War Diary

War Diary of Captain Patrick Munro of Foulis

Page 5

Wingles Again

On arriving back at Wingles again we found that the REs had done a certain amount to make our billets in the factory more comfortable, although we didn't get half what we had asked for but we weren't surprised!  They had put in water and built some sheds for the cookhouses which had previously been in the engine room of the factory.

I had a different billet this time in a house just across the road from the factory, which was much the same as the one I had before.  The Madame who owned it wasn't so effusive as the first one, which was a blessing.  The household consisted of Madame, a daughter of about 18 who worked in a tailor's shop in the next village (conscripted for making uniforms) and Monsieur who I hardly ever saw as he was on a night shift in a local factory and slept most of the day.  I also managed to get a new Company office across the road from the factory.  Previously I used the sort of pay box of the factory, which was a wooden erection with glass windows all round which stood in the middle of the factory and looked rather like a signal box!
 
We found on our return that our chief job now was to be digging an anti-tank ditch just outside Lille.

Each Company took it in turns to do three days a week at this job.  We started at about 8am every morning in the Battalion transport and had to motor about 12 miles.  We took dinners out with us and stopped work about 4pm.  Each Company had a length of ditch to dig, and so it became competitive as to who dug the most, which also helped to keep their interest in it.  We had two or three REs with us who were supposed to show us what to do, but if anything they knew rather less about it than we did and eventually I got most of it out of the book!  The remaining three days of the week we did some mild training but as the countrysides were nothing but a mass of coal mines, this wasn't very easy!

One day I fixed up to have a route march over to George's (Chamier) Bn. at Camphin and George promised to produce dinners for the Jocks and arrange a football match afterwards with his men, but something happened and it fell through in the end.

While we were at Wingles the Divisional concert party came over and gave a show once or twice and were really extraordinarily good and the Jocks always enjoyed them.

Simon and Rory and I motored over to Bethune one evening, which wasn't far from us, and had our hair cut and did some shopping and dined in the hotel there.  It was rather an attractive old town but had been rather battered in the last war.  (I remember there had been a certain amount of damage done by bombing when we marched through it again as prisoners.)

Another evening I took my truck over and saw George and we went on to Lille in his large and comfortable limousine and dined.  We took their doctor and George's friend Paul, their French liaison officer.  This time he took me to a new bar, not far from the Carlton, which was pleasanter as it wasn't so noisy and had not so many people in it. We went on and dined at "Chez Andre" again.  George took me into the kitchens at the back before dinner and introduced me to various bodies who worked in the back regions who were delighted to see him!

Another place we used to dine at was the Gourmet sans Chiquet (I don't know whether this is spelt right) which was a very nice little place.  It apparently wasn't well known by the BEF as it was always full of French people and very few British officers dined there - which was a pleasant change from the normal crowd of them one met everywhere. Here again one got an excellent dinner.  I wish I could remember some of the dishes we had there.  Andre Jourde and I used to go there a lot afterwards.

Lille itself was an attractive town with some very good shops in it.  La Rue Nationale was the main street and I remember there was a most excellent chocolate shop in it - one of the Despaul Havez shops.  Rows and rows and rows of every concerivable kind of chocolate were laid out on glass slabs.  You bought your box at whatever price you wished (anything from 50 to 250 or 300 francs) and then chose the chocs you wanted put in it.  They had most attractive boxes - hand painted etc - and I sent several home. One afternoon Andre and RAAS and David Murray and I went in to a shop to ask the way.  RAAS and David, who were wearing kilts, waited for us outside on the pavement. When we came out about three minutes later, we found a complete blockage outside the shop door and a large crowd of about 40 people, in the centre of which stood RAAS and David looking rather embarrassed - their kilts being the attraction!

The days were by quite uneventfully really at Wingles and there is nothing much to report about our doings here during our second visit.

Here again, as in all the places we went, the Jocks were very popular and got on well with the local inhabitants.  Somehow the French and Scots seem to be more akin than the French and English.  When we arrived in Wingles we found that British troops had rather a bad name there.  A certain English regular battalion had been there before us and I think must have broken the place up, or had made a nuisance of themselves in some way - anyway they had not been popular.

