No. 7925934. Sgt. Greenwood, R.T.
9th Battn. R.T.R.
Jess, my darling: I was thankful to receive three letters today. I had not heard from you for a few days… and whilst I knew there was nothing to worry about, I do hate these gaps in your letters. But I mustn’t complain: you too have to endure days on end without word from me… with the added anxiety of not knowing whether anything has happened to me. And my letters are much more infrequent than yours… much more.
I have said that I knew there was nothing to worry about at home… but had I known the truth I would have been far from complaisant. The news of the fire in the dining room gave me a scare. How lucky I am! It could easily have been far more disastrous: I hate to think of the possibilities. You must have gone through moments of agony before you discovered the extent of the damage. It is bad enough in all conscience… but it could have been worse, couldn’t it Jess. Little Barry… Thank goodness he was safely parked in the doorway. I am so thankful Jess… neither of you are any the worse, and nothing else really matters. The fire has caused you a lot of extra work my dear… and that is probably its worst feature. You will have all the bother too with insurance and extra clothing coupons. I know you will manage everything with your usual thoroughness, but I would rather you could be spared so much additional bother.
This incident seems to be another instance of the strange parallelism which has featured so often in our lives. I, too, have recently been involved in a fire… but have I told you about it? I cannot remember, dear: there are so few things I can say, and so many I can’t, especially of recent occurrence, that my mind becomes hazy. However, I will tell you about what happened… at the risk of repeating myself… and of being censored! You will know that I am not trying to outdo your story…
Your fire occurred on Monday Nov 13th… mine occurred on Sat. 4.11.44. We were billeted in a school… a tall, rambling sort of place. The sergeants room was on the first floor, and the rest of the men were on the floor above… high up in the ‘rafters’. On the Sat morning, we had been warned to prepare to remove to another school… better billets… first thing after lunch. And so, at 2.0 O/c, all bedding rolls were tied up, and practically all personal belongings had been stowed away in valises, kit bags etc. And then the fire started -!!
I was in the sergeants’ room on the first floor and noticed a smell of burning: about the same time somebody said “is the bloody place on fire?” It certainly smelled like it. I rushed out and down the main stairway… and there, in the large hall to the right, on the ground floor, I noticed great tongues of flame leaping to the ceiling, and a tremendous amount of heavy black smoke. Breathing was difficult, and I used a hanky to gag myself. this was a real fire and no mistake… but why on earth hadn’t someone warned us? I was able to rush back up the stairs and up to the second floor where most of the tank crews were making final preparations for the removal.
By now, some smoke had reached this lofty second floor, and so my fire warning was believed immediately, and most of the fellows chased down the stairs. I went back to the lower floor, the 1st, and found the fire now engulfing the main stairway: it was impossible to get through the mass of smoke and flames… but luckily most of the lads seemed to have got out. The sergeants room was by now a dense mass of smoke, the absence of glass in the doors and windows making it impossible to seal off any room… but there was fresh air by the windows. I hung out my head, and remained there until I recovered my wits. Down below, in the grounds at the front of the school, were several of my colleagues asking for their kit to be chucked from the window. I started to heave the stuff from the windows: bedding rolls, valises, kit bags, haversacks… piles of the stuff went sailing down, into the mud beneath… my own kit included. I was now joined by a sergeant from H.Q., and a trooper: Heaven knows where they came from: the latter seemed utterly lost and was seeking a way down. We quickly tied together some blankets and the lad slid down safely to earth.
And now the sergeants room was clear of kit. I went upstairs again… groping my way, hanky over face, through the now dense black smoke. I found one of our officers up there, Mr. Lilly: his presence was a mystery, but there was no time for questions. He had a couple of helpers, and they were passing stuff down to earth via a rear window. There was a great mass of stuff… including mens’ kit, bedding, food boxes, cookers, water cans etc: all the paraphernalia of the fighting members of the squadron, in fact. We got rid of practically all of it… the smoke meanwhile becoming less dense. The wind had obligingly shifted, and was now blowing the fire away, instead of towards, our wing of the school. I went down again to the main stairway, but it was impassable. A few more fellows escaped via blanket ‘ropes’, and then someone appeared with a long ladder. This helped us to get rid of the remainder of the kit.
God! It was hot work: Mr. Lilly’s face was black… and has eyes red and inflamed with the smoke: we sweated like niggers. the civilian fire engine now arrived, and water was soon being poured into the building: fortunately the water supply had not been destroyed by the Germans… and the hydrants were working. Well… I suppose it took a good hour to clear the kit, and by that time the entire Battalion staff had appeared outside… The fire too now seemed to be under control.
