Liberation of Paris, August 1944: the city remembers its victims

Compared with many other European cities, Paris got off lightly in the Second World War.

The key uprising of the Resistance against Nazi control of Paris started on August 19, 1944, in coordination with the regular Free French army which arrived a few days later.

More than 500 civilians and some 1,000 members of the French Forces of the Interior (FFI, which grouped together the country’s various resistance movements) died during the week-long uprising

Around 100 regular French soldiers of General Philippe Leclerc’s Free French 2nd Armoured Division, which had fought its way down to Paris from Normandy with the Allies, also lost their lives.

Dotted around the capital are some 200 commemorative plaques marking where participants in the Liberation died during that historic week.

FRANCE 24 looks at the stories of ten of these heroes that Paris has not forgotten.

Gilles Primout, on the memorial trail

Honouring those who died for the liberation

Complete list of memorial plaques (in French)

Michel Guillois
Simone Jaffray
Gustave Pommier
Henri Mosmeau
Émile Plaisant
Henri Caron
Georges Bailly
Jean-Claude Touche
Jean Montvallier-Boulogne
Auguste Fenioux

Michel Guillois, policeman

35, avenue de l’Opéra

Michel Guillois was one of the first victims of the insurrection. As it became clear that Paris was going to become a battleground, the Swedish embassy negotiated a truce between the German forces and the Resistance. The following day, members of the FFI and German soldiers were sent out to deliver the news of the truce to their respective units.

Guillois, a father of five living in the 14th arrondissement of Paris where he was a junior policeman, was sent out with three colleagues to deliver the news to fighters in the area around Opéra. The 45-year-old was shot as he sat in the back of an open-topped van by a German soldier who had not been told about the truce.

Simone Jaffray, liaison officer

18, rue Jacquemont

Women played a significant role in the liberation of Paris, taking care of the wounded, delivering supplies to fighting units and also taking up arms and fighting. Simone Jaffray served as a liaison officer between the FFI and the FTP (Francs-Tireurs et Partisans, the armed resistance wing of the French Communist Party). There is not much information about what happened to Jaffray, but we know that on the 20th August 1944, she was sent to the 17th arrondissement to deliver orders where she was fatally wounded.

Jaffray was head of the 18th arrondissement’s sports club, and a post-war sports hall in the Paris suburb Champigny-sur-Marne is now named after her.

Gustave Pommier, Resistance fighter

70, rue du Père-Corentin

When France declared war on Germany in 1939, Gustave Pommier was mobilised along with millions of his fellow Frenchmen. After France was defeated and the majority of its soldiers imprisoned in Germany, Pommier managed to escape and eventually found his way into the Francs-Tireurs Resistance group 8th division.

On August 21 he was ordered to go to Vincennes in western Paris to pick up a vehicle that had been stolen from the occupiers. He was stopped by German soldiers on the roadside, badly beaten, and then shot. Pommier was buried in a pile of sand and was not found until Paris was liberated.

Henri Mosmeau, policeman

Grand Palais

On August 19, Paris’s police force rose up against the occupiers and joined the FFI resistance. On August 23, one of the officers at the police headquarters in the city’s 8th arrondissement opened fire on a German convoy passing down the Champs Elysées. The Germans responded quickly, surrounding the building with tanks, while a police van with a dozen officers, including Henri Mosmeau, came to reinforce their besieged colleagues. It came under intense fire and Mosmeau was mortally wounded. The 28-year-old was father to two girls.

Émile Plaisant, Resistance fighter

61, rue des Morillons

On August 24, as the first soldiers of General Leclerc’s Free French armoured division reached city hall (Hotel de Ville) in central Paris, the Germans were desperately fighting a FFI group holed up at an abattoir in the city’s southern 15th arrondissement.

