Historical Thoughts and Fish fingers

France and Britain (or should I say England) – at times the best of friends and also the best of enemies.  Just a cursory glance at our respective national histories shows that the French and the English have actually spent more time as ennemies. It wasn’t until the 1904 « Entente Cordiale » that both nations elected to become « friends » and even then, this was not a military alliance, just an agreement to « get along together » born from a mutual mistrust of Germany. And when Europe finally did go to war in August 1914, the British pretext for entering the war was not to help France, but to help the Belgians. The German invasion of Belgium violated that country’s neutrality as set out in the 1830 Treaty of London – to which the British were signatories.

I suppose, even in the early 21st century, the English still regard the French with a degree of mistrust, though in recent years this seems to have widened to Europe  (or rather the European Union) – the recent success of the UK Independence Party  (UKIP) in British local council elections being the proof. Almost 21% of the popular vote at the polls. UKIP, as the name suggests advocates (amongst other policies) the British withdrawal from the European Union. On this side of the Channel, we have a party preaching a similar anti-European sermon – le Front National (FN) –  The FN, led by the charismatic Marine Le Pen are, in French political terms, on the far right. I’m not sure I could put UKIP in the same category, they are a very « English » phenomenon – though they are not in the league of the late nineteenth century « Little Englanders » – UKIP are quite happy to maintain relations with Europe rather than live in splendid isolation. » (I digress)

In this appraisal of  Anglo-French (or Franco-British as the French say) – I am drawn to a story in this morning’s British press – it concerns the approval by Westminster Council to erect a 14 foot tall, blue cockerel on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square in central London. For those not « au-fait » with the fourth plinth – it is a plinth (obviously) that is reserved for the exhibition of artworks. Every couple of months the art exhibit on the plinth is changed – on past visits to London, I have seen the plinth occupied by a vast ship in a bottle or a wooden horse. The Cockerel is of course the French national symbol. Critics of the cockerel exhibit deem that it is inappropriate to plonk such an obvious expression of all things French, right at the foot on Nelson’s Column – I can’t quite see what the fuss is about, though I can imagine French indignation were the Mayor of Paris to propose the intsallation of an equally massive Bulldog sculpture on the Place de La Concorde in Paris.

Nelson fought Napoleon at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. In 1815, Napoleon suffered defeat at Waterloo (now a station), and after the Congress of Vienna, Britian pretty much washed its hands of Europe for the next hundred years, choosing instead to indulge in a little Empire building. With growing British scepticism on Europe, I wonder if it is realistic once again to head into a period of « splendid isolation » ? David Cameron has announced a possible referendum on the Eurpean question in 2017 – far enough away for it to never happen, and of course by this point there will have been the referendum on Scottish independence and the Scots – if they do vote for  cutting links with the English – will stay in Europe. They are true Europeans.  – Well let’s put it another way – the only other people who the English have been bashing up as long as the French are the Scots and I guess it was normal that the French and the Scots would at some point get together. The Scots and the French had one of the first, and the longest lasting military alliances in Europe.

Scottish Aside

The French and the Scots first got it together in 790AD, when the Emperor Charlemagne signed an all iance with Achaius, King of Scotland. In 1295 King John Balliol of Scotland signed another alliance (the auld alliance) with king Philippe IV of France. During the Hundred Years there was a full time Scottish army of ovr 6000 men helping the French fight the English. Scotish forces helped Joan of Arc when she broke the English seige of Orleans. From then on, a régiment of Scots Guards was a permanent feature of the French army up until the 18th century. During the 1715 and the 1745 Jacobite rebellions, the French sent, what we might call in modern terms – military aid to the Scots.

So, I have got lost in historical détail, though, Franco-British (or Anglo-French history) was th original thème of this post.

As a British ex-pat (and there are 600,000 of us in France) once you have finally and  fully assimiliated all French social mores, customs and cultural practices, there still remains one great difference that you will perhaps never fully overcome – it is the weight of history.

