No. 7925934. Sgt. Greenwood.
British Army Exhibition
British Army Staff
Jess Darling: I did a fair amount of mooching around yesterday – Bastille Day – and will try and tell you something about it. Firstly, the weather was beautiful: cloudless sky and bright sunshine all day: it was certainly too hot for comfort, but that didn’t matter…
I went to the exhibition for the usual hour in the morning, and then wandered around a little until lunch time. I saw a part of the military parade – the armoured section – but was not able to see the infantry section owing to my being at the exhibition. This military parade was a really big affair. It started at about 9.30am at the ‘La Nation’ in the east, then on to the Bastille where Gen. de Gaulle took the salute: he was accompanied by all the French army big-wigs and the Bey of Tunis. The Bey, by the way, arrived two or three days ago, and was immediately paraded through the city on an official tour, accompanied by the mounted Republican Guard etc. It was a repetition of the reception given to the Sultan of Morocco a few weeks ago.
There were contingents of Allied troops in the military parade – British, American and Canadian – and our contingent, a group of 200 infantry of the H.L.I. (Highland Light Infantry) was preceded by our band (Oxf. and Bucks). The bandsmen, incidentally, had to be out by 7.30 am: it ‘shook em’ a bit getting up at 5.0 am!!
I think it was in the vicinity of the Concorde that the parade split up into different sections, and it was the armoured section which passed along the Champs Elysses, where I saw them. I would have liked to see our infantry with the band but couldn’t manage it. (Jess: I will enclose a street map of Paris: it will help you to find your bearings – I hope. At a guess, the scale is about three quarters of a mile to the inch.) By lunch time, the sun was blazing pitilessly: the heat roasted you on its way down, and then bounced back off the roadway… catching you at both ends, as it were. But I was reasonably clad – just a thin shirt with open neck, and trousers, and didn’t feel too bad: I felt darned good in fact, for the first hour or so after lunch. I went to the Concorde bridge at 2.30pm to see something of the Nautical Fete. But when I saw the crowds lining the river… well, I knew it would be pretty hopeless. The ‘fete’ took place on the stretch of river between the Concorde bridge and the next one to the west (the Alexander III Bridge). The distance between the bridges must be at least a quarter of a mile, but it was difficult to get even a glimpse of the river. I think half the French nation was there… millions of ’em… They were sitting in the trees and on various statues and lamp-posts trying to see something.
I managed to find a place where I could see the river by standing on my toes… but it wasn’t a healthy spot: there was no shade… and I was jammed amidst dozens of other hot human sardines. And my toes soon got tired… so after watching a couple of swimming events I scrammed to the ‘Skittle Alley’ canteen for a cup of tea and a cool down. I emerged a little later… and from the shade of the trees in the Champs Elysses, I watched the beginning of an enormous procession as it crawled eastwards towards the Place de la Concorde. This procession seemed to be a sort of counter-blast to the military one of the morning. It took the same route, in reverse, and was comprised of civilians and hundreds of huge banners. It was obviously a labour demonstration, maybe a traditional labour parade, just as we have May 1st as a ‘labour’ day. It was headed by the Communist party, and I think I recognised their leader, Maurice Thorez, in the column. I cannot pretend to describe the parade in detail: it was too big for one thing, and the banners and slogans were all in French… much of which was Double-Dutch to me. But I can say that the general effect of the whole business was rather frightening.
I ought to be ashamed to say this, Jess, but I must tell the truth. You see, even to me, a foreigner here, it was obvious that the bulk of the people in the procession were of a rather low order of society… the people with whom I profess to have sympathy and political agreement. And yet, when such people, mostly badly educated, start parading the streets in their tens of thousands, chanting slogans like parrots to the order of a section leader in the column, my mind instinctively recalled the numerous times I had heard the ‘Seig Heil’ of the Nazis over the radio. There is something almost fiendish in such demonstrations of mass ideology. And the likeness to the Nazis was further increased by the numerous huge photographs of Thorez borne on several banners. It is all so confusing. We know that the masses must have an able leader to help them fight capitalism… and when they find such a leader they naturally treat him as such, and almost deify him. That is natural enough… And yet it seems wrong somehow.
Recent history has taught us that little leaders can become big leaders. And big leaders become Fuehrers and Duces. And it would appear that a one man leadership develops inevitably into a dictatorship. And dictatorships seem to have an unholy knack of being attracted by wealth. So where are we? Goodness knows: but I do know that yesterday’s labour parade would have been far less offensive, to me, had they abolished those stupid slogans they were chanting, and had they dispensed with Thorez’ photographs. Maybe we are lucky in England. The Labour Party has no deified ‘leader’ or ‘strong man’. Instead they have a group of fairly capable administrators with only a technical leader. In the past, I have regretted Attlee’s moderation and lack of aggressiveness against the Tories. I think I have been wrong. I think Mr. Attlee is probably better for us than Leader Attlee.
Well:- I watched this procession for half an hour and then returned by Metro to the hotel for tea. But at Montmartre, where I ascended from the Metro, I found the procession again: I had simply overtaken it. It must have been many miles in length.
After tea I had a rest in the hotel… and then did a little tour of Paris to try and get some idea of how the City was celebrating its Bastille Day. But I cannot continue the story just now, dear. It is very late, and I really must get to bed:- Will continue tomorrow… I have the whole day to myself.
Goodnight, my love…
P.S. Will enclose the street map with my next letter.