Taking Paris: the epic battle for the City of Lights

‘General Erwin Rommel has had a very busy weekend.’ So begins Martin Dugard’s latest book, Taking Paris. And immediately the reader knows two things. Firstly, the book does not only describe the August 1944 campaign for the French capital. Originally planned as just that, and despite the subtitle alluding to an ‘epic battle’, Martin Dugard has written a broader history. It is the pursuit of context for the recapture of Paris in 1944 that sees the story range from Louisiana in the United States, to French North Africa and into Normandy via southern England.

The second surprise is the use of the present tense. It is unusual to read a history book written in this way, but it is an effective method of telling an old story differently. As such, Taking Paris is easier to romp through than some more dedicated histories, such as Paris after the Liberation by Artemis Cooper and Antony Beevor, or Anne Sebba’s Les Parisiennes.

Bookending this story are the two battles for the French capital. In 1940, we follow the German officer Rommel, a hard-fighting Frenchman named de Gaulle, and the dramatic Nazi taking of the metropolis. For the central third of the book, American, British, and French characters are introduced and their role in the long road back to the capital in 1944 is described. Finally, after covering the sacrifices of ordinary French resistance fighters, the last third covers the retaking of the city.

It is at this stage that a curious oversight manifests itself. Dugard writes with real flair about French efforts in the war, particularly of the French Foreign Legion in the desert at Bir Hakeim. It is odd therefore that Dugard has not championed the contribution made on D-Day by Philippe Keiffer’s Fusiliers Marins Commandos.

Fighting with Lord Lovat’s 45 Royal Marine Commando, Keiffer’s command were the first uniformed French soldiers back into France since 1940 and the only ones to land in the vanguard of Operation Overlord. There can be no complaints about Dugard’s handling of Leclerc’s Armoured Division, however. It was a fairy-tale ending: French troops fighting towards Paris to be met by ecstatic crowds. Whilst the omission of Keiffer can be overlooked, had Leclerc and his role in that final charge been forgotten also, then this book would have been seriously flawed. As it is, the only complaint is the lack of a contents page, which is annoying when you want to reread a section.

Needless to say, Dugard is highly professional, both as a researcher and a writer. Such is clear in the author’s handling of the start of the Holocaust in France: with French Jews being shipped in cattle wagons to concentration camps, did the world know or care? ‘The New York Times ran the story in the middle of page seven,’ Dugard states, suggesting it did not.

Later, in telling the story of Rommel and the Spitfires on that dusty French lane, Dugard writes like a novelist. It is the historian’s art to show the reader what it was actually like at the time. Dugard consistently manages to do this to a high standard.

This is a book for Francophiles, lovers of Paris, and those wanting to read an enlivening take on the war. If Dugard has not written a book that could serve as a walking guide to the city, showing where the fighting took place in 1944, then this book does at least contain the spirit of hope and adventure that kept the Allies fighting until the City of Lights could once again be both French and free.

Review by Toby Clark.
Taking Paris: the epic battle for the City of Lights, Martin Dugard, Dutton Caliber, $30 (hbk), ISBN 978-0593183083.