Let­ters from Pauline


Canada's History - - CONTENTS - By Mary Frances Coady

Pauline Vanier’s wartime cor­re­spon­dence sheds new light on the vi­brant per­son­al­ity of a dis­tin­guished Cana­dian.

THE LET­TER WAS TO THE POINT: “THE IN­VA­SION pe­riod seems to be get­ting closer and closer. It will be a ghastly thing, but we have to do it if we want to end this ter­ri­ble war.” Pauline Vanier wrote this to her son Ge­orges Jr. (nick­named Byn­gsie) on May 9, 1944, as the Al­lies pre­pared for D-Day. As the wife of Cana­dian diplo­mat Ge­orges Vanier — then sta­tioned in Al­ge­ria — Pauline was in a po­si­tion to know things that most Cana­di­ans did not know.

“The hor­rors that are be­ing done on the con­ti­nent are ghastly,” she con­tin­ued in her let­ter to her el­dest son. Cit­ing sto­ries she had heard from two mem­bers of the French Re­sis­tance who had fled to Algiers, Al­ge­ria, she said: “The Ger­mans are try­ing to wipe out the pop­u­la­tions, at least the bet­ter part of the pop­u­la­tions. In France they are now do­ing what they have done all along in Poland, and our bomb­ing is nat­u­rally adding to the hor­ror; they quite re­al­ize the ne­ces­sity of this bomb­ing but that doesn’t take away from the hor­ror of it.”

Such was the drama of Vanier’s life as the Sec­ond World War roared to its ul­ti­mate con­clu­sion. And, as seen from the way she lived her life both be­fore and af­ter the war, she was not one to turn away from dan­ger and suf­fer­ing.

Pauline Vanier prob­a­bly had some idea of what she would face when she left the safety of her home in Mon­treal in June 1943 to join her hus­band in war-rav­aged Europe. She had al­ready ex­pe­ri­enced what it was like to be a refugee. The Vanier fam­ily had been sta­tioned in Paris in 1940 when France fell to the Ger­mans. Ge­orges Vanier, who was then Canada’s min­is­ter to France, stayed be­hind while Pauline and four of their chil­dren es­caped the city by au­to­mo­bile. They trav­elled on roads choked with refugees, even­tu­ally find­ing their way to Lon­don. There, the fam­ily was re­united, but their re­lief was short-lived. On Septem­ber 7, the Lon­don Blitz be­gan. The Vaniers made their way to Canada a week or two af­ter the bombs started fall­ing.

Two years later, Ge­orges Vanier was ap­pointed Cana­dian min­is­ter to the Al­lied gov­ern­ments-in-ex­ile in Lon­don and the mil­i­tary rep­re­sen­ta­tive to Charles de Gaulle’s Free French gov­ern­ment. The cou­ple went first to Lon­don and then, in early 1944, to Algiers, North Africa, where de Gaulle’s fledg­ling pro­vi­sional gov­ern­ment had re­cently been es­tab­lished. The Vanier fam­ily was now sep­a­rated on three con­ti­nents. Sons Byn­gsie, 19, Bernard, 17, and Michel, 3, were in Mon­treal (Michel was be­ing looked af­ter by Pauline’s mother) while their two other chil­dren were in Eng­land: son Jean, 15, in naval col­lege and daugh­ter Thérèse, 21, with the Cana­dian Women’s Army Corps. Al­most two years would pass be­fore the fam­ily would be fully re­united, but dur­ing those two years mo­men­tous world events would take place.

While her hus­band kept the gov­ern­ment of Prime Min­is­ter Wil­liam Lyon Macken­zie King ap­prised of de Gaulle’s moves — was the gen­eral an in­cip­i­ent dic­ta­tor? King wanted to know — Pauline Vanier kept her chil­dren in­formed and en­ter­tained with her ex­otic and sur­pris­ing new life. Her let­ters de­scribed their day-to-day life — which in­cluded liv­ing on army ra­tions — with light­ness and hu­mour.

“This has been a week of house­hold cri­sis again,” she lamented in a March 30, 1944, let­ter to son Jean. “I told you that the cook had gone on a bat and had put his fist through a pane of glass, then had been rushed to hospital. Daddy quite rightly de­cided not to have him back, but that made us mi­nus a cook. For­tu­nately one of the bat­men is quite a cook, so he was do­ing locum. The other night, af­ter he had fin­ished cook­ing a fairly good din­ner … we heard that, be­lieve it or not, he had been bit­ten by a dog! So HE was rushed to hospital. So now he is on the sick list and we are mi­nus cook, mi­nus one bat­man…. Hence Madame l’am­bas­sadrice is house­maid, bot­tle washer, etc. etc. I don’t mind in the least as it gives me the il­lu­sion that I am do­ing some­thing use­ful for a bit.”

