Unexpected Finds About World War II at a Vide-Greniers

Sunday vide-grenier promenade
Sunday vide-grenier promenade

It’s that time of year again. You only have to park the car for five minutes and you find your windscreen bristling with flyers for vide-greniers (jumble sales). Around here, there’s at least one a week for the foreseeable future. Not that I mind. You might pick up a bargain. The SF and I were looking for a log-splitter at the Caylus vide-grenier on Sunday. We didn’t find one, but I did stumble upon something rather more interesting.

A couple of small books on a stall caught my eye:

  • Instructions for British Servicemen in France 1944
  • Instructions for British Servicemen in Germany 1944
Instructions for servicemen in 1944: France and Germany
Instructions for servicemen in 1944: France and Germany

They were facsimile copies of pamphlets issued to servicemen during World War II, republished by Oxford’s Bodleian Library. With my passion for history – and the fact that I am researching a second novel based during World War II – I snapped them up.

They are fascinating. Both provide a brief introduction to the respective history, politics, culture, and national character of France and Germany. They also include practical details about currency and useful words and phrases. The audience was the average ‘Tommy’ and the books are manuals about what to expect and how to behave to the liberated – and the vanquished.

The French version was issued just before the D-Day landings. The German version came out later, as the defeat of Germany became inevitable. The 21st-century preface to the German instructions says:

“Whereas the underlying aim of the earlier [French] booklet had been to bring together two allies who, although they had not always had the easiest of relationships during the war, had many common objectives and values, the principal aim this time [the German version] was to condition the troops against the effects of German propaganda, and to restrict the contacts between the occupiers and the occupied to the minimum.”

The tone of the two booklets is, therefore, quite different. The denouement of World War II and its immediate consequences is a huge subject and I can’t possibly hope to do it justice in a short blog post. We are still reaping what was sown during the end-game of that catastrophic war.

However, to the ordinary serviceman, who had probably never set foot out of Britain before, these booklets were intended as basic primers for dealing with two peoples who had probably suffered equally, but in different ways.

I can only give you a flavour of their contents. For example, each booklet contains a section entitled, ‘What are the French/Germans like?’ The German version is not generally complimentary about the Germans, stating that their militaristic history developed respect for authority but not good human beings.

“[The] mixture of sentimentality and callousness does not show a well-balanced mind. The Germans are not good at controlling their feelings. They have a streak of hysteria.”

The French version shows much more sympathy for the French people and what they had suffered under the occupation. It explains that the French have a strong attachment to their regional cultures within a framework of national patriotism and a strong individualistic bent:

“The French are not tolerant of authority – as the Germans have found to their cost. Their first reaction to a uniform of a regulation is …to ask whether it is necessary and make disrespectful comments if they decide it is not. This is all part of the Frenchman’s deep belief in the individual.”

Both booklets warn against careless talk and continuing espionage, saying that English was widely understood across Europe. In Germany, attractive women may be operating under orders. In France, women “are clever at this kind of work and may be used”, i.e. to spread anti-Russian and pro-German propaganda.

The French words and phrases section – complete with phonetic spelling – is a hoot. What does ‘oo mane set root’ equate to in written French? Answer: où mène cette route (where does this road go?). Or ‘Pouvay-voo mer pretay daze oottee?’ Answer: pouvez-vous me prêter des outils (can you lend me some tools?).

And under the ‘difficulties and enquiries’ section, ‘sir bwah ate-eel epay’ equates to ce bois, est-il épais (is this wood thickly-forested?).

You can imagine the scope for misunderstanding between the hapless Tommies and the bemused French.

A final quote from the French booklet, about ‘Drink’, spurred by complaints about the inability of the Brits to take their drink (plus ça change):

“If you should be offered wine or spirits, remember that this will be stronger drink than you are used to.”

Copyright © 2014 Life on La Lune, all rights reserved


  1. Wow, these are some amazing finds! I’m very interested in anything related to WWII since my French grandparents lived through it and my American grandfather was an airplane mechanic stationed in Italy during that time. Just last night on the History Channel, part 3 of an excellent documentary aired explaining the timeline and the causes of both World Wars (it may be available online and if you do somehow find it, watch it! Winston Churchill plays a huge role in it of course. It’s simply called The World Wars). The documentary coincided with Memorial Day (which was this past Monday), a federal holiday here remembering our fallen servicemen while serving in the armed forces.


    • Your family clearly has a lot of important links with that period. Thank you for mentioning the documentary – I will look out for that. We have also enjoyed a series called The World at War, which was made by the BBC and screened on UK TV in the late 1970s – now available on DVD. I think there were 20 episodes but there may have been more. The series was made around 30 years after the end of WW2 and we found it excellent – and it includes interviews with people who witnessed it, including Hitler’s secretary Traudl Junge and Albert Speer, the architect of Germany’s industrial war effort. Given the upcoming anniversary of the Normandy landings we should really look at it again, as it’s several years since we last watched it.


    • Yes, I almost walked past the stand they were on without seeing them. We stopped in front of it to talk to someone we know and then I saw them.


  2. What great finds! I do cross-cultural training for corporates and I sometimes wonder if we perpetuate these kind of stereotypes (I try not to, but then I’m accused of starting every sentence with ‘That depends…’). I need to sell some stuff at vide greniers this year, rather than buy, though…


    • I guess one has to generalise sometimes, otherwise everything would be hedged around with caveats. We sold a lot of stuff last year at our local vide-greniers and I keep a tight hand on my purse when we visit one but I had to buy those books!


  3. Great finds, Vanessa, and useful too. Cultural stereotypes are a plague of every era. Although I have never heard Germans described as having a streak of hysteria!


    • The German version stereotypes more than the French one. In fact the French version is quite intelligently and sensitively written in some ways and tries not to generalise too much (although in a short pamphlet it’s hard to do anything else).


  4. I love vide greniers – buying and selling. The books you found sounded so interesting that I just had to Google it to find out if there were other copies. Just ordered the France once from Amazon fr. Looking forward to reading it.


  5. “The French are not tolerant of authority.” That certainly explains a lot. Thanks for sharing these treasures – what a find!


    • There’s an interesting paradox because I’ve found that, although they aren’t tolerant of authority they are also somewhat in awe of it. I’m just thinking about how polite French journalists are to politicians compared to English ones!


      • You are right and I agree, sometimes it seems paradoxical. But I think there’s a difference between respect for hierarchy (politicians, bosses) and authority (police, rules in general). Watching those staged interviews with the President on Bastille Day is a hoot!


        • Yes, that’s a good distinction. I also found it interesting to note the difference in approach to authors when we ran a literary festival here. The French committee members were very much in awe of the French writers who came; the English committee members treated the English writers in a less formal way.


  6. What treasures to find! There are plenty of vide greniers coming up around here. Generally I don’t go to many as our house is already straining at the seams. However, I’d love to find something as interesting as you did. Perhaps I’ll go along to a few more this year.


    • We certainly don’t want to buy any more household items. Last year, we had a stand ourselves but still seem to have as much junk as ever. I couldn’t resist those two books, though.


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