HONG KONG–Seventy-five years ago, a handful of idealistic “Free French” took up arms to defend the British colony of Hong Kong in a futile battle against Japanese invaders. But their sacrifice, though largely unknown in their homeland, is not forgotten in Asia.
There are six names on the worn stele that pays tribute to them in a corner of the British military cemetery in Stanley, on a hill in the south of Hong Kong island. “I do not see why these people should be forgotten,” says Francois Dremeaux, chairman of the Hong Kong committee of French Remembrances of China. “My job is to make their memory live by giving it meaning,” adds the history teacher, who helped oversee a ceremony dedicated to them last week. Dremeaux, who has written a thesis on the French presence in Hong Kong in the interwar period, feels there is much to learn from these men, who in 1941 chose to fight in a battle some 10,000 kilometers from their homeland.
Hong Kong was a British enclave, and there was nothing forcing them to defend it, he adds.
“We cannot even say they were defending their colony,” Dremeaux said. “They defended an idea, freedom, and did it of their own free will, which makes their sacrifice even more noble.” Apart from representatives from the French consulate and army, those attending the modest commemoration were largely students from the French international school where Dremeaux teaches. Dissident Consul By June 1940, many in the French community — which numbered around 400 in the late 1930s, had already fled to Indochina. Those who remained largely rallied to the Gaullist Resistance cause. While the French Embassy in Beijing was loyal to the pro-Nazi Vichy regime, in diplomatic correspondence Hong Kong consul general Louis Reynaud railed against the “treason” of the armistice Germany demanded and stamped his official telegrams with “V” for victory. A “Free France” committee was set up in Hong Kong with about 20 active members to recruit volunteers, turn merchant sailors on stopover in port or prepare propaganda broadcasts. Then on Dec. 8, 1941, hours after their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese invaded Hong Kong, which had been living under the threat of the imperial forces since they seized the nearby Chinese city of Canton — modern day Guangzhou — three years earlier.