It was a gorgeous fall day as I drove through France from Luxembourg on my way to Burgundy – home of wines, beautiful towns and castles built by the dukes who played an important role in the Hundred Years’ War. On my route was the town of Dijon – yes, like the mustard. And how could I not stop for at least an hour?
The thing about Europe, and eastern France in particular, is that as beautiful as it is, you don’t have to look far to find reminders of darker times. I already mentioned the Hundred Years’ War, which we tend to glamorize with talk of knights and chivalry (the reality was hellish), but a lot of those reminders are, unfortunately, more recent.
One of those was a Sherman tank parked in a street in Dijon. During World War II, Dijon was occupied by the Germans, and the Allied forces had to take it back. It’s a story told all over France, and it always strikes me to think of the now-peaceful land locked in a struggle to the death (I’d started this particular trip partying with Germans at Oktoberfest).
I walked to the Sherman, an American-built tank, and inspected the plaque. Seeing the French writing on the side of the tank, I figured it was one of the ones used by the Free French, and I was right, but not as I’d imagined.
This tank was used by the Second Cuirassier Regiment (2eme Regiment de Cuirassier), which references the types of horsemen who in the Napoleonic era wore armored breastplates into battle.
The unit was something of a rarity in World War II, as it was composed of Africans from Oran, in the French colony of Algeria. Reinforced by white members of the French Army who had escaped the fall of France in 1940, the regiment was instrumental in liberating Dijon on Sept. 6, 1944.
Unfortunately, the Sherman that now serves as a monument to the sacrifice of the people who died in World War II was struck by German antitank rounds, which killed three of its five-man crew.
The three men killed in the Sherman in Dijon are representative of the 40,000 Africans who died in World War II fighting for the French, from battles in Tunisia, Italy, France and Germany.