For Honour Alone

Roy Macnab examines the ongoing debate on the two Frances of 1940 – epitomized on the one side by Petain and de Gaulle on the other – in the light of an heroic Cavalry stand against the German Blitzkrieg.

For the first time since the event took place 48 years ago, the adversaries in one of the most unusual battles of the Second World War, French and German, have met again at the place where it happened, the historic French Cavalry School at Saumur, on the banks of the Loire. Here, in June 1940, teenage cadets, still under training and with derisory weapons (including an artillery gun from the school museum), heroically engaged an entire German panzer division for nearly three days. And in doing so became a legend in France.

Very appropriately, the battle began on June 18th, the very day that General de Gaulle broadcast from London his famous appeal to his countrymen not to give up, despite the demand for an armistice that their new prime minister, Marshall Petain, had announced in a broadcast; none recalled later having heard de Gaulle's broadcast the next day, though they acted within its spirit when, under their commandant, Colonel Michon, and instructors, they determined, as a matter of honour, to defend their school. Their number -- they were barely 800 -- was increased to 2,000 by stragglers from the beaten French armies who had reached Saumur in the retreat south.

The cadet David was challenging no ordinary German Goliath, however, for the germans who reached Saumur at midnight on June 18th were the 1st Cavalry Division, whose officers were products of the Wehrmacht's equivalent of Saumur, the cavalry school at Hanover. Like the Frenchmen, they were an elite, members of aristocratic families with military traditions. Some of them had even competed in the riding events in Berlin in February 1939 with Saumur's famous Cadre Noir, its squadron of crack horsemen.

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