'IF WE ARE SAVED, IT IS THANKS to our English brothers, and we will keep a good souvenir in our hearts of the memory that cannot be effaced, above all, of the very warm welcome [sic].' This heartfelt message, left by a French soldier on a school blackboard in south-west England, expresses the feelings of many of the 110,000 French soldiers of the First Army who were forced to leave their homeland, evacuated from Dunkirk to Britain alongside the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) between May 26th and June 5th, 1940. Exhausted, hungry and demoralized, the majority of these men were fed, clothed, lodged and returned to France in only a few days, in the hope they could continue the fight against the fast-advancing German army.
In Britain, the rescue of Allied troops from the northern French port of Dunkirk is remembered as one of the most important episodes of the Second World War. France has not afforded the evacuation this standing. It is, nevertheless, acknowledged as a significant episode in French history: the last major action involving the French army before France signed the armistice with Germany just over two weeks later. It effectively marked the beginning of the end. However, the story of the French soldiers has largely been
The Battle of France, prior to the evacuation from Dunkirk, had been a tremendous shock to the French. The Germans had advanced rapidly, trapping thet British and French in a small pocket around Dunkirk. The speed of the attack and the bloodshed that ensued left France traumatized. The French soldiers in Dunkirk experienced the onslaught first hand.' The situation on the beaches was horrendous. Dead men and horses littered the ground, making it impossible to avoid stepping on them. The constant bombardment from the Luftwaffe made every second a struggle for survival. In addition, relations with the British, both among the soldiers and at a political level, were less than cordial.
Traditional xenophobia, coupled with different styles of discipline, did little to commend to the French an evacuation to Britain.
It is impossible to know exactly how many French soldiers arrived in Britain from Dunkirk, but it was in the region of 110,000. Instructions were given by the War Office to record the number of arrivals but they insisted that transportation should not be delayed on this account. For the first four days evacuation prioritized British troops. Churchill, however, soon realized that this risked damaging the last vestiges of Franco-British relations. Hence, on May 30th, he ordered that French and British troops be evacuated in equal numbers.
War Office archives provide details of the plans laid down for the operation by its Movement Control division on May 27th, 1940. On disembarkation at the southern ports, evacuees were to be sent by train to Aldershot, Salisbury and Reading and, from these stations, to camps at Aldershot, Tidworth, Dorchester, Blandford, Oxford and Tetbury. Trains from Ramsgate and Margate were to be routed via Reading; trains from Hastings, Eastbourne, Newhaven, Brighton or Southampton were to go to Salisbury via Chichester; trains from Dover and Folkestone were to go via Redhill for distribution to Aldershot, Salisbury or Reading; and any stragglers who found their way to London were to be sent to Aldershot. Non-British troops were to be sent to different locations according to nationality. The chosen destination for French troops was to be Tidworth near Salisbury. There were to be refreshment points at Headcorn, Paddock Wood, Faversham, Chichester and Salisbury.
There is also evidence of prior arrangements for the repatriation of French troops. The French military attache's telegram to a recipient code-named Arcole, on May 31st, informed French authorities that their British counterparts wanted French ships to assure the French troops' safe return home. The scheme put in place by Movement Control planned to repatriate the French in groups of 15,000 per day. …