THE CHATEAU AND MAGINOT LINE
We were to have a specific job to do. Out of the blue Crusty turned up and ordered us to get packed, everything, ready to move in one hour's time. A lorry arrived and we boarded. We set off on about a half hour journey which brought us to a chateau deep in the countryside. Here we were dispatched to the spacious cellars from where we were to provide guard duty around the clock. At least it was something to do, and with my two section leaders worked out a rota of two hours on and four hours off. Upstairs was alive with red and gold decorations but we had no idea if it was Brigade or Divisional Head Quarters.
Having got the first duty of two men at each of two entrances organised, we had a wander round the labyrinth of passages. Apart from the two adjacent cellars we occupied, all doors leading off were locked. Everywhere was built of stone, the doors were heavy oak affairs. One, more important looking than the others captured our attention. We wondered if it led to a wine store. After all, castles always had wine cellars, didn't they? It was suggested we open the door. We had tool kits, but apart from repercussions to me, it would have been a tragedy to do any damage to a place of such historical interest. I was still puzzling over this when the first guard was to be changed: Smartly marching four out, changed one pair and was at the front entrance that was preceded by a wide verandah approached by half a dozen steps up from the road below. I had just started the change over as a staff car drew up and four senior officers came hurrying through. Had I thought of doing anything at variance with changing the guard, I would have held them up and demanded the password but I elected to complete the maneuver.
Soon after returning to the billet, Crusty came in all of a lather. 'Why hadn't I given the Brigadier a general salute?' 'Well, I didn't know it was the Brigadier. Anyway, I was in the middle of changing the guard. If he had waited, he would have had one wouldn't he'. He looked at me like a snake ready to strike but suddenly turned on his heel and disappeared. A short while later a young lieutenant came in. He was not going to be brushed off, he was going to have me hung, drawn and quartered but he too left.
The men thought it was terrific and conjured up all kinds of consequences. Now the Adjutant himself came in demanding to see me. It was just one of those things and I had been fortunate enough to think of the right defensive attitude. I could imagine those upstairs going through massive volumes of Rules and Regulations, but they could find nothing to swat the insignificant lance corporal downstairs with. They lost and I was left in peace. But I was not happy, and found myself staring at that the most important looking oak door again. I picked at the powdery cement between the stones and thought, yes, we did have tools, so it might be possible to scrape the cement away close to the lock and ease a couple of stones out. Carefully we got cracking.
It took about an hour and then the door swung free to reveal it was indeed a large wine cellar. The walls were covered with racks but only a small area carried bottles begrimed and dusty. It could be seen that our footprints marked in the dust on the floor showing the place had not been used for a very long time. The men poured in and grabbed bottles but there was another problem now: how to extract the corks? After some messy digging with a bradawl, it was found easier to chop the top off with a clean blow of an axe. I left them to it whilst changing the guard again. When I came back, my unmerry men, determined to get a free drink at any cost, having found the wine was 'off' tasting of vinegar, were putting sugar in it. They might as well have sucked lemons. No one got drunk however hard they tried, so eventually the stones were put back without trace of the adventure.
After a week of this duty, restlessness set in. I asked Crusty if there was an estaminet near and, if so, permission to use it. Fair enough, he made enquiries and told us there was one only a few hundred yards from the main entrance. We could only go one section at a time and would have to use the exit through the woods at the side of the chateau. Also, no one must be out after 2200 hours. When my section's turn came, I went with them, delegating duties to Pony Moore. It was a large estaminet but not busy. It had a bar billiards table and Clack, one of our quiet ones, played with me. That went well until I went to the bar for more drinks when the door burst open and in poured half a dozen of our battalion. Pointing to me the leader said 'There he is - get him!' I had no time to wonder why, because these fellows, fortunately all shorter than my six foot were lashing out at me whilst I did my best to fend them off. They were not having a lot of luck on account of my long arms but I was not hitting back, I wanted to know what it was all about. It was rather difficult to work up a conversation under the circumstances, especially with one on my back with his arms round my neck. Anyway, I managed to get across that I was of the Pioneer Platoon, H.Q. Company, and they realised it was someone else they were looking for. 'Would I have a drink?' 'Yes, and one for him over there too'. I was staring at Clack who was standing to attention by the billiards table holding his cue at his side like it was a rifle, looking hypnotised. It all happened so quickly he said later, that he was stunned. But if I had looked to be in real trouble, he would have come to my rescue. The others were sitting at tables laughing their heads off. On taking their leave, my assailants informed me that if ever I wanted anyone beaten up, they were 'Y Company' and would be pleased to do it. I was not so sure.
Next evening it was Pony Moore's turn to take his section. Time ran out and there was no sign of them. Worried, I cut through the woods to the side entrance. There they were in a group, drunk as could be. 'Come on you lot, time's up. We don't want any trouble - what are you doing?' I cannot imagine anyone believing what followed. Macey, our rugged but bright amateur bookmaker, swaying and pointing in the general direction behind me, said 'A g-ghost!'. 'Come on, don't muck about, it's past ten and Crusty might come checking'. No way. They assured me that there was a ghost in the woods and they wanted to go around to the front entrance. That was impossible with all the bigshots coming and going, even if our own men on guard turned a blind eye, which they would. It was no good arguing, so I said I would go back and see their ghost for myself and set off.
