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Bill Thayer

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Margaret Hughes

Les lauriers sont coupés . . .

Journal d'une volontaire americaine en France
(Avril-Septembre, 1940)

The Author and the Book

In the early days of World War II in 1940, at age forty‑six, Margaret Kelly Hughes left her comfortable high-society life in New York City to go to France as a volunteer refugee relief worker. Once there, on her own initiative, she also worked to improve the lot of French soldiers in the German P. O. W. camp at Meaux, in part by smuggling in and out hundreds of letters, a very dangerous enterprise. She was decorated three times by the French Government for her service to the country. She died aged 86 on July 22, 1980.

"Les lauriers sont coupés" recounts her experiences in France during the early part of the war. Not all are heroic or descriptive of war news by any means. Most saliently, she seems to have been quite a clothes horse: always attracted to clothing, careful in what she wore, attentive to the dress of others — even at one point amusingly delivering a sartorial critique of the uniforms of German soldiers. True to form, she mentions Schiaparelli (five times), Mainbocher, Lanvin, and Charvet: in fact her chief footprint on today's Web is her donation of many French designer dresses to the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

Margaret's first husband was James Jackson Porter, who died fighting in France in World War I ; they had one child, their daughter Jamie, who is mentioned several times in her book. Her mother Margaret remarried in 1923, to John Hughes.

John Chambers Hughes was born on Oct. 3, 1891 in Louisville, Kentucky. He studied at Princeton University, where he was President of the Class of 1914. He enlisted in the Army in 1917, serving on A. E. F. commander General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Pershing's staff in 1917/18, and was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal and the French Légion d'Honneur. After the war he was an executive with McCampbell & Co., a textile manufacturer. During World War II, he was the head of the New York office of the OSS, the precursor to today's CIA; according to his obituary on p11 of the Sept. 28, 1971 issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly, he served in that capacity in North Africa. He later served as a high-ranking officer in various CIA front organizations, in particular as Chairman of the Executive Committee of the National Committee for a Free Europe, and from 1953 to 1955 ended his career as the U. S. Permanent Representative to NATO. In civilian life he was a trustee of the French Institute and Lycée Français in New York City. He died on May 25, 1971.

Margaret Hughes wrote her book in French; or rather, it would seem — unfortunately, she doesn't tell us — she actually kept her diary in French. But while it's clear that for workaday purposes she spoke French much more than adequately for a foreigner, and had read and appreciated a good deal of French literature (p214), her written French, in spots excellent and even somewhat literary, is nonetheless persistently flawed, not so much by mistakes in word usage or grammar as of sentence structure and articulation, making her overall style wooden and at times unpleasant. (I say this with no superiority in the matter, since I myself have on one occasion fallen victim to the same kind of impulse that led her, in her love of France and her empathy, generously to write her intimate thoughts in a language she did not master: my diary, Mar. 12, 2004 upon hearing of the Madrid bombings the day before; my Spanish is roughly on a par with Hughes' French.)

In effect, her book is in English. English-challenged readers will sometimes not get her full meaning; and conversely, if you are an English-speaker seeking to improve your fluency in French, I would strongly discourage you from using her book as a model.

In her opening notes (p11) she writes — my translation —

I deliver these notes to the public as I wrote them from day to day after my departure from New York before the catastrophe that fell on France. They do not pretend to constitute a document of military or diplomatic history. They are, with all their flaws, the faithful account by an American woman who saw the "Phony War," lived thru the entire "Blitzkrieg," and stayed among the French in the Nazi-occupied zone for several weeks after the "Armistice."

The reader will no doubt be surprised, not only in the beginning of the book but even later on, by the relation of frivolous details. I did not wish to excise them since they reflect the peculiar atmosphere in France before and even during the disaster, and also because everyone knows life does not constantly play out in the key of pure tragedy: comedy is always mingled in with drama.


Drôle de guerre — avril-mai 1940


Blitzkrieg — mai‑juin 1940


Armistice — juin-septembre 1940


Technical Details

Edition and Copyright

The text on this site is my transcription of the book by Margaret Hughes published in New York in 1941 and thus governed by American law; it is therefore in the public domain since the copyright was not renewed in 1968 or 1969 as required by law at the time: details here on the copyright law involved.

To judge by the inscription in the inside cover,

for Knight Woolley & Marjorie this account of my experiences — I hope it entertains you.



my copy of the book once belonged to Wall Street banker Knight Woolley and his wife Marjorie Fleming. Sadly, the book's pages remained completely uncut until I transcribed it eighty years later, in 2021.


As almost always, I retyped the text by hand rather than scanning it — not only to minimize errors prior to proofreading, but as an opportunity for me to become intimately familiar with the work, an exercise which I heartily recommend: Qui scribit, bis legit. (Well-meaning attempts to get me to scan text, if successful, would merely turn me into some kind of machine: gambit declined.)

This transcription has been minutely proofread. In the table of contents above, the sections are shown on blue backgrounds, indicating that I believe the text of them to be completely errorfree. As elsewhere onsite, the header bar at the top of each chapter's webpage will remind you with the same color scheme.

While the print edition was clearly very well proofread, it nevertheless contains many errors. This seems paradoxical, but they cannot be laid to the account of the printers, and must have almost all, or maybe even all, been in Hughes' manuscript: systematic spelling errors in her French, and — very understandably — a few close phonetic approximations to placenames that she likely never saw in writing. With one exception, where her meaning was corrupted ("plaie" on p210) and the reader might be led astray by the mistake, my corrections are therefore almost silently marked, with a dotted underscore like this: as elsewhere on my site, glide your cursor over the bullet or the underscored words to read what was actually printed.

The occasional inconsistency in punctuation has been corrected to the author's usual style, in a slightly different color — barely noticeable on the page, but it shows up in the sourcecode as <SPAN CLASS="emend">. Finally, a number of odd spellings, curious turns of phrase, etc. have been marked <!-- sic --> in the sourcecode, just to confirm that they were checked.

Any other mistakes, please drop me a line, of course: especially if you have the printed edition in front of you.

Pagination and Local Links

For citation and indexing purposes, the pagination is indicated by local links in the sourcecode and made apparent in the right margin of the text at the page turns (like at the end of this line p57 ). Sticklers for total accuracy will of course find the anchor at its exact place in the sourcecode.

In addition, I've inserted a number of other local anchors: whatever links might be required to accommodate the author's own cross-references, as well as a few others for my own purposes. If in turn you have a website and would like to target a link to some specific passage of the text, please let me know: I'll be glad to insert a local anchor there as well.

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The icon I use for this book is a photograph of a sprig of laurel generously ceded to the public domain by Wikimedia contributor "Andrikkos".

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Site updated: 11 Feb 21