War Diary

War Diary of Captain Patrick Munro of Foulis

Page 4

First Tour on the Belgian Frontier

We had been on one or two preliminary reconnaissance visits to Leers before, so knew more or less what to expect.  Our chief duties were to watch the frontier there, mainly with a view to stopping smuggling.  My Company  took over these duties first, which employed most of the men in my Company, as we had to supply three guards, each of which did 24 hours on.  It was much the same sort of place as Wingles, only instead of coal mines there were various kinds of factories and works scattered about.  Roubaix, which is the sort of Manchester of France, was only about five miles away.

Again we were fairly well scattered, each Company being given their own area.  In my case the men were billeted in some evacuated and very derelict houses which had been left in a pretty bad state by a Bn. of the East Surreys who we took over from. However, we managed to get things sorted out, and in the end I think we were more comfortable than at Wingles.  By this time we were getting pretty good at improvising and managed to build quite a good brick oven in the cookhouse in order to get a change of diet from eternal stews which the men had ("SOS" they always called it - "same old stew").  My office was next door to the billets and there was quite a good park for the transport.  One great boon, the men had wirelesses but they were never very satisfactory and too weak to get English stations which the Bosch jammed most of the day.  The ones they had here were good sets left behind by the East Surreys and were run off the electric light.  We paid 60 francs a week for each, which came to very little when split amongst the Company.  Again, we shared a Mess with "B" Company officers, and here we were very fortunate in getting hold of a very modern villa, the owners of which had evacuated it.  It had all modern conveniences and was extremely well furnished and had a bathroom.  However, there was a snag about the bathroom as the water was heated by gas which you bought in cylinders.  Try as we might we couldn't get any of these so had to improvise and boil petrol cans and kettles etc up on the kitchen range for baths. The house consisted of three good bedrooms, which Simon, Hec and I had, two small rooms upstairs for the cook and our batmen, a basin with running water on the landing upstairs, kitchenette and scullery and dining room and sitting room in one downstairs. All were extremely well furnished and itwas a joy to have really comfortable armchairs to sit in again.  We also had an extremely good radio gramophone left by the East Surreys which we hired from a local firm.  We had Ralph Campbell, one of my Company cooks (who was later killed), to cook for us, as he did at Wingles, and he cooked extremely well;  and three batmen to do the housework and waiting at meals.  Davie looked after the feeding and did it very well.  So on the whole we were lucky and spent a very comfortable week or so living in our villa.  The caretaker lived in a house just across the road and produced everything for us in the way of plate and linen and cooking utensils and also did our washing and sold us eggs and vegetables.  We discovered that there was quite a good cellar in the house and managed to purchase wine from the housekeeper as and when we required it, which was useful.

To go back to the Frontier duties.  I think the Jocks rather enjoyed it on the whole as they had to prowl about at night and try to catch these smugglers - however they were never successful.  Most of it was done with dogs, I believe, and pretty successfully.  There were a few Douaniers at various points and they led a patrol of Jocks out each night.  Hector Mackenzie (Yon's son), who was now a subaltern in my Company, took a great delight in crawling about in ditches all night trying to catch a smuggler and we used to pull his leg about it.  Another thing he was good at was eating!  I've never seen anyone with such an appetite!  It was quite incredible the amount of food he consumed and it was a source of continual amusement to all of us.

When we had finished our tour of duty on frontier guard, most of the time was spent in finding work parties for the Royal Engineers who were busy digging an anti-tank ditch and building block houses.  Little did we realise that all our efforts were wasted as I don't think any of them were ever used.  We had to do a certain amount of work on the defences ourselves, on our Company positions which we were to take up in the then unlikely event of a German invasion of Belgium.  However, this was most unsatisfactory as it was chiefly loop holing houses etc and the owners naturally objected to having a hole made in the wall of their bedroom and the whole house filled with sandbags and wood!   If they objected - as they invariably did, not unnaturally - if the house was to be occupied, all one could do was to put it down on paper that such and such a job would be done in the event of a German invasion of Belgium - and the thing became a farce. We apparently had no powers at all to compel people to clear out of their houses. Thinking back on it now, and many, many other similar cases which we were later to come across, it all goes to make one realise that the French didn't really take the War seriously at all OR had no intention of putting up any kind of fight for it if war did come. However, we played about with the places we were allowed to work on and the men gained a certain amount of experience and learned something about making defences.

There was a Brigade of Guards in the village next door to us and we occasionally saw some of them.  I remember seeing the Duke of Gloucester walking about in the streets quite often and I think he must have been living with them.  We saw our first Bosch aeroplane while we were at Leers.  He came over from the direction of Belgium one bright sunny afternoon, quite low down, but there didn't appear to be any AA guns in our vicinity as no one took much notice of him, although the air raid warning did go.  I heard one coming over in the early hours of the morning and the Belgians had several cracks at him on his way back to Germany.

One day, it was announced that we were to take part in an exercise.  As the Brigade who we relieved had been in the area since the outbreak of War, it looked to us suspiciously like us having to "hold the baby" for them and that their Divisional Commander whose Division we were temporarily in apparently didn't think they were capable of doing it - if they had they would certainly have carried it out before this!  It was the first bit of higher training we had done since Mobilization and so was an experience for the Jocks.

