It’s sometimes said that if one were to go by popular culture, one would assume that English history largely consisted of the Tudors and winning the Second World War. I confess that for a long time my understanding of French history was equally simplistic. There was the Roman invasion (Asterix the Gaul), Louis XIV (The Three Musketeers), the Revolution (A Tale of Two Cities), and the Resistance in the Second World War (the BBC’s Secret Army and Sebastian Faulks’ Charlotte Gray). Now that I live here, this clearly will not do.
Since we arrived, I have been in blotting-paper mode, trying to soak up as much as I can about French history in general and that of Poitiers in particular. It’s a demanding task, and I have barely scratched the surface, but in terms of local history at least, some sense of how the city has developed is beginning to emerge.
Most of the available literature on the history of Poitiers tends to focus on four key periods: its strategic significance as a colonised town under the Romans in the first century BC; its growth and prosperity under the powerful Counts of Poitou and Dukes of Aquitaine between the tenth and thirteenth centuries; the siege of Poitiers and the Wars of Religion that lasted throughout the sixteenth century, and the occupation of Poitiers during the Second World War.
In a haphazard way, I’m gradually finding out more about each of these four aspects of Poitiers, but I’m also trying to dig a little deeper into the city that existed and developed either side of the Second World War, i.e. twentieth-century Poitiers. What follows is a little bit of work in progress.
In the middle of Poitiers, just off rue Magenta, is a small side street, rue Louis Renard. On the street sign under the name are simply the words Résistant and the dates 1893–1943.
Louis Renard was born in Poitiers on 7 December 1893. The son of a fabric merchant, he had to interrupt his studies when his father died prematurely in 1908. His mother took him out of the Lycée and sent him to England to learn the language and study business methods.
In the 1920s, Louis worked in Paris, first for the department store Printemps and then for Michelin, where he dealt with the UK and Netherlands markets. In 1927, he returned to Poitiers and joined a law firm as an associate. He took ownership of the firm five years later and became a respected figure in the local community. He involved himself in many cultural activities and was a founding member of the local Youth Hostel Association and Rotary Club.
In 1939, when war broke out, Louis enlisted in the army. He was 46. Assigned first to Tours, then to Marseille, he worked as a liaison interpreter between the French and British armies. He was demobilised when France surrendered in June 1940. In August he returned to Poitiers and wrote to General de Gaulle, then leader of the Free French in England, declaring his support. From the end of 1940, he became the leader of the organised Resistance network in occupied Vienne. He was also involved in setting up one of the first Resistance newspapers in France, Le Libre Poitou.
Two years later, on 30 August1942, Louis and twenty-eight other members of the Renard network were arrested following a combined operation by Vichy police and the Gestapo. Imprisoned first in Poitiers, then in Paris, they were transferred to Germany, where Louis and nine others were tried and sentenced to death. They were guillotined on 3 December 1943, four days before Louis’ fiftieth birthday.
Of necessity, the above is an extremely brief summary of Louis’ life and work as a member of the Resistance. If you are interested, there is a very good French website https://www.vrid-memorial.com/ devoted to the history of the Vienne department during the Second World War, and this includes a great deal of fascinating information about the Renard network, including a copy of Louis’ letter to de Gaulle, a detailed account of his arrest (written by his wife), and a letter Louis sent to his wife while in prison. There is also a book, La chute du réseau Renard:1942 (The Fall of the Renard Network, 1942) by Jean-Henri Calmon, which details how some members of the Vichy police were only too eager to please their new masters by arresting Louis and his colleagues.
Louis’ story is clearly that of a man worthy of respect, but alert readers will have noticed a gap in the potted biography that I’ve provided, in that it jumps from 1908 to 1920. I have left this period till now because it highlights for me one of the most interesting aspects of his story.
I said above that Louis enlisted in 1939. In fact, he re-enlisted. Louis had originally been called up for national service in 1913, and he was a sergeant in the army when war broke out the following year. His war record is impressive, He was awarded the Légion d’honneur and the Croix de guerre in 1916. By the time he was invalided out in 1917, he had lost an eye, had a lung perforated, and suffered a hand injury. He had reached the position of lieutenant. In July 1918, the death of his brother Henri, who had been killed while leading his men into battle, affected him badly.
After the war, Louis married Marie Germaine Marsaudon, and they went on to have six children. His experiences had made him a committed peace activist, and one of his reasons for founding the Rotary Club in Poitiers was that he saw this as a way of building direct relations with like-minded individuals in other countries. One might think that by this time Louis had already lived ‘a full life’. Yet this was the man, the severely disabled family man, who had no hesitation in volunteering again for active service in 1939 and who was to die so cruelly four years later.
One sometimes hears jokes about the French capitulation in 1940. It is estimated that somewhere between 55,000 and 85,000 French serviceman lost their lives before the surrender, with another 120,000 wounded. Estimates for the number of active members of the Resistance vary widely. The French government puts it at 220,000; Douglas Porch, in his respected study The French Secret Services, puts it at 75,000.
Louis Renard (1893-1943)