Scarred Landscapes: War and Nature in Vichy


Scarred Landscapes: War and Nature in Vichy
War and Nature in Vichy France
Chris Pearson
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Scarred Landscapes
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Scarred Landscapes
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Scarred Landscapes
War and Nature in Vichy France
Chris Pearson
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Research Associate, Department of Historical Studies, University of Bristol
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© Chris Pearson 2008
All rights reserved. No reproduction, copy or transmission of this
publication may be made without written permission.
Any person who does any unauthorized act in relation to this publication
may be liable to criminal prosecution and civil claims for damages.
The author has asserted his right to be identified
as the author of this work in accordance with the Copyright,
Designs and Patents Act 1988.
First published 2008 by
Palgrave Macmillan in the UK is an imprint of Macmillan Publishers Limited,
registered in England, company number 785998, of Houndmills, Basingstoke,
Hampshire RG21 6XS.
Palgrave Macmillan in the US is a division of St Martin’s Press LLC,
175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10010.
Palgrave Macmillan is the global academic imprint of the above companies
and has companies and representatives throughout the world.
Palgrave® and Macmillan® are registered trademarks in the United States,
the United Kingdom, Europe and other countries.
ISBN-13: 978–0–230–22012–6 hardback
ISBN-10: 0–230–22012–6 hardback
This book is printed on paper suitable for recycling and made from fully
managed and sustained forest sources. Logging, pulping and manufacturing
processes are expected to conform to the environmental regulations of the
country of origin.
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Pearson, Chris, 1979–
Scarred landscapes : war and nature in Vichy France / Chris Pearson.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978–0–230–22012–6
1. War—Environmental aspects—France—Vichy—History.
2. Environmental protection—France—Vichy—History.
3. Environmental management—France—Vichy—History.
4. Nature conservation— France—Vichy—History. 5. Vichy
(France)—Environmental conditions—History. I. Title.
TD195.W29P43 2008
333.730944 09044—dc22
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
17 16 15 14 13 12 11 10 09 08
Printed and bound in Great Britain by
CPI Antony Rowe, Chippenham and Eastbourne
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No portion of this publication may be reproduced, copied or transmitted
save with written permission or in accordance with the provisions of the
Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, or under the terms of any licence
permitting limited copying issued by the Copyright Licensing Agency,
Saffron House, 6-10 Kirby Street, London EC1N 8TS.
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To my parents
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List of Illustrations
List of Abbreviations
Map 1: Divided France 1940–1944
Map 2: South Eastern France 1940–1944
War, nature and history
Nature’s role in wartime France
The ‘dark years’ in French environmental history
Writing habitat history
1 The War on ‘Wasteland’: Remaking the French
Landscape after Defeat
‘Back to the land-ism’ in Vichy France
Cultivating France
Les grands travaux: Draining marshes and replanting forests
Foresters versus maquis
A Strange Defeat?: Losing the War on ‘Wasteland’
2 ‘The Age of Wood’: Forests in Wartime France
Wartime forest management
Fuel and felling
Forestry production problems
Fire in the forest
Occupying the forest
The forest in Vichy ideology
The resistance reclaims the forest
Fighting in the forest
3 The Camargue Between War and Peace
The Camargue before the storm
A contradictory affair: Vichy in the Camargue
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viii Contents
4 Mobilising Mountains in Vichy France
Of men and mountains
Promoting alpinisme
Jeunesse et montagne
Breathing ‘the air of freedom’
Militarised mountains
The ‘plateau of death’
5 Reconstructing the Environment, 1944–1955
Continuing pressures on the environment
More forestry production problems
An explosive problem
A ‘new deal’ for the French landscape?
‘A national duty’: the Fonds forestier national
6 The Nature of Memory in Post-war France
Arboreal memories
Mountains of memory
Appropriating nature
Experiencing nature
Overgrown memory
Bibliography of Secondary Literature
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Saliers camp: A ‘gay and harmonious note’?