It started abour 4pm one day and ended at 8am two days later.  For me it meant about 48 hours with little or no sleep.  Where it was possible, the platoons occupied the actual positions they would have done in the event of Germany invading Belgium.  I say where possible as many of the trenches were 3 or 4ft deep with water owing to the thaw and rain and, as I said before, many of the positions were merely marked on paper and no work had been begun on them.  I found a room in a small farmhouse which I used as my headquarters which was fairly comfortable.  They were a family of husband and wife, two sons aged 11 and 14, two flapper daughters and a small one of about 4 or 5.  The latter had an amazing resemblance fo CGM [Gillian "Gosh" Mitford to whom PGM was engaged for a time and who later married Dick Troughton] so much so that I showed Madame the photograph I had of her at about that age and she was astonished!  They were awfully kind and, although we had our own food, insisted on giving us coffee and rum at various hours of the day and night, which was very pleasant as it poured with rain most of the time during the exercise.  Harry came round and saw us once or twice, accompanied by various Staff Officers and Generals amongst whom was the Duke of Gloucester, but I was sound asleep when they arrived about 3am so they merely looked in, saw me snoriing on the floor and walked out again!  The whole thing appeared to go fairly well and apart from what I have related was uneventful.

Once of twice we went into Lille for the evening which was only about 12 miles away. One evening Simon, George Baird, Charles Shand and I hired a taxi and proceeded in the direction of Lille at breakneck speed.  It was a very cold night and I was jammed in on the back seat, and as there was a fearful fug inside you could not see out of any of the windows at all - how the driver saw anything I can't think.  We eventually stopped in what we thought was a traffic block in Lille with rows of cars either side.  By way of conversation we asked the driver where he was going until we had dined and were ready to go home again and he said "Je reste ici".  We thought the remark odd in the middle of a traffic block but sat back and waited for the traffic to move on again.  Nothing happened for five minutes and again he said "Je reste ici" - again we waited for the traffic to move on and again we remained stationary.  After about 10 minutes of this we got fed up and said we would get out and walk.  We got out to find that we had been sitting in a car park the whole time and not a traffic block!  It doesn't seem very funny written like this but we nearly burst ourselves laughing about it at the time - I think the driver thought we were quite mad!  We always started off our evenings at Lille in the cocktail bar called "The Miami" in the Carlton Hotel.  It was rather an amusing place as you saw represented there officers of practically every regiment in the BEF and many French regiments.  It was very similar to any London cocktail bar except that you could only drink champagne cocktails or straight champagne.  It was decorated with very clever caricatures of Hitler, Goering, Goebbels and the rest of them!  One nearly always met someone one knew and usually found some of the 2nd Bn. there, as they were billeted at Halloin just outside Lille.  The basement of the hotel was got up as a nightclub and I think it was supposed to be a copy of the Florida in London.  It opened about 6pm and there was a bar at one end and a band (who were extraordinarily good) at the other end and dance floor in the middle.  One saw some odd sights there in the shape of officers dancing with local Lillian ladies!  It would have proved a goldmine for a blackmailer!  Drinks on the whole were extraordinarily cheap there, champagne being about the cheapest of them - and some people were quiote happy, to say the least of it, by the end of the evening - although I never saw anyone drunk, I'm glad to say, as of course everyone (French and British) were wearing uniform.  However, one did get an idea of how very odd some of the Belisha officers were in the BEF!
 
As far as I can remember this particular night that I am talking about, we went on to dine at a very popular restaurant called "Chez Andre" where one got a most excellent dinner. It was kept by Madame ? and her husband, who was the chef.  If you stayed late enough he used to appear out of the back regions in his chef's hat and if you happened to be with a friend of his he always called for a bottle of champagne before you left!

One rather interesting thing about this restaurant was that the walls were completely covered with drawings and sketches of all kinds - some very good, some very bad.  I believe that the origin of it was that in the old days it was frequented by French artists a lot, most of whom couldn't pay their bill, so instead they presented the proprietor with one of their works!  They had the most superb lobster and langouste there which Simon and I always had, washed down by a very good vintage white wine they gave you with it It was such a treat being able to have a different wine with each course which one can seldom afford in England!

After dining well (but wisely!) we went on to a nightclub, the name of which I can't remember.  This wasn't very amusing as it was packed with officers and you could cut the atmosphere with a knife!  The cabaret consisted of three or four rather plump females, wearing little or nothing, disporting themselves on the dance floor - they didn't dance very well at that!  I remember I nearly set one of them on fire that night!  The bar of the place was at one end in an alcove up some steps and we happened to be propping it up when the girls appeared through a door at the back and stood by us waiting for their turn in the cabaret.  About all they were wearing was a transparent filmy gauze veil over their shoulders which hung down to their feet.  In the crush my cignarette caught one of these and I thought there was rather an odd smell, when I suddenly saw a smouldering hole in the veil, just about to burst into flames!  However, some humourist standing near me saw it first and proceeded to play a soda syphon on the unfortunate girl and all was well!

We didn't stay long as the heat was appalling, so we collected our taxi.  Fokrtunately the driver appeared sober (which didn't always happen when we hired a taxi!) and we set off home.

Altogether we were at Leers about 10 days;  it was a change if nothing else.  We returned to Wingles by MT again.

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