Living with intent, social engagement, learning, growing, giving
Susan Travers was awarded 12 medals for her bravery and service to the Free French Army in WWII. After the war she joined the French Foreign Legion so that she could continue to work with the Legionnaires that she had worked alongside for the past 5 years. Tomorrow to be Brave is Susan’s memoir, written with Wendy Holden.
Recently a friend told me that a woman had recently joined the French Foreign Legion and wasn’t caught for a few weeks before she was found and kicked out. My friend went on to tell me that if one serves in the FFL for 5 years as a mercenary in any one of France’s many foreign wars, one will be granted French citizenship. I’ve tried to find the newspaper article that my friend referred to but failed. What I did coincidentally find on my bookcase though was the memoir of Susan Travers, the only woman to ever be employed by the FFL.
Travers was born into a wealthy, cold and loveless English family. Her father served in WWI and afterwards moved his wife and daughter to Cannes, France and left his son in an English boarding school. Susan was raised by governesses and attended private schools. Her father introduced her to tennis and let her drive his car. She learnt French and read a lot of inappropriate books and was surrounded by wealthy men and trophy wives. She started to want to put into practice what she was reading about and her father sent her to Florence, Italy to a finishing school to keep her away from temptation. There she could finally discover her sexuality with the other girls and then she was seduced by a Roman hotel owner.
Back in Cannes she became a socialite and had many affairs. She toured Europe for years staying with wealthy widows, skiing for months and playing in tennis tournaments. Her life was hollow. At the outbreak of WWII she put down her cocktail, ended her fruitless affairs and trained to be a nurse so that she could drive an ambulance in the war. She started her service in Finland then returned to England and joined the Free French Army under De Gaulle when he rallied French support for freedom of France and condemnation of the Nazi-allied Vichy government. Travers sailed with the Free French on their first African campaign and spent 4 years serving in North Africa and the Levant. She was the occasional lover of a White Russian Prince (Amilakvari).
Quickly she caught the eye of a married, career Legionnaire (Marie-Pierre Koenig) and he asked for her to become his driver. He wooed and seduced her and wouldn’t take no for an answer until she became his mistress. She followed him through the North Africa campaign like a loyal puppy, I mean servant. She showed tremendous bravery, driving to the front, driving behind enemy lines, being shelled while living in a 1.3m deep dugout in the desert, driving through minefields and being strafed by the luftwaffe. She lived at the front in the camp with the soldiers and suffered many deprivations (hunger, thirst, sandstorms, poor food), which must have been even harder to bear for someone from a soft background like hers. Famously she drove ‘her’ general (current lover) and Amilakvari (former lover) at midnight, breaking out of 3 lines of Rommel’s German attack at Bir Hakeim. I cannot even conceive of the depth of her strength and resilience.
I enjoyed reading the book. It took my mind off temporarily living alone in Norway while my family have permanently relocated to Australia. The book flows very well, is well written and gripping. I did wonder at the level of detail that is provided. Travers was 90 years old when Holden started writing the memoir with her. She said that she had rewritten facts but destroyed her original diaries when she was in her 40s. Surely there is a lot of embellishment in this (and all other memoirs)? It can’t be that a 90 year old can accurately recall conversations from 65 years earlier? I certainly can’t recall conversations accurately from last year and I’m only 40 years old.
I didn’t like the emphasis on her love and devotion for Koenig, who to an outside observer used her as a bed-warmer when he was bored or lonely and treated her coldly when others were observing. He used her and I was angry on her behalf. I wanted her to choose to be single rather than mope around Koenig’s feet hoping for a pat rather than a kick. Her parents were so cold to her that she could never win her father’s approval and this probably drove her to seek approval from older men.
For three months Travers and Koenig lived together in a cottage in the village of Aley, near Damascus. Koenig was eager for career advancement but for the moment there was little to do. These were their halcyon days that made Travers put up with everything that came after that:
The general became relaxed and romantic, showering me with flowers and small presents… We’d spend many pleasant evenings together, eating dinner, reading magazines or listening to the wireless. He loved poetry and wrote some of it himself, although he rarely let me see any of it. It was only two years since I’d joined the Free French in Carlton Gardens, and in that relatively short time I’d achieved my lifetime ambition of living in a foreign land with a man of destiny. I never wanted it to end.
Our Ally idyll was to be short-lived, however.
Compare and contrast that with his unnecessarily gruff attitude while on-duty:
One day, I was driving my general and a British four-star general, Willoughby Norrie, to a meeting – they were both in the back – when to my great embarrassment, my seat collapsed. With an almighty bang I suddenly found myself horizontal, my head on the general’s knees. The car nearly went off the road.
‘For God’s sake, woman, get up!’ the general yelled, as if I’d done it on purpose.
Travers did a lot of name-dropping. I didn’t recognise any of the names but I suppose that she felt that the story would be more interesting if she focussed on famous and/or powerful people in her memoirs, rather than talking about her ordinary friends.
It was interesting to learn about the French Foreign Legion. I also learnt about the Free French. Until this book I had only read about the collusion with the Nazis of the French Vichy government. I did not know the significance of Charles de Gaulle (I’m Australian and didn’t study history). I also learnt a lot about the significance of the North African campaign. It was particularly interesting when Travers and the Free French landed in Italy and swept northwards after the liberation of Sicily by the Allied forces (that I learnt about in Catania last summer). When she mentioned the beach-head at Anzio, I knew what she meant, after spending 10 days this summer in Anzio. With all of the reading that I have done about the Levant it was interesting to read her descriptions of the beauty of Damascus and life in Beirut. I do recommend this memoir about a heroic woman. Three cheers for Susan Travers!