The fighting raged all night and by morning the Germans withdrew. Two Resistance members had been killed. One of them was Emile Plaisant, a 34-year-old father of three. He was posthumously distinguished in dispatches by FFI leader General Kœnig: “A fighter, a volunteer, driven by the highest sense of duty and the spirit of sacrifice.”

Henri Caron, tank commander

168, rue du Temple

Henri Caron kissed the sand and made a sign of the cross when he landed in France on August 3, 1944. He had been away from France for four years. The tank commander was one of the first of General Leclerc’s Free French troops to enter Paris three weeks later on August 24. The city’s overjoyed residents rushed out into the streets to meet their liberators, but the fighting was not over and the celebrations were short-lived.

Caron was sent to Place de la République to destroy a German position, but when he got out of his tank for reconnaissance a burst of machine gun fire caught him in the legs. Mortally wounded, he died at the nearby Hôpital Saint-Louis four days later.

Georges Bailly, pharmacy student

Rue de Rivoli

George Bailly followed in his father’s shoes and become a pharmacist, and as soon as the Resistance began its uprising Bailly felt it was his duty to help treat the wounded.

On August 25, he decided helping the wounded was not enough and took up arms. Running from Rue de Rivoli to help comrades near the iconic Place de la Concorde, Bailly was caught in a burst of German machine-gun fire. A bullet hit the pharmacist in the heart, and he died instantly.

Jean-Claude Touche, nurse

Rue de Rivoli

Jean-Claude Touche was 17 when he became a volunteer nurse for the Red Cross in 1943. From August 19, 1944, he took his orders from the Resistance committee of the city’s 8th arrondissement. On the afternoon of August 25, he was called to a first aid post on Rue de Rivoli near Place de la Concorde, opposite the Louvre Museum.

He and fellow nurse Madeleine Brinet saw injured fighters on the opposite side of the road and immediately rushed to get them out of the line of German fire. German machine gun fire killed Brinet immediately. Touche, wounded in the stomach, died later in hospital.

Jean Montvallier-Boulogne, Resistance fighter

60, Boulevard Saint-Michel

On August 25, just hours before the German occupying garrison surrendered, FFI member Jean Montvallier-Boulogne found himself fighting alongside soldiers of Leclerc’s 2nd Armoured Division in the Latin Quarter. The 24-year-old, who had seen service in the French army in 1940, took shelter behind a tank before rushing across the street to throw grenades at a German position. The Germans opened fire with sub-machine guns and Montvallier-Boulogne was killed instantly.

Auguste Fenioux, AKA Jacques Francisco, soldier of the Free French Second Armoured Division

60, rue de Seine

This particular plaque, in the Latin Quarter by the Seine, contains two notable mistakes. Jacques Francesco’s real name was Auguste Fenioux, and he was not killed on August 24, but on the following day. A farmer’s son from the Vienne region of western France, Fenioux was a member of the 14th regiment of Algerian Fusiliers when the war broke out. After France’s defeat, he was demobilised and eventually crossed the demarcation line into southern France. In Marseille, he enlisted once more, this time into the Vichy-controlled Armée d’Afrique. In 1943, when the Allies conquered North Africa, Fenioux signed up with the Free French.

Now a sergeant, he landed in Normandy on August 1 under an assumed name (a common practice at the time) and fought his way south with Leclerc’s 2nd Armoured Division. He entered Paris on August 25 and was sent to root out members of the hated collaborationist Milice (a paramilitary force created by the Vichy regime) on the banks of the River Seine. He was shot in the chest and died soon after. Because of the confusion over his name change, his family was not told of his death until 1948.

Gilles Primout

an amateur historian maintains the memory of the Liberation’s victims

Gilles Primout is the first to admit that he is obsessed by his subject. The amateur historian, who describes himself as a “sleuth”, has been researching the stories of Paris’s largely anonymous liberation heroes since the 1994 50th anniversary of the liberation.

