Monday, March 02, 2009

French 'Refractaires' in WW2

(Top) Cover of 'Mémoires d'un Réfractaire' by M. J.-P. Nogaret
[A personal account of a French 'Refractaire' in WW2]

(Bottom) Personal dedication from M J.-P. Nogaret
(Personal collection of J. Ritson)
In France during the Second World War those Frenchmen who actively avoid the compulsory draft of being sent to undertake civilian work in Germany became known as 'réfractaires'. There is no real equivalent word in English (except perhaps to drop the 'é'). Refractaires were not the same as 'résistants' (members of the active French resistance) although many did actually join resistance groups.

For additional information click on 'Comments' below


Blogger ritsonvaljos said...

Additional information

One Réfractaire I was privileged to meet on several occasions was the late M. Jean-Pierre Nogaret, originally from the village of Badaroux in the Lozère department. This is a small village in southern France, in the Vichy zone. Jean-Pierre wrote his own book about his wartime experiences as a Refracataire and also gave me a lot of information for one of my university projects. Jean-Pierre's book was later translated into English by Mr John Unsworth of Cockermouth, Cumbria.

On 16 February 1943 all Frenchmen between 21 and 30 years old were required to register for civilian work in Germany as part of a forced labour scheme, known in French as 'Service Travail Obligatoire' (or 'STO'). This STO, of course, was to assist the German war effort. Basically, it was an enforced national obligation upon the vanquished of 1940 by the victors. In return, the Germans would return a number of French military prisoners of war. However, on balance it was rather counter-productive to the German cause in France. To avoid the dreaded STO many young Frenchmen decided to become a refractaire and / or resistant. The following year, on 1 February 1944, the age limits for the STO in France were extended from 16 to 60.

The decision to dodge the STO draft was not an easy one, and often depended upon personal, family and local circumstances in what was an Occupied country. Hence not everyone was in a position to be able to avoid the draft. For those who did decide to avoid the STO, they were immediately 'on the run' - without valid identity papers or the means to make a living. Perhaps as never before, nor since, those who became refractaires had to rely on family, friends, 'friends of friends' and learn who could be trusted and who could not.

Some years after the war - in 1958 after General de Gaulle returned to Government - the status of Refractaire was officially recognised by the French Government and given official documentation which was allowed to count for pensionable National Service. According to Jean-Pierre Nogaret's card, he was deemed to have been a Refractaire between 7 November 1943 and 20 August 1944.

Another French Refractaire of WW2 was the singer / songwriter Georges Brassens from Sète on the Mediterranean coast. Later, some of the songs he wrote were based on the wartime experiences as a Refractaire, including one of his most famous - 'Chanson pour l'Auvergnat'. This particular song pays homage to an Auvergnat who sheltered M. Brassens and some others, giving them shelter, food and warmth when others slammed the doors in their faces.

There are many official documents and statistics upon which the historical record of the Second World War is formed. Dates and lists of events are all important to understand what happened. But, in addition to these things, were how they impacted upon the lives of individuals and families. Events took place and everyone was bound up in them for good or bad. It is important for the generations to follow that these things are known and remembered.

I first met M. Nogaret in October 1986, and on a number of occasions afterwards. He was one of the founding signatories of the Marvejols- Cockermouth Twinning Agreement. Marvejols is a town in Lozère, France and Cockermouth a similar sized town in Cumbria, U.K. (my home county). In 2000 Marvejols and Cockermouth were jointly awarded the prestigious ‘Europe Prize’. Much of the foundation work for this can be attributed, among others, to M. Nogaret and Mr David Bertram from Cockermouth. Shortly afterwards Mr Bertram and M Nogaret were awarded the M.B.E.

After WW2 more than ever before it has become possible for young people of different lands, languages, religions and beliefs to meet and become friends and understand each other. There are no more Refractaires in France and there are no more Occupied countries in Europe. It is, however, important to remember the experiences of those who lived through the war years and how these have helped shape the modern world.


This article is dedicated to the memory of M. Jean-Pierre Nogaret, a Refractaire and a true son of Badaroux.

Monday, 02 March, 2009  

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