I think, for my génération at least, we were taught British history as if it were world history – even though we studied « European History » – it  was always taught with what I might term « an exclusive English view », which though at times could be unbiased (depending on the teacher) – never gave any room for other histories.

I cite a meeting many years ago with an ex-pat friend in Paris, who, to his great surprise had actually discovered that the French also have a history. He had made his « discovery » after his son had started Learning history in a French school.

First shock – “the kids are learning  French history and not British history”. « Normal » I said,  « we are in France ».

Second shock – when the kids larn French history, they learn nothing about the English.

I knew what he meant. But why should French kids learn about the English ? I too was appaled when my daughter started studying the First World war.

« Dad, we’re the British involved in the First World War ? »

« Erm yes –  the battle of the Somme, Loos, Ypres, Passchendaele. There were British and Commonwealth troops who fought at the Chemin des Dames and at Verdun. »

Dad wanted to get mad with the history teacher, BUT, why would the kids be Learning about General Kitchener, Marshall Haig, the Battle of the Somme ? For French history yeachers concentrating on the carnage of he Great war, all these are sideshows and détails, for the French it’s all about Verdun and the Taxis of the Marne  and ….

Of course when we talk about the weight of history, the greatest burden is World War Two.

Today is May 8th. In France we have an official public holiday to mark/celebrate/reflect upon  the War.


This morning the French President went to the tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris and laid wreaths, along with those surviving French combattants. The same ceremony will have been played out at every war mémorial in every city, town and village in France. Of course there are war memorials in towns and villages all over Britain, the USA, Canada – but in Britain at least, we don’t celebrate the 8thMay – which for the Allies was officially VE Day or Victory in Europe – for the French though, the 8th May cérémonies do not celebrate a victory as such, they are a moment to reflect upon the cost and the sacrifice, though, when kids are taught about May 8th, it is always in terms of « the victory over Nazi Germany »


So, just to show you how each country has a different take on history – this morning at St Paul’s Cathedral in London ; there was a memorial service to comemerate the 70th anniversary of the end of The Battle of The Atlantic. Surviving veterans attended and paid hommage to their comrades who went to a watery grave between 1940 and 1943. Now, there was nothing about this in the French news. Why should there be ? This was not a French battle, although plenty of French seamen served on the Atlantic convoys. While Britain was struggling with her war, the French were living under Nazi occupation – and this is where history can be difficult for an ex-pat. Of course we all know about the French Résistance, but I have had « historically unaware «  ex-pat colleagues who have openly asked the question « Did the French fight in the war ? » – well yes they did. It was French armoured divisions that spearheaded the liberation of Paris in August 1944. Even after the Liberation of France, French forces continued the battle alongside the Allies right into the heart of Nazi Germany until its final destruction. French forces were involved in the D-Day landings.

We can’t talk about WW2 history without mentioning the Dunkirk factor. The routing of the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) and their final evacuation from the beaches at Dunkirk. In French terms, this was a British defeat, the Brits « ran away ». For the Brits, the WW2 propaganda machine actually turned this into some kind of victory – not all the British soldiers were killed or captured – 300,000 made it home. Not so much a victory, as a typical British case of “cheer up, it could have been worse.” What we neglect (on both sides) is the fact that 128,000 French combattants were also evacuated, and onec back in Britian they were given the choice to stay or to return home. – I guess I could go on for hours about the historical « anomalies »

On this day of WW2 Rememberance – different « anniversaries » have been marked on both sides of the Channel (which he French call La Manche). I suppose they mark our different view of a shared history, however, there is one particular « anniversary «  that the French will not be marking today – the Sétiff Massacres.