War on the reserve
Fortifications and floods
The wetlands ‘fight’ back
List of Illustrations
A gazogène car
‘Pétain’s oak tree,’ Tronçais forest
Maquis information board at the Eden Project
Resistance memorial in the Bessillon mountains, Var
Les maquis de France, 1946. Detail of painting by Jean
Amblard, Salle de la Résistance, Saint-Denis town hall
Les maquis de France, 1946. Detail of painting by Jean
Amblard, Salle de la Résistance, Saint-Denis town hall
Resistance memorial at Malleval
Resistance memorial at Gresse-en-Vercors
View from Mémorial du débarquement de Provence at
Mont-Faron, Toulon
Gilioli memorial at col de La Chau, Vercors
Cemetery at Saint-Nizier-du-Moucherotte, Vercors
Rester-Résister ‘jardin de mémoire,’ Vassieux-en-Vercors
Viewing platform at col de La Chau memorial, Vercors
The memorial at col de La Chau, Vercors
Memorial at pas de l’Aiguille, Vercors
Railway tracks at Les Milles camp, Bouches-du-Rhône
Site of Saliers internment camp, Camargue
Memorial to Saliers camp
German bunker, Camargue
The ruins of Valchevrière, Vercors
Distribution of land 1938–1944 (in hectares)
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This book could never have existed without the help of colleagues,
family and friends in Bristol and elsewhere.
At the University of Bristol, Peter Coates and Tim Cole provided copious amounts of encouragement, support, advice, tea and biscuits. My
thanks to other colleagues in Historical Studies who offered advice, references and other assistance. Beyond the West Country, Robert Zaratsky
kindly guided me on researching the Camargue, while Brett Bowles
supplied valuable information on Alpine films in Vichy France. My
gratitude also goes out to all the other academics who answered my
At various stages and in various forms, sections of this manuscript
have benefited enormously from the readings of Mark Cioc, Bill Doyle,
Eve Munson, Dan Sherman, Jessica Wardhaugh, Tamara Whited and
two anonymous reviewers for the journal Environmental History. Rod
Kedward and Josie McLellan supplied invaluable suggestions on how
to turn the thesis into a book. As he has for many other historians of Vichy France, Rod has been an endless source of inspiration
for me.
On my extended research trip to France, Alain Battaro of the Archives
départementales des Alpes-Maritimes played a crucial role in orientating
my archival research and suggesting new lines of enquiry. Jean-Marie
Guillon of the Université de Provence furnished me with invaluable local knowledge and Robert Lindeckert introduced me to the
Mediterranean forest. At Arles town hall, Nicolas Koukas showed me
the site of Saliers camp, supplied key information and invited me to
speak on the occasion of the inauguration of the camp’s memorial.
Georges Carlevan of the Association pour le Musée de la Résistance
et de la Déportation d’Arles et du Pays d’Arles was also very helpful. Eric Coulet, director of the Camargue nature reserve opened up
its archives and, along with Theo, showed me the remains of German
bunkers on a windswept beach. Madame Claret and members of the
Comité du Bessillon kindly introduced me to the history of resistance
in the Haut-Var. Philippe Hanus shared his knowledge of the Vercors, as
did Karen Faure-Comte of the Maison de Patrimoine at Villard-de-Lans.
I also thank the former maquisards and others who opened their homes
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to me and related their wartime experiences; Eloi Arribert-Narce, Pierre
Bichet, Max Dauphin, Robert Lambert, Elvio Segatto, André Salvetti and
Pierre Sellier. In addition, I am grateful to the archivists and librarians
who provided assistance in France and the UK.
