Reading Post-Graduates: Applying to do a PhD

In addition to its lively and growing undergraduate programme, the Department of Modern Languages and European Studies at Reading has long boasted top-ranked post-graduate programmes as well. As applications continue to roll in for the 2015-2016 academic year, we thought we’d ask one of our current post-graduate students, Maria Tomlinson, to fill us in on how and why to apply for an MA or PhD at the University of Reading.

Maria has a first-class BA in French and Modern Greek Studies, as well as an MA in French Literature and Culture, from Kings College London. After finishing her MA, Maria worked as a lectrice at Nanterre University in 2013-14. She has published a number of online articles about the Year Abroad programme, focusing both on her studies in Montpellier, France, and on her time at Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, in Greece. Now, she’s pursuing a PhD in Reading. Maria has great advice for anyone considering post-graduate study:

Maria Tomlinson, graduating with a first-class degree in French and Modern Greek Studies (2012)

Maria Tomlinson, graduating with a degree in French and Modern Greek Studies (2012)

I feel that I have really started to settle in to my new life as a PhD student of French literature at Reading. I am really pleased with the topic I have chosen: the representation of taboo and trauma relating to the female body in Algerian and Mauritian literature. This includes examining the representation of a multitude of taboos such as abortion, rape and menstruation. As well as examining novels, I am also looking at history, politics and trauma theory. I am enjoying the early stages of my PhD which has, so far, involved many a day at the British Library reading and taking notes. I am being supervised by Dr Julia Waters as part of a co-supervised PhD between Reading and Bristol universities, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

I spend more of my time at Reading where, alongside my supervisions, I have been attending weekly Arabic classes to complement my study of Algerian literature. Studying Arabic is really fun, and I find writing the beautiful script quite therapeutic. As a lover of languages, I am very happy that Reading has offered me the opportunity to learn a new language – my first non-European one. I have so far had three supervisions. I always fill in a supervision form before each session as I can plan what I need to ask and think about how I would like to take my research forward. Discussions so far have mainly been centred on relevant bibliography but we have also discussed my plan where I have arranged my chapters by taboo e.g. my chapter on the pregnant female body involves taboos such as contraception and miscarriage.

You may be wondering why I have supervisors at two institutions. Well, I had the fortune of being in the first year of applicants for PhD funding from the AHRC that was not organised via an individual department at a particular university but by consortia. The University of Reading is part of the South West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership (SWW DTP), which includes several other universities such as Bristol, Bath and Southampton. This means that applicants must apply to two universities, therefore benefiting from having two supervisors. Furthermore, successful applicants have access to classes and facilities at all of the universities across the consortium.

Corsham Court, site of the South West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership induction on 30 October 2014

Corsham Court, site of the South West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership induction on 30 October 2014

So why did I decide to apply to Reading through the SWW DTP? Firstly, the consortium made it possible for me to do an interdisciplinary project that I could not have done if I were only at one institution. I needed a supervisor for the Mauritian side of my research and another for the Algerian side, a combination which likely not possible at any one institution. I also found the SWW DTP appealing in that they emphasised that undertaking a PhD as part of the consortium would increase a student’s employability. They offer training sessions as well as their links with non-higher education partners, such as the National Trust and the BBC. I was also attracted by the fact that successful applicants were expected to do an internship for six months which the AHRC would fund if it were unpaid. I welcome any relevant work experience, whether or not it is in a higher education setting. I am extremely keen to become a lecturer and I was convinced during the application process, that being part of the SWW DTP would help me to achieve this very ambitious aim.

I realised that I wanted to do a PhD during my MA at King’s College London, as it confirmed my love for literature. More importantly, I discovered that there was a gap in the field of postcolonial women’s writing that I knew would benefit the field if it were filled. I knew that I needed to persuade a funding body that my project was worthwhile.

Maria Tomlinson in the Jardin des Tuileries, Paris

Maria Tomlinson in the Jardin des Tuileries, Paris

My aspirations to become a lecturer were further reinforced by my experiences as a lectrice, an English language teacher at a French university, in Paris. Despite being only a lectrice, whose responsibilities are normally limited to leading oral classes, I was asked to give lectures in British civilisation and teach literary translation. I had the freedom to choose all the topics and texts myself – very good practice for the future if I am asked to choose texts for my own module: this is the dream. I relished talking in front of a class and sharing my enthusiasm. It gave me so much pride to mark the final papers of the students who I could tell had really engaged with the class and had studied hard. I delighted in preparing for the lectures and was thrilled when they were met with an enthusiastic response by the students. I had the added challenge that, overall, my students’ English was not at a particularly high level and so I had to make sure I presented the lectures clearly and held their attention. If you would like to read more about my experiences as a lectrice and consider applying yourself, my article on the website provides further details . The website also includes an article I have written on the PhD application process as well as many others relating to language study.