One Saturday, our Battalion football team played a team of local miners, which was a great success.  I wasn't present but was told afterwards that a Corporal in my Company, who was captain of the team, was most surprised when at the beginning of the game and at the end he was embraced on both cheeks by the opposing captain!

We had a group photograph taken of all the officers in the Battalion one Sunday after Church parade.  It was the only photograph we ever had taken when we were all together and I wish I had a copy of it.  I lost both my copies later when I had to abandon my 8 cwt truck to the Bosch when we were retiring after the attack on the Somme.

Finally, after being at Wingles for about three weeks in all, we received orders one day to move to Bailleul on the frontier, about 29 kilometres west of Lille.  We left Wingles on a vile, cold morning with sleet coming down and a gale blowing, again in MT.

Bailleul

This journey was one of the coldest and most unpleasant I have ever experienced.  The sleet slowly turned to snow and, with the gale that was blowing, it came in through the front of my truck horizontally.  "Boots" Macdonald and I were frozen stiff by the time we arrived at Bailleul, as you have practically no protection at all in an 8 cwt - added to which the windscreen wiper wouldn't work.  However, it cleared up a bit on arrival.

We had been here before as, when we were at Lieres, we had been all set to relieve a French battalion and had come up and done a reconnaissance in February.  So we knew something about the place and what we were coming to.

One again, my Company and Simon's were in billets next door to each other and we also shared an Officers' Mess.  I was allotted barns in three farms about a mile or so outside the town, all close to each other.  They looked rather dismal at first sight, especially after it had been snowing and sleeting. However, by now we were quite good at making ourselves as comfortable as possible.

We had sent an advance party on ahead from the Battalion to get things ready for us, and it was just as well that we did.  The filth and dirt left behind by the French Battalion who we relieved was indescribable, I believe.  However, our advance party had done splendid work and managed to clean most if it up by the time we arrived.

[I find it very difficult to write coherently at the moment as there are two Gordon Highlander officers giving each other a lesson in Japanese, sitting by my elbow at the same table!!]

Although we were quite close to Bailleul, which was a fairly big town, we were completely in the country and surrounded by green fields, which was a nice change from Wingles.  The owners of the farms were nice people and out to help as much as they could.

I got the men settled into their billets that afternoon as best we could, and decided to wait till tomorrow until we sorted them out into Platoons.  The next day I put one Platoon into each farm which gave them all plenty of room.  We managed to get lots of straw from the farmers and jammed up all the draughty cracks in the floor with sacks of grain and on the whole most of them were fairly comfortable.

My own billet was about half a mile up the road in a small house belonging to a Douanier and his wife.  I had quite a nice room separated from their kitchen by a glass and wood partition.  They were a nice pair and very kind.  She always made my breakfast for me in the mornings which saved me going about two miles to the Mess.  My 8 cwt truck came up from the men's billets each morning at 8.15 and collected me.  I didn't see much of the Douanier as he had to go out to his work at strange hours of the day and night.  It is odd to think of it now they they were both quite sure that Hitler would never invade Belgium and felt quite secure there!  Simon Fraser lived just across the road from me with some very nice people and I used to go in occasionally and see them.  Our Mess was about a mile away from the men's billets and was situated in another farm.  The owners were half-Flemish and consisted of six old men, each older than the last, and two women.  It was rather an attractive farm with big buildings and a sort of moat all around it.  They gave us their dining room to feed in and a small room off it where we could cook.  David Murray and Hec Mackenzie lived here also.  We had the same staff as before - Campbell to cook and Barclay as waiter.  On the whole I think we fed fairly well at Bailleul as there were quite good shops in the town and we could get eggs and milk and butter from the farm.

