The lost lion of Paris: the extraordinary story of George Dukson

Georges Dukson was one of the great heroes of the Resistance. But when the French capital was liberated, General de Gaulle wanted him out of the picture. Matthew Cobb investigates a tragic injustice

It is 3pm on Saturday 26 August 1944. Paris is liberated. Under a blazing sun, General Charles de Gaulle, in full dress uniform, is standing at the Arc de Triomphe. He is at the head of a massive parade to celebrate the end– the previous day – of Nazi rule in the French capital. He also wants to show who is the new master in the country.

To the left of de Gaulle is Georges Bidault, head of the Conseil National de la Résistance; to the right, de Gaulle's personal delegate, Alexandre Parodi. Behind them can be seen the leading figures of the Free French army and the Resistance. Out of sight, behind the camera, are four tanks of General Leclerc's 2nd Armoured Division, which the day before had entered Paris and helped seal victory. Beyond them, a million joyous Parisians line the sides of the Champs Elysees. This is a moment, and an image, that will go down in history.

But there is another figure in this iconic photograph, taken 65 years ago this month (and shown right). On the right there is the only black person in the photo – indeed, one of the few black people on the demonstration. He is wearing a mixture of civilian clothes and military puttees. His right arm is in a sling. In every respect he is different from the smartly-dressed white men who dominate the demonstration.

His name was Georges Dukson, he was only 22, and he was not supposed to be there.

Caught up in the enthusiasm of the moment, convinced that he had as much right to be there as anyone else, Dukson had simply invited himself on to the head of the parade. His presence was completely unscripted, a piece of spontaneous bravura, and it was soon snuffed out by protocol. Newsreel rushes show Dukson being unceremoniously kicked off the march, at gunpoint, shortly after the photo was taken. Despite being a true representative of the Resistance rank and file, he had no place on de Gaulle's demonstration, which was supposed to be tightly organised.

The Parisian Resistance radio station, which had broadcast throughout the fighting, bringing Parisians hour-by-hour updates on the imminent arrival of Leclerc's troops, had called the population on to the streets. A US army plane, carrying a newsreel team, circled low overhead, capturing the images for audiences the world over. So many people turned up that de Gaulle's plan for a classic military parade was rapidly transformed into what one eye-witness, Simone de Beauvoir, called "a magnificent, if chaotic, popular carnival".

The Resistance members who lined the demonstration – and who, the day before, had been fighting the Germans in the streets – were not the disciplined troops de Gaulle wanted to see. Even the Tricolour flags were not all quite right – a massive banner in the Spanish Republican colours of violet, red and yellow stretched across the Champs Elysées, highlighting the presence of over 300 Republicans in the ranks of the Leclerc Division.

At first, de Gaulle was furious. "What a shambles! Who's in charge here?" he barked, tearing a strip off Resistance leader Jean de Vogüé and reducing him to tears. But when the Free French leader saw the enthusiasm of the hundreds of thousands of Parisians, he soon realised that something quite extraordinary was happening – he later claimed that his presence on the march showed he was "the instrument of destiny".

Even if not everyone shared de Gaulle's sense of his own importance, one participant described the amazing emotions unleashed by Liberation: "What overwhelming joy after four years of sadness! How the impetuosity contrasted with German rigidity! There was an explosion of jubilation, perhaps not from the whole of France, but from the true France, revolutionary France, which appeared all over the country, smashed the barriers of ordinary life and spread, messily and chaotically."

Throughout the parade, the tumultuous chaos and indiscipline of the crowd irritated de Gaulle. At one point, de Gaulle noticed a young résistant, one of the thousands who had risked their lives in the fighting, and who were lining the Champs Elysées. The young man wore an FFI (Forces Françaises de l'Intérieur) resistance armband, had a cigarette hanging from his lips, and was mad with joy. De Gaulle beckoned him over and spoke a few words into his ear; the résistant returned to the edge of the crowd. "What did he say to you?" he was eagerly asked. "Don't smoke on the procession," was the reply.