Finally, the main reason I applied to the SWW DTP was that I had a very positive experience when I enquired about starting a PhD at Reading. Dr Julia Waters was very encouraging throughout the whole application process and was always available to offer very useful advice, even phoning me while I was in Paris to give me interview tips. Reading and the SWW DTP were my first choice and hence I was absolutely ecstatic to be offered the funding.

Even though at the moment the SWW DTP is only in its first year, and I am sure there is much more to come, I would certainly recommend that you apply to be funded by this consortium. Not only would you have two supervisors from a choice of 8 universities, but also you would have access to a huge amount of training and even an internship. In today’s job market, whether you desire to be in academia or not, the SWW DTP would certainly provide you with a competitive edge.

Old Whiteknights House, home of the Graduate School at the University of Reading

Old Whiteknights House, home of the Graduate School at the University of Reading

To learn more about pursuing a Masters Degree or a PhD in Modern Languages at the University of Reading, visit the Graduate School website as well as the Homepage of the Department of Modern Languages and European Studies. We offer both Post-Graduate Taught and Post-Graduate Research degree courses. To keep up with all of the Department’s research, as well as to receive updates from our students, staff, and alumni, follow this blog, like us on Facebook, and subscribe to our Twitter feed.

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Reading Researchers: A new look at Merlin and King Arthur

In a regular feature, we’ll bring you updates from “Reading Researchers,” highlighting the innovative and compelling research that members of the Department of Modern Languages and European Studies are pursuing. In recent months we’ve heard from Professor Catherine Leglu about the International  Medieval Congress, from Dr Melani Schröter about “Language and Silence”, from Dr. Ute Wölfel about “Figures of Transgression”, and from Professor Andrew Knapp about the destruction and liberation of Le Havre.

mles-Irene_FTToday’s update comes from Dr Irène Fabry-Tehranchi, a lecturer in French, who teaches French language, literature and culture in Reading’s Department of Modern Languagess and European Studies, as well as in the Graduate Centre for Medieval Studies. Her research focuses on French Medieval Literature and she specialises on romances and chronicles related to the story of King Arthur, especially the Lancelot-Grail romance cycle, written in the 13th century, and the French translations and adaptations of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th c. Historia Regum Britanniae, up to the 15th century. She is particularly interested in the manuscript circulation of medieval texts and in the relation between text and image in illuminated copies of medieval works. In the Middle Ages, Old French (langue oïl) in its many dialects was the most influential vernacular language, it was an international language of power and culture which from the 11th c. onwards was spoken from England to Italy and to the Holy Land.

Dr Fabry-Tehranchi has just published an important monograph, Texte et images des manuscrits du Merlin et de la Suite Vulgate (XIIIe-XVe siècle), and in light of this noteworthy achievement we’ve invited her to update us  on her work.

My monograph examines text and image relations in the manuscripts of Merlin and its Vulgate Sequel. Dating from the first half of the 13th century, they tell the infancy and life of Merlin as well as the origins of King Arthur and his heroic youth. The writing of a Sequel to Merlin shows the great success enjoyed by Arthurian prose narratives at the time, and the literary dynamics created by the construction of romance cycles. Merlin and its Sequel are part of the Lancelot-Grail cycle which tells the story of the Holy Grail (the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper, in which Joseph of Arimathea collected Jesus’s blood at the Crucifixion), and its transfer from the Holy Land to Britain until the time of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table.

Conception of Merlin, Paris, BNF fr. 96 f. 62v (15th c., Maître d'Adélaïde de Savoie)

Conception of Merlin, Paris, BNF fr. 96 f. 62v (15th c., Maître d’Adélaïde de Savoie)

My book is the first comprehensive study of Merlin manuscripts and their iconography (there are more than 50 surviving copies of this text, produced between the 13th and the 15th century, and more than 30 are illuminated). I examine their compilation with other literary works, their mise en page and their illustration. Illuminated manuscripts were costly works only available to the aristocracy and the elites, who had a particular taste for chivalric literature. My work sheds light on the production and reception of a literary work which endured a lasting success until the end of the Middle Ages.

Merlin and its Sequel tell us about the origins of Merlin and Arthur and about their youth. Merlin was an ambiguous character, the son of a woman and of a devil, and although he early on decided to do God’s work, he remained black and hairy like his father, and inherited from him supernatural powers including prophecy and shape shifting. Arthur himself had doubtful origins, because he was conceived in adultery. Helped by Merlin, King Utherpendragon took the appearance of the duke of Tintagel in order to seduce his wife Ygerne, and Arthur is the fruit of this union. Arthur, accused of illegitimacy, had to fight for the crown of England after his father’s death, and he demonstrates his prowess in a series of military campaigns, expelling the invading Saxons who threaten the land. Merlin becomes the counsellor of King Arthur until he is imprisoned by his lover and pupil, the fairy Viviane, in an air castle.

