No. 7925934. Sgt. Greenwood, R.T.
9th Battn. R.T.R.
Jess darling, Apart from receiving two letters from my sweetheart, today has been quite uneventful, and I have very little to tell you.
This morning, the squadron took part in a ceremonial parade to lay a wreath upon the local war memorial (1914/18 vintage!). I was not present myself… being excused on account of my soiled clothes… but from all accounts the local gentry were there in force. The ‘maire’ made a speech telling of our exploits in this war, and of our predecessors in the last. I suppose our efforts sound pretty good… especially when added to by a maire-al imagination! The parade must have been a success because the major has issued a congratulatory order this afternoon.
I thought I had nothing to write about, but I forgot that you may like to hear about the mess ‘dance’ last evening. It required a fair amount of preparation… issuing of invitations, band, piano, food, lighting etc. The invitaions were composed by a trooper in the officer’s mess who speaks French a little better than most of us. Some of these invitations were delivered personally by the S.S.M: more about this later. We used ‘B’ squadron band consisting of pianist, violinist, guitarist, drummer, and accordionist. One great feature of this band is that the drummer can always be relied upon to be in tune-! We borrowed a piano from a local civvy, and lugged it round here during the afternoon. For food, we seemed to manage very well… thanks to the quartermaster. There were sandwiches of white bread… sardines, corned beef, spam, and cheese… bags of them. Also cakes made by the cooks. Also chocolate and sweets: cheese and biscuits: tea: coffee: cider: lemonade. All this lot looked pretty good on the table in the kitchen.
For lighting, we borrowed a special battery vehicle from the squadron, and wired up a number of car headlights: it was quite ample. By 7.30 pm, everything was ready. The band had arrived, and the food was already being prepared. I put myself in the kitchen as a volunteer sandwich cutter. The band started up… but no guests had arrived, so some of the sergeants started dancing with each other. This was the situation when the first guests arrived at about 8 O/c. There were four of them… Firstly a girl… heftily built and poorly clad… probably a farm girl. She seemed quite decent. With her were three old people… two female and one male. They were decrepit and dirty… very dirty. The only word that describes the old ladies is ‘hags’: they were obviously dreadfully poor. But the man! What a specimen. I’ll bet he hadn’t washed for weeks. His face was partly covered by a thick growth, but the rest of it was almost black. His clothes were a patchwork of old rags… with a pair of huge wooden clogs on his feet… covered in farmyard manure! He wore also a battered trilby hat: it remained on his head all evening.
Well… these four people came in the mess and seated themselves by the door. The two old ladies then revealed that they were not wearing stockings, but merely thick black woollen socks, leaving their legs bare from the ankles. The younger female had similar ‘stockings’, but hers did at least reach her knees.
The entry of these people relieved the tension a bit… we had some guests anyhow. The dancing continued… with the young lady struggling painfully to do a fox trot… on a concrete floor… and with half a dozen male couples prancing around like baby elephants. Soon, I saw Dicky Hall ‘dancing’ with the smaller of the two old ladies. In actual fact, he was carting her around the floor in a series of heaves and jumps. Dicky is a big strong fellow, but that dance almost put him out. He had to adjourn to the kitchen afterwards to recover. He was dripping with perspiration. But we all admired his spirit. He had at least made an attempt to show hospitality… but at what cost!
Towards 9 O/c, Bob Anderson and Jock Tomney came into the kitchen with a look of desperation in their eyes:- they wanted a torch “there must be some girls in this joint” they said “we’ll go and find the buggers”. They went. The S.S.M. started fingering his watch: shortly afterwards,he went-! And then Jock Wilson started fuming. He blamed the S.S.M. for the non appearance of more guests. It seems that Edwards (the S.S.M.) had met a few villagers during the week, and had handed them the invitation cards. Now Jock Wilson is quite friendly with Edwards and as they are often out together, he knows that Edwards understands about three words of French… “oui” and “avez-vous”. Edwards policy when speaking to the French is simple:- just say “oui” to everything they say, and you can’t go wrong! And so, according to Jock, Edwards must have acknowledged a few refusals from the villagers without knowing it… his “oui” did the trick. Jock was annoyed: the invitations should have been left to him… Maybe he is right: I guess he knows at least twice as many French words as Edwards!
Very soon, Edwards re-appeared… with a girl of about 16… the daughter of the house where he is staying. She was plainly dressed… and walked like an automaton, as do all the girls round here. They all seem to be flat footed… due, maybe to the clogs which they normally wear: Not ordinary clogs, but great chunks of wood with a gap at the back to enable them to be slipped on or off easily. This girl had discarded her clogs for a pair of enormous low-heeled shoes… a match for any pair of army boots. For the next half hour I felt a bit sorry for Edwards:- His girl accompanied him into the room willingly enough… and she seemed to know that the performing males around her were dancing… ‘a l’Anglaise’… But she stoutly refused to be taught. Edwards did his damnedest… and several times reached the stage of holding her right hand in his left. But as soon as his right hand moved to encircle her waist she reacted with a vicious lunge with her left. She wouldn’t have anything to do with it-! The poor fellow was in a hell of a state… one of his arms held high in the air… the other dangling uselessly by his side. He said quite a few things in English, army variety, about his partner, but fortunately she couldn’t understand. In between his ravings he kept trying to speak French… thus making matters worse for the girl because one or two of us were creased with laughter in the kitchen. She probably thought we were laughing at her. And then the pair of them appeared in the kitchen. She had gabbled a mouthful of French amongst which Edwards recognised the word ‘exercise’. Ah! She wanted lessons in private before going on the dance floor… I departed… and left the cook as their sole audience.