Housed in a Moor­ish villa on the out­skirts of Algiers, with ter­races that over­looked the Mediter­ranean Sea, the Vaniers en­ter­tained a wide va­ri­ety of visi­tors, in­clud­ing mil­i­tary of­fi­cers, am­bas­sadors, mem­bers of the French Re­sis­tance, and even wounded sol­diers. On March 27, 1944, Pauline de­scribed the visi­tors who had dropped in for tea the pre­vi­ous day — diplo­mats from Swe­den and Peru, a Bri­tish colonel, and two young pi­lots from Canada and New Zealand. She took a par­tic­u­lar lik­ing to the air­men.

“These two boys are quite de­light­ful and oh so dif­fer­ent to all the diplo­mats and so­ci­ety peo­ple that we have to see,” she wrote. “They sat to­gether in the house, read­ing pa­pers and mag­a­zines. They are like twin brothers; they have been in the same crew for months, were downed to­gether and have more or less had the same wounds, ex­cept that one had his right foot smashed and the other the left! What a con­trast these two boys are to the oth­ers, the ne’er-do-wells of so­ci­ety! One of them sud­denly said to me, [in­di­cat­ing] the Peru­vian, ‘What does he know about war, that guy?’ Yes, what do any of us know about war re­ally?”

Pauline ex­pressed sim­i­lar sen­ti­ments in May, when a ship used for the ex­change of pris­on­ers of war stopped briefly in Algiers. The Vaniers went aboard to greet about fifty Cana­di­ans, many of them wounded with limbs miss­ing. Among them was Lionel Massey, the son of Vincent Massey, the Cana­dian High Com­mis­sioner in Eng­land. “You re­mem­ber him, don’t you?” Pauline wrote to Byn­gsie. “He was wounded and taken pris­oner in Greece. If you re­mem­ber him, you will vi­su­al­ize a charm­ing man about town, rather light weight. He has aged years and has ma­tured to an ex­tra­or­di­nary de­gree…. In him as in nearly all the oth­ers, I found a won­der­ful spirit.”

She added, “they all looked dazed of course and one could see that it was a strain to be back in the world af­ter those long years of suf­fer­ing and of cap­tiv­ity; they could hardly get used to the idea of be­ing free. I came home that evening feel­ing that none of us knew any­thing about this ghastly war.”

On a lighter note, she added: “I was given the most amus­ing com­pli­ment from one of the air­men…. ‘You look like a Lux ad’! What he meant I am not quite sure. Of course they none of them have seen any women for many a day, so even an old thing like me seems to give them plea­sure.” She was forty-six years old at the time.


As the spring pro­gressed, there was in­creased ten­sion in Algiers with the ap­proach of the D-Day in­va­sion. Part of the ten­sion was due to the Al­lies’ lack of trust in de Gaulle. Amer­i­can Pres­i­dent Franklin Roo­sevelt found him boast­ful and con­ceited and was firmly against in­clud­ing de Gaulle in plans to lib­er­ate France. Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter Win­ston Churchill also dis­liked de Gaulle but re­al­ized that the Al­lies needed his co-op­er­a­tion. As a Cana­dian diplo­mat caught in the mid­dle, and firmly on de Gaulle’s side, Ge­orges Vanier had to tread care­fully.

As if to un­der­score the dif­fi­culty, af­ter all this came an on­slaught of malaria-car­ry­ing mos­qui­toes as well as a plague of lo­custs that were eat­ing the crops and wreak­ing gen­eral havoc. “I have just been for a walk in the grounds and they are so thick even on the paths that I was stepping on them,” Pauline Vanier wrote on May 16.

Ge­orges Vanier was raised to the rank of am­bas­sador at the end of May, but the oc­ca­sion caused hardly a rip­ple be­cause of the mo­men­tous event that hap­pened a few days later: the long awaited D-Day in­va­sion on June 6. Four days later, Pauline wrote to Byn­gsie: “Af­ter the first day of the ex­cite­ment of hear­ing about our land­ing in France we seem to be very flat and rather som­bre. The fight­ing is dread­ful and is go­ing to get in­evitably worse, and the po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion here is tense for dif­fer­ent causes that un­for­tu­nately I can­not give yet.”

The tense sit­u­a­tion was the re­sult of the on­go­ing Amer­i­can re­fusal to rec­og­nize de Gaulle’s leadership. In the mean­time, de Gaulle went from strength to strength. A June visit to lib­er­ated coastal vil­lages in Nor­mandy brought cheer­ing crowds hail­ing him as a hero. “Daddy was at the air­port this morn­ing when de Gaulle ar­rived back,” Pauline wrote on June 17. “He found him look­ing very well and calm to an as­ton­ish­ing de­gree con­sid­er­ing the grind that he has had lately. Oh me! When will our neigh­bours from the South un­der­stand?”

