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There is a little-known historical episode of the Second World War that brings us into western France, on the banks of the Mayenne river. On 22 August 1944, General Philippe de Hautelocque (1902-1947), who adopted the Free French pseudonym "Leclerc", was ordered to liberate Paris with his French 2ème Division Blindée (2nd Armoured Division). The decision was made at the Château du Bois-Gamats, located south of the outskirts of Laval, a city crossed by the river. The name Laval is evocative in North America. A city north of Montreal and the Université Laval were named after François de Laval (1623-1708), first Roman Catholic bishop of Quebec, and a member of the Montmorency family, House or counts of Laval.
During the occupation, the Germans had seized the property to establish their headquarters. The position of the castle is ideal. Not only this 12th century castle, and redesigned in the 19th, overlooks the river but is also located on the left bank near the city's airfield. On 6 August 1944, the U.S. troops led by General George Patton (1885-1945) were heading for the city after a night of heavy exchange of shellfire – the result of the Allied advance following the 6 June Normandy landings. At 11 a.m., the Germans withdrew to the left bank after having mined the bridges. The Americans advanced to the city center facing the Mayenne river. Early evening, the Germans left and had left Bois-Gamats after burning their archives. The city was liberated. On 15 August, General Omar Bradley (1893-1981), Commanding General of the U.S. First Army took formally possession of the castle to set up his headquarters. An office was also assigned to General Patton, who was under Bradley's command.
As General Leclerc was on standby on 19-20 August at the small town of Argentan, he sent a detachment on a reconnaissance mission to Paris but U.S. Major-General Leonard Gerow (1888-1972) gave him the order to recall his tanks. Leclerc decided to meet General Bradley in Laval while his detachment of ten light tanks, ten self-propelled machine guns and 150 armoured motorized infantrymen were continuing their advance. He arrived in the morning of 22 August at Bois-Gamats but Bradley was absent. Leclerc was tense but met with commander Gallois – the pseudonym of Roger Cocteau (1905-1995) and the chief of staff of the FFI (the Resistance military forces officially known as the "French Forces of the Interior") – who described the critical situation in Paris: high losses, lack of armament, Paris remained threatened by the Germans. At the same time, General Charles de Gaulle (1890-1970) was close to Laval and feared a coup de force by communist groups to takeover Paris. Hours, minutes pass ... At 7:15 p.m., a light plane landed on the airfield with General Bradley on board. As soon as, he arrived at Bois-Gamats, Bradley launched "Leclerc, precisely. It’s agreed, go to Paris!" Leclerc immediately left to join his 2ème Division Blindée (D.B.) located 200 km from the French capital. Three days later, "Paris outragé [outraged] ! Paris brisé [broken] ! Paris martyrisé [tormented]!" … was liberated.
Today, a distinctive marker placed at the entrance of Bois-Gamats castle commemorates this episode, and in particular, the 2ème D.B. This tribute was inaugurated on 9 September 2015 in the presence of Helen Patton (1962- ), the general's granddaughter. It is one of the many stone markers or "Bornes" that form the '2nd Armoured Division Road' (la "Voie de la 2ème D.B.") modelled on the 'Liberty Road' (la "Voie de la Liberté"). The latter was conceived in June 1944 by Colonel Guy de La Vasselais (1902-1976), former head of the French military tactical liaison mission to the Third U.S. Army, and Gabriel Hocquard (1892-1974), the mayor of Metz. Installed as a monument to manifest an "everlasting symbol of Liberty" and to commemorate the liberation of Western Europe, milestones or Bornes mark the route (1,145 kilometres long) followed by the American First and Third Armies and the French 2ème D.B. during the Battle of Normandy. Accordingly, there are 1,146 of such markers that runs across France, Luxembourg and Belgium – from Utah Beach to Bastogne in Belgium. French sculptor François Cogné (1876-1952) designed the 1m20 (48 inches) high model marker that were to be pink! They all share a similar facing side: a red flaming torch of the Statue of Liberty – as a symbol of freedom, emerging from the waves of the Atlantic Ocean that the Allies crossed to liberate Europe. Circling the top portion of the Borne are the 48 stars of the American Flag that existed at the time. However, different depictions can be found around them. As shown in the top left of the photo mosaic, the first milestone or "Km 0" of the Liberty Road is located at the Sainte-Mère-Église and was inaugurated on 17 September 1947. The marker next to it is the "Km 0" of the 2nd Armoured Division Road that copies the same design but with the inscription "Voie de la 2ème D.B. 1944-1945" that was inaugurated on 25 July 2004. The four photos shown in the second row illustrate the 2nd Armoured Division Road marker located at Bois-Gamats where it mentions two dedications: from "Saint-Martin-de-Warreville" to "Laval 222 Km", the starting point at Utah Beach of the "Voie de la 2ème D.B.", and "Borne du serment de Koufra", a pledge made on 2 March 1941 by Major Leclerc and his Free France comrades in Fort El Tag in Koufra: "We will not lay down our arms till the Colours, the beautiful Colors [French flag], fly from the steeple of the Strasbourg Cathedral." The back side features the badge of the 2ème D.B. with the Cross of Lorraine.
Since then, several "retired" milestones have been moved to North America. While all of the original Bornes that were damaged and displaced along the highways have been replaced, there are at least four of the original concrete Bornes that have been moved and re-dedicated in the United States, including: Denver (Colorado), New York City (New York), Abilene (Kansas) and Starke (Florida). There is a single Borne known to have been relocated in Canada at Embrun, Ontario not far from Ottawa – Canada's capital. Standing in a small flower bed, the "Borne de la Liberté" commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Liberation of France (1945-1995) and the friendship of the twin cities of Embrun in France and Embrun in Canada, and is a special tribute to those Canadian veterans from Embrun, Canada who participated in the Liberation of France.
On this day, 9 September 2022, we commemorate the 78th anniversary of the Liberation of Paris and Western Europe and mark 75 years since the inauguration of the first milestone of the Liberty Road (La Voie de la Liberté) as well as seven years since the installation of the Borne at the Château du Bois-Gamats, Laval, honouring the French 2ème Division Blindée who received the formal order to take Paris in 1944.
Christophe Kervégant-Tanguy / André M. Levesque