Nicholas Atkin
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The misfortune of exile

Of all the groups making up the French community in exile, the lot of the refugees was the most uncomfortable. In the first place, their arrival had not been foreseen. In the strategic planning for the war, both France and Britain looked on refugees of any nationality as an irritant that might upset carefully laid military plans. During the ensuing discussions, Paris largely triumphed. Keen not to upset its chief ally, and recognising the logic of the French position, Britain reluctantly agreed to accept the majority numbers of Belgian and Dutch civilians, and drew up contingency plans accordingly. Disorientated, distressed and desolate, the principal concerns of the refugees were, above all, practical ones: housing; clothes; food and employment. Accordingly, they kept themselves to themselves and made little attempt to mix with the British public. Undoubtedly, their ‘foreignness’ and their impoverishment set them apart, yet the overriding impression is that, after the fifth-column scare of May–June 1940, they elicited sympathy and support at least among the public, unlike their compatriots in the French army and navy who decided on early repatriation rather than serve with de Gaulle.

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The forgotten French

Exiles in the British Isles 1940–44


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