Merlin and its Sequel are mostly included in manuscript collections focused on the story of the Holy Grail (Joseph d’Arimathie and l’Estoire del saint Graal), in the wider frame of the Lancelot-Grail cycle, which includes the adventures of the knights of the Round Table and ends with the death of King Arthur and the destruction of his kingdom. The Lancelot-Grail mixes spiritual and religious concerns surrounding the Grail mythology with an interest in the earthly adventures of Arthurian knights (especially Lancelot, the lover of Queen Guinevere, but also his son Galaad, the knight who achieves the quest for the Grail).

 Merlin transformed as a stag at the court of Julius Cesar, Paris, BNF fr. 749, f. 260 (c. 1300)

Merlin transformed as a stag at the court of Julius Cesar, Paris, BNF fr. 749, f. 260 (c. 1300)

Merlin was very popular in the Middle Ages as a prophet: he was believed to be a historical figure (like Arthur), capable of foreseeing the future, and his mysterious words and figurative discourses were both held in great authority and used as political tools. Merlin and its Sequel also circulated in didactic compilations, along with biblical and pastoral works. They could be considered as historical, telling the mythical story of Britain, along with that of Troy for example. These texts and their illustration show a military and historical focus which questions their generic identity and contrasts with the religious or courtly dimension of the other parts of the Arthurian Vulgate cycle.

Dr Fabry-Tehranchi has published a number of commentaries on the Arthurian manuscripts for the Bibliothèque nationale de France. These are available to read or listen to online (in French), and focus on illuminated pages of different parts of the Lancelot-Grail cyclel’Estoire del saint GraalMerlin, Lancelot and the Death of King Arthur.

To learn more about Dr Fabry-Tehranchi’s research, as well as for information about undergraduate and post-graduate study at Reading, please visit the website of the Department of Modern Languages and European Studies at the University of Reading. To keep up with all of the Department’s research, as well as to receive updates from our students, staff, and alumni, follow this blog, like us on Facebook, and subscribe to our Twitter feed.

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Reading Researchers: Remembering the Destruction and Liberation of Le Havre


Professor Andrew Knapp

In August and September 2014, Professor Andrew Knapp delivered a series of public lectures in France on the subject of bombing. What is more, between 3 and 5 September Professor Knapp attended and spoke at a conference entitled ‘Bombardement 44: Le Havre, Normandie, France, Europe: Stratégies et Vécus’ held in Le Havre. More than a purely academic event, the conference was integrated into the City of Le Havre’s commemorations of the 70th anniversary of the city’s destruction by RAF bombing prior to its liberation on 12 September 1944. The City had a particular purpose in commemorating the bombing: it is seeking to confront and understand what is still a traumatic memory, before moving on to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the founding of Le Havre by Francis I in 1517. The commemorations attracted considerable media attention, in the course of which Professor Knapp took part in midday and early evening regional television news programmes live from the Place de l’Hôtel de Ville in Le Havre on 6 September.

We asked Professor Knapp to share with us some reflections on these lectures, the events they commemorate, and his ongoing research endeavours.

All the talk these days is of planning and managing research. Well, when I started thinking about the bombing of Le Havre some eleven years ago, I had no idea that it would lead to two books (so far), a film, a full-page article in Le Monde, three conferences, and a lot of excellent new colleagues, as well as some remarkable, and humbling, witnesses and survivors, not just from Le Havre, but across France.

Havre January 1945

Le Havre, January 1945 (Archives Municipales du Havre, collection Fernez).

I first went to Le Havre in 1979 to work on my doctoral thesis in politics. Anyone interested in French politics at the time was fascinated by the Parti Communiste Français, and curious as to what it would do if it ever returned to national office. My plan was to find out what they did at local level, so I went to Le Havre, then France’s biggest Communist municipality, to look. I had known before I went that the town had been heavily bombed by the RAF; but only when I saw the giant photo of what it had looked like in the winter of 1944-5, hung in the 1950s Town Hall in the middle of the 1950s city centre, did I get the measure of how bad it had been.

But my research wasn’t about that; it was about how the Communists ran the town. So I spent five years (longer than they allow you these days) doing a thesis, and got a D.Phil., and went through the usual series of fixed-term posts, plus three years as an editor with Oxford University Press, before I fetched up at Reading in 1990, now all set to do another project called Gaullism since de Gaulle. For all this time, and up until about 2005, I thought of myself as a politics specialist (a political scientist, as the Americans would say), not (although my first degree was in history) as a historian. What’s the difference? Most political scientists like to generalise, to use cases and comparisons to build or contribute to or modify or demolish general theories about how politics works, in a way analogous to the natural sciences. Most historians are more interested in particular people and processes and events. The two disciplines overlap, but they have tended to diverge in my working lifetime, with the study of politics becoming more theoretical and less like contemporary history. One of the beauties of working in a language department, though, is that you can switch between the two without anyone caring (or even necessarily knowing).

