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Researching an Ancestor in the Forces Françaises Libres

Free French Forces

The Battle of France took place during May and June of 1940 and ended with the fall of France. Many of the military and government escaped to London and there, on the 18th of June, Charles de Gaulle issued his famous Appeal:

"I, General de Gaulle, currently in London, invite the officers and the French soldiers who are located in British territory or who might end up here, with their weapons or without their weapons, I invite the engineers and the specialised workers of the armament industries who are located in British territory or who might end up here, to put themselves in contact with me.
"Whatever happens, the flame of the French resistance must not be extinguished and will not be extinguished."

This was the initiation of the French Resistance and of the Forces Françaises Libres, the Free French Forces, based in London. If your ancestor answered de Gaulle's Appeal, it may not be so easy to trace him or her, as descendants are discovering.

Noms de Guerre

Those working within France all had false names, noms de guerre, as did many of those working in London and elsewhere. This was necessary not only for secrecy but to protect their families still in occupied France. This was especially true for those from eastern France and the regions of Alsace and Lorraine, where many surnames are Germanic; at such a time, none wanted to appear as one of the enemy. Code names were often assigned to Resistance fighters, but many chose their own aliases, which could contain a hint as to their identity that only those who knew them well would have recognised. To complicate matters further, many retained their noms de guerre after the war, legally changing their names and giving the new surname to their children.

La Légion Etrangère

To join the Free French Forces, one was supposed to be a member of the French military and have a document to prove it. For those who did not have such, a quick way to obtain it was to join the French Foreign Legion, la Légion étrangère, in North Africa for a couple of months, and then go to London. As the French Foreign Legion required little by way of identification, this was also a path to changing a name at the same time.


How to document these people? It is a long and cautiously researched project. Here are some of the sites we have used with at least some level of  success:

  • Liste des Volontaires des Forces Françaises Libres on the de Gaulle website - is a labour of love and quite lengthy, but incomplete.
  • Histoire des Français libres ordinaires - a website dedicated to telling the stories of those who joined the Forces Françaises Libres.
  • Dossiers administratifs des résistants - these are the individual files on all members of the Resistance held by the Service Historique de la Défense, the French military archives. This site has an alphabetical list with the archives codes, but the files themselves are not online. Using the code and the full name, one may then request a copy of the file. Check here without fail, for many people who may seem to have spent the war in London actually also made trips to France to work with the Resistance.
  • You may write to the French Foreign Legion asking for any information on a person who joined, but you need a name, a date, and the regiment.
  • The Mémorial de la Shoah  - includes the names and information on some Resistance fighters who were executed.
  • The National Archives of Great Britain - Search here under what name you may have, though, interestingly, a file on a Resistance fighter in these archives may be closed while the French file on the same person may be available. Additionally, if you can visit the facility at Kew, it may be worthwhile to search the British files on the Free French Forces (see the photo above). Though much has been removed, these files contain correspondence on the organisation of de Gaulle's administration around the world and correspondence concerning granting British visas to those who wanted to go to London to join the FFF.

It can take quite a few months to do a search on a member of the Free French Forces, and it can be very frustrating, but you could get lucky.


©2017 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy