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A Trunk Reveals its Secrets : Archival discovery and methodological reflections on the Second World

Guillaume Yverneau (Université de Caen, HisTeMé UR 7455 / Cardiff University)


This article is the result of a chance encounter between my thesis and a family event. After purchasing a house, relatives of mine discovered three boxes of old papers' belonging to the former owners. There were no labelled boxes or inventory to guide the search. The more I looked through the material, the more a story, or rather stories, emerged, in a way that was totally unexpected. What was even more unexpected was that this discovery has a direct link with my thesis. The material trace trace the life of one person. I will not mention his name in this article.


He was a Frenchman born in Paris (1905) in a well-to-do family. He graduated from the National Institute of Agronomy and was a plantation manager in French West Africa in the 1920s. Then, as a journalist, he studied ethnography and linguistics in Africa and wrote articles for journals (‘Les Annales Coloniales’) and magazines (‘Match’). He was a reserve officer, mobilised in 1939-1940. During the war, he worked in Rabat (Morocco) where he was editor-in-chief of a magazine. Recalled to the army in 1944, he was demobilised in 1946. He worked in the cinema in Morocco and ended his career at the Food and Agriculture Organisation in Rome. He died in Italy in the 1980s. This man had an "Allure for Archives"[1].


Among the various items, a British officer’s valise caught my attention. It was inscribed with a year (1944) and "Lt X – 51st HD" on the back. I extracted also a box on which 'War 39-45' was written. Learning that, otherwise, the recycling centre would be the final resting place of these artefacts, I retrieved them and started to put together a basic inventory. It is not easy to know where to start when tackling such varied collections. The corpus consists of photo albums, letters, diaries, and more. The archive "is difficult in its materiality. Because it is disproportionate, invasive like the tides of the equinoxes, avalanches or floods."[2].


The photo albums are particularly interesting as photographs constitute a "memory object" par excellence and a silent witness. The study of photo albums brings into question the author's selection choices, the coherence given to the whole, the possible recipients, and so on. If the album allows the reactivation of the memory of a past, this past is in fact organised by its author. This man had a concern for conservation and archiving that facilitates the task of the historian. If classifying his items amount to the same thing as classifying his memory, we can question his logic in classifying his archives. The albums seem to have been put together quite early, perhaps between the 1950s and 1970s. Their purpose was not purely personal, as evidenced by this label on one of the albums: "More archives! The worst. The ones you should throw away with a stone at the end. It's madness to prolong what used to be "the lively and beautiful today"[3], with withered, faded, outdated images. And as long as I could not bring myself to burn them, I leave it to whoever wants to". This raises questions about the fate of these documents, which the author cannot destroy on his own and leaves to "whomever wants" them.

From military career to intimate history of a man at war

Thanks to the document that this man preserved, details are brought to light from the purely military to more personal information. A photo album entitled "Aux Armées 1939-40 / 44-45" gives us the first indications of his career. He entered the Cavalry School in Saumur as a reserve officer in 1925 and had risen to reserve lieutenant in 1933. Due to his location in Casablanca, he joined a Moroccan Spahis Regiment when general mobilisation was declared in France on 2 September 1939. He stayed in Morocco during the "phoney war" and only came to France once, to get married, in the winter of 1939-1940. The regiment was not involved in the French campaign. Letters show a certain anxiety because of his parents stayed in occupied Paris and frustration at not having been engaged in France. After the Armistice of June 1940, he was demobilised and returned to journalism. However, he did not completely break off his contacts with the army, because he published a book on a French air force fighter group in 1941.


In May 1944, he was remobilised and became a tactical liaison officer sent to London to liaise between the Allied troops landing in the Summer of 1944 and the French civil and military authorities in France. In June 1944, he embarked for England from Algiers. He was one of the many officers recruited in French North Africa to serve as liaison officers in France.[4] In England, he received his assignment: attachment to the 51st ‘Highland’ Infantry Division, which he joined in Normandy in August 1944 and accompanied to the Netherlands in September. In December, he was assigned to the National Defence Staff, commanded by General Juin and was in charge of the information service. He was promoted to Captain in March 1945 and then demobilised in 1946.


Extract from the photo album « Aux Armées ».


If the archives recovered show a more or less well known career, they also shed light on a more 'intimate' aspect. In this respect, the letters are an interesting source for identifying the personal and sentimental motivations of the individual. For instance, letters and diaries, self-narratives documents give us information about his emotional life and his relations with his wife. They allow us to perceive an individual's point of view on the events that he lived through and experienced. He also gives his opinion on the way the country is liberated by the Allies, strongly criticising, for example, the bombing of Le Havre, which he deemed unnecessary, in September 1944.


Perspectives of this archive for the thesis

My thesis focuses on the relationship between the British military and French civilians during the Liberation. As a result, one part of this individual's career is of great interest for my research: his work as a liaison officer with the British liberators. We can first of all go back to the reasons for this appointment. First of all, he was a reserve officer, and could therefore be mobilised if necessary. Secondly, his mother’s family was English so it is understandable that he spoke the language of Shakespeare perfectly. His profession as a journalist and his social background meant that he was well integrated into the political and military elites. Finally, the Allies and the Free French Forces needed officers who were familiar with France in preparation for D-Day. This was the case for him, particularly since, during his youth he had spent his summer holidays in the Normandy countryside.


To study this part of his life, the main source of interest to me revolves around his drafts or copies of reports. Exceptionally, he kept most of the weekly or monthly reports he sent to his superior in the Military Tactical Liaison Mission. In these documents, we learn about his daily work, his relations with the British military, with the Resistance fighters and with the civilians he met, but also his opinions on how the Liberation was playing out. His photographs offer another interesting archive. He documents in detail the places he passes through with the 51st H.D. Le Havre, for example, is the subject of a comprehensive photographic file. His diaries also document his daily activities during the period.




Left : draft of a report written in August 1944.

Right : Same finalised report held in the Service Historique de la Défense (8/P/12).

Comparing the two allows us to see what the officer chose to include or remove.


The importance of these items lies in the contribution of the testimony of an officer who was on the ground, often close to the front. The testimonies of these tactical liaison officers are rare, which is why this discovery is particularly remarkable. In order to make the best use of them, it is necessary to cross-reference them with documents held in relevant archive collections in France and in United Kingdom. To conclude, it is not easy to describe the interest of such an archival discovery in a short article. We have not yet been able to work on all the documents and the work is still in progress. Using the words of this officer, while noting in a report the damage caused by the British bombing of Le Havre "A colossal amount of work is required !".


[1] FARGE Arlette, Le goût de l’archive, Paris, Seuil, 1989.

[2] FARGE Arlette, op. cit., p. 4. [3] « Le vivace et le bel aujourd’hui ». In reference to a poem of Mallarmé.

[4] Inside the ‘’Mission Militaire de Liaison Administrative’’ and ‘’Mission Militaire de Liaison Tactique’’.

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