The Debt of WWII Resistance Writers to WWI Veterans Part 3: French Journalist Traces Her Breton Family Through Both World Wars
WWrite Interviews Stéphanie Trouillard
French journalist and regular WWrite blog contributor Stéphanie Trouillard has undertaken a formidable task: chronicling innovative histories of WWI and WWII... at the same time. For five years and counting, she has used social media to tell the stories of WWI for the French media. She has also just published her successful first book, My Uncle from the Shadows, a memoir of her great-uncle who died in the WWII French Resistance. In this week's post, she sits down to talk with WWrite about the ways her research and writing on both wars have intertwined to tell a tale of her own family's experience of loss and survival in 1914-1918 and in 1939-1944. This is the third in the blog series entitled, “The Debt of WWII French Resistance Writers to WWI Veterans.”
WWrite Thanks for sitting down with WWRite this week. You must be very busy. You’ve gone from one world war to the next seemingly without pause. For five years and counting, you’ve covered the WWI Centennial for France 24, one of France’s most important media sources. WWrite has had the honor of posting articles about your popular WWI Twitter feed, Pierre Lemaître’s book, The Great Swindle, your web documentary on Senegalese soldiers fighting for France during WWI. And now we’re sitting down to talk about the recent, very successful publication of your first book about your uncle, who was a French Resistance fighter during WWII: Mon oncle de l’ombre (My Uncle from the Shadows). Last summer, WWrite started a series called “The Debt of WWII Resistance Writers to WWI Veterans” by looking at the work and lives of Albert Camus and Jean Moulin, French writers who both attribute their dedication to the Resistance to WWI veterans. You kind of follow in their footsteps as someone who works on the memory of both wars in very intense ways. For you, what is the relationship between WWI and WWII? How have you come to work on them?
Stéphanie Trouillard Since I was a child, I have always been especially interested in WWII. I remember the fiftieth anniversary of D-Day in 1994 when I was ten years old. I was passionate about this event – I bought a lot of books and magazines about it. I think it also has to do with a painful part of my family’s history, the death of my grandfather’s brother in the French Resistance of Brittany in 1944. My mother was born in St. Marcel in the Morbihan region of Brittany, which was the center of the largest Breton Resistance. My parents talked about and read many books on the subject, so the story was transmitted to me. Most of the films we watched were about WWII too. As for WWI, I would say it was a story of circumstances. I love history and I hesitated a long time before deciding to become a journalist instead of a history teacher. In November 2013, at the beginning of the 1914-1918 centennial, I said to myself that it would be interesting to work on WWI. I started doing the research and wrote a few articles. Little by little, it became my subject and more than five years later, I’m still writing about it. In the midst of my work, I, of course, wanted to know the story of my own family during WWI, which I knew little about. I started the research, traced their lives, and discovered that three of my great- uncles died during the conflict. I realized how lucky I am today. My grandparents and my great-grandparents lived through both world wars. They lost their brothers. My great-grandfather lost his brother during the First World War and then he lost his son during the second. So, his life was always touched by war and death. I think it’s incredibly important to understand what they lived through so that I can live during a period of peace in my country.
WWrite The question of surviving WWI to tell the story is enormous. France lost 10% of its young male population. Last week, there was an exhibition at the Montluc Memorial Prison, a museum dedicated to commemorating the imprisonment and deportation of Resistance fighters and Jews in Lyon, France, about WWI Resistance fighters who had also fought in WWI. It was striking to see that these men and women, after enduring the horrific experiences of WWI, had the courage to join the Resistance in WWII when they were much older. Wasn’t surviving WWI enough for one life? After reading their harrowing stories in the WWI trenches, you get to their incredible stories of fighting underground in WWII. The saddest and perhaps most shocking part was to read that many of them ended up tortured, jailed, assassinated, or deported to Auschwitz. Like your great-grandparents and grandparents, their lives were shaped by multiple world wars. For you, what would it mean for someone to survive the first world war only to end up fighting or even dying 20 years later in the second?
Stéphanie Trouillard One story particularly touched me as I was researching my uncle’s experience. The woman’s name was Emilienne Moreau and, as a young girl during WWI, she was awarded the Croix de Guerre (War Cross), the esteemed French military honor, because she killed German soldiers who entered her village in the north as a civilian. During the WWII, she was one of only six women who was given the Compagnon de la résistance, an award given by President Charles de Gaulle to all those who participated notably in the liberation of France during WWII. So, this was a woman who never stopped resisting and fighting. She did manage to survive both wars, but can you imagine what she must have lived through? She was an incredible woman. Unfortunately, my uncle didn’t survive. He was killed by German soldiers on a farm in Brittany with French parachutists, other Resistance fighters, and farmers. I talk about this in my book – two of the farmers were veterans from WWI. They are examples of those who survived the first but were caught by the second. Incredible stories. I always wished I could ask my great-grandfather, who worked artillery in WWI and who lost his brother during the same conflict, what he thought about his son who joined the resistance in WWII. I never got to ask him, but I have always wondered what he thought. Unfortunately, I could never have that conversation with him.
WWrite It’s similar to Albert Camus’ story. His father, whom he never got a chance to know, died in WWI. And Camus joined the French Resistance during WWII. I am sure that he must have wondered what this familial repetition meant. Would his father have been proud? Disappointed? Horrified? He never got to know that either. What can a veteran father say about a son who goes to war against the same enemy only 20 years later?
