What is the “Merci Train” and how have I lived in N.H. for so long, without knowing about it?
In the late 1940s, French citizens filled forty-nine railroad cars with tens of thousands of gifts, to show their gratitude for American assistance in liberating their country during World War Two, and for the relief goods sent by Americans after the war. French people, although still quite poor, gave the best they had: elegant statues, jewelry, wedding dresses, beautiful paintings, precious books.
(Photos of objects by Earl Bennett, Merci Train - New Hampshire)
Today, most of these items have been dispersed or donated for safekeeping at various museums and archives. The boxcars themselves contain much history: they were used during World War One to transport troops and horses. They’re often called “40 & 8” cars, because during the First World War, the railcars would hold either 40 men or 8 horses. Each state* received a boxcar, with New Hampshire’s located on the West Side of Manchester. Every year, in late September, the Merci Train is remembered and the friendship between France and the U.S. is celebrated there.
Friends from the very beginning
“France is America’s longest ally,” Franco-American Centre Director John Tousignant reminded the audience at this year’s gathering, referring to critical French military support during the American Revolution. Consul General of France, Mustafa Soykur, came up from Boston to attend, recalling how America returned the favor during both World War One and World War Two: “You helped us during the dark times. Merci beaucoup (thank you very much) and Vive L’amitié Franco-Américaine (long live the friendship between France and America).”
Cross-Cultural Friendships Often Start With Food!
Before the ceremony, I had the enormous pleasure of attending a brunch in the Consul General’s honor. At the table, a major topic of conversation was the decline in foreign language classes at both the high school and university level. The Consul General’s office aims to do whatever it can to turn this around, here in New Hampshire and New England. It’s a goal I heartily support - because the more people from different cultures can really talk to each other, the more we expand friendships, our own mindsets, and human understanding.
Photo credit: Rebecca Fortgang
Another subject that generated excitement around our Franco-American brunch table was all the planning underway for the upcoming commemorations of the 200th anniversary of General Lafayette’s post-Revolutionary War tour of the U.S. There’ll be many cool events across New Hampshire in 2024 and 2025, following Lafayette's trail. Stay tuned for more on that!
(photo credit: Rebecca Fortgang)
Why bother with events like these - the Lafayette commemorations, the annual Merci Train ceremony? Well, there’s that old saying, about those who don’t know their own history are doomed to repeat it.
But I think there’s a positive angle too: it’s heartening to remember when people stepped up, and helped others. Maybe it inspires us to do the same, in our own time. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this, drop me a note below.
*Alaska and Hawaii were not yet states in 1949 when the Merci Train arrived. In addition to the 48 existing states, Hawaii and D.C.were given one boxcar to share. It appears the boxcar stopped briefly in D.C. before being settled permanently in Hawaii!
(For more historical reflections, please see my post about HOLOCAUST REMEMBRANCE DAY, APRIL 18TH, 2023.)