“I thought it was important to tell the stories of all these people,” he said. “I knew practically nothing about them. And while a great deal has been written about the big names and personalities of France’s wartime struggle, very few people have written about the small details and the ordinary people that took part in the Liberation.”

Over two decades, Primout has identified more than 4,000 who died in Paris and its suburbs between August 13 and August 31.

“There are FFI fighters, ambulance staff and nurses, soldiers of the 2nd Armoured Division and civilians,” he said. “This wasn’t a clearly defined fighting force within a specific battle zone, like in the First World War. This was a battle of sporadic street fighting, and many civilians were caught in the crossfire.”

There are around 200 commemorative plaques to the victims and heroes of the Liberation of Paris. They are all too easy to pass by without a second thought.

“They have blended in to the urban landscape,” said Primout. “They were not designed to stand out. Even if people do look at them, all they will see is a name and a date, not the stories that lie behind.”

Primout says his is particularly affected by the stories of two victims. The first, Roger Ponge, was 15 when he was killed with his parents in a German artillery strike. The second, Virginie Quantin, was shot while looking out of her apartment window.

“These two stories show, for me, just how complex an event the Liberation was,” he said. “On one side there was an explosion of victorious joy in the streets. On the other there are quiet tales of tragedy that have been forgotten by everyone except for the families of the victims.”

In the early 2000s, Primout built a website dedicated to these victims and their stories, a tool that has helped his research by reaching out to a wider audience. He also hopes to publish these accounts in a book.

“What gives me the greatest satisfaction is when someone contacts me wanting to know more about their grandfather or great grandfather,” he said. “That is a real pleasure.”

The story behind the commemorative plaques

The first memorials went up almost immediately after Paris’s liberation in the autumn of 1944. Families of the victims would leave flowers and write words on walls where a child, friend or comrade had fallen.

According to historical researcher Dominique Veillon, who has penned a number of books on the Liberation of Paris, the city authorities were very soon inundated with requests for commemorative plaques.

Rules were put in place: the plaques were to read “Ici est tombé … mort pour la France” (Here fell [name and date], who died for France).

They have since become part of the city’s landscape, honouring Resistance members, soldiers of the regular Free French 2nd Armoured Division, policemen, ambulance workers and nurses.

While remembrance is a city-wide effort, Veillon believes that the plaques are an important part of the city’s distinct neighbourhoods and arrondissements.

“These plaques are an integral part of the city,” he said. “It is vital that they are preserved.”

Credits

  • Text: Stéphanie Trouillard
  • Pictures: Stéphanie Trouillard France24/Gilles Primout/AFP Archives
  • Edited by: Marie Valla
  • Design and development: Graphics France Médias Monde
  • Sources:
    • Gilles Primout, "La Libération de Paris"
    • Musée du Général Leclerc de Hauteclocque et de la Libération de Paris – Musée Jean Moulin
  • Exhibitions:
    • "Paris freed, Paris photographed, Paris exhibited", Musée Carnavalet de Paris, until February 8, 2015
    • "Août 1944, le combat pour la Liberté (August 1944, the fight for Freedom)", Hôtel de Ville de Paris, until September 27, 2014
  • Further sources:
    • Christine Levisse-Touzé, "Libérer Paris", Editions Ouest-France, June 2014
    • Philippe Castetbon, "Ici est tombé. Paroles sur la Libération de Paris", Edition Tirésias March 2004
    • Jean-Paul Lefebvre-Filleau, "Chronique d'une libération", Edition De Borée, February 2014
    • Patrice Gelinet, "La délivrance de Paris du 19 août au 26 août 1945", Edition Arthaud, April 2014
    • Christian Chevandier, "La Libération de Paris. Les acteurs, les combats, les débats", Edition Hatier, September 2013
    • Collectif, "Paris 1944, les enjeux de la Libération", Edition Albin Michel, 1994
    • Dominique Lapierre et Larry Collins, "Paris brûle-t-il ?", Edition Robert Laffont, 1964