This month’s Feature Archive has been provided by Nick Livingstone who is currently working on two long-term, closely-linked projects: a history of the RAF’s Special Duties unit which flew the early clandestine operations for SIS and SOE, and some early intelligence circuits run by the British and the Free-French.
This brief guide, based on several visits, is intended for anyone from the UK who plans to research at the Resistance archives of the Service Historique de la Defense (SHD), Vincennes. Researching at Vincennes is easy for anyone already in Paris or even within the Île- de France, but it can be a bit of a challenge for anyone who has to come from further away. You will need to plan ahead, at least a couple of weeks. Planning a month or two in advance will make travel and hotels considerably cheaper.
Administration at Vincennes
A reader’s card is necessary for consulting original documents, as at Kew. If it is your first visit to Vincennes, allow extra time on your first day for the registration process. You can apply for a reader’s card online – indeed you must in order to reserve documents in advance of your visit – but you will need to have your ID photo taken and the card issued when you arrive. The office is directly on the right as you enter the building. The card needs to be revalidated each calendar year, so if you already have a card you’ll still need to visit the office on your first visit that year. If you have not yet revalidated an existing card it can still be used to pre-order documents using the online system.
A detailed catalogue of personal files (the GR16P series) is held locally as a series of Excel files, which can be consulted from a local terminal. These files have recently been cleaned up, removing duplicate entries and missing files. The PDFs available online are cut-down versions of these files, and columns in the Excel originals provide the following valuable information absent from the PDFs:
– Resistant’s circuit, where known
– Observations (such as whether resistant was a head of réseau or sub-réseau)
Once you have a reader’s card, places are allocated only through prior reservation, which must be made at least three days in advance. For practical reasons I would advise making your reservation at least two weeks before, the longer the better. The web address is:
So far as I could observe, the reservation system is computer-assisted but manually-controlled. When you reserve online you’ll get an acknowledgement of your request, but this is not confirmation of your appointment. Within a few days you should receive an email confirmation of your reservation. If after a week you have not received this confirmation, make another online reservation and/or contact SHD direct; I have written to them in my best French, though whether that has any effect I cannot tell. There is no contact email address.
You can view up to five documents a day unless you have obtained ‘une dérogation’, a special dispensation; one is also required if the document is one that is normally unavailable to the public. You can generally view only one document at a time; once you hand it back it will be returned immediately to storage, so I recommend that you prepare in advance the order in which you want to view your documents. If you find that you need another document you will have to reserve it for another day, subject to the usual notice period (see above). Cameras are permitted, but there are no special facilities (e.g. camera-stands) as at Kew; there are large tables by the windows which provide natural daylight.
The two series most likely to be of interest to British researchers are the GR16 personnel files and the GR17 circuit files. The GR16 files are available only by prior reservation. The GR17P circuit files have recently been made available without prior reservation, but for us in the UK this causes two problems which I recently discovered the hard way:
(1) Because they are now ‘sans réservation préalable’ you are no longer allowed to reserve them, unless your visit is on a Saturday.
(2) There are two deadlines: order before 10 a.m. (too late for someone arriving on the earliest Eurostar) and you’ll get your documents before lunch; order before 13.45 to view them after 15.00. The reading room shuts at 17.00, 16.00 on Fridays.
The contents of most personnel files are sparse. To some extent they document the periodic efforts by post-war French authorities, sometimes several decades later, to verify whether individuals were truly entitled to the pensions and status that accrued to resistants and deportees, etc. Details of pre-arrest activities are rare, though you might occasionally find a brief memoir by a survivor. I can recommend a reference volume published by SHD:
‘Les réseaux de résistance de la France combattante’, edited by Stéphane Longuet and Nathalie Genet-Roultiac. There is a reference copy in the Salle de Louis XIV and another in the British Library (General Reference Collection YF.2014.b.871). The Bodleian also holds a copy (Lower Gladstone Link: M15.D00096).
For those of us accustomed to the no-reservation, same-hour, same-day accessibility of files at the National Archive at Kew, the need at Vincennes to reserve documents and a desk several days in advance may be frustrating. It can be explained by comparing the two institutions: the National Archives at Kew contain almost the entirety of Britain’s official history – civil, military, legal, social, political – with corresponding economies-of-scale (and a comparatively massive budget) for IT systems and document-management systems. The National Archive is housed in a recent building designed specifically for storing and managing documents, with enough desks for several hundred people to view original documents. By contrast, the Service Historique de la Defense deals with France’s naval and military history, including resistance activities, and comes under the French Ministry of Defence. Its budget cannot be more than a small fraction of Kew’s, and its Vincennes location is in an impressive 17th-century building designed for the Sun King’s frolics until the same architect built Versailles. It wasn’t built for document-retrieval. The reading room – la salle de Louis XIV, no less – is vast, with enormous paintings, but 90% of the volume is empty space, with room in the bottom 10% for a fewer than a hundred reading desks.
If you want to take advantage of cheaper Eurostar fares, reserve at least a month in advance. The cheapest adult tickets can be less than £80, but for crumblies like me it’s possible to get there even cheaper. For those of us outside London, special tickets can make it just as feasible: see ‘The Man in Seat 61’ website ( http://www.seat61.com/UKconnections.htm ) for excellent advice. On previous occasions I have travelled to Paris the day before my first appointment, which I would recommend. A day-trip is possible, but only with careful planning and some discomfort; the first Eurostar arrives at Gare du Nord at 0915, but leaves St Pancras at 05.40. (The St Pancras concourse and its Starbucks remain open overnight, but it can be chilly and the concourse seats are metal.) The 07.01 is marginally less uncivilised, and arrives at about 11. The Metro takes about 45 minutes via lines 5 and 1, change at Bastille. Note the opening hours at Vincennes – Monday is afternoon only, and Friday and Saturday close early – and any closed days.
The nearest Metro station is Chateau de Vincennes, at the east end of Line 1. I buy a carnet of ten tickets, currently costing just over 14 Euros. They remain valid; I’ve used some that were at least a couple of years old. Sitting towards the back of the train, and taking the nearby (western) exit from the platform, will save a bit of a walk. Take the left exit at the top. The Chateau entrance is almost immediately to your left, across a slightly dizzying chasm of a moat. The Chateau should not be confused with the Fort de Vincennes next door, which is an Army base.
Since November 2015 security at the Chateau entrance has been tightened, with a body-scan and bag-search as you enter the Chateau. If you get there early in the day you may be told that the chateau is closed; mention the ‘salle de lecture’ and produce your card (if you have one) and you should be let through. If you arrive later, the same magic words should exempt you from the normal entrance-fee. The interior courtyard is spectacular, though the current fad for renovating ancient buildings until they appear to have been built yesterday is in evidence. Here they’ve had good cause: in 1944 the departing Waffen-SS blew up ammunition stores in the Chateau, so much of what you see is relatively new. The elegant chapel, larger than some cathedrals, is currently getting a makeover. The Salle de Louis XIV (salle de lecture) is in the Pavillon du Roi at the south-west corner of the Chateau (far end on the right).
You will need a 1-euro coin to use the lockers for your coat, bags, food etc. There are vending machines for snacks and drinks, but the shops and cafés in Vincennes are a good bet just across the road from the Chateau. The salle de lecture is on the second floor. Check in at the desk there; you will be asked for your reader’s card. You will be issued with a desk number and a bar-coded card. Find your desk then go to a hatch at the far end on the right and present your reader’s card; you will be asked which document you want, so have a list of the document-numbers to hand.