Stéphanie Trouillard I have a friend who took a picture of my book that has a picture of my great-uncle, who died in the WWII Resistance in 1944, on the cover in front of the grave of his uncle, my great-great-uncle, who died during WWI in 1916. A historian said that it was ridiculous to take such a photo because we can’t link both wars. He found it absolutely aberrant and he wrote me a long message explaining his reasons. But I responded that I wasn’t linking the wars, I was linking a nephew to his uncle. I was bringing a family’s experience in war together. However, I can understand. It’s a totally different story to be in a regular army, like in WWI, then it is to be in an underground resistance. They died for different reasons under very different circumstance. I am not trying to link the wars at all.
WWrite Yes, it’s incredible to see how two of the largest wars in history went through the lives of your family in almost one generation. A lot of people, and even in the United States, have a romanticized vision of the French Resistance. They have the impression that all of France fought heroically underground against the Nazis, that everyone was united against the enemy. But I know that the real history of the French Resistance is much more complicated than that. How does your book speak to these competing versions of the history of the French Resistance?
Stéphanie Trouillard Well, I would say that it was only one person in my entire family who fought in the Resistance. I haven’t found any others. Just one member of my family and even that is rare. And even the Resistance groups were small. My uncle was part of a battalion of Resistance fighters in the Morbihan. It was made up of companies of Resistance fighters from several villages. After D-Day, there was a call for disparate cells of the Resistance to come together as a group. Not only did they fight the Germans, their families were targeted, tracked, and also killed. It was terrible. These were local Resistance fighters, most very young. In fact, my great-uncle went into the Resistance because he had been sent to Germany for a year for obligatory work service, which the Germans made many French do during the Occupation. He got leave and came back to France. He didn’t want to go back to Germany so he hid in another village and he met other young people his age. That’s how he found himself in the Resistance. I have no idea about his political beliefs or his motivation for joining. Most of the time, these fighters were young and didn’t know much about politics or fighting at all. They went into combat with no preparation. It was often an adventure with friends. But very few young people did this if you look at their participation and the young population of France at the time.
WWrite Did you start work on this book before, during, or after your work with France 24 on the WWI Centennial?
Stéphanie Trouillard I started the research in 2011 so it was before the beginning of the centennial. I work on both world wars, but for each, I have an approach that’s different. I really prefer working on WWII because I get to talk to living persons. I can hear first-hand the eyewitness account of those who lived through it. It touches me more and, unfortunately, these people are leaving us. I’m too young to know anyone who was in WWI and so I have to rely on archives and second-hand accounts. I can’t ask questions. I remember going to a fair in my great-uncle’s village in Brittany once when I was very little and meeting the Poilu du village, the WWI veteran of the village. I found that funny – the WWI vet of the village, who was already old. As he were a museum piece. With WWI, I have conversations with ghosts. At the same time, WWI has many more documents available than with WWII. There are letters, postcards, and other documents because it was a regular war, not one fought underground. The very idea of the Resistance was to work in the shadows, to not leave a trace, to fight under false names. So, there are very few letters and photos. As we talked about, most French people neither collaborated nor resisted. But most did nothing but wait for it to be over and try to survive. That’s what’s so interesting about my great-uncle. In my family, we had a real Resistance fighter, and no one talked about it. I found that sad – the one rare person who said no to the Nazis isn’t even talked about. That’s why I wanted to bring him out of the shadows and tell his story.
WWrite In Brittany, was is common not to talk about one’s experience during WWI and WWII?
Stéphanie Trouillard Yes, so many people had suffered so much in that region that it was common. Also, the Bretons aren’t the kind of people who show much emotion or talk about themselves personally. And these memories were too painful. In my research, I discovered a lot of violent details that were so horrible. At the same time, no one in my family ever talked about WWI and our losses in that war either. Nothing was transmitted. I had to discover that three of my great-great-uncles died in WWI. No one ever told me.
WWrite France24 is an international news organization and I know that you have met some of the members of the WWI Centennial Commission over the course of 5 years. What would you say is the greatest difference between the ways that Americans and French remember WWI?
Stéphanie Trouillard Well, it’s always seemed to me that Americans have much more of an interest in WWII. However, since last year, I come across many Americans on social media who have been trying to make this memory come alive. Last May, I was at the Bois de Belleau ceremony, which is a very important place of commemoration for the American Marines. It was big, beautiful, and so many people were there. What I think is really interesting about the Americans is that people in the military today are the ones transmitting the memory of wars fought in the past. It’s a very strong tradition and I can feel that they are really carrying the values of the past veterans. The way they carry the weight of past wars, even wars they never fought, with them is impressive.
Stéphanie Trouillard works as a TV and Web journalist in Paris and has spent three years as a correspondent in Morocco and Canada. She specializes in international news and sports. She is also in charge of coverage for the WWI Centenary of 14-18 and 70th-year-anniversary of the Liberation of France during WWII. Thanks to these enriching experiences, she is practiced in several journalistic domains: writer, presenter, and TV director. Most recently, she co-wrote, directed, and produced the web documentary, "If I Come Back One Day:" Louise Pikovsky's Recovered Letters, a film about the 2010 discovery of letters written by Louise Pikovsky, a young high school student, to her literature teacher in 1944. Pikovsky and her family were deported and died in Auschwitz. She is on tour for her first book, Mon oncle de l’ombre, which was published in September 2018.