This research has been made possible by a scholarship from the
Faculty of Arts at the University of Bristol and an Arts and Humanities Research Council Postgraduate Doctoral Award. Funding from the
University of Bristol’s Alumni Foundation, the Society for the Study
of French History, and the department of Historical Studies at the
University of Bristol helped with travel costs for research trips and
Jamie Carstairs helped with the images and Drew Ellis skilfully produced the maps. The Arts Faculty Computer Team helped solve technical problems and William Pearson gave his numerically-challenged
brother help with statistics. All translations from French are my own,
although Ariane Wilson helped me with some of the more troublesome ones. Thanks are due to Michael Strang and Ruth Ireland
at Palgrave-MacMillan, as well as to Vidya Vijayan. Thanks also to
Simon Kitson and Bill Storey, the thoroughly helpful manuscript
A version of Chapter 2 was printed in Environmental History, Vol. 11/4
(October 2006): 775-803 published by the American Society for Environmental History and the Forest History Society, Durham, North Carolina,
USA. An earlier version of Chapter 6 appears in War and the Environment:
Contexts and Consequences of Military Destruction in the Modern Age, an
essay collection edited by Charles E. Closmann and published by Texas
A&M University Press. I am extremely grateful to Citroën for granting
permission to publish the gazogène image (and to Jemma Chalcroft for
all her help locating it), as well as to Hélène Amblard for kindly giving
permission to publish images of Jean Amblard’s paintings in Saint-Denis
town hall. Every effort has been made to trace copyright holders, but if
any have been inadvertently overlooked, the author and publishers will
be pleased to make the necessary arrangements at the first opportunity.
Friends and family have provided support of a more personal nature.
Maggie, Gareth, Owen, Nic, David, Chris, Matt and Tom gave me somewhere to stay in London. In Paris, Brigitte Wilson generously let me stay
in her ‘chambre de bonne’, while Ariane, John, Jane, Joelle, Richard and
Tintin kept me company as did Sybille, Judith and Cécile in Marseille.
I am grateful also to Aude and Poppy for their hospitality in Provence,
and to family and friends who visited me on what would otherwise have
been a lonely research trip. Friends in the Arts Graduate Centre shared
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xii Acknowledgements
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the highs and lows of PhD research, while Keith helped keep my spirits
up. Thanks also to Catherine and Hamish. Dulcie made the home stretch
infinitely more bearable and kept me going with her love and support.
Jody was a generous host in North Wales and Timmy herded me round
the surrounding mountains. This book is dedicated to my parents, Geoff
and Moya, who have provided unwavering support and encouragement
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Club Alpin Français
Commission consultative des dommages et des
Compagnie Nationale du Rhône
Éclaireurs israélites de France
Fonds Forestier National
Parc Naturel Régional du Vercors
Société nationale d’acclimatation de France
Service du Travail Obligatoire
Site National Historique de la Résistance en Vercors
List of Archive Abbreviations
Archives départementales des Alpes-Maritimes
Archives départementales des Bouches-du-Rhône
Archives départementales de la Drôme
Archives départementales des Hautes-Alpes
Archives départementales de l’Isère
Archives départementales du Var
Archives départementales de la Vaucluse
Archives municipales d’Arles
Archives municipales de Vassieux-en-Vercors
Centre des archives contemporaines des Archives
Centre historique des Archives nationales
Imperial War Museum
Médiathèque de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine
Réserve Naturelle de la Camargue
Service historique de l’Armée d’Air
Société nationale pour la protection de la nature
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List of Abbreviations
Map 1
Divided France 1940–1944
Source: Map prepared by Drew Ellis, Cartographic Unit, University of Bristol.
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Map 2
South Eastern France 1940–1944
Source: Map prepared by Drew Ellis, Cartographic Unit, University of Bristol.
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Mountains loomed large in the minds of French alpinists during the
phoney war. Among them was J. Carcagne, editor-in-chief of the Revue
alpin of the French Alpine Club’s Lyon branch, who predicted that
France’s mountains would ‘sleep’ during the war, ‘indifferent’ to the
‘divisions’ that were tearing Europe apart.1 Carcagne’s prediction, however, fell wide of the mark. Mountains, like the rest of France’s natural
environment, did not ‘sleep’ during the years of war and occupation
that are now commonly known as the ‘dark years’. On emerging from
the painful and humiliating experience of defeat in the summer of 1940,
the French had no option but to fall back on their mountains, forests,
marshlands and other habitats for sustenance, solace and survival.