Was de Gaulle aware of Dukson's audacity in getting to the front of the parade? Perhaps. As he later wrote in his memoirs: "Some people with minor walk-on roles joined the cortege of my comrades, even though they had no right to. But no one paid them any attention." Dukson was undoubtedly the most notable of those "people with minor walk-on roles"; but he was not ignored, he was thrown off the procession. His face did not fit, even though, like many other resistance fighters who were also absent – women, communists, ordinary workers, foreigners – he truly had a right to be there.

In the week of bloody street fighting that preceded the German surrender, Dukson had played a vital role for the Resistance in the 17th arrondissement in the north of Paris, earning the title "the Lion of the 17th". When fighting broke out near his home on 20 August, Dukson rushed to help out and was put in command of a contingent of FFI Resistance fighters.

Together with his comrades, Dukson destroyed several German troop lorries, and even captured a tank, leaping on to it and killing the driver. In the spectacular newsreel footage that was taken during the Paris insurrection (see independent.co.uk/liberation – and overleaf), Dukson can be seen grinning on top of the vehicle.

When the Resistance seized a new tank from a factory, they sent it out on to the streets to help the uprising; Dukson's group, armed only with revolvers and grenades, bravely accompanied it. On 21 August, Dukson was wounded in the arm by a bullet, and he was again filmed on the newsreel, being helped by his comrades, clutching his rifle.

As a consequence of his bravery, Dukson was rapidly promoted to the rank of sub-Lieutenant, and his fame soon spread through Paris. Holding court each night in a bar on the rue de Chéroy, he became a minor celebrity. Signed photographs of him were sold for 100 francs. You had to pay only 15 francs for a photo of de Gaulle.

It was in that bar – now boarded up – that the journalist René Dunan met Dukson during the fighting and immediately fell under his spell. After the war was over, Dunan wrote down Dukson's "magnificent and sad story".

In 1939, when the Second World War broke out, Dukson lived in Gabon, in what was then French West Africa. As his father had in 1914, Georges joined the French Army to fight in Europe. Captured shortly before the fall of France in 1940, Sergeant Dukson spent two years in a German prisoner-of-war camp before escaping and making his way back to France. Exactly how he managed this feat – a black man on the roads of Nazi Germany would surely have attracted attention – has been lost to history, but by 1943 he was a fugitive in occupied Paris.

While the Nazis goose-stepped along the streets, rounding up Jews and members of the Resistance, Dukson simply tried to survive. He also fell madly in love with a girl who worked in a pharmacy and courted her with black market steak and other gifts. He even gave her a stolen fountain pen, but she returned it, saying it was too valuable, and broke his heart.

Then came the Paris insurrection of August 1944, and Dukson's moment of glory. President Roosevelt, who was deeply suspicious of de Gaulle, had initially wanted to impose a military government on liberated France, but the ability of the Resistance to take power as the Nazis retreated, combined with the real popular support for de Gaulle, made this a non-starter. De Gaulle, meanwhile, wanted to ensure that he, and not the Resistance, would be in control when peace came. That meant imposing his authority and taking the guns out of the hands of the Resistance fighters as soon as possible.

Until the Paris Resistance launched its insurrection, the Allies intended to bypass the city. But the possibility that the Resistance might take control in the capital led the Allied High Command to send General Leclerc's armoured division, along with an American column, into Paris. On 25 August, the Free French troops commanded by General Leclerc finally drove into the capital to complete the liberation begun by the Parisian population.

But although black soldiers from French West Africa had formed the original heart of de Gaulle's Free French army – nearly 20,000 had joined up by October 1942 – none of Dukson's comrades from Africa were with Leclerc. We now know that the British and the Americans wanted Paris to be liberated by white faces, and took steps to remove African soldiers from the Leclerc division. (It was The Independent , reporting the work of the historian Olivier Wieviorka, that broke this story in January 2007.) Allied High Command claimed that the Parisians would be hostile to black fighters.