As an ex-pat, it is important to learn the history of your adopted country. However, thre comes a point when you start to learn those parts of history that the natives themselves would rather forget. I suppose it works both ways – I know plenty of Frenchmen who loathe the English and who readily and zealously remind me of the actions of the Royal Navy at Mers el Kebir, when in July 1940, a British naval force sank the  greater part of the French navy, moored in Oran on the Algerian coast. The official British pretext for the action was to stop the French fleet falling into German hands. The « unofficial » pretext was to prove to the Americans that Britian itself was not sunk and worthy of military aid from the States – namely an entire fleet of First World war American naval ships, mothballed in US  military ports. Britain needed ships, and the US Congress wanted some kind of sign that Britain was capable of putting up  a fight. So, the Royal Navy sailed down to Oran on the Algerian coast and sank the French fleet – killing a couple of thousand French sailors in the process. Here is the quirk of history – at the end of the action, the British had actually killed more French sailors than they had German sailors by that point in the war. So, this is something that we never learned at school.

And what about Sétiff ? – one of those dark sides of French history that ex-pats uncover, then quizz their French friends and neighbours about. Don’t be surprised if the French don’t want to talk about it.

May 8th 1945 in the Algerian town of Sétiff. French and Algerians alike are celebrating VE day. Thousands of native Algerians  fought for France during WW2 – some in the ranks of the French Army, many in the ranks of the « African Army. » Algerian soldiers served in Italy but also spearheaded the Allied landings at St Raphael and Fréjus in the south of France on August 23rd 1944. Algerian, Tunisian and Morrocan troops fought alonsgide the French right into Germany. As the celebrations continue at Sétiff – some « nationalist » elements amonst the Algerians choose to unfurl « Algerian » flags. This enflames feelings with French and European residents and a riot ensues. The riot officially cost the lives of 102  Europeans  and 900 muslims . In the following days, there are riots in may town across Algeria – all are brutally put down by French forces and in the ensuing weeks the actions continued, with the French even using their air force to bomb some villages. Reports put the number of victims of the repression anywhere between 15,000 and 45,000. This is where the Algerian War began (and the French don’t like to talk much about that either)

As ex-pats, you have to get past Napoleon, the French Revolution, Louis XIV and things of this ilk – it is good to study them, but I think ex-pats  owe it to themselves to come to terms with that history of their chosen land of exile with which the natives have not yet come to terms. Though of course nothing annoys a native more than a smart arsed non-native who knows his country’s history better than the native

And finally – by way of a conclusion to this very Sixth form essay-style post – some thoughts on the teaching of history.

A few years back, I undertook a Masters degree in history at Tours university . After a few months I gave it up as a bad job, so annoyed  at the teaching methods. From primary school to university, French kids don’t learn historical facts, they just learn how to study history . About a year ago, I went to a Parent-Teachers evening at my daughter’s school. The history teacher didn’t talk so much about history at school as schools of history. French kids are very much taught an emprical method to apply to the study of history rather than their history. They are taught how to think. In the UK,  the school approach to history teacing is far more factual. You learn the facts and then you learn a model to analyse the causes and consequences. The result is that many English know their history but don’t know why and French kids know nothing little their history, but they possess the intellectual werewithal to analyze events.

Now back in my Masters the history teacher used to say « In history, ther are no facts, there are no events, there are just a collection of proven or unproven happenings to which we might be able to apply an analytical model . »

Years later, having read around the question, I can see that this empirical approach wasn’t necessarily flawed, but in the school model, I think that this is too, heavy for young teenage minds. First learn the fact, events or happenings at one level (Junior high school or prep school) and then later in high school go back over the facts or happenings and apply some kind of analytical model

Then of course comes the issue of evaluation (which annoys me greatly). In class , my daughter is assessed on her knowledge of the facts (dates, figures etc) then come exam time, she gets a stimulus question that asesses her ability to think.

In short, British kids know far more about their history  and can basically piece together the history of their country, whereas French kids know  little about the history of France, but they can « think around » history and handle concepts.

So ? I guess it is time to sign off, because within the culiinary history of this house, we are eating fish fingers tonight and they are ready. Why are we are eating fish fingers ?– Lord knows. We all hate fish but we still persist.  Oh, I await the day, when I am unearthed by an archeologist  and the contents of my stomach are analyzed « Why did this man eat fish fingers ???? »