Not least, Carcagne’s fellow alpinists sought to rebuild French minds,
bodies and souls through the promotion of alpinism and increased emotional and physical contact with France’s valleys, glaciers and summits.
Mountains were not allowed to ‘sleep’.
Carcagne’s belief that mountains would hibernate during the war
is unsurprising because, on the whole, the connections between war
and nature have remained obscure. This, however, is changing. As
I write these words, war and environmental issues vie for space at
the top of news bulletins, and the war–nature relationship is of everincreasing interest to scholars, policy-makers and the general public.
International legislation promoting wartime environmental protection,
museum exhibits on animals and warfare, and public outrage over burning oil wells during the 1990–1991 Gulf War all bear witness to this
development.2 This book aims to contribute to understanding of this
area by telling the untold story of nature in Vichy France.
Its central argument is that nature mattered between 1940 and 1944
and continued to do so in the war’s aftermath. The events and exigencies of the ‘dark years’ transformed the natural environment into
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War and Nature in Vichy France
a source of indispensable natural resources, a site of political and military conflict, and a ‘victim’ of warfare. In addition, nature became an
object of concern among nature preservationists, as well as an ‘actor’
in human history. I propose that environmental history – ‘the history
of the mutual relations between humankind and the rest of nature’3 –
offers an alternative approach to understanding the history of wartime
My focus rests primarily on nonhuman nature. However, I do not seek
to downplay human history. For as well as being a history of forests,
mountains and marshlands, this book is also about how the French
imagined, experienced and shaped their environment. It is the story of
how foresters struggled to conserve forest resources in the face of heavy
civilian and military demands, of resisters making sense of the forest
and mountain environments in which they sheltered and fought, and
of nature preservationists fighting to save the landscapes they managed.
It is also the story of how the Vichy regime mobilised nature for political purposes and of how officials cleared millions of landmines from the
French soil after the Liberation. Privileging natural history over human
history (or vice versa) would be misleading, as both became intertwined
in wartime France.
War is part of nature’s history. This was apparent to contemporary
observers during the Second World War. Flying over northern France,
author and pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupéry lamented seeing houses and
forests burning as the German army advanced: ‘the sense of everything changes. The three hundred year old trees that shelter your
family home block the firing range of a twenty-two year old lieutenant. So he sends in fifteen men to destroy history’s work. In ten
minutes, they consume three hundred years of patience, sun, and life
under the shade’.4 War changes nature, as well as the different human
uses, meanings and experiences of the natural world. For the family in
Saint-Exupéry’s account, the trees formed part of their domestic life.
For the young lieutenant, they represented obstacles blocking the fulfilment of military objectives. Military and civilian visions of nature
would clash repeatedly in subsequent years, contributing to physical
changes in the land as well as new ways of conceiving of and using the
Nature’s contingency, however, is frequently denied. In his classic
study on Mediterranean history, Annales historian Fernand Braudel suggested that the history of the environment ‘is almost imperceptible . . . a
history in which all change is slow, a history of constant repetition, everrecurring cycles’. For Braudel, this was an ‘almost timeless history, the
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story of man’s contact with the inanimate’.6 Although Braudel recognised that nature was part of human history, he denied it its own history.