Dukson's role, and his fame in the capital, proved that the Allies were wrong about this – but to no avail. The appalling way in which hundreds of thousands of Free French Arab soldiers were treated was highlighted in the harrowing feature film Days of Glory (2006). The story of the African fighters, and of men like Dukson, has yet to be told.

Dukson was not the only African in the Resistance. Of the 1,030 members of the Order of the Liberation created by Charles de Gaulle, 14 were African. Hundreds of other black people played vital roles in the struggle. Most are long forgotten.

Addi Ba, born in French Guinea in 1913, helped set up one of the first Resistance camps in the Vosges, and spied on German positions, noting down the details in Arabic he had learnt from the Koran. When the camp was attacked in July 1943, Addi Ba was captured and horribly tortured, then executed five months later.

On 20 June 1944, 53 Senegalese soldiers imprisoned in Lyons were freed by a Resistance raid, and joined fighters in the mountainous Vercors region above Grenoble, where they were warmly welcomed by the local population. When the Nazis eventually overran the Vercors, in July 1944, many of the Senegalese soldiers escaped and went on to take part in the liberation of Lyons. Other black Resistance fighters joined in the fighting to liberate Agen in the South West.

Probably the most famous black Resistance fighter was the American singer and dancer, Josephine Baker. She joined the Free French, first as a nurse, then as a member of the Air Force. At the same time, she carried out underground work for Free French Intelligence, and was eventually awarded the Croix de Guerre.

But there were to be no medals for Dukson. In the chaos that followed the Liberation of Paris, he took over an abandoned German garage and started selling the supplies he found there. Then he began "requisitioning" goods for the black market. Arrested on the orders of the Military Governor of Paris, he was shot and wounded while trying to escape, was taken to hospital and died on the operating table.

Despite his sad end, Dukson's role in the liberation of Paris represented the true spirit of the Resistance. In those famous images, full of pomp and politics, populated by white men in suits and uniforms, Dukson's unscripted appearance, bloodied but unbowed, audacious and full of verve, showed the role of ordinary French people in liberating their country. And that, no doubt, at least partly explains why he was so unwelcome.

Around 2,000 Parisians died in the struggle to liberate Paris, along with perhaps 800 résistants and over 100 Free French and American soldiers. Like the death, the credit for the liberation was shared – the Allied advance had shaken the German garrison and made the insurrection possible; the Parisian résistants had sensed the time was ripe to free the city; and the Free French army provided the weight to put an end to the fighting.

For de Gaulle, the outcome could not have been better. Acutely aware of the power of symbols, he had been able to enter Paris as a hero, surfing on the wave of a popular uprising, but firmly based on the traditional power of the army.

In the heroic days of August 1944 a new French myth had been forged; at its heart was de Gaulle. Throughout the war he had belittled, ignored or undermined the Resistance, yet he had finally ridden it to power, brushing aside those ordinary people whose sacrifice had helped bring about Liberation – people like Georges Dukson.



Matthew Cobb is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Manchester and the author of 'The Resistance: The French Fight Against The Nazis' (Simon & Schuster, £17.99). To order a copy for the special price of £16.19 (free P&P) call Independent Books Direct on 08430 600 030, or visit www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk. To see archive film of the march, go to independent.co.uk/liberation

Overlooked? Other black heroes in French history

The Chevalier de Saint-George (1745-1799)

Illegitimate son of a slave and a plantation owner, Joseph Boulogne, his given name, came from Guadeloupe. Taken to Paris at 14, he became a superb swordsman and an even better composer, known as "The Black Mozart". Fêted at court, he later supported the Revolution. In 1792 he became colonel of a corps of 1,000 black troops, the Légion de Saint-George, defeating counter-revolutionary forces. He later narrowly escaped the guillotine, dying in poverty.

