Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Anniversary of the Attack on Mers-el-Kébir

And what lessons we have to learn from this most ironic of sea battles, in which the British sank a large part of the French fleet during World War II, as part of the struggle for the liberation of France. 
Looked at spiritually, we could note that sometimes we have to give up lesser things - even if they are intrinsically good - to pursue a greater goal.
Looked at in terms of a moral lesson we can see how the disaster could have maybe been averted. The French commander would not negotiate properly because the British sent a lower-ranked officer. The British sent that officer because he spoke French, which seems reasonable enough. As a result, the French missed the option of sailing to America, where they could have spent the war making up for all the GIs that were over here, in their Gallicly romantic way.
No, because of that man's pride more than a thousand men died. Dulce et Decorum, some might say. But it's not sweet or right to die for your country, at the hands of your friends, because it would wound your commander's pride less to hand your boats over to the enemy. War's a nasty thing.


  1. Off course the full horror of what happened is hidden within a simple story of human failings.

    It also reflected the determination of Churchill that the French Fleet, which presented a huge threat to Allied operations in the Med and the future invasion of Sicily and Italy should be neutralised.

    Human motivation is something that we are all wise about in hindsight - but the collapse of France in 1940 against the German onslaught and the creation of the Vichy France under Field Marshall Vichy presented an enormous difficulty for the Allies, as the Vichy government collaborated with the Germans.

    History also tells of Churchill's distrust of the Free French under General De Gualle, despite them fighting under British Command in the campaign in North Africa and conducting themselves very well.

    Underlying it all, perhaps there was a sneaking mistrust of the French to do the right thing? Who knows, but the outcome was the disaster you describe.

  2. Nothing dulce about death in war....and not much decorum either when you assess the 'causes' for which poltiicians send young people out to die.

    1. As Private Baldrick so well put it, "Hear the song I sing, war's a horrid thing.But still I sing, sing, sing, Ding a ling a ling"

  3. We had to analyse the potential alternative outcomes to this episode in a "counterfactual" (a.k.a. "what if?" scenarios) workshop. Not in any way wishing to defend appalling decisions and evil circumstances, nor suggesting that war & death are appropriate, but pretty much every alternative scenario ended up worse except for the voluntary 'surrender' of the French fleet.
    And, yes, the widespread feeling was that a major unspoken factor was mistrust of the French - which had already been exacerbated by the events leading up to Dunkirk and the French surrender.


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