That is what I did about a decade ago. It started with Jim Knowlson, our Emeritus Professor and author of the standard biography of Samuel Beckett. Jim introduced me to Doug Attwood, a retired dentist who was thinking of doing a thesis on the bombing of Le Havre. I lent Doug my thesis and we got talking. He soon took the wise decision to enjoy his retirement, but for a while we had a plan to do an article together. Eventually Doug pulled out of that project too, but by then I was hooked. I wanted an explanation for that photo in the Town Hall; I wanted to find out why the town that I had first visited a quarter-century earlier, and had returned to regularly ever since, had been flattened by France’s friends and allies.

If my knowledge of Le Havre was pretty good – I had lived there for four years – my acquaintance with the air war was limited to what a boy growing up in the 1960s had gleaned from making kit aeroplanes. And I was frankly pig-ignorant of the military history of France in World War 2. Above all, I really thought that Le Havre was a one-off, that the Allies had bombed this French city but no others to speak of. Only when, during a visit to the archives in Le Havre, I came across Eddy Florentin’s book Quand les alliés bombardaient la France (Paris: Perrin, 1997) did I realise that the attacks on Le Havre, aimed at dislodging the German garrison there, were the culmination of an Allied bombing campaign against targets throughout occupied France waged since the defeat of June 1940. What had started as a short summer project now seemed to hold the potential for something much bigger.

Ignorance, though, was a wise counsel. Having finally finished off various politics projects, and taken the summer of 2006 to write an article on ‘The Destruction and Liberation of Le Havre in Modern Memory’, I decided to ask a proper historian to read the manuscript before I submitted it for publication. I chose Richard Overy, on the strength of his excellent book The Air War 1939-1945 (London: Europa, 1980). At this point luck intervened. Richard happened to be putting together a team to bid for an AHRC grant on bombing in Western Europe – not from the perspective of the bombers, but from that of the states and peoples on the receiving end. He asked me to come in and cover the French side, alongside himself and Claudia Baldoli (who took care of Italy). The AHRC accepted our bid and suddenly, in September 2007, I had not only the ambition to move from the article about Le Havre to a bigger work on France, but the means to do so. In particular, travel funds allowed me archive time not only in Paris but also in a range of provincial cities – Rouen, Nantes, Rennes, Saint-Lô, Marseille, Lyon, Toulon – where the impact of air raids had been greatest. Such visits would have taken many months only a few years before, but the digital camera has changed that: the speed with which it can capture images of documents meant that I rarely spent a week in a single place. More than any other piece of kit, my little Canon helped get the AHRC value for money.

Like many academics, I incline to the ‘lone scholar’ habit of work. But the AHRC grant brought me into a research team. ‘Bombing, States, and Peoples in Western Europe’, as our joint project was called, included, as well as Richard Overy, Claudia Baldoli and myself, two postdocs (Stephan Glienke and Vanessa Chambers) plus two excellent Ph.D students, Marc Wiggam at Exeter with Richard, and Lindsey Dodd, who worked at Reading with me. And the team model was a real success. The chance to meet regularly with valued colleagues and compare progress on our shared interest was hugely rewarding, all the more so as we were now well financed, and had in Richard a mentor whose erudition was matched only by his intellectual generosity.

1stWave Havre  050944

The first minutes of the attack on Le Havre, 5 September 1944 (The National Archives, WO 223/29)

I began work on France in tandem with Lindsey Dodd, who had previously studied French history at Sussex with the remarkable Professor Rod Kedward. Our relationship at the start was an odd one because, unlike most Ph.D. supervisors, I was almost as much of a newcomer to the subject as she was. Neither of us knew much about which French targets the RAF and the Americans had gone for, or why, or how the French had reacted. The obvious way forward was to head off to the National Archives together and write a joint article. The result, ‘“How Many Frenchmen did you kill?” British Bombing Policy Towards France (1940-1945)’ appeared in French History late in 2008 (a year after my Le Havre piece had made it into War in History). Then Lindsey started on her own search for survivors from Brest, Lille and Boulogne-Billancourt. They would supply the material for her unique contribution to our collective bombing project, which was to develop and deploy the skills and interest in oral history which she had begun to acquire at Sussex. Her thesis on ‘Children under the Allied Bombs: France 1940-1945’ got her a Reading Ph.D in 2011.

