The D-Day celebrations overlook one important thing – the killing of so many French civilians

France suffered more than most during the European conflicts of the 20th century, yet still so few are aware of the price it has paid for peace – and that lack of understanding has dangerous ramifications today

Nabila Ramdani
in Paris
Wednesday 05 June 2019 16:38
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What is D-Day?

The Glorious Dead will take pride of place in the thoughts of millions across the world on the 75th anniversary of D-Day. We remember those who stormed beaches, who knocked out anti-tank and artillery batteries. The invasion that started in Normandy on 6 June, 1944, was an immense achievement. Living or dead, those involved in the liberation of France will be referred to as “heroes”, as commemorations services and other events are held to mark their sacrifice.

What remains baffling, however, is the continued comparative lack of interest in the civilian victims of the Second World War – the deadliest mass conflict in human history, and one that still dominates the public imagination.

Failure to honour the innocent men, women and children who died, mainly through mass bombardments launched from afar, has immunised us to such a horrifying form of destruction – and that remains prevalent today in places such as the Middle East, North Africa and Asia.

The sense of being unable to do anything about this is especially powerful in France, which will naturally be the focus point of the D-Day commemorations, just as it was for the end of the First World War centenary last year. The country has suffered more than most in European conflicts, yet few are aware of the price it has paid in terms of civilian deaths.

Details are as compelling as they are deeply disturbing, yet they are barely ever mentioned. They include the extraordinary fact that, according to some official estimates, more French civilians were killed in the Second World War than British soldiers and Empire troops. A leading academic study in population change since the start of the Second World War, shows that at least 390,000 French civilians died due to military activity and “crimes against humanity”; the Commonwealth War Graves Commission confirms that there were 383,700 British military deaths during the conflict.

The reason we do not hear much about the French who lost their lives is because many of them were victims of Allied bombing, and especially by the Royal Air Force and their American counterparts. French towns were obliterated in a bid to soften up German forces. Some 20,000 civilians were killed in Normandy alone. The port of Le Havre was bombed from as early as 1941, suffering the loss of 5,100 inhabitants; a further 80,000 were made homeless, as 12,500 buildings were reduced to rubble.

Other facts that have been consistently overlooked since victory in 1945 include the use of Napalm by the Allies. The worst incidents were at Royan, the town on the South West coast of France which was “martyred” by American bombers in January 1945. Early raids by B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberators failed to destroy the German garrison, so pioneering napalm tests led to another 1,700 civilian deaths, to add to the 1,000 killed earlier.

The most pertinent reminder of what the Nazi war machine did to civilians in France is at Oradour-sur-Glane, a village close to Limoges where 642 people, including 247 children, were murdered by the Waffen SS four days after D-Day. Its remains are unchanged, in line with the wishes of General Charles de Gaulle, who said they should forever bear witness to war crimes against humanity.

As president, De Gaulle went on to found the Fifth French Republic, which prevails to this day, but his inclination to expose atrocities closer to home was far less pronounced. It is only in recent years that the French authorities have slowly begun to own up to their collaboration in the Holocaust, for example.

Such tardiness highlights an ongoing moral vacuum. If we continue to ignore, or even cover up, what happened to French civilians around the time of D-Day, then what hope is there for those communities under attack in countries in which western forces are still fighting?

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A recent United Nations report points to 581 civilians killed and 1,192 wounded in Afghanistan during the first quarter of this year, for instance. Yes, some are victims of the Taliban – but plenty of others die in air raids carried out by western forces. Of 173 killed or wounded (the majority – 145 – lost their lives) between January and March, almost all were the result of US airstrikes.

Tadamichi Yamamoto, the UN secretary general for Afghanistan, has confirmed that a “shocking number of civilians continue to be killed and maimed each day. All parties must do more to safeguard civilians”. It is a view that would have been just as relevant in the 1940s as it still is today.

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