‘One afternoon in September 1942,’ Edward Stourton opens this important and rewarding book, ‘a young man and a young woman could be seen sitting on the back steps of a farmhouse in south west France, looking up at the Pyrenees.’ It is like the first image in an album packed with snapshots set against this same glorious setting. ‘There is no neat way of telling this piece of history’, Stourton concedes; ‘it is a jumble of individual lives’. Collectively these brief glimpses tell the story of the perilous passages over the mountains between France and Spain during the second world war. Stourton is on a mission to ‘unlock the secrets of this most secretive region’, a task he undertakes vigorously, not only researching the stories of those on the run in the war years, and those risking their lives to help them, but under-taking the crossing himself.
Some of the tales he uncovers, of serial escapers and ‘very ugly’ middle-aged resisters carrying canes, ‘capacious handbags’ and legs of mutton in violin cases, seem to come straight from the pages of Boy’s Own. Stourton delights in accounts of British POWs on the run in summer, electing to take their chances at the local pool despite being nervously aware that here the Jerries ‘had no swastikas on their trunks’ and, in winter, a downed RAF pilot lamenting crossing the peaks ‘up to my testicles in snow’.
The MI9 gadget-master ‘Clutty’ Hutton also gets due attention with his flexible saws concealed in shoelaces and dart-firing fountain pens. As do remarkable women like Nancy Wake, the famous ‘White Mouse’, and Andrée de Jongh, who insisted her code-name ‘Postmistress’ be changed to ‘Post-master’, both running escape lines among other activities.
Because most of the recorded stories belong to survivors, by half way through the book it begins to feel a little as if anyone with some guts and gumption might have made it to safety. This is a distortion soon carefully corrected with some heart-wrenching tales of both cruelty and courage.
The whole is framed by some fascinating history. The way that Stourton handles the internal conflicts within France during and after the war makes for some extremely uncomfortable reading. In June 1940, in a desperate last attempt to keep France in the war, Churchill proposed ‘one Franco-British Union’, with shared citizenship, economic, foreign and defence policies. Unfortunately Paul Reynaud, the French PM, resigned on his way to their proposed meeting after Marshal Pétain asked why France would want to ‘fuse with a corpse’. Later the shameful history of Vichy — rounding up the only Jews delivered to the Germans from somewhere the latter had no military presence — gets particular attention, as Jews were of course among the main clients for the escape routes.
Ultimately for Stourton, as for many others, walking the Chemin de la Liberté (one of several escape routes through the mountains), is an act of remembrance, and this book is an expression of affection and respect for the individuals who helped to bring so many people across the Pyrenees to either restart their lives or rejoin the battle elsewhere. In the end it is the lesser known stories that steal the show. Here we see a courageous family using their home as a staging post for evaders en route to the border, even though they have two Germans billeted with them; children hiding each other in a chapel loft; and a guide who 50 years later requested being buried without flowers as a way of showing solidarity with those who died in the camps.
These people’s stories may not have been decisive to the course of the war, but that is not the point. They commemorate, very movingly, the courage of ordinary citizens choosing to defy the criminal regime under which they lived, and all too often died. Apparently, Stourton tells us, it was traditional for condemned men to sing on the night before their execution. Gaullists resisters sang the Marseillaise, communists the Internationale. One Frenchman recalled hearing a trained voice perform a passage from Puccini’s Tosca: ‘I die in despair, never have I loved life so dearly.’ Even the guards listened in silence. The singer went to his death the following day, his name unrecorded. But not, now, his courage.