As for my plans, when Richard had asked early on ‘What do you think we should offer in the way of outputs?’, my immediate choice was a joint book on France and Italy, to be done with Claudia. Comparing these two countries – largely left out of accounts of Europe’s bombing war hitherto – would be both innovative and in the spirit of the team’s collaborative ethos. Fortunately Claudia agreed: even more fortunately, she was brilliant to work with. That is reflected in the end product: whatever its faults may be, our book Forgotten Blitzes (London: Bloomsbury, 2012) is a genuinely joint work, with the material on each country juxtaposed and dovetailed and compared in every section of every chapter.

The AHRC project ended – or at least, the money ran out – in September 2010. The AHRC seemed to like what we had all done; at least, they rated us ‘outstanding’. By then the project had acquired enough momentum to carry on under its own steam. Claudia got most of us invited to Florence to a symposium about the bombing of Italy late in 2010. The main project book (also called Bombing, States, and Peoples in Western Europe) appeared with Continuum in 2011, and Forgotten Blitzes a year later. My work fed into the Leverhulme-funded ‘Liberal Way of War’ project here at Reading, and to an edited book with Hilary Footitt (Liberal Democracies at War) that came out with Bloomsbury in 2013. Richard’s monumental The Bombing War appeared with Allen Lane a few months later. Lindsey’s thesis should appear as a book in 2015.

Meanwhile I had been contacted from France. This started quite early on, rather to my surprise. First Patrick Facon, one of the rare French specialists on bombing, asked me to a conference in Paris in June 2007. I don’t know how he got hold of my name, as I had published nothing in the field then. But a short book came out of it, including a French version of my Le Havre article. On the strength of that, in 2008, Dominique Monteiro of Aber Images, a TV production company based in Brest, asked me to help with a documentary. Nothing much came of that until 2011, when I was interviewed, on the fourteenth floor of Le Havre’s Town Hall, for ‘Nantes sous les bombes alliées’, an hour-long programme which went out on French regional television in November 2012. The director, François Gauducheau, did a remarkable job, cutting and editing archive footage, plus interviews with three historians and half a dozen survivors, into a compelling narrative without a word of voice-over.

An altogether more ambitious proposition came to me in 2011 in an e-mail from an independent documentary-maker, Catherine Monfajon. She proposed a documentary on the bombing, not of a single city, but of the whole of France, and for national prime-time television. Catherine and I met in Paris that December and I passed her everything I had written and my whole computer archive. Perhaps it was on the strength of that that she asked me to be her historical consultant. This proved hard work. Whereas François Gauducheau had taken a back-seat approach, letting the footage and the interviewees speak for themselves, Catherine wanted to understand everything, to write the script (there would be voice-over, and interviews with survivors but not historians), to frame the narrative her way. Her questions, as we worked together through autumn 2012, she in her house near the Gironde estuary, myself in Reading, were incessant. I must have sent her 50,000 words of e-mails. But she drew me into the project, and of course I learnt much more as I tried to find answers.

Knapp in Havre Town Hall 030914

Le Havre Town Hall, 3 September 2014

One reason I wanted to work for Catherine was that it has always been at least as important to me to be read and heard and recognised in France as in the UK. I had always hoped to find a French publisher for Forgotten Blitzes. My first choice was Éditions du Seuil: they had done a French version of Gaullism since de Gaulle (which ran to a very self-indulgent 900 pages), and my wonderful editor from those days, Anne Sastourné, was still there. But nothing doing: too specialised, too technical, they said. Ah, but Anne had a friend at Tallandier, Dominique Missika, and it might be more her cup of tea. It was – largely, I think, because of Catherine’s film. If there was a tie-in with a prime-time documentary, said Dominique, and if it all happened in spring 2014, in time for the 70th anniversary of the Liberation of France, then perhaps a book about bombing could work. Of course, there could be no question of paying a translator to do the job. If there was going to be a French book, I was going to have to do it, as I had done Le gaullisme après de Gaulle for Seuil.

A French book, yes; but not the same book as Forgotten Blitzes. To begin with, Dominique wanted a book about France only. Out went the Italian half, rather to my regret. Claudia, as ever, was understanding and let me go ahead. Then again, Dominique wanted more statements from survivors. That was fine: I could use material for which there had not been room in the English book. And I soon realised that while there were things that I did not need to explain to a French audience (who would know more than a British one, about France’s wartime Vichy regime, for example), there were other things that had to be gone into more deeply – in particular the British and American reliance on air power and on bombers, on which the French literature is sparse. So this was not so much a translation as a complete rewrite, from the different perspective – almost a different persona – that I find I take on when I start writing in French. That said, Dominique was not so foolish as to leave me without a linguistic safety net; she made sure the excellent Jean-François Mathieu was there to check my grammar…

Les Français sous les bombes alliées came out with Tallandier in April 2014. A month later Catherine’s film, La France sous les bombes alliées, was shown on France 3 to an audience of 3.4 million. Then I sat down with Sylvie Barot (virtually – we were about 200 miles apart) and wrote a press article about French civilian casualties in the battle for Normandy. As the former municipal archivist in Le Havre, Sylvie had been there when I began researching local Communism thirty-five years ago, and was an ideal partner for this project. Our piece made it onto a full page (or nearly) of Le Monde on 2 June, four days before the D-Day anniversary commemorations. And on the strength of it the two of us were invited (along with several hundred other people – we seemed to be surrounded by US Navy officers) to the presidential grandstand for the celebrations on the beach at Ouistreham. President Hollande’s speech at Caen on the morning of that 6 June had made specific mention of the French civilians who had died in air raids – the first time a French president had made such a public acknowledgement on such a day.