A little later, Anderson and Tomney returned: they had had no luck… the village was deserted. The dance continued… with the two old ‘hags’ grinning all the time… and the old man looking dumb. I went over and offered them cigarettes:- they grabbed… The little old lady got two: the others took one each… but the old man finished up with four because his lady friends passed theirs over to him. This happened every time anyone offered them ciggys. Somewhere after nine O/c, the door burst open, and I beheld two female figures in the doorway, with two males in the background… the latter clad in overalls. Dicky Hall rushed to the door… and I’m not quite clear about what happened… but I know the two girls were almost dragged into the room… and then the door slammed… leaving the two youths outside. Dicky said afterwards that they had come as the girls’ fiancées… but we didn’t want fiancées so he just told them to scram! I saw these youths afterwards gazing in through the window… blackouts being an unnecessary luxury here. The two new arrivals were typical… They seemed sturdily built, wore heavy flat footed shoes, and coarse clothes. One of them was still wearing an apron! And to think of the trouble I went to finding blankets to cover the wooden forms… so that the guests wouldn’t soil their dance frocks! Needless to say, the newcomers had no idea of dancing… but the fellows persevered with them.
And then came supper… Somehow, the three old people became my reponsibility… and it was a full-time job feeding them. They must have been starving. They ate everything… and drank coffee quicker than I could pour it out. I like to think they were really hungry, and not gluttonous… altho’ this is a farming area and the German occupation seems hardly to have bothered the villagers. Anyhow, the old trio ate enough for about 10 people, and I was thankful when supper was over. We then adjourned to the dance floor again. But before dancing re-commenced, Dicky Hall disappeared, with the two girls who had come last of all. I learned later that their young men waited outside patiently, and after supper, Dicky went out with the girls to try and get rid of these lingering lovers. He succeeded… returning in about 20 minutes with the girls… but minus their men… I don’t know how the ‘deceit’ was accomplished… Well… I went to bed about 11 O/c… leaving the party going fairly well. And if noise is any criterion, they certainly enjoyed themselves.
So much for our first dance on French soil. We now believe there would have been a much larger attendance had the maire been consulted before we issued any invitations. His wife complained to the major on Sat. afternoon that some of the village girls were not so nice… and shouldn’t be admitted. It seems probable that our general invitation automatically excluded the maire and his collection of local lackeys. He is the local big-wig and seems to dominate the life of the entire village.
All French villages have these ‘maires’. I suppose they are the equivalent of the English squire… except they are still a powerful influence socially… especially in these farming areas. It is a sort of modern feudalism. In spite of everything, the maire promised to attend the dance… but he didn’t turn up, much to our relief. He is a pompous little ass.
There is a ‘concert’ in the mess this evening. The officers are doing a sketch… and several of the lads are doing turns. We also have an excellent conjurer in the squadron… a wizard with cards (Tom Hamnett: his wife is friendly with Jess Aldcroft: lives at Heaton Norsey(?).) I think we will have some fun. Our last attempt in this direction was at Shakers Wood: it was a good effort.
Nothing to report today, my darling. The weather is very bad… heavy rain all morning. Have done some washing and a few kit repairs.
Jess dear. I must apologise for this letter. It should have been posted on Monday at the latest, but I found that I had no green envelope… and wasn’t able to scrounge one anywhere… You may have noticed that most of my letters have been in green envelopes lately: this is because I can’t stand my troop officer as censor. Fortunately, I have been able to scrounge many green envelopes in the past… But now they are scarce. I suppose more fellows are writing letters now that we are static. Anyhow, having started this letter, I have had to hold it back… until this evening, when I have at last found an envelope. I wrote a short “in between” letter yesterday, in an ordinary envelope, – just to let you know that I am O.K.
I still have little of interest to write about. We are just carrying on here patching up the vehicles… (but I imagine we will be on the move again in about a week’s time). (Bracketed words ‘blue-pencilled’ by the official censor – but still legible). Tomorrow is a sort of sports day. We are playing ‘B’ at football. On Sunday next there is to be a ceremonial parade, and memorial service I think, in memory of our colleagues who have been killed. There are, I regret to say, quite a number of them.
I heard the 9 O/c news this evening… in which our withdrawal from Arnhem was announced. It is regrettable that our efforts there have not been entirely successful, but somehow I feel glad that the incident is now closed. The suspence of the last few days has been awful. I have not by any means been alone in my anxiety about the fate of our airborn troops who were stranded there. The annihilation of such brave men was too terrible to contemplate. I think everyone in this squadron has been anxiously awaiting news of their liberation. And now we know the worst… and some of the story. I don’t think we onlookers can ever know the whole: it is one of those chapters of human endurance and suffering which defy description.
The other evening, I heard a radio commentator say that people should raise their hats if ever they met one of these brave men. I am sure he knew what he was talking about. Most of us over here have had to endure being mortared and machine gunned and sniped and shelled. Each in itself is a terrible experience. A combination of two of them, especially with mortaring, is too horrible to write about… even in small doses. But try and imagine the effect of all four simultaneously… And not in small doses, but day and night… for about 10 days! It is simply incredible to me that any of them remained alive. And in spite of everything, these men fought… and continued fighting to the last. How easy it would have been for them to surrender-! The fact that they didn’t, places every single one of us in their debt. Because they didn’t fail in their mission. Perhaps more would have been achieved if the weather had been kinder… but what has been done has helped to shorten the war… of that, I am certain.
Please forgive me for dwelling upon this matter… I feel that I must let you know something of our reactions to these incidents. We soldiers pay tribute to the men who have shown such gallantry:- perhaps we are in a better position to do so than those at home. I only hope their sacrifice will not be forgotten in the days to come.
And now I must leave you, Jessie Mine. I am a guard tonight… and the lighting here is not so good.
Good night, my love
Always and always