Passport to Poitiers

One of my favourite films has always been Passport to Pimlico, in which a London borough briefly becomes part of the ancient dukedom of Burgundy. When I lived in Ely, I often thought that a remake could be made, centred on the old Isle of Ely. In my version, it would be discovered that local hero Hereward the Wake had done a deal with William the Conqueror whereby Ely was granted permanent independence in return for Hereward ending his guerrilla warfare. Hereward’s death is shrouded in mystery, and the document detailing the transaction is somehow lost and not discovered until the twentieth century. To their horror, the UK government are told that it is still legally binding and Ely is not actually part of the UK. My modern twist on the story would focus on the fact that Ely is under the flight path of the US airbases nearby. The hastily formed Ely Governing Council (working out of the Prince Albert public house in Silver Street) immediately announce that they will deny the Americans access to Ely airspace. The Russians and Chinese learn about this, and suddenly Ely is a hotbed of spies and counterspies. All of which leads to ‘hilarious results’.

My pathological lethargy meant that the idea never got beyond a couple of pages more than the above summary (I remember there was a subplot about the various spy agencies entering teams in the Albert pub quiz). I did get briefly excited when the Brexit referendum was announced, thinking that this presented new possibilities, but then Fenland voted to leave the EU by a big majority and I lost my appetite for the whole project. I offer the idea freely to anyone who wants to take it up.

What has brought all of this to mind is an interesting Poitiers story that I came across recently.

Following the German offensive of May 1940 – which violated the neutrality of the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg – the Belgian government sought asylum in France. In a sense, this was history repeating itself, because they had done the same in 1914, setting up a temporary headquarters in Sainte-Adresse, near Le Havre. This time, however, for reasons that I have yet to discover, they chose the city of Poitiers. They arrived on May 23 and set themselves up with impressive speed.

The history books record that the government headquarters were at the Hôtel de France, which is now the Best Western Poitiers Centre in rue Carnot. The Prime Minister’s office was Hôtel Gilbert, a handsome art deco building at 13 rue de Blossac, now the site of the city’s administrative tribunal. The Law Faculty at Poitiers University was the temporary home for the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of the Interior, while the Ministry of Justice took up residence at 21 rue de la Cathédrale, now a rather shabby-looking apartment building. A group of Belgian police officers were accommodated at the police station in rue de la Marne to assist in the security work necessitated by the influx of refugees.

Now, this is all well and good, but we need to remember that France itself was at war. Doubtless, there would have been lots of official noises made about helping out friends and allies in difficult times. However, to those of us of a more sceptical frame of mind, it does beg the question as to how the new arrivals were greeted by the local residents, in particular those who, temporarily at least, were turfed out of their accommodation to make way for them.

I’m afraid you’ll have to leave. I will be needing these rooms now.

Oh yes, and who might you be, pray?

I am the Prime Minister of Belgium.

Yeah, right, and I’m Maurice Chevalier. Sling your hook, Tintin.

Be that as it may, the government was indeed set up, and for a brief period Poitiers became the capital of Belgium. The Belgian king and queen actually came and stayed one night at the Hôtel de France.

It did not last long. After the heavy losses experienced by its army, France asked for an armistice on June 17. The Belgian government left Poitiers the same day and sailed from Bordeaux to London on June 18. There they set up their government in exile for the duration of the war. Poitiers had been their capital city for just twenty-six days.

It’s a fascinating story, and I intend to find out a little bit more about it. Jean-Henri Calmon, the author of the book on the Renard network that I mentioned last week, has also written on this in his Occupation, Résistance et Libération dans la Vienne,but I have so far been unable to get hold of a copy.

There is one lasting memorial to the Belgian presence. In 1950, the Brussels police force presented a replica of the famous Manneken Pis statue to their Poitiers counterparts as a token of gratitude for their reception in 1940. The statue, one of only six authorised replicas in the world, is on display in the reception area of the police station. I went to see it yesterday, and it looks fine, although I was disappointed that the little chap wasn’t actually ‘in action’ – a victim perhaps of the recent hosepipe ban.

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