Hollande 6 June

Ouistreham, 6 June 2014: President Hollande emerges from the sand on a giant screen

The summer of 2014 brought me as close as I am ever likely to get to Andy Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame: several public lectures, radio and press interviews, two (short) television appearances, and a big conference in Le Havre in September. My respect for politicians rose slightly when a journalist shoved a microphone at me and asked for a sound-bite; like most people after a hard afternoon’s work, I said the first thing that came into my head, and it wasn’t very bright. Back in Reading, I am preparing to turn the Le Havre conference into a book, and planning two visits to Paris, one to speak to the French branch of Amnesty and one to talk about the contrasting memories of bombing in West European countries.

Although my work has been based more on archives than on oral witness statements, it has been my privilege to meet and correspond with survivors of the bombing. Here are a few. Charlotte Barbotin, who recalled how her Rouen suburb ‘seemed to have been ploughed up by a drunken titan’. Max Potter, son of the Daily Mail’s correspondent in Paris in 1940, who had become a Frenchman because that June, his family had missed the last boat out of Saint-Jean-de-Luz. Michèle Agniel, who with her family sheltered downed RAF aircrews (both her parents were deported to camps). Jean Costes, a former Red Cross worker from the Paris suburb of Juvisy, who wondered why the RAF used delayed-action bombs, when they so obviously put the emergency services at risk. My old friend Alain Épois – who had never spoken to me about these matters before I sent him the book – who at age 4, in April 1944, survived the 1,000 tons the RAF dropped on La Chapelle, apparently untroubled by the experience, but who found himself sobbing uncontrollably at the sound of a siren during the VE-day celebrations a year later (sirens still provoke unease among many survivors). Or the unknown woman, born in 1941, who told me that while of course she remembered the bombing, ‘our generation wasn’t supposed to have any memory: everything was supposed to have started afresh in 1945’. In direct contrast to the British case, where the Blitz has been woven into the national identity, Allied bombing has not formed part of the general narrative of France in World War 2. Catherine’s documentary was the first to deal with the subject at national level; my book was only the second to do so, after Florentin’s. One of our tasks had been to bring an experience remembered by tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people, but barely acknowledged by historians, out into the open.

Jean Costes

Jean Costes with niece Marie-Claire and daughter Marie-Odile

Seventy years on, none of these witnesses bore resentment at what they, or their towns or neighbourhoods, had suffered. But others, whom I met at public lectures in Le Havre or the little southern town of Sisteron, remained angry because they had never been given a satisfactory reason for the destruction of their towns and the killing of their relatives. For some, only the most sinister explanations would suffice. The Americans, apparently, had attacked Sisteron to show they were the new masters in Europe. The British had deliberately bombed civilians in Le Havre to pressure the supposedly ‘humanist’ German commanding the city’s garrison to surrender; or they had been trying to eliminate France as a post-war economics competitor.

I don’t believe these interpretations, for which there is no serious archival or other evidence. But the truth is quite horrible enough. However much I have enjoyed the project – and I have – the story I have to tell is a very dark one. The Allies dropped over half a million tons of bombs on France – nearly seven times what the British received at the hands of the Luftwaffe. Over 57,000 French civilians were killed – a figure barely short of the 60,595 British. That each was an individual tragedy was made clear to me at the archives in Rennes, where faces of the unknown dead stared out from the makeshift coffins in which they had been photographed for possible identification.

Certainly, some of the Allied raids, for example RAF 617 squadron’s attack on the Gnôme-Rhône engineering works at Limoges in February 1944, were well conceived and impeccably executed. Many others, like the big attacks on the French rail system in Spring 1944, had their military justification – slowing German communications before D-Day – but caused massive ‘collateral damage’ to French civilians and their homes because they were so imprecise: RAF Bomber Command’s report rated the raid on Juvisy as ‘outstanding’, although only 13.7 per cent of the bombs hit the target. A third category of raids, like those on Lorient in January 1943, on a series of quiet Norman towns on D-Day, or on Le Havre on 5 September 1944, had no military justification that would bear scrutiny. Under the treaties that Britain (though not the United States) has signed since the war, these attacks would be regarded as war crimes. Though neither the British nor the Americans tried to kill French civilians (as the British certainly tried to kill German ones), they displayed no great sensitivity to them either. Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory, commander of the Allied Expeditionary Air Forces, could talk of ‘flattening out’ Norman towns at a planning meeting in January 1944; the Daily Express, on 6 September that year, thought fit to crow that ‘1,000 tons smash down on Havre’.

