Here comes Lorraine again

An Irishman’s Diary about one of Europe’s most fiercely contested territories

The Cross of Lorraine towers over De Gaulle’s grave at Colombey-les-deux-Églises. Photograph: AP

The Cross of Lorraine towers over De Gaulle’s grave at Colombey-les-deux-Églises. Photograph: AP

Thu, Aug 14, 2014, 12:08

Today is the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Lorraine, a conflict fought over what, as far as I know, is one of only two French départements popularised as girls’ names (the other is Cher). In this country, at least, the vogue for so christening daughters peaked several decades ago. But I’d be interested in knowing what caused it in the first place.

For the French, the name must once have had a patriotic appeal: especially in the 40 years after the Franco-Prussian War, when reversing the humiliating loss of northern Lorraine became an imperative for revanchistes, the revenge-seekers who took their chance in 1914.

Elsewhere, it must just have been Lorraine’s pleasant sound that recommended it to parents of girls. It can hardly have been memories of the region’s beauty brought home by soldiers.

After liberating the region – again – during the rain-sodden autumn of 1944, US general George Patton was so unimpressed as to hope that the Germans would regain it in postwar negotiations.

He could imagine “no greater burden than to be the owner of this nasty country where it rains every day and the whole wealth of the people consists in assorted manure piles”. No doubt Patton would have thought it apt that Metz, the region’s capital – a city considered charming by most modern visitors – is locally pronounced as “Mess”.

The historic importance of Lorraine to French identity was nevertheless witnessed by the adoption of its two-barred Cross of Lorraine as the symbol of Free France during World War II. Indeed, a giant version of the cross now stands in Charles De Gaulle’s home village as a memorial to the general himself.

But then Lorraine’s emotional importance was also testified in the blood of hundreds of thousands of soldiers who died there. The battle that began a century ago today was a minor thing compared with the drawn-out horrors that followed in the area, especially at Verdun, the site from 1916 onwards of an offensive that cost a million lives.

Its territory apart, even the food of Lorraine is subject to dispute. The region’s classic dish, quiche, is now synonymous with France. Yet I’m told by those who know that it’s really a German delicacy, from kuchen (“cake”). It may be a double travesty, therefore, that thanks to a best-selling book of the 1980s, the recipe became somehow associated with the alleged effeminacy of the French male.

Thirty years later, the notion that real men don’t eat quiche is probably still skewing sales of the dish in the US. And in linking supposed weakness of character to dietary habits, it belongs to the same genre as that weirdly amusing insult, originally a joke on The Simpsons, later elevated to half-seriousness during the Iraq war, about “cheese-eating surrender monkeys”.

A fondness for quiche does not, in reality, appear have to diminished the manliness of Lorraine’s population. Even Joan of Arc, who was of course not a man, but famously dressed as one when leading troops into battle, was a native of the place.So was Marshal Ney, Napoleon’s favourite soldier. “The bravest of the brave”, Bonaparte called him after the retreat from Moscow, when Ney was reputed to have been the last Frenchman off Russian soil. He later also survived Waterloo, despite having five horses killed under him in battle.

If Don Draper had ever been given the job of rebranding quiche as man food, he could have done worse than depict Ney requesting it as his final meal.

As it was, before his execution for treason (for siding with Napoleon during the “Hundred Days”), Ney is reported only to have heartily enjoyed an unspecified dinner, followed by a cigar.

He then slept soundly for a few hours. On being woken, he was allowed the honour of ordering his own firing squad. There are competing versions, but it’s generally agreed that he first protested his innocence, insisting he had fought 100 battles for France and none against. Then, with a strong voice, he ordered: “Comrades, straight at the heart. Fire!”

There is today a statue of him where he fell, near the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris, over a plinth enumerating his battles.

And among its neighbouring attractions when I visited last month was a superb exhibition of pictures by the Anglo-Irish photographer Mike St Maur Sheil, depicting first World War battlefields as they appear a century on. Almost needless to say, they included several from Ney’s native Lorraine.

@FrankmcnallyIT

fmcnally@irishtimes.com

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