The environment was a stable and unchanging backdrop to human
affairs, albeit one that could not be ignored. Conversely, more recent
studies have shown the extensive physical and cultural changes that
have modified the French landscape.7
In a similar vein, this book suggests that Vichy France’s environmental history is as complex and as contingent as its political, social
and cultural histories. Nature was not a ‘given’. Following military
defeat, the Vichy regime, headed by the aging First World War hero
Philippe Pétain, launched a war against ‘wasteland’, born of ideological convictions and severe material shortages. Marsh draining, reforestation and the dispatching of thousands of (mainly) young men
to labour in the great outdoors were the weapons deployed against
‘wasteland’. Forests represented a particularly important source of natural resources and were consequently over-exploited, as well as being
transformed into political spaces by Vichy and the resistance. Meanwhile, occupation armies plundered forest resources and turned France’s
woodlands into terrains for military manoeuvres. French foresters,
whose powers had been strengthened by Vichy legislation, struggled to uphold their principles of scientific forest management and
limit war damage. Foresters were not the only ones who sought to
restrain war’s impact on the landscape. The French National Society for Acclimation (Société nationale d’acclimatation de France or
SNAF) battled to save its nature reserve in the Camargue wetlands
from agricultural modernisation, military manoeuvres and German
submersion plans. The Camargue’s climate (unwittingly) aided these
nature preservationists in their campaign. Moving up in altitude,
Vichy and the French Alpine Club (Club Alpin Français or CAF)
mobilised mountains to rejuvenate French masculinity. The resistance echoed this mobilisation of the mountains, treating them as
sites of masculine renewal and a natural ally in the fight against
The connections between war and nature did not end with Liberation in summer 1944. Civilian and military pressures continued to be
exerted on the environment, as the demand for food, fuel, construction
timber and other natural resources showed no sign of relenting. This
intense human activity necessitated the reconstruction of the environment in the post-war era, which was planned and managed by the newly
restored republican state after it had undertaken the task of clearing
landmines and other explosives from the land. The relationship between
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War and Nature in Vichy France
War, nature and history
According to one commentator, Vichy France is ‘now the most scrutinised, deciphered, and dissected period of contemporary France’.8
Interest in Vichy’s ‘back to the land-ism’, wartime rural France, the promotion of alpinism, the geographical context of rural resistance and
urban reconstruction has hinted at the war’s materiality.9 Yet despite this
level of attention and the fact that it was in 1942 that the term environnement was reportedly first coined in France, the period’s environmental
history has remained obscured.10 Why is this? Firstly, environmental
devastation in north and eastern France during the First World War
has overshadowed war’s influence on the French landscape between
1939 and 1945. Vichy France has nothing to compare with the levelled
forests, churned up fields, trench-riddled landscapes and vast war cemeteries of the 1914–1918 war.11 Secondly, human histories and memories
of the Second World War have proved exceptionally complex and controversial. It is not surprising that the intricacies of the Vichy regime, the
polarised positions of collaboration and resistance, the tragedies of racial
persecution and the abundant hardships of everyday life in wartime
France have been focal-points for national memories of the war.12
Of course, the emphasis on human experience is understandable.
Some might argue that it is obscene to even think about nature given the
extent of human suffering and tragedy during the war. Focussing on the
environment, however, does not downplay human suffering. German
timber requisitions deprived French civilians of forestry products that
were desperately needed for heating, cooking and transportation, while
harsh environmental conditions in French internment camps accentuated the suffering of internees, who were buffeted by winds all year
round, frazzled by the sun in summer and floundered in mud during
the winter.13 Human hardships occurred within an environmental context. But nature could also offer some solace; one observer noted in 1942
how ‘the study of nature is calming in this infernal century in which
we live. It makes us better and keeps our hearts intact’.14 And beyond
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war and the environment continues to unfold in the contemporary
French landscape as nature plays a role in preserving and obscuring
sites of memory. War scarred France’s physical and cultural landscapes,
even if some of those scars are more prominent and resistant to the
passage of time than others. Understanding these scarred landscapes
requires us to think through the associations between war, nature and
Vichy France, gardening, bird-watching and contemplating nature during wartime have provided comfort, hope and dignity to soldiers and
civilians alike.15
Nature is part of the human experience of war, but historians have
largely kept war and nature as separate entities, even though they have
outlined how war reaches far beyond the battlefield to affect gender
relations, national identity, the human body, and political, economic
and social structures.16 However, it is becoming increasingly difficult to
maintain the war–nature divide. Faced with the potential environmental annihilation of nuclear war and all-too-real Agent Orange-induced
obliteration of jungle cover during the Vietnam War, scientist Arthur
Westing drew attention to war’s environmental impact back in the
1970s.17 Natural and social scientists have expanded on Westing’s
work, exploring war’s environmental legacies, the links between natural
resources and conflict, and military use of the land.18 Environmental historians have added to this field by uncovering the historical context and
consequences of the war–nature relationship thereby making it harder
to ignore the environmental dimensions inherent in the totalising tendencies of modern warfare.19 This book aims to contribute to this project
by bringing to light the ways in which nature mattered in Vichy France.
