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 kilometres (6,000 miles) 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.
The group sang ‘Le Chant Des Partisans’, the anthem of the French Resistance — a tune rarely heard on the shores of the South China Sea.
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 December 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.
Some of the Frenchmen joined the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps established by Britain to support regular forces vastly outnumbered by the Japanese.
Dremeaux picks up the trail of the Free French at several key moments in the 17-day “Battle of Hong Kong”, including the fight for the island’s sole power plant.
While only six names are on the stele, Dremeaux believes around ten took a stand against the Japanese.
Among them was Armand Delcourt, a 42-year-old merchant who came to Hong Kong in 1926 and married a Eurasian woman of Japanese and Scottish origins, Captain Roderic Egal, who was in transit from Shanghai when the invasion began, Henri Belle, a sailor passing through Hong Kong who took up arms, and Paul de Roux a director of the Banque d’Indochine.
Egal and Belle were both captured and sent to prison camps, the latter dying in captivity. Roux did not fight but set up a resistance network. He was arrested and tortured, before committing suicide to prevent the enemy forcing him to talk.
Delcourt was wounded by two bayonet blows on December 21 while defending a strategic hill pass and executed two days later, shortly before the governor surrendered on Christmas Day.
On January 5, 1942, brutalised by the Japanese, his pregnant wife gave birth prematurely in a Hong Kong church to a girl who for decades would not know the circumstances of her father’s death.
“I did not know the full circumstances of my father’s death until much later when I was in Australia and received the letter from my father’s close friend Carlos Arnulphy who had managed to trace me,” Monique Westmore, who now lives in Melbourne, told AFP by email.
“I would have loved to have known my father but when I read the documents that are attached (to the letter) I understand that he was a man of great principle — I do sometimes ask myself ‘why did you go knowing that your wife was hugely pregnant and also you weren’t exactly a young man?’,” Westmore wrote.
“The battle of Hong Kong was a total disaster and many people lost their lives.”
His military death notification praised him as “a continuous example of courage and enthusiasm” in an unequal battle who “cheerfully made the supreme sacrifice, confident in the final victory of France.”
For Dremeaux, the path chosen by Armand Delcourt resonates strongly today, “a time of withdrawal” when countries are increasingly looking inward.
“He was married to a Japanese woman, lived abroad and gave his life for Free France,” he said.
“To be patriotic is not a contradiction with being open to the world”.