Jean-Louis Crémieux-Brilhac : the route to enlistment
In a series of interviews given to the Army Historical Service in 1998 and 1999, Jean-Louis Crémieux-Brilhac retraced his path from mobilisation to enlistment in the Free French Forces in London and then operations with the National Interior Commission. His statement sheds light on how a young man, a history student unsurprised by the declaration of war in September 1939, came to enlist.
A politically aware young man
Jean-Louis Crémieux-Brilhac (see slideshow) described himself as ”very politicised, from a left-wing family that was itself fairly politicised”. He also added ”I had studied the Front populaire and was fairly committed politically. Since the age of 14, I had spent a number of periods in Germany, where I had socialist friends.” A reserve officer cadet, Jean-Louis Crémieux-Brilhac was mobilised on 16 September 1939. Admitted to the Saint-Cyr military academy, he left with the rank of ”aspirant” and was assigned to the 47th infantry regiment in Rennes. ”What surprised me,” he explained, ”was both the perfect and total willingness of my comrades to be aspirants and to command an infantry section and yet their lack of fighting spirit and their poor understanding of what war involves in general.”
His unit was allocated to the Maginot line in May 1940, but the German offensive forced it to withdraw to the Marne, where he was taken prisoner at the head of his section on 11 June. Recalling this period, he explained that his ”war in 1940 was hardly dazzling, but rather depressing, very depressing”.
Conquered but defiant
Jean-Louis Crémieux-Brilhac was now a prisoner of war in Oflag II-D in Pomerania, where an incident made a deep impression on him: on 22 or 23 June, on a radio broadcasting news from the Wehrmacht: ”We learned that the armistice had been signed with Germany, but would not take force until an armistice had also been signed with Italy. I heard a kind of cry of lamentation and horror from the group of officers around me, because this would delay their release. This reaction at the announcement of an armistice that was not itself a source of grief to them was probably the first thing, combined with others, that subsequently led me to escape.”
Later he explained how his state of mind developed during the first weeks of his captivity: ”Through lack of imagination or mental preparation, we didn't think there were any other solutions than armistice. And then it was the Marshal who'd made the decision, and we couldn't imagine that Pétain wouldn't be the best defender of French interests against the occupier; we took that for granted. But we quickly heard that there was a General de Gaulle […]. Very soon there were a few people who were Gaullists. But at that point there was no contradiction in being a Gaullist while still supporting Pétain. […] For many, they went together: 'Pétain the shield and de Gaulle the sword'. [...] Then the Battle of Britain - the fact that the British held out - changed attitudes and showed that the war hadn't been won by the Germans, while at the beginning the dejection and the trauma were so great that we couldn't imagine the Germans might lose the war. The vast majority thought we were sunk. But in the summer of 1940, it became clear the war would last. That didn't stop the prisoners hoping they would be released soon; they didn't lose hope. […] For my part, although I was more of a pacifist than a militarist, I was very disturbed by this kind of submission and acceptance in the summer of 1940.”
The choice of Free France
What followed is better known, and Jean-Louis Crémieux-Brilhac has told the story twice: once for propaganda purposes, when the events were still fresh, in Retour par l'URSS (”Return via the USSR”), escape accounts serialised in La Marseillaise from London in 1942-1943 (and later published in book form); and a second time in Prisonniers de la liberté: L'odyssée des 218 évadés par l'URSS, 1940-1941 (”Prisoners of freedom: the odyssey of the 218 escapees via the USSR”), in which the witness becomes a historian. This book, published in 2004, also draws on Soviet archives. It tells the story of the escapees from German prisoner of war camps who, thinking they have found freedom by crossing the Lithuanian border, found themselves interned in Soviet camps until the launch of Operation Barbarossa (22 June 1941) changed the situation: Stalin decided to release the French prisoners, and 186 of the 218 joined the ranks of Free France (see slideshow). The arrival of Jean-Louis Crémieux-Brilhac and his comrades in England did not go unnoticed: ”We arrived in London around 12 September 1941. We were welcomed with great ceremony and emotion. It was quite an event, because de Gaulle was in the middle of a crisis […] with Churchill, eventually emerging triumphant. It was only on 24 September that he got his way, creating the Comité national français (French National Committee) in the form he wanted. Our arrival with fourteen officers and aspirants, and Billotte singing 'Pour combattre avec de Gaulle, souviens-toi, souviens-toi, qu'il faut s'taper pas mal de tôles' (Ed.: the marching song of the ”Russians of Free France” composed by René Millet in June-July 1941) as we crossed London, was a small advantage. It was the first major group of escaped prisoners, and apart from the colonial contributions it was the biggest collective rallying to de Gaulle since 1940. So it was something of an event, an advantage, and that's how he always saw it.”
Teacher of history and geography, editor in chief of the ”Chemins de mémoire” website
FOR MORE INFORMATION
The oral statement by Jean-Louis Crémieux-Brilhac (SHD GR 3 K 42) can be consulted freely. The transcription of his words aims to be as faithful as possible. However, a few minor adjustments, not affecting the meaning of his words, have had to be made in the transition from oral to written language. His file as a resistance agent, conserved with the record number GR 16 P 150076, can be consulted in the reading room.