War Diary

War Diary of Captain Patrick Munro of Foulis

Page 10

The Battalion moves up to the Somme

The long column of buses left in a steady drizzle.  Travelling very slowly through Rouen we saw the preparations - inadequate as they were - the French were making to try and stop the German advance.  The bridges over the river were being sandbagged and hastily prepared for demolition and there were many troops about.  But strangely enough there wasn't as yet any signs of panic and very little movement of refugees. Incidentally, the subsequent speed of the German advance was so great that they didn't have time or neglected to blow these bridges and the Germans found them intact on reaching the town. We travelled some 30 miles by way of Neufchatel to a RV called "Starfish Cross Roads" in the Foret d'Eu.

The Battalion debussed and Companies went off to various 'hides' in the forest to which they had been allotted.  After the men had been fed, a perimeter was formed with all round defence and all the roads were blocked and covered by anti-tank rifles and guns. In the afternoon the CO took the Company commanders in his car another eight miles further north, through the small town of Biangy to a village called Le Translay which we were to occupy next day.  We were each allotted a Company area and spent some time making a reconnaissance of our defensive positions.  The inhabitants of the village were just preparing to leave.  This was not before it was necessary as Germans were reported to be in a village called Huppy only six miles to the west (actually the east).   On returning to our Companies we found that there had been the first of many subsequent (and mostly quite unfounded) scares of enemy parachute landings. Precautions were taken, such as posting watchers at various vantage points but no parachutists were seen.

At 9 pm we marched in darkness and silence to 'Le Translay'.  Having given my orders to platoon commanders - I now as well as having Smith and Shearer had a new one whose name was Grieve, just recently come to France - and got them out to their various positions and started digging.  I went back to my Company HQ which was an uninhabited cottage.  The HQ personnel got down to digging a shell-proof shelter at the back of the cottage.  The village by now had been completely evacuated and it must have been in a big hurry from what I found when I went into some of the cottages. Chaos reigned in most.  In one I found a half-eaten meal still on the table;  in another a kettle boiling on the fire;  and in another - most welcome sight of all - great slabs of freshly made butter sitting on the kitchen table, presumably waiting to be taken to market!  Many animals had been left behind and birds in cages as well as chickens and hens.  All these sights were very pathetic and whenever I got a chance I spent my time letting out caged rabbits and birds, and loosing chained dogs, all of which would otherwise have starved.  There were farm animals like cows and pigs and sheep everywhere;  no effort seemed to have been made to take them away or even destroy them.  This seemed to be the same all over France and must have helped the Germans very considerably in their amazingly rapid advance, when they could live on the country as they went.  We, on the other hand, were not used to these conditions.  Previously everything had to be paid for, or some long process gone into, and we had no experience or training or knowledge of what living on the country meant, while in the back of our minds (anyway of mine) there was always the nasty word "looting".  However, later, as we gained in experience, we learnt perhaps the elements of what living on the country means.
 
Most of the day was spent digging.  One ramshackle old motor car came along the road through my Company position from the direction of our front, during the afternoon.  It was filled to bursting point by some elderly French peasants and their belongings.  We had orders to stop all cars and examine their passes.  This I did.  They were all (simultaneously) very voluble indeed and screaming and weeping and saying "Les salles Bosche" etc etc and appeared to be quite genuine French men and women, and produced what looked like an adequate pass signed by the Mayor of their local town. However, to make sure, I rang up Bn. HQ and asked Andre Jourde to come down and give them a look over and OK them and their passes, and said to him the whole set-up seemed quite genuine, but that he really couldn't tell any more than I could.  However, we let things go on.  But it was a trouble that was, from now on, to be continually recurring.  How could one tell which were genuine Frenchmen and which were Bosch fifth columnists?  In ninety-nine cars out of a hundred it was impossible to say.  Papers and passports can be easily forged and so can plausible stories.  Add to this the fact that a harasssed Company Commander has enough of his own business to think about, and hasn't possibly time to question every civilian he comes across, and certainly can't send them all under escort to the Bn. interpreter to be questioned.  It can perhaps be seen from the above that the Germans had a very great advantage over the Allies in France and an immensely strong weapon against which we were virtually unable to take any effective measures - admittedly owing mainly to complete neglect by the French.

Soon after this incident a large British tank came rumbling along the road.  It was a cheering sight as it was the first we had seen for a very long time, and I was beginning to wonder if we had any in France at all !  I forget what regiment it belonged to.  The occupants, two NCOs, seemed very cheerful but were almost as ignorant of the general situation as we were, but assured us that we were holding the Bosch in front and even pushing them back in some places.  However, they were completely vague as to place, name and details!   Orders came that evening to the effect that the 2nd Seaforths were relieving us the following morning.  We spent an uneventful night and the next morning Jack Walford arrived with some of his Company and took over my positions.  Having done this, I motored up the road to a place called Grebault-Mesnil where I met the CO and did another reconnaissance of my new Company positions.  While walking along the road with the CO a French Army lorry passed us and then stopped.  They had four or five German prisoners in the back who they were enormously proud of.  They were the first Germans I had seen.  They were all wounded and looked very dirty and exhausted and rather frightened.  We gave one some cigarettes which he seemed to want badly and he seemed surprisingly grateful !