To look at it from the French side is to see a world turned upside down. It was the Allied liberators who rained down destruction on the French in 1944 (indeed, from 1940); the propagandists of the Vichy regime, which collaborated with the German occupiers, did not have to stretch the truth very far to underline the horror of the raids. And it was Vichy that tried, in extremely difficult conditions (the German occupiers caused shortages of both raw materials and labour), to organise rescue and relief. Of course, the regime had little choice. Not to be seen to try and look after civilians exposed to air raids would have lost Vichy what threadbare legitimacy it still had after 1942. For me, though, it was still odd and unsettling to find, in the archives, a succession of perfectly sensible circulars about civil defence or allowances for bombed-out families that were signed by men like Pierre Laval, René Bousquet, or even Joseph Darnand: some of the vilest figures of twentieth-century French history, all active in the repression of the Resistance and the deportation of Jews to extermination camps.

Did the French people fall for Vichy’s propaganda? Were they impressed by the regime’s efforts to take care of them? Opinion polls were still in their infancy and had in any case been forbidden since the start of the war. But like any self-respecting police state, Vichy did open everybody’s mail, listen to telephone conversations, and record the results with scrupulous care. The records show that many of the French welcomed the earlier raids, in 1942. They were not yet very widespread, and they proved that the British were still in the war and capable of hitting German targets. In 1943, however, opinion began to sour. That September, three American raids on Nantes claimed nearly 1,500 lives in just a week. Expectations that bombing was the prelude to a speedy Allied landing were disappointed. By the eve of D-Day, after three months of heavy raids on rail targets, French trust in the British and Americans had been stretched to breaking-point. One Resistance agent in France wrote that American ineptitude had done more to damage the Allied cause than four years of Nazi and Vichy propaganda. That did not mean the French were any friendlier to the Germans, whose occupation was becoming more oppressive by the day; or that they became any more convinced by the tawdry appeal of Laval and collaboration. But Marshal Pétain, the regime’s figurehead, could still draw impressive crowds when he attempted, in a series of brief and pathetic speeches during visits to Paris and other Northern cities, to share in the nation’s sorrows. At the other end of the spectrum, the British and Americans managed to make their ally Stalin look like a great humanitarian: ‘he would never have allowed something like this’, people said in Marseille after a raid of 27 May 1944 that left over 1,800 dead.

Whatever their opinion of the Allies, however, the French declined to take it out on the Allied airmen who dropped into their midst from the skies. The dead were treated with respect; the living – who in many cases had been bombing French targets minutes earlier – were hidden, and some 2,000-3,000 were spirited out of the country. In a glowing tribute to France’s civilian ‘helpers’ the head of RAF Bomber Command, Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur (‘Bomber’) Harris, wrote that ‘Men, women and indeed sometimes even small children led our airmen from hiding place to hiding place. They tended their wounds, they bought them rail tickets, they carried them hidden in farm carts, they passed them safely through cordons and barriers, they misled and confounded the enemy’s search’ – all the time knowing that the penalty for aiding escapers was death.

Finally, the French helped one another, too. In their tens of thousands they joined the rescue and relief services, risked their lives to dig the trapped and wounded out of ruined buildings and carry them to safety, found space in their homes, and clothes, and money, and food, for the bombed-out. In the midst of my dark story, it was these acts of common human decency on the part of men and women of the stamp of Jean Costes, the Red Cross volunteer who carried stretchers through the wreckage of Juvisy one night in April 1944, that most inspired me. It was to them that I dedicated Les Français sous les bombes alliées. And I am proud to call Jean Costes my friend.

To learn more about Professor Knapp’s research, as well as for information about undergraduate and post-graduate study at Reading, please visit the website of the Department of Modern Languages and European Studies at the University of Reading. To keep up with all of the Department’s research, as well as to receive updates from our students, staff, and alumni, follow this blog, like us on Facebook, and subscribe to our Twitter feed.

