No. 7925934. Sgt. Greenwood.
British Army Exhibition
British Army Staff
Jessie Mine: I must tell you about our trip to Fontainebleau yesterday. There were about thirty of us in the party… including eight A.T.S. girls. We had two army lorries at our disposal… one of them for the girls and their ‘boy-friends’ (inevitably!) and the other for we ‘batchelors’: our lorry also carried a large barrel of beer – seemingly an indispensable item in any army outing. We had sandwiches too… and tumblers. A Frenchman accompanied us – to act as guide. It was a beautiful morning, and we got away in good time – about 9.30… heading south, on the main highway to Italy.
The journey was very pleasant… through sixty kilometres of rich rolling country – well wooded and well cultivated, with a few typical French villages en route. There were, too, a number of burned out German military vehicles still lying in the roadside ditches… twisted and rusty looking reminders of the rout of the enemy forces just twelve months ago.
Our first stop was at a beautiful little village on the very fringe of the forest itself. It was called Barbizon and appears to have given its name to a certain school of French painters – the ‘Barbizon School’… because of its association with a number of French artists who lived there during the last century, and who have since become famous. We visited the cottage of the most famous of these artists… Millet: it is now a museum, looked after by an elderly curator who spoke perfect English. He seems to have known some of the artists personally – and is even now encouraging a grandson of one of them to keep up the family tradition. It was an interesting little museum – containing many paintings and little personal sketches shewing the earlier attempts of some of the more prominent members of the ‘school’. The old curator spoke very well… and helped to make this visit most interesting – but I confess to having almost squirmed with embarrassment when he delivered an obviously much repeated address of thanks to “our gallant liberators”. I suppose he meant well.
R.L. Stevenson appears to have lived in this same village… and I think his former cottage is now a cafe-museum.
From the village, we drove straight into the forest, and about twenty minutes later were in Fontainebleau. I expected to find a hamlet dominated by the Chateau or Palace – but I found instead a fairly large town, (or it may be a small city, like Versailles) consisting mainly of old buildings and houses, with the Chateau fronting the main square of the town. There is at least one similarity about most of the country towns and villages I have seen in France. All buildings and dwellings have a similar colour – a mellow creamy colour, which I have always associated with buildings in the more sunny south – with Spain and N. Africa. Fontainebleau is no exception… and many of its bright coloured walls were gaily decorated with lovely flowering creepers – most of it very similar to Wisteria.
It was the guide’s intention to find a suitable cafe in the town where we could have unloaded the beer – and our sandwiches etc… But when some of the fellows heard of this idea, they kicked up a row: they wanted a picnic lunch in the forest, so the sergeant major let them have their way, and we drove further south to a suitable quiet spot. The sandwiches were dished out, blankets spread on the leafy ground, the beer barrel was tapped – and we had lunch. The time was now just after twelve noon…
I got into conversation with the guide and found that he fought in the last war – and was severely wounded in the head: that explained the ghastly looking scar across his scalp. His health had been precarious ever since, and he was forced to work out of doors… hence his job. He was an intelligent and cultured man, and I quite enjoyed our chat – which, inevitably, touched upon the slightly strained relationships between the French and British peoples. He is a non-smoker… but in a very nice way, he asked permission to take my offered cigarette for his wife: I gave him a few: I can never resist being generous to men who think kindly of their wives. Also, he refused to eat our oranges, but was delighted to be able to take a couple to his home.
When we had spent about an hour over lunch, the guide suggested making a move – as he wanted to show us many interesting items including some of the more famous spots in the forest itself. So I went to the S.M. and told him – and was almost horrified when he said we couldn’t go until the beer was finished. “Can’t you bung-up the barrel and drink the rest later?” I asked – but that was impossible; it would spoil the beer! Meanwhile, everyone seemed to be swilling the damned stuff… and the tap flowed incessantly – but it was such a large barrel, Jess. I sometimes think that my detestation of the sight of soldiers swilling beer by the gallon is based upon some inherent snobbery – and I try to accept it as their way of having enjoyment. But under yesterday’s conditions, with so much to see, it did seem pathetic to find these men – and girls – so obviously indifferent to the purpose of our visit – and so intent upon getting drunk. I felt bitterly resentful… call it snobbery or selfishness or what you will.
Half an hour later, the guide suggested calling everyone together so that he could tell them the story of the Chateau – thus giving us a little background for when we visited the place later. I went around the various scattered groups – some of them already half drunk – and there wasn’t a single response: no-one was interested-! And that was that.
