When I began reading French literature I came across Paul Verlaine. Alphonse de Lamartine too became a favourite. I would take especial pleasure in intoning the line from Villon: Ou sont les neiges d’antan. I was in my late teens and easily moved by the dramatic declarations of doomed love. I had no idea that poetry had been used in the war until I returned to studying French after my retirement.
The D Day Landings
The organisation of the D Day Landings (Operation Overlord) was an amazing achievement. The engineering solutions to the problems presented by moving the combined armed forces from several nations across the sea were stunning. All this had to be coordinated with the resistance fighters in France. The deceptions to keep secret the destination of the invasion were intricate and labyrinthine. And the preparations, especially along the south coast and in the South West, were enormous. Some of these can still be seen. No one can walk along Slapton Sands without becoming aware of its role in preparing and rehearsing the troops. One poem played a small but significant part in all of this.
Chanson D’Automne by Paul Verlaine
On the 1st June 1944 soon at 6.30 in the morning, Radio Londres transmitted the first three lines of a poem by Paul Verlaine.
Les sanglots longs
It means, roughly, the long sobs of the violins of autumn. It was a coded message. It was heard by many, and you can still hear it here . The sonorous vowels, sound portentous. The message was a warning to one branch of the French resistance fighters. It indicated that within the next two weeks Operation Overlord would be launched, the long-awaited invasion of France by the Allies. It was an instruction to stand by for the next three lines which would signal that they should begin sabotage activities on the railways in France. These were designed to disrupt German transport routes.
The second three lines of Verlaine’s poem were broadcast in the same way four days later on 5th June.
Blessent mon coeur
Arthur Symonds translates this as My heart is drowned/In the slow sound/Languorous and long.
This second message indicated to the French resistance that the invasion would begin within 48 hours and that they were to initiate sabotage activities on the railways immediately. The parachute landings began just hours after the message was sent out.
The broadcasts were intercepted by German forces. On hearing the three lines in the second of the messages the German Security Service reported to the German High Command, and the army was alerted that an invasion might begin within 48 hours. There had been many false alarms so the Seventh Army took no action. They were responsible for the area in Normandy where the landings were to be made.
The D Day landings began on 6th June. The German effort to respond to the invasion by redirecting troops was severely hampered by the damage from sabotage of the resistance and allied bombing to the French railway lines.
Les sanglots longs
Blessent mon coeur
Et blême, quand
Je me souviens
Des jours anciens
Et je pleure.
Et je m’en vais
Au vent mauvais
Pareil à la
Paul Verlaine (1866)
The Special Operations Executive (SOE) in its communications with operatives in France originally used well-established poems, but gradually they began making up rhymes which would be less easy to decipher. Some of these were rude and sexual. The most famous, which is neither rude nor sexual but moving, was probably written by Leo Marks, the codes officer, and begins
The life that I have
Is all that I have
And the life that I have
I sometimes think that literature should not serve armed conflict. It offends my pacifist instincts. But I do find myself moved by the story of Verlaine’s poem.