I went again to the main stairway and managed to get past the flames: they were now in check, thanks to the hoses. Outside I was amazed to learn that there had been some casualties. Apparently some of the men had remained on the second floor, after the warning. A few moments later, the terrific clouds of smoke must have scared them. they did not know that the stairway to the floor below was clear, apart form the smoke … I was already there pitching out the sergeants’ kit. So they went to the windows… second storey windows in a high building!.. and jumped into blankets held by colleagues down below. A crazy business really, but fire seems to cause panic more rapidly than anything else. Anyhow, the blankets were hardly adequate for the job, and there were a few injuries, particularly amongst my own troop! Five men had already been taken to hospital when I got outside. One or two other fellows were hurt due to falling off ladders etc., but their injuries were only slight.
The fire was ultimately put out, but there was a glorious mess of kit lying around in the mud. And what a job sorting it all out! We found most of our stuff and transferred to the new school.
Fortunately, the fire was kept mainly on the ground floor, and only about a quarter of the building was destroyed: it looked a sorry mess on the following day. Of those who were taken to hospital, one returned the following day: another is expected back within a week:- and the other three have been flown to England: all have broken bones. And that is all I can tell you about our fire. It was exciting while it lasted… but I prefer a different kind of excitement, don’t you dear?
Since it happened, I have had no bother or worry about insurance claims, fire assessors, clothing coupons, visits to furniture shops: we were all able to forget the whole business. But your case is different: you have had the mess at home, and the subsequent ‘business’ negotiations. Don’t worry too much about it, darling. After all, it might have been so much worse…
What is this you tell me about “redemption of tithes”? Who wants to redeem the darned things, anyway? I should like some more news upon this subject.
I love your latest news about Barry… and your efforts to teach him to say ‘bah’. I think he must be like his dad in at least one respect… Jess makes him laugh!!!
And there is a moral to the story of the yawn: do you know what it is? But perhaps you better ignore the moral: it is good to be able to make the little fellow shake with laughter. You send me much news of his progress, and I am grateful for it. I am specially pleased to hear how he has taken to his high chair. It must save you lots of bother, apart from affording him much amusement. I want to thank you too, dear, for the ‘sample’ you have sent me. I suppose the colour is ‘mousey brown’ as you say, but it glints and shines beautifully. I think this part of the little chap must be inherited from me… otherwise he would be a perfect little platinum blonde.
Jess! For the best part of two days now, I have lived in the aroma of a pungent but cheap scent: I literally stink. Our host here… a Dutchman of 37 years: very obliging and hard working… showed me a small bottle of scent at lunch time yesterday: “’tis goot” he added… and I agreed with him after sniffing it, more for politeness than anything else. And then he poured some of the darned stuff on my hair and jacket… no doubt thinking he was doing me a good turn. I have been haunted by the smell ever since… a thick, heavy odour… faded violets or something. I feel like a cissy. I was very conscious of my ‘smell’ at the “party” last evening. It was a private party, arranged by my troop, each member of which brought his own girl. The troop is billeted in a cafe with a decent wooden floor, suitable for dancing. And it was this floor which gave someone the idea of running a small dance in the billet. The major agreed without demur.
We each contributed 50 francs (Belgian) and this enabled the lads to buy piles of fancy cakes in Antwerp. It also paid for a couple of bottles of whisky from the sergeants mess… and unlimited beer from the cafe cellar. There were sandwiches too of bully and white bread… scrounged somewhere by the lads: also a fair amount of chocolate and sweets, and tea and coffee. The supper, in fact, was excellent under the circumstances. Unfortunately, for dance music we only had a small portable gramophone (I was the record changer!) and it was more or less useless. NBut the dancers managed somehow: they also played games… in which kissing seemed to predominate. There were about 30 of us present, including the major and Mr. Francis: they all seemed to enjoy themselves. I went to bed about 10 O/c… accompanied by my ‘smell’… but the lads carried on until midnight.
Tomorrow, Nov 20th is Cambrai Day… and we are having the usual celebration… including a special dinner. For the latter, four live pigs were scrounged from somewhere today, (I didn’t know there was a pig left in Holland!) and they have been killed this evening. There will be plenty of beer too… and the day is a complete holiday. ‘A’ sqdn. are having their dance in the evening: ‘C’ have theirs on Tuesday. ‘C’ are also giving a concert on Thursday evening.
And now I must leave you…
More tomorrow… after the Cambrai festivities.
I love you, darling,