At the same time, it poses wider questions concerning nature’s ‘agency’
in wartime.
Nature’s role in wartime France
In recent years, the image of the French as passive victims during the
Second World War has been fundamentally challenged.20 However, this
restoration of agency has stopped short of the ground itself.21 This begs
important questions. What was nature’s role in wartime France? Was
nature a ‘victim’ of war or did it demonstrate a more active presence?
Should agency be attributed to nonhuman actors in wartime France?
Nature’s presence and ‘agency’ in wartime is all too easily downplayed as nature is represented as an object during warfare; humans and
their weaponry act upon nature to the detriment of the latter. Nature
becomes the helpless, innocent ‘victim’ of eco-war crimes. These views
can be labelled as ‘declensionist’, in that they advance downward narratives of human interference with the natural world. Technological
developments in weaponry, such as nuclear and chemical weapons, are
presented as further evidence in the case against humanity’s environmental stewardship. War becomes yet another indicator of just how far
humans have fallen from an Edenic ‘state of nature’.22
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War and Nature in Vichy France
While there is undoubtedly some truth in ‘declensionist’ narratives
of the war–nature relationship, they do not represent the full story.
There are indications from across the globe of how nature’s regenerative processes survive military activity. Even in nuclear testing sites
in the American West, fauna thrives on land that military exclusion zones protect from encroaching suburbanisation and tourism,
while some military installations unintentionally encourage wildlife.23
Furthermore, long-term predictions of ecological deterioration in the
Persian Gulf have since been revised and large mammals have reappeared on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Vietnam, one of the areas that
suffered most from Agent Orange-induced defoliation.24 In line with
these alternatives to ‘declensionist’ narratives, this book attributes a
more active role to nature in Vichy France. It brings to light those
occasions when nature showed resilience to warfare, when it aided or
disrupted human aims, and when contemporaries represented nature as
Between 1940 and 1944, nature displayed a degree of ‘resistance’
to war’s influence. No chemical or nuclear weapons were deployed
on French soil during the Second World War, but resource
over-exploitation, increased forest fires, and military activity did spell
potential disaster for the French environment. Nature was, in places,
a ‘casualty’ of war. Yet it did survive, even if its depleted post-war
condition motivated state officials to undertake environmental reconstruction. There are many reasons for this outcome. Among them is
nature’s own resilience; this history is not a one-sided story of human
dominance over nature.
As well as displaying a degree of resilience to warfare, nature was not
a static backdrop to the human history of wartime France. This was violently demonstrated by the ‘200 year’ storm that hit the basin of the
Tech river in south western France on 17 October 1940, the deluge from
which devastated the town of Elne.25 In addition, combatants realised
that nature was more than a static backdrop, as they sought to turn it
into a ‘natural ally’.26 Resisters transformed the Vercors mountain range
into a ‘natural fortress’ from which to oppose the German occupier,
while the latter attempted to flood the Camargue to boost the wetlands’
natural defences. These strategies were the latest twists in a long history
of military mobilization of the natural environment.27
But nature could also be a ‘natural enemy’ in wartime France, and
its compliance was not inevitable. As was the case during other conflicts, nature played a disruptive role.28 In more subtle ways than the
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‘200 year storm’ of October 1940, nature’s presence and unpredictability thwarted human objectives and aspirations. As subsequent chapters
show, the Camargue’s climate undermined Vichy’s propaganda and
re-educational aims in Saliers internment camp and, along with material
shortages, prevented the German army’s plans to submerge the wetlands. Maquis vegetation also undermined Vichy’s cultivation drive. And
in the present day, weather and vegetation threaten to erode or swamp
certain sites of memory, thereby altering them irredeemably.
