Saturday, 15 August 2015

The Liberation of Provence began in the Var

The date - August 15 - has a number of reasons for celebration in Provence.

For the main part, it is a fete nationale - national holiday - to mark the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. It is also the anniversary of the birth of Napoleon Bonaparte on August 15, 1769. But that public celebration did not last much past 1815, for obvious reasons.

In Provence - and most importantly, the Department of Var - it is the anniversary of the Allied landings in the south, which led to the Liberation of Provence on August 15, 1944.
The sign on the Hotel de Ville at La Motte.

At 3am that day, hundreds of paratroopers - mostly Americans and Canadians - were dropped in the forest beside the tiny village of La Motte, about seven kilometres from Les Arcs-sur-Argens.

They quickly spread out, advancing to Le Muy and Les Arcs - liberating each town as they continued through Trans-en-Provence towards Draguignan, where the Nazi forces were headquartered.

The GIs had planned to bomb Draguignan - at that time still the Capital of Var - which would have destroyed much of the ancient town centre, but it was saved due to the bravery of a young woman called Helene Vidal.

Book of Peace by Patrick Beck outside the Helene Vidal Primary School.
Helene, aged 26, lived in Draguignan, and was one of only a few people in the Resistance who was fluent in English.

She was instructed to ride her bicycle from Draguignan to La Motte to plead with the Americans not to destroy her town.

It would have been a difficult ride - 20km of hills, at night and probably without lights, all the while trying to avoid German road blocks and sentries.

I drove that road earlier this week and today it is a dual carriageway sweeping through steeply wooded hills. But in 1944 it would have been a dark, winding country road.

When she arrived, she successfully persuaded the commander of Operation Frederick to save the town.

Today Helene Vidal is recognised for her bravery with streets and schools named in her honour, including a primary school in Les Arcs, near the station.

Nevertheless the battle to liberate Provence was a fierce and bloody one. The American Military Cemetery in Draguignan has more than 2,000 crosses marking fallen Allies and French nationals.

Every year a number of Americans and Canadians return to the Var to take part in the many ceremonies of remembrance and thanksgiving.
The memorial at the Les Arcs railway overpass that reads: In homage to Allied parachutists of Division Frederick and to the
French Interior Forces (FFI) who, on the 15 and 16 August 1944 liberated the village.

There was also a strong network of Resistance operating through this region - many hiding out in the thickly forested mountains to the north - who were not only able to guide the Allies to their goal, but to sabotage any Nazi retaliation.
The Hotel de Ville at Les Arcs-sur-Argens prepares for the commemoration.
Today, August 15, there will be special ceremonies in Les Arcs, La Motte and Le Muy - as well as other towns - to mark their liberation from Occupation.

Draguignan will hold a number of remembrances in town and at the military cemetery on the 71st anniversary of its liberation tomorrow.

So here in Les Arcs-sur-Argens, we will be marking the public holiday with a solemn ceremony at the monument on the railway overpass.

Then people will move on up into the town centre, where the forecourt at the Hotel de Ville has been strung with French, US, Canadian and British flags.
After solemnity - a celebration.

The Place General de Gaulle is already decorated in blue, red and white - a mix of stars, stripes, diagonals and maple leaves.

There will also be people arriving in original Jeeps from the war years - I saw one, complete with US visitors, in the town centre yesterday.

So after the solemnity, the celebration.

All the restaurants and bars around the square will be open until late for good food and wine and a grand concert of jazz-rock followed by big band nostalgia, singing and dancing in the town square.

The Var is happy to mark all three connections to August 15 - religion, leadership and liberation - what better reason to party through to the early hours?

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