris was the pivotal breakthrough though, as Ernie Pyle, US war correspondent has subsequently stated on the back cover of this book: ”I had thought that for me there could never again be any elation in war. But I had reckoned without the liberation of Paris – I had reckoned without remembering that I might be a part of that richly historic day. We were in Paris on the first day – one of the great days of all time.”
To be sure, Eleven Days In August captures said day and a whole more besides.
From beginning to end – it’s all here.
The entire story – from every which way of an angle including Parisians, Resistance fighters, French collaborators, rank-and-file German soldiers – as well as the German and Allied High Commands. That no literary stone has been left un-turned ought hardly be surprising, given that the book’s author is Matthew Cobb, who is not only an award-winning writer (his previous work is The Resistance: The French Fight Against the Nazis), but is a Professor and Associate Dean at the University of Manchester.
As already mentioned, he has laced these 367 pages (not including Bibliography and Notes) with a quality that is in a way, awkwardly inviting. And I don’t mean that to sound derogatory, but surely reading about war and occupation, ought not to be as pleasant a pastime as this! But it is. Perhaps the answer lies within the tonality of the actual writing and the aforementioned pace with which information is both structured and laid forth.
Although for me, it’s the humanity of the book that strikes the strongest note. This is pronounced time and again throughout the book, although several of the most poignant fall within the chapter entitled, ‘Friday 25 August, Evening Triumph,’ toward the end of the book – of which the following is perhaps the most captivating and memorable example:
”On the other side of the Seine, Jacqueline Mesnil-Amar powdered her nose, put on some lipstick and a clean dress and rode her bicycle all over the north of the city. As she wrote in her diary that evening: ‘What sudden lightness of being throughout the city; people are singing, running, everyone is in the street, setting up dances at every crossroads – we will dance tonight. There are flags everywhere, made of bits of old cloth, poorly sewn together, hurriedly dyed, tricolours and Allied flags, draping the windows. Banners painted on wallpaper stretch across the streets from one building to another, shining and shaking in the air, dancing in the blue sky. But Jacqueline’s thoughts were never far from her husband, André:
Why aren’t you here on this unforgettable night, under this beautiful sky, why aren’t you in these streets on your bicycle, by my side or here on this balcony?… I call to you, I call to you again from the depths of my sadness and my joy… I call to you from the partying Paris, where innocent people will be able to live, where children will be able to grow up, where those who have done no harm will be able to sleep at night, in this extraordinary union which will not last, in the beauty of this evening, which you would have loved so much… You who are so far away, I call to you as never before.”
Might it be said, that it is just such simple, humbling humility, that accounts for this truly tremendous book being able to breath and shine unlike so many others within the genre.
The eleven days captured herein, tell it like it must surely have been. How ordinary people lived, fought and ultimately died in what (thankfully) remains, the most beautiful city in the world.