It is not only with the benefit of hindsight that nature’s active role
becomes visible. Among those who located powerful energies within
nature were Vichy traditionalists who believed that the powers of the
French soil could be tapped to regenerate France. Working the land
supposedly imbued peasants with the qualities of perseverance, stoicism and moral backbone that were needed to restore France’s ‘true’
character and its vigour. Away from the fields, forests and mountains
were to regenerate bodies and minds, which the regime presented as an
integral part of national renewal. As one historian has noted, within
Vichy’s ‘back-to-the-land’ philosophy ‘the earth had literally magical
powers which guaranteed that the nation would regain its identity and
strength’.29 But it was not only Vichy that represented nature as an
active force; rural resistance fighters (or maquisards) in the Vercors portrayed the mountains as partners in resistance. In their accounts and
memoirs, the Vercors itself urged them to realise its resistance potential, and the effects of its altitude and climate renewed their minds and
Nature’s resilience and disruptiveness alongside contemporary representations of its ‘power’ highlight how nature was a factor that could
not be ignored between 1940 and 1944. It both facilitated and constrained human intentions and actions. But, following this, can it be
said that nature displayed agency? To begin answering this question, it
is useful to consider a 1951 poem by Jacques Gaucheron in which he
evokes the ‘firm friendship [that] arose between trees and [French]men’
when the German occupier ‘discovered the huge anger of the forest’.
‘Shoulder to shoulder’ men and trees fought and defeated the occupier.
Such was their cooperation that the German soldier who fell in the forest did not know if his life had been taken by a resister or a tree acting
in ‘anger’.30 In Gaucheron’s anthropomorphic poem, anger (commonly
understood as a human emotion) is attributed to nonhuman nature,
presumably for poetic effect. It is an arresting image, but I do not want
to suggest that trees resisted the occupier because of a burning sense of
injustice, patriotic feelings or an aversion to Nazism. Trees do not act
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War and Nature in Vichy France
with intent or consciousness in the ways that humans do (within the
constraints of social, economic and cultural structures).31 The fact that
nature played an active ‘role’ during the war does not mean that it possessed an agency comparable to human agency. ‘Role’ should not be
conflated with ‘agency’.
But rather than differentiate between human and natural agency, it is
more helpful to rethink the concept of historical agency as an intermingling of ‘human’ and ‘nonhuman’ agencies. French philosopher Bruno
Latour calls for a reconceptualisation of agency that moves beyond the
pre-requisite of self-reflexivity and intentionality to include objects and
nonhumans. For Latour, ‘any thing’ that makes a difference to other
actors (intentionally or not) can be considered an agent. Things, which
might include microbes, machines or animals, do not determine outcomes but nor do they act as a passive backdrop. Instead, they ‘might
authorise, allow, afford, encourage, permit, suggest, influence, block,
render possible, forbid, and so on’.32 In Chapter 3, we encounter a
French cowboy in the Camargue who recounts how the treacherous
quicksand swallowed up a group of German soldiers and their horses.
In this instance, the quicksand did not act consciously. Instead, the
deathly outcome was a combination of the quicksand’s physical properties, the German riders’ ignorance of the Camargue’s landscape and the
choice the French observers made not to share their knowledge of the
Responding to Latour’s expansion of agency, environmental historian
Linda Nash critiques the separation of human thought and choice from
their environmental context. Instead, Nash advances a model of historical agency that recognises that nature partly influences and constrains
human activity and helps shape human intentions. Without advocating
a return to some crude form of environmental determinism (after all, the
environment does not dictate human actions), Nash urges us to be alive
to how human intentions are formed in response to, and in dialogue
with, changing natural environments.33 This emphasis on reciprocal
processes between human and nonhuman actors as the motor of historical change carves out a productive middle ground between the polarities
of environmental determinism and a model of agency radiating from
the supposedly isolated human mind.
How can this concept of nature’s ‘agency’ be applied to wartime
France? For a start, human and nonhuman agencies combined to undermine Vichy’s war against ‘wasteland’, contribute to an increased number
of forest fires and thwart German plans to flood the Camargue. Nature
also influenced, but did not determine, human intentions and actions.