There were still civilians in this village - although not many - who in spite of the fact that there was a lot of firing going on all round, and what sounded like a major battle on our right front, appeared to have no intention of moving!  The Companies filtered up during the course of the afternoon and the same drill was repeated again of giving out my orders and getting the platoons down to digging their positions and building anti-tank obstacles with farm implements, gates, or out of any old junk they could lay their hands on.  I got quite a good house for my Company HQ and, having got all the Company transport tucked away under cover from air attack in the orchard, Campbell (my cook), Barkley and Macdonald (my driver) got things going and produced a good meal.  On the whole, that night (30/31st May) was fairly quiet.  The Company was now "standing to" at dusk and "standing down" at dawn as there appeared to be no enemy activity within three miles and there were French troops in front of us still.

The following morning some of us went to a nearby village called Huppy with the CO for a conference.  The French Commander was General de Gaulle who no one then attached much importandce to.  He was wearing a very tattered uniform and looked extremely tired.  He had only recently been promoted and was still wearing Lieut. Colonel's badges of rank on his sleeve.  He appeared to us then as a man of outstanding character with a complete grasp of the situation and, although full of confidence, was not too over-confident.  He was cheerful and optimistic, which at this time was the exact opposite of the majority of French officers.  None of us realised then that this man was suddenly to rise to fame some three weeks later as the leader of the Free French Forces!  All this time we were under command of a French Corps and the Division took its orders from the French.  De Gaulle explained at this conference that the French were holding a line roughly between the villages of Moyennevile and Bienfait, a mile or so in front of us.  He said that the French were going to attack with tanks, crossing the line at 1800 hours that evening.  He gave orders that the 4th Seaforths were to stand by and support the remaining French in repelling a German counter-attack should the tank attack fail.  We left de Gaulle's headquarters and went on to the village of Behen which the Battalion was to occupy that afternoon.  Just as we were completing our reconnaissances the Germans began shelling the village and outskirts.  Some came unpleasantly close and we saw some civilians have a remarkable escape.  A man and woman were pushing a pram along the road heading out of the village when the shelling started.  They made a dive for a large haystack by the side of the road.  Two minutes later a shell landed very close to the stack and set it on fire.  Miraculously, out of the flames and smoke the man, woman, and child in the pram emerged unhurt and hurried on down the road!  The Companies arrived up and I led mine off to our new positions.

My Company position was in a small wood in the grounds of a large chateau on the edge of the village.  The Germans had occupied this village some days before but had been driven out of it by the French.  They must have used this chateau as an HQ of sorts as it had been recently occupied and there were signs of a meal lying about in one room and a lot of broken wine glasses.  Just outside the front door two Germans had been buried and small wooden crosses put over their graves on which their tin hats were sitting.  Because of this I didn't think it was a very healthy place to have my Company HQ, as if the Germans had an HQ in the chateau they would probably think we should do the same and shell it on this supposition.  So I decided to steer clear of it and accordingly dug my headquarters position in the wood not far from from the platoons.

During these days it was most wonderful weather and the country was looking its very best. We took it all so much for granted, I suppose, because we were so occuped and had so many things to think about.  But the few moments I was able to switch my mind off my immediate worries, the loveliness of the surrounding countryside brought it home to me so forceably how useless and futile war was.  I spent the afternoon walking round my platoon positions.  The Jocks were all in excellent form and really putting their backs into it and digging their positions well.  It was a disheartening task which had been going on for a week or so, digging positions - always in a hurry - and as soon as they had been completed orders would come for us to move again, and the same process would be repeated at the next place.  However, at present we were at least going in the right direction - forward - whereas, later, it was the same process only in a different direction - backwards - which was disheartening to say the least of it.

About 4 pm I went over to see Simon Fraser, who was on my right.  I had a cup of tea with him with a "cinder" in it, as he always called it, and a hunk of excellent Dundee cake which I thoroughly enjoyed.  Suddently there was a terrific explosion just outside, and we rushed out to find that a shell had landed on, and more or less demolished, the next door house.  On reviewing the situation, we decided that it was only an odd one and decided to take a chance and go on living in his house.  We proved to be right as no more arrived in that particular area while we were there.

At 1800 hours the French tanks and infantry attack started.  We had a pretty good view of it as our positions were roughly along their 'start line'.  From the beginning it seemed doomed to failure and appeared very half-hearted.  The Germans evidently had a fairly strong tank defence as several French tanks were very soon knocked out and left blazing by their crews.  When darkness fell a long, disorganised stream of French soldiers started coming back through our lines, repeating the slogan which from now onwards we were to hear all too often, "Toute est perdu"!  The few surviving tanks limped through every now and then.  The only information they could give us was that the attack had been a complete failure, that all their officers had been killed and that the Germans would be arriving any moment now!  Not very encouraging news but we knew that most of it was probably untrue.  They were an unhappy sight and there was an atmosphere of complete despair amongst them.  Many of them obviously had only one intention on their minds and that was to get out of it and away as soon as possible.  They certainly appeared to have no officers and any form of discipline had long since disappeared, and it was every man for himself.  We expected a counter-attack now.  The CO sent Douglas Scott with a patrol to the village of Moyenneville , some two miles up the road, to try and get some information as to what was happening in front.  A French officer then appeared at BN. HQ saying that he had had orders from his Brigadier at Moyenneville to collect as many of these stragglers and bring them back.  This he proceeded to do and eventually got a hold of about 100 and took them up to Moyenneville.  Our MO by now was having a pretty busy time at Bn. HQ which was becoming more and more full of wounded Frenchmen.


Continued in page 11
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