One Company was always on frontier duty, which meant that they lived in billets actually on the frontier which was some two miles from the town.  Each Company took it in turns to do this job for eight days and were then relieved by another Company.  The remainder worked on the defences which had been started by the French who we had taken over from.  They were all very slipshod and most of what they had done in the way of trenches etc had fallen in with the frost and thaw and we had to dig them all out again and revet them.  However, it was interesting work and we all enjoyed it.  My Company's particular job was rebuilding a communication trench which the French had started and which had fallen in.  The mud or, rather, clay was incredible and in some parts it was almost impossible to work.  In places you sank up to your knees and it was just like trying to dig a trench in syrup!  However, when dry weather came it was a bit easier.  We managed to finish the job before we left for the Saar and were very proud of it as it was really well made - so much so that the farmer on whose land it was must have had a devil of a job dismantling it and filling it in again after the war in France was over!

My Company never did a turn of duty on the frontier as we left before our turn came round.

The remainder of the Battalion were billeted in the town of Bailleul.  The Battalion orderly room was in the main street (Rue de Lille) and HQ officers' mess quite close.

Soon after we got to Bailleul and 2nd Seaforths arrived and came into 152 Brigade, and the 6th Seaforths left and went to the Brigade that the 2nd Battalion was in.  This was done for some reason throughout the whole Division - there was a Regular Battalion put into each Brigade which meant two Territorial and one Regular Battalion in each Brigade.  It is interesting to note here that, in the opinion of the Staff and in fact most people, the Territorial Battalions (with one exception!) were considered far better than the Regular Battalions.  It was nice having the 2nd Battalion with us as I saw a lot of old friends and Phip (Philip Mitford) and Colin Mackenzie (Farr) were with them.  Phip took over Adjutant of the 2nd from Rory Horne soon after they got to Bailleul.  We usually had combined Church Services etc with them so as the Jocks got to know each other, and of course we had quite a few ex-Regulars with us.

To go back to our billets in the farms.  I got the farmer to let me have one of his fields and we got a football ground going, which the Jocks enjoyed playing on, in the afternoons after work.  We built a wonderful range in the cookhouse out of bricks and clay which proved a great success and helped a lot in the feeding.  Fortunately the weather was lovely most of the time we were here, with only an occasional wet day here and there. Soldiering in France was still more or less like peacetime soldiering except for odd duties like frontier guards.  We had to supply guards for outside the Orderly Room and they had to be just as well turned out as at home.

The town of Bailleul was rather fine in its way.  It was knocked about pretty badly during the last War and most of the public buildings were new.  It had a very fine Town Hall which I think was built with funds collected in Huddersfield under the scheme started after the War when British towns undertook to help rebuild French towns that had been badly damaged.  The Town Hall overlooked a very fine square of an area of about eight acres.  I remember one day the Highland Division massed pipes and drums played Retreat in the square.  I and some others watched from the tower of the Town Hall and it was a fine sight.  The last time the Divisional massed pipes had played was at Aldershot for the Canadians. There were various big noises present when they played at Bailleul, including our Corps Commander, Sir Ronald Adam, Bt., and a French Army Commander.  One lovely afternoon, having nothing to do, Hec and John Anderson and I hired a taxi and went over to Dunkirk which was about 30 kilometres drive.

It was a perfectly glorious day with real hot sun.  On our way we stopped at Cassel, from where Foch directed one of the major battles (can't remember which) of the last War. Cassel is built on a hill - the only hill for miles - standing in the middle of a vast, flat plain. There is a kind of Barracks built at the very top of the hill with a statue of Foch (same as the one outside Victoria Station) in front of it.  You get the most magnificent view from this hill and can see far into Belgium on one side and far across France on the other. We actually saw the Canadian War Memorial at Vimy some 80 kilometres away.

After this we went on to Dunkirk.  Little did we think when we were there that, in only about two months' time, most of the BEF would be evacuated from that small port!  It was a lovely beach with miles and miles of sand along the top of which runs a boulevard with cafes, shops etc on it.  We went for a long walk on the beach for about three hours and then wandered along the front and had one or two 'aperitifs' before dinner.  While we were walking along the front (we were wearing kilts), two small boys, aged about 4, rushed out of a house and ran up to us and, after a pause and scratching of heads, said simultaneously, "Can you give me a badge, please" very slowly - they were both wearing glengarry bonnets much too big for them!  We looked inside the bonnets and saw that they had been bought at 'Scotch House' in Knightsbridge!  We said we were very sorry but we only had one each, and they looked very crestfallen!  Their Ma and Pa were looking out of their sitting room window and had obviously instructed them what to say, and were much amused!
 
