Victory Day in Vence
Remembering the End of World War II

June 17, 2022

War should never be celebrated, but it must always be remembered. I’ll be honest. I have little hope of mankind ever finding a way to put a complete end to war. There appears to be little to no evidence that we are capable of living on this planet in peace. Some might say I’m a pessimist, some might say I’m a realist. The truth is we don’t seem to have made a lot of progress over the last few centuries. After World War I (referred to at the time as “The Great War”) it was commonly thought that OK, we’ve seen enough. This horrific conflict will finally put an end to war. But only 20 years later we were back at it again as World War II raged across Europe.

There’s a fine line between remembering war and glorifying it. I grew up in a country that has fought in one war or another pretty much continuously since its creation almost 250 years. Yet the last war that was actually fought on U.S. soil was the Civil War in the 1860s. It’s been a very long time since the horrors of war have been felt by the general American population itself. Instead our soldiers have been sent off to fight and die in distant lands far from the everyday lives of their neighbors, friends and families. Most Americans have only witnessed the terror of war on their TV screens. This lack of direct, personal involvement often seems to lead to a glamorous, even romantic, view of war when nothing could be farther from the truth.

There’s something very different about living in a country where the memories of a war and occupation are an integral part of the fabric of the society. As I travel around France the signs of both World War I and World War II are everywhere. The fields of Normandy are littered with one small cemetery after another where soldiers were buried where they died during World War II. The battlefields of Verdun are full of museums and memorials. Oradour-sur-Glane, the sight of a horrific massacre in 1944, stands today exactly as it was almost 80 years ago. The Thiepval Memorial in Somme memorializes 72,337 missing British and South African servicemen who died in the Battles of Somme between 1915 and 1918 with no known grave. It goes on and on.

Steve and Carole in Vence - Victory Day 2022
Program for the 2022 commemorations of Victory Day in Vence. Click on the image for a PDF of the entire program.

In every village I cycle through, no matter how small, there’s a memorial for the soldiers who died in World War I. I’d like to think that these memorials are an attempt to remember the immense pain and suffering caused by war so that it can be avoided in the future. Such is also the case with the yearly commemorations, ceremonies and remembrances held throughout France (and most of Europe) for both World War I and World War II.

I’ve written about the Liberation of Vence elsewhere on this website which marks the August day in 1944 when Canadian and American troops rolled into Vence and freed the town from the Nazis. Last month I attended several events marking another important day in history, May 8, 1945, when Germany surrendered to the Allied forces. Known as “Victory Day,” it’s a day which is solemnly remembered and memorialized each year.

Today there are fewer and fewer men and women alive who actually remember World War II first hand. As their numbers continue to dwindle it becomes more and more important to mark these anniversaries and recognize the terrors that they endured. It’s only by remembering that we have any hope of preventing such devastations from returning again in the future.

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A Little History

In France, World War II lasted for six long years, from 1939 to 1945. After war was declared on September 3, 1939 (two days after the invasion of Poland) the French fought the Nazi regime until they were defeated in the Battle of France (also known as The Western Campaign). On June 14, 1940 the Nazis occupied Paris and the Second Armistice at Compiègne was signed on June 22. Germany occupied most of the northern and western territories of France and a collaborationist French régime was set up in Vichy under the control of Phillipe Pétain.

Meanwhile General Charles de Gaulle set up an exile government in London pitting himself against the Vichy regime as the legitimate French government. Much was at stake, including the support of French allies and the control of overseas departments. De Gaulle had opposed the surrender to Germany and on June 18th had made a passionate appeal to the French people via BBC radio, asking French soldiers, sailors and airmen to join the resistance fight against the Germans. The actual broadcast was not widely heard in France at the time, but it later became one of the most famous speeches in French history. He was eventually able to bring together many groups under the banner of the Free French Forces.

For several years France lived under the control of the Vichy government working hand in hand with the Nazis, the SS and the Gestapo. Executions, murders, deportations to slave labor camps and lack of food were commonplace. It was one of the darkest times in the history of France. The French resistance slowly coalesced around rebel forces, legionnaires, expatriate fighters and more. In August 1943 the forces under De Gaulle and Henry Honoré Giraud merged under Allied leadership.

On June 6, 1944 the Allies invaded occupied France in one of the most famous battles in history, D-Day. Paris was liberated less than three months later on August 25. Vence was liberated via a separate attack on the southern coast two days later on August 27. It would take another eight months for Germany to surrender and the war to finally end.

The war’s toll on France was immense. 210,000 soldiers died in the conflict. Another 400,000 or so were wounded. 390,000 civilians died. (To me that says so much: almost twice as many civilians as soldiers died.) In total 1.4% of the population perished. But it wasn’t just the loss of life. The Germans inflicted substantial damage on the country during the spring and summer of 1940. After their occupation things grew progressively worse and worse due to the systematic looting of the country by the occupiers as well as continuous Allied aerial bombardment (1,507 French cities and towns were bombed by the Allies between June 1940 and May 1945).