At half past two, I tried the S.M. again – but the barrel was still about half-full: the precious fluid couldn’t be moved… But at three o’clock he showed more interest: “see if anyone wants to visit the chateau – and take one of the lorries: those who don’t want to go can remain here”. I found nine men sufficiently sober and interested: not one of the girls: “they hadn’t come so far to see a lousy old chateau”. I could have asked what they had come for – but didn’t fancy a drunken brawl. And so ten of us went to the Chateau, with the guide.
And now, dear Jess, I can’t pretend to try and describe the interior of that one-time palace of the Kings of France. Its obvious magnificence, its fabulous cost, its revelation of luxury and privilege simply leave one gasping… wondering why the Revolution did not occur much earlier. And Fontainebleau, bear in mind, is only one of these many royal residences. There is the enormous Versailles palace – with its accommodation for ten thousand ‘courtiers’ and other useless hangers-on of royalty… and in Paris itself, there still remain the palaces of the Louvre, the Luxembourg, the Royal… and perhaps one or two others I haven’t seen. And scattered over the rest of France there are at least a dozen huge estates, formerly owned by the Kings of France. Historians of the future, when ‘Royal’ families everywhere are but a dim memory, might well speculate upon the docility of the human species which permitted such scandalous misuses of authority and privilege… But I’m rambling.
I was telling you I couldn’t describe the Chateau… All I can tell you, dear, is that it consists of numerous suites, and ‘galleries’, and halls… all highly ornate and decorated with paintings on ceilings and walls, sculpture, wall tapestries, cut-glass chandeliers, gold-leaf, etc. The royal suite is fairly well furnished with the furniture installed and used by Napoleon. And the ball-room – well, I’m not very partial to highly elaborate ceilings and masses of gold and enormous cut-glass chandeliers etc… but I must admit that the ball-room was really magnificent. Even the floor itself was a work of art – designed in wood to match the ceiling.
We hadn’t time to see the gardens, but from what I could see from the palace windows, they are pretty extensive and very ornate and formal “a la Francaise”. One part of the gardens at least has been affected by this war… There used to be a large pond – maybe a hundred yards square – and it is visible from the palace… but it is now just a mass of low shrubbery and weeds. The Germans, realising that this pond was an ideal hiding place for their murdered colleagues, or an easy place in which to be ‘accidentally’ drowned, had all the water drained off… and it still remains dry.
We spent about an hour in the palace, and then returned to the forest for the rest of the party. The beer was still flowing, two of the men were completely drunk, others decidedly merry, and the girls were all – well, hilarious, I s’pose.
But now it was too late to consider the rest of our programme. Dinner had been ordered at the hotel – and we had to get back. And that seems to be all I can say… I can’t say much about the forest because I only saw it from one of the roadways, but it certainly looks very interesting. It seems to be quite hilly in places, with enormous masses of rock jutting from the earth… rather like that lovely little escarpment overlooking the Dane Valley. Someday, we may be able to explore Fontainebleau ourselves – you and me…
Oh… one little point: in the forest, there is practically no bird life… due to the almost total absence of water. And – if figures mean anything to you – the forest covers an area of fifty thousand acres. I don’t know how big that is, but it means quite a few trees… and no doubt quite a few lovely comfortable logs – for me and my Jess-!
I seem to have little to tell you about today. I have done some reading… and shop-window gazing – and have washed a few clothes: but I have nothing interesting to report. Nor can I tell you any more about our impending departure: there were ‘no orders’ again this morning. And now I’m wondering whether we will be away by Aug 11th… as intimated on orders a few days ago.
Whilst I was having my supper at the Imperial club, someone came in and said that Russia had declared war on Japan. I don’t know whether this is true, but I was not surprised to hear it – I feel certain that Russia intends to have her say in the Pacific… and a declaration of war on Japan is the obvious way of ensuring this. But, if there is any truth in the published account of this atomic bomb, it looks as though the Japs may have to surrender – and pretty quickly too. It must be a fiendish weapon Jess… but its use is justified if it shortens the war, thereby saving the lives of our lads: if I know anything about the mentality of soldiers, this new weapon will be an absolute tonic for them. I’ll bet they’re hoping for cart-loads of the darned things to be dropped on the Japs. Of course, the Pope has already condemned its use, according to the press. He would: Japan is not a democracy-!
There is news today too about demobilisation. I hope it is true that release is going to be speeded up – but I don’t like being too optimistic: there may be a denial tomorrow.
That’s all for now, my darling.
Be with you again tomorrow –
Au revoir, Jess – My Jess –