We tried to find a decent restaurant where we could have dinner and eventually went into one where we made friends with a Frenchman.  He took us along to an English bar run by an ex-British soldier where we found a most peculiar collection of people, amongst whom were four British Merchant Captains, a Lieutenant RN, and some French civilians.  We drank champagne cocktails there for a bit and then all went back and had quite a grand dinner at the Hotel du Gare.  After a lot of argument, our French friend persuaded us to go back to what he called his 'batchelor flat'!  We weren't very keen, however, but eventually said we would go for half on hour.  We found that it was his mother's flat which he now inhabited by himself.  He made us drink more champagne and we eventually left at about 11 pm and got back to Bailleul at midnight.

Most of our time was quiet and uneventful at Bailleul and there is little of interest to report as we did nothing much other than our daily routine work.

The famous Foret de Nieppe was only about eight kilometres away.  One day, Simon Fraser and I went over for a Sunday afternoon walk.  It really was the most beautiful wood I've ever seen.  I don't know what size it was but it was a pretty big green blob on the map and must have been about 3 miles by 7 long.  At that time (in early April) it was one mass of primroses, violets, vetches and a dozen other kinds of wild flowers.  They grew so thick (most of the trees being quite young) that it was just like a carpet of flowers.  It was another glorious afternoon and, even hot walking with our coats off, I don't think I have enjoyed these few hours so much since we left England.  We had seen very few woods since coming to France and it was such a complete change of scenery, the birds singing as hard as they could, and everything so peaceful and quiet.  Alas, the next time I heard of the Foret de Nieppe was when I reached here.  I was told by an officer who had been there just before the BEF were evacuated that there had been heavy fighting in the woods and that parts of it had been set on fire by incendiary bombs - which seemed so sad.  I remember we came back after a most delightful walk and had our whisky and soda before supper, sitting outside the Mess in the evening sun.

Simon and I went into Lille for a bath and dinner several times and always had a very pleasant evening.  And Andre Jourde and I went in once or twice on shopping expeditions.  He was such a nice companion to have as he loved doing anything and got quite excited about going to Lille and was so enthusiastic about everything!  I dined once or twice while with the 2nd Battalion and some of them often came down and dined in our Mess.  We found that the longer we stayed at Bailleul the nicer the owners of our billets became, and after we had made friends with them they were always most helpful.  One rather formidable old Madame, who owned the farm where I had my Company HQ office and a Platoon, gave a bit of trouble once as she swore she looked out of her bedroom window one night and saw two Jocks cooking one of her chickens over a fire!  However, on investigation, we discovered no traces whatever of feathers and they all swore black and blue that they hadn't eaten her hen!  There was, however, a great temptation for them to do so, as she had dozens of chickens which wandered about everywhere and laid their eggs in most strange places.  More than once, on getting into my 8cwt truck, there were squawks and two of three old hens leapt out of the back having deposited their eggs there.  One day I actually sat on an egg that had been laid on the driving seat!  So it was rather much to expect the transport drivers to return eggs that had been laid in the trucks!  At the same time, at this particular farm, they did a roaring trade with the Jocks by selling them egg and bacon sandwiches at 9 francs (it certainly didn't cost more than 2 frances to produce!) and a mug of beer.

Looking back over these days, although the memory of them is fading pretty quickly in this place, it all seems years ago.  I think we all enjoyed life and really had a very comfortable existence.

Then one day the scare came that Hitler was about to invade Belgium and we were all put on three hours' notice to move.  We got packed up and had all the trucks loaded and were prepared to cross the frontier at any moment.  We were told that we had to be prepared for at least a 30 kilometre march with little or no chance of food or sleep - which rather shook us!  However, after three or four days it all calmed down, and when we left for Metz everything appeared calm. 

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