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Student Life: A Trip to the British Museum

On Thursday 6th November, some of the students and staff in the German section of the Department of Modern Languages and European Studies at the University of Reading went to the British Museum to visit the exhibit “Germany: Memories of a Nation,” an exhibition that the museum is holding in honour of the 25th Anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The trip was organised by one of our fabulous Lektorinnen, Sandra Beer. We’ve asked one of the students who participated, Kathryn McLaren, to share her thoughts on the exhibition:

German Trip 1The exhibition is really great. When you first enter through the doors, you can see a video of the night the Berlin Wall was pulled down playing continuously; it gives you an insight of what it must have been like to have been there that day. A bonus for us was that our lecturer, Dr Ute Wolfel, is from Berlin so she shared her experience of the wall coming down. The exhibit then takes you through early German empires and traditions taking you through to modern Germany. It’s not just words on a wall; there are paintings, clocks, videos, maps and even a replica gate from Buchenwald to look at and learn from. Two of my personal highlights were the map of 1500 Augsburg (where I did my Year Abroad!) and an optical illusion of 3 major German leaders. It was such a lovely day and it was nice to actually apply some of my degree knowledge to the museum’s exhibits, plus a mixed group of us went so there was always something to talk about! For those of you interested, check out the British Museum website. Just make sure you go before 25th January!!

For more information about German Studies, as well as the other degree programmes in languages at Reading, please visit the website of the Department of Modern Languages and European Studies. To keep up with all of the Department’s students, staff, and alumni, you should also make sure to follow this blog, like us on Facebook, and subscribe to our Twitter feed.


German Trip 2


Student Life: The Italian Society

Choose ItalianAre you curious about Italy? Do you love Italian food, fashion, literature, cinema, and culture? You should check out the new video created by the Society for Italian Studies on the benefits of studying Italian at University level in the UK and Ireland.

For students at the University of Reading, those benefits include the opportunity to meet other Italophiles in the Italian Society. We’ve asked Chloé Saleh and Gabriella Craft to fill us in on what the Italian Society does and how we can join in and share their infectious enthusiasm for all things Italian. Here’s what they have to say:

A degree in Italian studies at the University of Reading will give you an all around knowledge not just of the language but culture, history and art; from the medieval period to modern day.  The amazing Italian department are incredibly supportive every step of the way, guiding you from day one up until you wear that graduation hat.

Society 3And there are so many more opportunities for students who love Italy. The Reading University Italian Society (RUIS) brings together Italian students, Erasmus students and those who have a general interest in Italy and Italian culture. Over this coming year we aim to support incoming Erasmus students as well as those already studying here, through a range of trips, socials and language support groups.

The Society is led by six current students, five of whom have already gone on the year abroad. We are ready and waiting to advise and help anyone venturing onto their year abroad with any questions they may have!

Society 1Our regular ‘aperitivo’ nights are a great way to catch up with the rest of the society. We meet up every other Wednesday evening on campus and everyone brings along a homemade dish and something to drink. It’s a fun and relaxed way to meet new people.

We have also set up an language exchange programme, which is now up and running! We have paired up native English speakers with native Italian speakers and in their own time they can meet up and help each other out! It’s the perfect way to practice and make new friendships!

Our next trip will be to Winter Wonderland and Somerset House at Christmas and hopefully in the spring of 2015, we will host a trip to Italy as part of our ‘Year Abroad Experience’…watch this space!!

Society 4When you sign up for the Italian Society, your one-off membership fee will get you discounts on all of our trips and socials. To find out more about these and other events of the Italian Society, check out our Facebook page.

And for more information about Italian Studies, as well as the other degree programmes in languages at Reading, please visit the website of the Department of Modern Languages and European Studies. To keep up with all of the Department’s students, staff, and alumni, you should also make sure to follow this blog, like us on Facebook, and subscribe to our Twitter feed.


Archives and Texts seminar with Dr Sophie Heywood

Archives and Texts seminar

Dr Sophie Heywood (Modern Languages and European Studies, Reading) 

Archives and TextsShould French children’s books be permitted in an English nursery? The reception of Madame de Ségur in England, 1859-c.1940s’


Monday 10th November (week 7) 1-2pm in HUMSS 124

Co-organisers : Dr Nicola Wilson (English), Dr Alison Martin and Dr Sophie Heywood (Modern Languages and European Studies), and

MLES Cine-Club: Il Gattopardo

Please join us on Tuesday 4th November at 7 pm in HumSS 125 for the third film in the 2014-15 MLES Cine-Club

Il Gattopardo
(“The Leopard”)

Italy, 1963
Directed By Luchino Visconti
Starring Burt Lancaster, Claudia Cardinale, and Alain Delon
In Italian with English Subtitles

Presented by Dr Charles Leavitt


The LeopardWinner of the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and the Nastro d’Argento by Italian film critics, Luchino Visconti’s adaptation of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s best-selling novel Il Gattopardo is widely regarded as a cinematic masterpiece. The story of the Sicilian aristocrat Don Fabrizio, Principe di Salina (Burt Lancaster), whose nephew Tancredi (Alain Delon) is set to marry the beautiful but decidedly middle-class Angelica (Claudia Cardinale), Il Gattopardo combines lavish period detail with strikingly innovative and modern cinematography.