Letters from Pauline
PAULINE VANIER’S WARTIME CORRESPONDENCE WITH HER CHILDREN SHEDS NEW LIGHT ON THE VIBRANT PERSONALITY OF A DISTINGUISHED CANADIAN WOMAN.
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.
“I CAME HOME THAT EVENING FEELING THAT NONE OF US KNEW ANYTHING ABOUT THIS GHASTLY WAR.”
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.