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This is apparent in the way that human responses to particular environments informed policies and actions. Vichy did not formulate its
war against ‘wasteland’ in isolation from the French soil. The existence
of uncultivated fields, marshlands and scrubland was a factor behind
the regime’s cultivation drive alongside pre-existing perceptions of these
areas as problematic. This is just one example of how human actors
made choices and pursued actions within an environmental context. As
such, nonhuman natures can be treated as factors in decision-making
processes. Nature, in all its diversity, was an historical actor in Vichy
France (albeit an unconscious one).
The idea of human and nonhuman actors combining to create
(un)intended outcomes within structural constraints and possibilities
allows us to move beyond artificial distinctions between ‘nature’ and
‘culture’. This is particularly important in a country like France where
the environment has influenced human activity and been extensively
modified for thousands of years.34 Indeed, Annales historian Lucien
Febvre warned against separating humans from their environment back
in the 1920s:
To act on his environment, man [sic] does not place himself outside it. He does not escape its hold at the precise moment when
he attempts to exercise his own. And conversely the nature which
acts on man, the nature which intervenes to modify the existence of
human societies, is not a virgin nature, independent of all human
contact; it is a nature already profoundly impregnated and modified by man. There is a perpetual action and reaction. The formula
“the mutual relations of society to environment” holds equally good
for the two supposed distinct cases. For in these relations, man
both borrows and gives back, whilst the environment gives and
Following Febvre’s formulation, human and nonhuman actors are complicit in things happening (or not), and both change in reaction to each
other. That said, an overemphasis on agency and change is misleading as the environmental history of wartime France took place within
longstanding historical continuities.
The ‘dark years’ in French environmental history
The Vichy regime and German Occupation lasted four years, the blink of
an eye in the lifetime of a forest, mountain or marshland. Consequently,
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War and Nature in Vichy France
these years need to be located within what Annales historians termed
the longue durée of history. In environmental terms, history stretches
back for thousands of years, but this book limits itself largely to the
twentieth century. Surveying the ‘dark years’ through a wider chronological lens, it becomes clear that war-induced changes to the land and
evolutions in human uses and perceptions of the environment existed
alongside broader continuities within French environmental history.36
The persistence of environmental patterns before, during and after the
war also needs to be viewed within the wider context of political, social
and cultural continuities in areas as diverse as administrative personnel
and state polices towards demography, immigration, youth and sport.37
Bringing to light these continuities challenges Charles de Gaulle’s assertion that Vichy France was a ‘parenthesis’ in France’s otherwise glorious
Of course, environmental continuities existed alongside changes. This
is illustrated by natural resource use. War and occupation placed a premium on productive land but this was not unprecedented; Vichy’s war
against ‘wasteland’ was born of ideological convictions and the particular circumstances of post-defeat France, yet it echoed the 28 July
1860 law on the reclamation of marshes and uncultivated land.38 In
addition, post-1940 material conditions deprived the French of coal
and oil supplies, meaning that the national economy and everyday
life became increasingly reliant on forestry products. There was, in
a sense, a reversion back to a wood-based economy in which traditional forestry practices, such as charcoal burning, thrived. Other
developments were more novel as fuel shortages gave an unparalleled
boost to gazogène technologies (see Chapter 2). Furthermore, alongside the civilian population’s reliance on wood, French, Axis and
Allied armies found forestry products indispensable for fuel and construction, which also continued well beyond Liberation. A restrictive
1940–1944 periodisation, therefore, disguises continuities in natural
resource use.
Administrative continuities are also evident. In the midst of war
and occupation, state foresters did not abandon their established concepts of forest management nor their professional aims and ethos. The
period 1940–1944 was short in the long history of the state forestry
administration (the Administration des Eaux et Forêts was founded in
121539 ) but presented significant problems. With war-depleted ranks,
foresters faced the challenges of implementing new forestry legislation, responding to heightened civilian demand for wood, fighting
the increased outbreaks of forest fires and restraining military impact
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