Tag Archives: Dunkirk

A flag unstained, 80 years ago today

L’armée française – 1.er volume by Édouard Detaille vol 1 title page showing the old Napoleanic Army meeting the 1880s modern French infantry Credit line: (c) Royal Academy of Arts

The French Army’s 106e Régiment d’Infanterie (106e RI) has a long history, with a lineage dating back unofficially to 1622 before its number appeared as the 106th Line Infantry Rgt in 1792.

In 1939, at the dawn on WWII, the 106th’s flag was decorated with fourragères, the Médaille militaire, and the Croix de guerre with no less than four palms. On its body, it carried four Coalition/Napoleonic battle honors (Biberach 1796, Gênes 1800, Wagram 1809, Malojaroslawetz 1812) and four from the Great War (Les Éparges 1915, L’Aisne 1917, Montddidier 1918, Mont D’Origny 1918).

A monument to the regiment’s bloody WWI service, crafted by renowned sculptor Maxime Real del Sarte– who himself had lost an arm in 1915– was erected on the crest of the Éparges battlefield in 1935. It had seen the elephant at Austerlitz in 1805, endured the Siege of Paris in 1870, and been bled white on the Western Front in 1918.

Modernized in 1939, the 106th was redesignated the 106e RIM (régiment d’infanterie motorisée) as part of the French 12th Motorised Infantry Division (12e DIM) at Reims.

When the “Phony War” went deadly serious on 10 May 1940, fighting as part of the French 1st Army, they ended up holding the line at Dunkirk while the British Expeditionary Forces were largely withdrawn following the Allied collapse in Northern France.

Dunkirk 26-29 May 1940 British troops line up on the beach at Dunkirk to await evacuation, IWM

Trapped in the Lille Pocket along with some 40,000 other fighters, the French fought like lions for half a week and in a counterattack were even able to capture the headquarters of German Maj. Gen. Fritz Kühne, with Herr Kühne in tow.

However, a pocket can only ever be wiped out or relieved and no one was coming to get the 106e RIM out of their jam.

Under an agreement brokered by French Maj. Gen. Jean-Baptiste Molinié, the men of the Lille Pocket laid down their arms– for which they largely had no more ammunition– on 1 June 1940, some 80 years ago today.

Churchill himself later noted, “These Frenchmen, under the gallant leadership of General Molinié, had for four critical days contained no less than seven German divisions which otherwise could have joined in the assaults on the Dunkirk perimeter. This was a splendid contribution to the escape of their more fortunate comrades of the BEF.”

As for the 106th, the regiment’s commander, Col. Louis Félicien Marcel Tardu, ordered the regimental badges and medals be thrown in the bottom of the pond of Lille’s historic Château d’Avelin and the historic flag and its pole doused in gasoline and burned.

However, the Germans arrived before this could be done and, instead, the cased ensign was entrusted to the regiment’s priest who quickly buried it on the chateau’s grounds before being captured himself. The priest was later able to pass on the banner’s location to a local who, once the front lines shifted, was able to collect the relic and hide it for safekeeping.

When Liberation came on 26 August 1944, the banner saw sunlight and was paraded once again, at the head of a band of reformed French troops.

While the 106th is not one of the nine standing French army Metropolitain infantry regiments today, it is far from forgotten and its WWII flag is still retained by the force. The regiment’s motto was “Toujours debout,” which translates to, “Still standing.”

A marksman’s rifle donated for war, sent back in peace

Maj. Hession’s rifle served him well in competition for over 30 years, then was loaned to the British to help Londoners from learning German in WWII. (Photo: National Firearms Museum)

Maj. Hession’s rifle served him well in competition for over 30 years, then was loaned to the British to help Londoners from learning German in WWII. (Photo: National Firearms Museum)

Canadian-born U.S. Army Major John W. “Jack” Hession was a rock star of the shooting world in the 1900s but when Britain needed rifles in World War II, he sent his very best, only asking it be returned after things quieted down.

Hession, born in 1877, was an Army ordnance officer assigned to inspect weapons for the military at Remington Arms and later at Winchester and his cartouche inspector’s mark is well-known on martial guns of that era.

Besides his day job, he was a master long-range and small bore sharpshooter who competed in the 1908 London Olympics, set a world record for an 800 yard shot at Camp Perry the next year by shooting 57 consecutive bulls-eyes (that’s fifty-seven), winning the Marine Corps Cup in 1913, picking up the Wimbledon Cup in 1919 and 1932, and so on and so forth.

MajHession2

In all, he participated in 500 major competitions in the course of his life and is remembered as an excellent marksman to this day.

Well in 1940, with the British Army losing most of its equipment in the evacuation from Dunkirk, an urgent call was sent out for arms to equip the new Home Guard being prepared to resist a German invasion. With that, in November 1940 the National Rifle Association’s American Rifleman magazine ran an ad placed by the American Committee for the Defense of British Homes asking for guns to be donated as often and as soon as possible.

send-a-gun nra dunkirk home guardAnd in response, Hession sent his match-grade M1903 Springfield. Built in 1905, the bolt-action .30-06 had a 30-inch barrel and Stevens scope installed. A trophy and veteran rifle that had served him well, it was adorned with brass plates denoting its use in dozens of competitions.

Before it shipped to the UK along with over 7,000 other weapons collected, Hession added one more plate, one that simply read, “For obvious reasons the return of this rifle after Germany is defeated would be deeply appreciated.”

Hession himself, then in his 60s and retired from active duty, remained at his civilian job at Winchester and helped the war effort from there.

Sometime after Hitler was crushed the Hession rifle did come back home.

HessionObit

While the great rifleman passed in 1961, novelist Robert A. Heinlein, famous for Starship Troopers, later picked up the gun and even mentioned a similar ‘1903 in his work, Number of the Beast and it eventually ended up in the National Firearms Museum in Fairfax, Virginia where it rests today.

This post mirrored from my column at Guns.com