Wandering the streets of Amiens, as you do, one wet afternoon…
…I came upon this memorial to General Philippe Leclerc de Hauteclocque.
It turns out he was an interesting character, Philippe Leclerc.
Born in November 1902, and thus too young to see service during the Great War, on joining the army he made his reputation during the French participation in the war with the Rifan tribes in Morocco in the mid-1920s*. Despite the painfully slow promotion system in the French Army at the time, he rose through the ranks during the late twenties and thirties, and as a captain during the Battle of France in May 1940 he was not only wounded (a shell from a German tank collapsed a ceiling on his head) but twice captured, on both occasions escaping, eventually finding his way to join De Gaulle and the Free French in London – via Madrid & Lisbon!
*The Rif War, which lasted between 1921 & 1926, is worth looking into further for those of you with a keen interest in 20th Century military history, for a number of reasons. Soon after the French entered the conflict in 1925 Marshall Henri Petain took over command of the army in the field along with his Aide-de-camp, Charles de Gaulle, a certain Francisco Franco participated in the fighting with the Spanish army, who had been engaged since 1921, and there is ample evidence to show that the Spanish used phosgene, diphosgene , chloropicrin & mustard gas (from German sources) bombs, dropped from Farman F.60 Goliath bombers, often more than 1,500 bombs daily, against the indigenous civilian population – in fact the use of aircraft proved crucial to the defeat of the Rifaine, and was doubtless noted by air forces across the world. Very interestingly, as late as 2007, it seems, the Moroccan Government was still urging the French to take some responsibility over the use of chemical weapons in the Rif War in the 1920s, and documents appear to suggest the French may have had plans to use them. Read into that what you will.
Back to Leclerc. Sent by De Gaulle to Cameroon in August 1940, it was Leclerc who persuaded Vichy forces to withdraw throughout Equatorial French Africa, bringing Cameroon, Chad, the Congo and, eventually, Gabon to the cause of the Free French. Incidentally, in 1936 Leclerc suffered a double fracture of his leg due to a fall from a horse; typical of the man, he blamed only himself for riding on the shoulder of the road, but, as the inset above, taken in 1944, shows, he would subsequently often be seen with a stick.
Numerous adventures throughout Africa followed, including a thirty nine day 1,500 mile march with his men to join Montgomery in Tripoli in January 1943.
Actually, before we leave his African adventures, ten days after his arrival at Lagos in Cameroon on 10th August 1940 aboard a Short Sunderland seaplane, Leclerc had gathered some men, boarded a wooden dugout, subsequently disembarking at Douala and persuading the local commander and his regiment of Senegalese riflemen to change sides. Hence Douala in the photo above, and doubtless there are other stories attached to other names on the memorial that I know little about, such as Fezzan, which, I do know, is one of the three traditional provinces of Libya, Italian run at the time, and where Leclerc fought in early 1942.
Following D-Day, Leclerc, now a general, commanded the French 2nd Armoured Division under Patton in Normandy, personally receiving the surrender of the German garrison in Paris from General Dietrich Hugo Hermann von Choltitz, on 25th August 1944, before his men liberated Strasbourg, as the inscription above remembers.
On the other side, battle honours, 1940-1945.
Named Supreme Commander of French Forces in Indochina by De Gaulle, Leclerc was the French signatory to the Japanese surrender on 2nd September 1945, after which he was immediately forced to turn his attention to the problem of Vietnam and the nationalist Vietminh, at the time in rebellion.
Recognising almost immediately that quelling the nationalists would take years of fighting a jungle war in enemy territory, with the huge costs and manpower required, and no guarantee of ultimate success, Leclerc advocated a political solution, by means of a negotiated peace. From all accounts Ho Chi Minh might well have acquiesced at the time, had politicians back in France, and French colonialists in Saigon, not decided otherwise, removing Leclerc from the scene, and before long plunging France in to a seven year war that they could never win, and which ended in the debacle at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.
Leclerc, by then, was long gone. On 28th November 1946, whilst in Algeria fulfilling his new role as Inspector General of French Land Forces in North Africa, his North American B-25 Mitchell crashed, killing all on board.
Leclerc became Marshal of France posthumously in 1952, and I gather is, or was, famous enough in France to be simply referred to as Leclerc.
At the far end of the square, another memorial remembers the men and women of the local resistance who died for France.
Pity I didn’t manage to find Amiens’ rather magnificent World War I memorial during my stroll, though. I’m rubbish.