Sunday, January 23, 2011

You Are a Guest of France

On this day -- January 23 -- in 1945, the beginning of the end was in sight for the war in Europe: that day, Hungary signed an armistice with the Allies, marking a strategic loss for Germany. Meanwhile, on the same day, Saint Vith was liberated by the US 18th Corps’s tank units and Allied air assaults drove German forces back over the River Our. In France, the trial of anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi newspaper editor Charles Maurras begins -- a critical defeat for Germany’s propaganda efforts in the country.

I’m speculating that on that date, somewhere in France, Robert J. Baratta -- age 25 -- was flipping through his copy of the U.S. War and Navy Department’s
Pocket Guide to France. Baratta, a native of Somerville, Massachusetts, was a high-school graduate who had previously worked in the city’s substantial cobbling industry as a shoe- and boot-maker.

Baratta had enlisted as a “selectee” in the U.S. Army Infantry at Fort Devens on February 26, 1942. By the end of the war, Baratta had earned both a Purple Heart and Bronze Star (the fourth highest combat award of the U.S. Armed Forces, given for “bravery, acts of merit, or meritorious service”), though I’m unable to find information about the events leading to either recognition. I’m also unable to find information about when he left Europe and the service; his enlistment was for the duration of the war, but if the injury he sustained that resulted in the Purple Heart was severe enough, he may have returned sooner. After the war, he got married, and he and his wife, June (Patten) Baratta, moved to Tewksbury, Massachusetts in 1954 to raise their family. He passed away in 1974, at the age of 54.

His copy of the Pocket Guide to France remains in very good condition, with no chipping or tearing -- which is particularly fortunate given the fact that the booklet was designed for some extremely tough conditions and only bound in paper. Some pages appear to have been accidentally dog-eared; the only marginalia is Baratta’s name, in pencil on the inside of the front cover, and, in the same hand, a penciled math figure on the back cover (“18 x 5 = 90”).

The Pocket Guide was developed by the Army Information Branch, A. S. F., as part of its series of handy, pocket-sized guidebooks for servicemen in various countries that the United States was deploying into during World War II (publication number -0-587341). It is meant as a quick reference tool for soldiers on the move through a foreign land, but in its explicit instructions to U.S. soldiers about how to behave and in its explanations of why they were stationed there, the booklet serves as a fascinating, ground-level glimpse into the events of the war. As with most primary source documents, it captures the living details of the conflict the way no history book possibly can.

As a genre, soldier’s handbook guides are a peculiar hybrid: in some places it reads like any tourist guidebook from the period, covering topics such as how to ride the trains, how to tip, and how to shop; in other places, it is impossible to escape the horrible context for the soldier’s presence in the foreign country, covering topics such as how to flush out informants, how to address misinformation spread by Nazi propagandists, how to help in reconstructing provincial villages, and how to navigate the tricky process of marrying a local girl (you shouldn’t).

The book’s contents include:

1. Why You’re Going to France
2. The United States Soldier in France
a. Meet the People
b. Security and Health
c. You Are a Guest of France
d. Mademoiselle
3. A Few Pages of French History
a. Occupation
b. Resistance
c. Necessary Surgery
d. A Quick Look Back
e. Churchgoers
f. The Machinery
4. Observation Post
a.The Provinces
b. The Cafes
c. The Farms
d. The Regions
e. The Workers
f. The Tourist
5. In Parting
6. Annex: Various Aids
a. Decimal System
b. Language Guide
c. Important Signs [on the back cover]

The booklet includes nine line-drawings (including a frontispiece), two-toned with reddish highlights; one of these drawings spans two pages. The pictures are meant to illustrate (though somewhat comical in appearance) “typical” French scenes and people. In addition, pages 36-7 are a two-page overview map of France and parts of the surrounding countries, including major railroad lines.

As noted above, the booklet is bound in a paper wrapper. It consists of only one gathering, folded once, and running 72 pages. It measures 11cm x 13.25m. The internal pages are a common paper stock and the outer “boards” are only slightly firmer; the quick printing process has, in some places, resulted in mediocre inking of some text. The pages are held together with two, slightly rusting staples that have been inserted from the spine inward (resulting in a strategic blunder on the pages with the map -- one staple obscures most of the area around Paris). Interestingly, I can find almost no dealers online listing a copy of this book, so I am unsure as to its rarity in this condition. One dealer on eBay has a copy for $20 (this dealer describes his or her copy as "the original issue", but I can find no evidence that the Army published subsequent issues) and a dealer on Alibris has one for $18.

As a guidebook, the booklet is only moderately handy. It has a tone and style that, in retrospect, is obviously driven by a certain level of propaganda: for example, it is written with an authoritative voice that attempts to be “chummy” and buddy-buddy with the readers; the readers are always addressed in the plural (encouraging the soldier to think of himself as part of a group) and great efforts are made to emphasize both the shared features of American and French culture and history (from the American Revolution through World War I) and their shared struggle against Germany. Certain preconceived notions are addressed directly (such as the myth that France surrendered to Germany without a fight) and others are handled delicately (such as the idea that all French women are easy).

The link given above provides an online PDF of the booklet and it’s worth browsing through (I've tried to catch some of the more intriguing bits and art in the photos in this post); many of the generalizations are transparently obvious attempts to ensure that American servicemen in France behave in a diplomatic fashion and that they don’t offend or upset the French. In some places, though, the writers come straight out and tell the soldiers to be delicate -- particularly when buying supplies from locals or discussing politics and history (both of which the booklet advises strongly against).

Perhaps most telling, however, are the “Useful Phrases” offered in the Language Guide at the end; these speak directly to the kinds of information the Army Information Branch assumed would be useful to its soldiers: “I am an American”, “I am your friend”, “Please help me”, “Where is the camp?”, “Stop!”, “Come quickly!”, “Go quickly!”, “Help!”, “Bring help!”, “You will be rewarded”, “Where are the American soldiers?”, “Which way is north?”, “Draw me a map”, “Take me to a doctor”, “Danger!”, “Take cover!”, and, of course, “Gas!” Not quite the stuff of modern tourist guidebooks. Nonetheless, they likely capture the sounds and priorities of a U.S. serviceman in France during the climax of World War II.

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