However, the real destruction occurred after the D-Day invasion. The German army resisted fiercely as the Allies worked their way across France and countless towns and villages were destroyed in the battles. In the end France suffered far more destruction during the liberation than it did during the earlier part of the war. Large towns such as Brest, Caen, Dunkerque, Falaise and St. Lô were almost completely destroyed. It’s estimated that over 1,200,000 buildings were completely destroyed or sustained major damage. Over a million people lost their homes. Industrial plants were damaged, railroad tracks and bridges were destroyed, farmlands were devastated. It’s impossible to overestimate the damage to the country and its inhabitants.

It’s important to remember that all this came less than 30 years after the immense destruction and loss of life France suffered in World War I. The country had not fully recovered from this conflict when war returned to wreak even more havoc. Despite all the destruction, devastation and suffering the country endured in World War II it has never forgotten the sacrifices made by their Allies and friends during these dreadful years. When Carole and I visited Normandy during the D-Day memorials of 2021 we were overwhelmed with the gratitude that the French people still show so honestly and unabashedly 80 years later. Total strangers would thank us when they learned we were Americans.

These yearly “remembrances” or “commemorations” are just one of the ways that the French remind the world what happened so many years ago. As I said before, when we begin to forget the chances of the same thing happening again become so much greater.

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Two exhibitions were set up in Vence in conjunction with the Victory Day memorials. Both were housed in the Salle des Associations, a large room beneath the steps of the Town Hall in Place Clemenceau. Running for a week prior to the memorials (from May 2nd to May 7th) they offered the public a glimpse into life during World War II. “Ligne Maginot,” presented by Bernard Joudon (President of the SMLH Committee of Vence and the Balcons d’Azur), focused on the famous “Maginot Line,” a huge group of concrete fortifications, obstacles and weapon installations built by France in the 1930s to deter an invasion by Germany. Constructed on the Eastern borders of France, the line ran from Belgium in the north to Italy in the south. In the end it proved unable to stop the Germans as they found a way to exploit a weakness through the Ardennes Forest.

The second exhibition, “Objets d’Époque” (Period Objects), represented a collection of war related materials, everything from helmets and boots to flags and bullets to uniforms, guns, shovels and much more.

The parade moves from Place Clemenceau through the streets of Vence to the cemetery.

Parade to the Cemetery

The events of the day began with a parade from the Town Hall to the town cemetery. A large group consisting of local dignitaries, former soldiers and everyday townspeople, lead by a small group of six current soldiers and ten flag bearers, paraded solemnly out of the old town, down Avenue Marcellin Maurel and then Avenue Colonel Meyere. Upon arriving at the the cemetery everyone gathered at the monument to the French resistance fighters.

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Ceremony at the Monument de la Résistance

There was a good chance of rain on May 8th so a small tent was set up in front of the Monument de la Résistance. The French resistance played a huge part in the eventual outcome of the war and you’ll find these kinds of monuments all over France. In Vence the monument consists of a beautiful stone sculpture listing the locals who gave their lives in the movement. A young woman weeps with her head in her hand next to the names.

The ten flag bearers stood along one side of the monument and the six soldiers along the other side. Several short speeches were made, the French flag was slowly raised above the monument and then the process of laying flowers began. Different groups such as the FNACA Comité de Vence, The American Legion Souvenir Francais, the Union Nationale des Copmbattants de Vence and the Legion d’Honneur each laid a large arrangement of flowers in front of the monument. Each time a group of three to five people would carry the flowers to the monument and slowly and solemnly place them on the ground before stepping back a few feet and observing a minute of silence. Those associated with the military would often salute.

A small band was on hand and lots of children were in attendance. Various national anthems were played (including the Canadian and U.S. anthems) and songs were sung. From here the ceremonies moved on the the large war memorial in the center of the Vence cemetery.

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Ceremonies at the Monument aux Morts and Carré Militaire

Similar ceremonies were held at the Monument aux Morts (the large monument in the center of the Vence cemetery dedicated to the soldiers who died in World War I and World War II). More speeches were given, more songs and national anthems were played and once again flowers were laid in front of the monument. The children present stood next to the dignitaries in front of the monument holding small French flags.

The procession then moved to the Carré Militaire, a small portion of the cemetery with the graves of seven soldiers from Vence who died in World War II. This stop was not as long or as involved as the first two, but still moving nonetheless.

After all the ceremonies were finished everyone moved across the street to small reception where food and drink were served, a small traditional band played and everyone did a bit of socializing.

Once again I’ll come back to what I said before. War should never be glamorized or celebrated. But it must be remembered and memorialized so that we don’t forget the terrors and horrors. Hopefully these yearly memorials in France do just that and play an important part in reminding everyone how fragile and important peace is.

Song being sung at the ceremony in front of the Monument aux Morts.


Vence can easily be reached from just about anywhere in France by taking the A8 until you get to Cagnes-sur-Mer. If you are coming from the east get off on Exit 48 and if you are coming from the west you’ll want Exit 47. Take the M336, then the M36 and finally the M236 north into Vence. The most accessible parking is in the Parking du Grand Jardin, right next to the old town. Parking Toreille and Marie Antoinette Parking are both close by as well. The Vence Office de Tourisme is just across the street from the Grand Jardin.

Juste les Faits:
What: Commemoration of the May 8th Victory (Victory Day)
Where: Vence (Alpes-Maritimes) (Google Maps)
When: May 8th, every year
Phone: Vence Office de Tourisme: +33 04 93 58 06 38
Facebook: vencetourisme

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