Thomas-Alexandre Dumas (1762-1806)

The son of a slave, Dumas enlisted in the French army in 1786 and after the Revolution, became a leading officer in the Légion de Saint-George. He fought with distinction in several campaigns – the Austrians nicknamed him "the black devil" – and became a general. But he fell from favour after questioning the wisdom of Napoleon's Egypt campaign and, like the Chevalier de Saint-George, died in poverty. He did, however, leave a son, Alexandre Dumas, père, author of 'The Three Musketeers' and father of Alexandre Dumas, fils.

Jean-Baptiste Belley (c1746-1805)

A Senegal-born slave taken to Saint-Domingue (later Haiti), Belley managed to purchase his freedom, fought in the Haitian revolution of 1791 and in 1793 was elected (as member for Saint-Domingue) to France's National Convention. He also sat on the Council of 500. He took part in the debate in February 1794 in which the Covention voted to abolish slavery, but lost his seat in 1797. He spent the last three years of his life in prison in France after taking part in an ill-fated expedition to return Saint-Domingue to French rule.

Gaston Monnerville (1897-1991)

One of the most powerful men in France for two decades, Monnerville grew up in French Guyana, the grandson of a slave, and studied in Toulouse, becoming a lawyer. Having served as undersecretary of state for the colonies, he joined the Navy at the start of the war and was at sea at the time of France's capitulation. He attacked the "public lies" of the Vichy regime and was active in the Resistance. A delegate to the First and Second Constituent Assemblies of the Fourth Republic, he was President of the Council of the Republic from 1947-59. He was then President of the Senate until 1968.

Félix Eboué (1884-1944)

Born in French Guyana, Eboué was a respected colonial administrator, appointed governor of Chad just before the Second World War. Following the armistice of June 1940, he ensured that, in contrast to many of France's African colonies, Chad aligned itself with General de Gaulle's Free French rather than the Vichy regime – which sentenced him to death in absentia. Eboué's brave move was crucial in giving de Gaulle legitimacy and a power-base in Africa. Made governor-general of French Equatorial Africa and later a member of the Council of the Order of the Liberation, Eboué died a few months before the liberation of Paris. His ashes rest in the Panthéon, yet he has faded from public memory.

News
people
Sport
Newcastle players celebrate, Mario Balotelli scores, Alan Pardew and Brendan Rodgers
footballNewcastle vs Liverpool , Arsenal vs Burnley, Chelsea vs QPR and Everton vs Swansea
News
i100Amazing Amazon review bomb
Arts and Entertainment
The Spice Girls' feminism consisted of shouting 'girl power' and doing peace signs in latex catsuits
musicWhat is it? You know what you want it to be...
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
people
Life and Style
food + drinkFrom Mediterranean Tomato Tart to Raw Caramel Peanut Pie
News
Moss and Grimshaw arrive at the party
peopleKate Moss, Claudia Schiffer and Nick Grimshaw at Jonathan Ross's Halloween party
Arts and Entertainment
Armstrong, left, and Bain's writing credits include Peep Show, Fresh Meat, and The Old Guys
TVThe pair have presented their view of 21st-century foibles in shows such as Peep Show and Fresh Meat
News
i100
Extras
Boys to men: there’s nothing wrong with traditional ‘manly’ things, until masculinity is used to exclude people
indybest13 best grooming essentials
Travel
travelPurrrfect jet comes to Europe
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch attends the London premiere of his new film The Imitation Game
people He's not as smart as his characters
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Mobile Developer (.NET / C# / Jason / Jquery / SOA)

£40000 - £65000 per annum + bonus + benefits + OT: Ampersand Consulting LLP: M...

Humanities Teacher - Greater Manchester

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: The JobAt ...

Design Technology Teacher

£22800 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Calling al...

Foundation Teacher

£100 - £125 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: EYFS Teachers - East Essex...

Day In a Page

Bryan Adams' heartstopping images of wounded British soldiers to go on show at Somerset House

Bryan Adams' images of wounded soldiers

Taken over the course of four years, Adams' portraits are an astonishing document of the aftermath of war
The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

Fall of the Berlin Wall

It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

Paul Scholes column

Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

Frank Warren column

Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

Adrian Heath's American dream...

Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities