French Singer-Songwriter Charles Trenet and the Secret BBC Signal That Saved France
[EXCLUSIVE TO MEDIUM]
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 (5 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 5 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.