After about 100 yards, there before me, over 20 foot tall was a most gruesome spectre with arms outstretched as though floating a few feet above the ground. Now although I was brought up a Cockney, my father's origins in the country and shooting holidays there, I knew a little of glow worms and fungus, and although shaken - but sober – I moved closer. It was a luminous disease or fungus up one side of a tree that could not be seen coming from the chateau. I was tickled pink now, but still worried about the time factor, so going back to them I said that they were quite right but it was harmless. In fact I went right up and touched it, nothing to worry about, ‘For Christ's sake come on, NOW!’ The result was ridiculous in the extreme. These fine old sweats who had served on the Indian Frontier and gained honours in sports actually held hands in a row as we followed the paths back until the apparition came into view again. Some wanted to run past whilst others held back, so I had the picture of the seven dwarfs (drunken) in a heap on the ground. We got back and I had to promise not to say anything to the others. I told Crusty later but I'm sure he did not believe me. It was true though, honest.
News came that all units were having a turn in Front of the Maginot line where patrol activity was apparently continuous with some exchanges with German patrols. Our turn came and the whole Battalion moved out and entrained for Metz where we first had the luxury of hot showers at a coal mine, then billeted in a village outside the town. The platoon was allocated a cottage hardly big enough and it soon became apparent that French troops had been billeted there before. The outside lavatory was heaped in excreta and useless. The French had then used the yard starting from the farthest end and using that as a lavatory in rows right up to the back door. The whole place was in a disgusting mess and I had to wonder if those units that had been there before were regularly moved around to fresh pastures like chickens with their chicken runs. It was very unpleasant. We even found the bottom drawer of a wardrobe in the house had been used.
We were taken up to the Maginot Line, from there we marched a couple of miles or so and could see the huge concrete embrasures through the gloom. Eventually we came to a system of slit trenches and were told by our guard that this was where we were to spend the night. We had long since forgotten to see ourselves as fighting soldiers, having been left alone with our tool boxes and decontamination equipment. We had no bren guns, no mortars, just our rifles and 50 rounds apiece. No smoking of course, one or two tried chewing tobacco and consequently felt ill. There was the occasional rattle of small arms fire and the rumble of artillery in the distance that kept us awake staring into the darkness.
Our position was well walled with sandbags and I dug several spent bullets out of those behind my head, also a small piece of shrapnel, which I thought would be a good souvenir to take home. The platoon was withdrawn just as it was getting light without mishap. Thankfully we were not returned to the same cottage, but farther back where the whole H.Q. was established in a huge barn with the different platoons separated by stacking bales of straw into walls about five foot high. It was necessary to stay there for several days whilst all the units had their turn up at the front. We later learnt that two were killed and four wounded in patrol exchanges.
There were estaminets locally, so drinking started again for some whilst the rest of us used our tools to make ourselves low beds with wire netting stretched across supporting a layer of straw to the envy of the other platoons. Smith, who was an electrician in civil life fixed up a light directly over our section and impressed us all by taking a live wire in each hand and joining them together.
The peace that had reigned since the affair with Pony Moore was to be disrupted again. One night after most of us were settled down in our beds, Tich Fortune and his creepy little sidekick Bartlet came in late the worse for drink. They thought it a good idea to turn me over, out onto the floor. I heard Bartlet snigger and that was enough. I liked Tich and detested Bartlet, but there was only one option. In the dark I swung an uppercut with my right fist with all my might and caught Tich full on the jaw. He bellowed like a bull. The lights came on and heads rose above the walls of straw all around. There were full corporals and sergeants there so I had no option but to put Tich on a charge and report the matter to Crusty the next morning. It was a tragedy and, later in the morning I saw Crusty again asking him to withdraw the charge for the sake of good relationship. Especially since Tich had really been hurt and had acknowledged that he had asked for it. No good, the charge went ahead and he was transferred to one of the companies. There was some bitterness over that as might be expected. Despite his rather bullish ways he never threw his weight about and was as much one of the 'gang' as any, but it was Smith, usually so quiet who came to me when I was alone and showed me a bullet with my name scratched on it. I could only advise him to shoot first if he really meant it.
Eventually returning to our old billet near Templeuve the spring weather gave way to the beginnings of a really hot summer. And so it was one day, laying around sunbathing, we heard the noise of an aircraft. All eyes turned upward searching the sky. At first we could see nothing. Suddenly a voice cried 'There they are - look, hundreds of 'em'. Sure enough the sky seemed filled in every direction with tiny silver specks. It was taken for granted that they were our planes, but as discussion continued, bugles sounded and whistles blew. It was the 10th of May, Germany had attacked Holland. We quickly packed up, everything but our valises and my bicycle went on our own truck to somewhere north of Brussels. We formed up on the road, H.Q. in front, and began marching to take over, we understood, from the Dutch and Belgians on the Northern Frontier where a canal was being held, or so we were told. In fact, Jerry was already across.