Like many other popular and successful artists caught in the 1940-1944 Nazi Occupation of France, Charles Trenet—composer-lyricist of such song classics as “La Mer” (in English as ‘‘Beyond the Sea”) and “Que reste-t-il de nos amours?“ (“I Wish You Love”)—chose to go on entertaining the occupying forces rather than endanger his career and possibly life. The Épuration légale, the wave of official trials that followed the Liberation of France and the fall of the Vichy Regime, examined whether Trenet was guilty of collaboration. The inquiry resulted in a simple reprimand with no further consequences.
Little did Trenet know that his popular song in 1941 “Chanson d’automne” would, in June of 1944, provide the signal to the French Underground to aid the Allies in their major assault at Normandy—D-Day, as we remember it.
There is an argument by code aficionados over whether the actual wording of the two secret signal broadcasts by the BBC were (1 June) “Les sanglots longs / des violons / de l’automne” and (4 June) “Blessent mon coeur / d’une langueur / monotone—which is the exact wording from the well-known poem “Chanson d’automne” by 19th century Decadent, Paul Verlaine;
Or—(for 4 June) “Bercent mon coeur / d’une langueur / monotone” which is the exact line in Charles Trenet’s slightly-altered version of Verlaine.
Verlaine, infamous depressive, wrote, “Wound my heart with a monotonous languor”. Nostalgic singer-songwriter Trenet wrote, “Lullaby my heart with a monotonous languor”.
None of this discrepancy would have made any difference to the Underground—they were simply instructed that the signal for their next operations would be those two lines as they were familiar to them. And you know what I think? I think that the average French or British citizen of that time, if prodded about a couple of lines entitled “Chanson d’automne”, would have called to mind not Verlaine’s obscure and fusty verse, but Trenet’s sweet pop song, which was playing on gramophones and in broadcasts all through France and Britain in the early 1940s. The poetry of the people endures.
David Hendy in his book, The BBC: A People’s History (Profile Books, 2022), asserts that not only the BBC archives, but the archives of the French Resistance, contain the script and recording that definitely use the word ‘bercent’. However—
There’s been circulating around the internet for a few years now a so-called authentic recording of the actual 5 June 1944 BBC broadcast that distinctly uses the word ‘blessent’: find it here.
I’m sorry, but this recording sounds too clear and loud for me to believe it’s authentic. If it is a hoax, why? (And if it’s real, where’s its pedigree?)
No Bletchley Park. No skulkers in trench coats. No British airmen. Just sex, swing, and a little nosh. Bonus! We win the war.
For John Wilson, Associate Guest Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, etc: Thank you, John, for giving me the framework for the story I was meant to write.
My first novel, in progress. Read more historical notes on my book blog.
[photo by velizar ivanov]