Mil­i­tary of­fi­cers, diplo­matic of­fi­cials, and, in­creas­ingly, mem­bers of the French Re­sis­tance con­tin­ued to find their way to the Vaniers’ villa. “Tonight we are hav­ing a buf­fet sup­per for some men of the Re­sis­tance,” Pauline wrote on June 17. “One of them left Paris on the 10th of June.... I have asked him to write to Canada so as to tell them a lit­tle bit what it is like to be un­der Ger­man dom­i­na­tion; it might do them good to read facts from some­body who has seen them.”

As the sum­mer pro­gressed, Pauline’s let­ters took on a more alarm­ing tone: “Did you read about the hor­ror of Oradour?” she wrote, re­fer­ring to a small French vil­lage where Nazi sol­diers mas­sa­cred 642 vil­lagers, in­clud­ing 240 women and chil­dren who were burned alive in a church.

And on the same day, in an­other let­ter, she wrote, “We had a young Bre­ton who had been one of the or­gan­is­ers of the maquis [guer­rilla re­sis­tance fight­ers] in France; he has just heard that his young wife is in the hands of the Gestapo. One hears things such as that con­tin­u­ally just now. The Huns are round­ing up as many as they can and are us­ing ter­ror­ism ev­ery­where. They are of course on their last leg and their backs are to the wall. So God knows what they will do next.”

With July came an in­creas­ing re­gard for Charles de Gaulle — “He is un­doubt­edly a very great man,” Pauline wrote — as well as cheer­ful let­ters from Thérèse giv­ing news about the new “doo­dle­bugs” — V-1 fly­ing bombs — be­ing dropped on Eng­land. “What a lovely name for them,” Pauline wrote to her sons. “Imag­ine the Ger­mans ever nam­ing bombs with such a name. That is the sort of thing which helps the Bri­tish to win the war.”

The sum­mer also brought en­er­vat­ing tem­per­a­tures to Algiers and worry to Pauline about her sons in Canada. “Dar­ling, have pity on your old mother and write only a line if you haven’t time to do more,” she wrote to Byn­gsie on July 26. She wrote of din­ing with de Gaulle, who told her that his son didn’t write to him ei­ther. “He said, ‘ Dites leur de ma part que ce n’est pas chic de vous traiter ainsi’!” [Tell them from me that it’s not nice to treat you that way!] Later, in the same let­ter, she said she was “too hot and too stu­pe­fied” to write more. “Any­way! Do you de­serve in­ter­est­ing let­ters, you lazy hound?”

As news of the Al­lies’ progress in France fil­tered through, it be­came clear that it was only a mat­ter of weeks be­fore Paris would be lib­er­ated. On Au­gust 20 Charles de Gaulle left Algiers for good, ready to take his place as the pres­i­dent of France. Four days later, Pauline wrote, “PARIS IS LIB­ER­ATED! We heard it yes­ter­day noon and I don’t mind telling you that all day yes­ter­day we all be­haved like lu­natics. Last night just by chance we had five men of the Re­sis­tance to din­ner; two of them had got away from prison camps in Ger­many a year ago and had worked in the Re­sis­tance af­ter­wards, un­til one of them was caught by the Gestapo, was put into the prison of Fresnes in Paris, but was got out by his col­leagues. I don’t think that I need tell you what sort of evening we had. It was quite deliri­ous. I kissed them all (shame on you, Mummy), even a Je­suit Fa­ther (more shame, Mummy).... Oh me! It is nearly too much emo­tion all at once.”

On Septem­ber 9, Ge­orges and Pauline Vanier flew to France, where they found an im­pov­er­ished, dev­as­tated coun­try. The fight­ing beyond Paris con­tin­ued, and it would be many months be­fore the guns fell silent in Europe. For the Vaniers, their work had just be­gun. They were now the of­fi­cial face of Canada in France, and they would re­main close to the cen­tre of wartime ac­tiv­i­ties and the coun­try’s post­war re­con­struc­tion. Pauline would con­tinue to in­form her chil­dren about im­por­tant events as they un­folded.

Ge­orges Vanier re­mained Canada’s am­bas­sador to France un­til 1953. He be­came the Gover­nor Gen­eral of Canada in 1959 and died in 1967. Pauline Vanier moved to France in 1972, where she spent the rest of her life serving the L’Arche community for the men­tally dis­abled, founded by her son Jean. She died in 1991, at age 93.

The Vanier fam­ily on board a ship in 1938. Left to right: Pauline, Thérèse, Bernard, Jean, Byn­gsie, and Ge­orges.

Pauline Vanier vis­its with a wounded sol­dier at No. 17 Cana­dian Gen­eral Hospital, Pinewood, Eng­land, in 1943.

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