- Contributed by
- Larry Southgate
- People in story:
- Paulette Cheret, Titine Robert, Emma Leuven, Joan Davies, Ilse Zimmerman
- Location of story:
- France, Belgium, Germany
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 28 July 2005
To all the girls I’ve loved before!
The Ardennes and Trench Feet!
But trench-feet in 1945? There had been thousands of cases of trench-feet in the First World War but one could understand that seeing as how they had to serve for months in the trenches in Belgium and France. But in the Ardennes, in Belgium, after only three days in a slit trench, in January 1945? Now there’s a thing. So off we go in the unit ambulance down to the American Field Hospital in Namour. Even there the medics were hard-pushed to believe what they could see. A few days living off the fat of the land with the Yanks in their hospital and then, oh dearie me, we are evacuated once more to a British Military Hospital in Lille in Northern France. And what a difference from the American hospital where everyone had been so nice and friendly and comforting to a British Military Hospital where the discipline and the class-barrier were more than evident. In bed, blankets and sheets rolled up from the bottom of the bed so your feet were on display. Don’t roll about and don’t spoil the way the sheets and blankets are folded. Sit to attention when the doctor comes round and always remember to address everyone in uniform as ‘Sir’. Then the worst insult of all. Next morning in comes a young Doctor. He promptly informs us that we were all going to be put on a charge for not complying with military regulations and for causing ourselves ‘self-inflicted wounds’. We should have washed our feet each night and changed our wet socks for clean dry ones and not have let our feet get wet in the trench again next day!!
Now we all knew back then certain types of doctor we got in the Army Medical Service. Report sick with a bad feeling in the tummy and it was ‘two number nines’. Got a bit of a cold (could have been chronic influenza or pneumonia), ‘give him some Mist Expect Stim’. (Mixture Expectorant Stimulant), - yeah, something to make you cough and spit up the nasty phlegm. Got a bad chest? Well, have a cigarette or two, that’ll break up the phlegm and get it off your chest!! These were the doctors (?) who, we suspected, had failed their medical exams but seeing that there was a war on and that the Army needed doctors to patch up the wounded soldiers, they were accepted and indoctrinated into the weird and wonderful practices of Army doctors.
And generally posted to Army Hospitals way behind the lines Washed our feet each night and put on fresh clean socks? Cut off miles from our headquarters in one of the worst snowstorms for many years in the forests of the Ardennes, having set out on what was to have been a minor advance with little equipment , just that which would have been sufficient for a day in normal times, this snotty little middle-class bumptious doctor had not one idea of how bad things could get. Yes, I had a spare pair of socks in my equipment with me but when you have to dig a slit trench and then go on standby it’s a little bit difficult to light a fire and boil some water to wash your feet and put on a spare pair of socks. Light a fire? So the enemy could spot you and start to shell you? Last thing you needed to do. You don’t shell us, we won’t shell you, was the best advice in that kind of stand-off. Anyway, my spare pair of sock were badly holed and torn by a piece of shrapnel which had penetrated through my small-pack. Yet there we were each morning, our feet sticking out of the bedclothes with a doctor coming round sticking needles into our toes and saying “Can you feel that” — “NO?”. ‘Oh well, nurse, continue the treatment’. Thank heavens there was a Colonel in charge of the hospital who came round to see this surprising malady of trench-feet in 1945 who over-ruled the snotty nosed little Lieutenant doctor. I did see the fellow in the next bed who had two toes turn black, wheeled away into the operating theatre and return minus the two offending toes. But this little twerp of a doctor, just fresh from medical school, or so we decided, was going to have us put on charges for not having washed our feet and changed our socks as regulations insisted. We had not had even the minimum equipment with which to boil water and make a cup of tea. And whilst we had been cut off by the snow on that hillside, the Royal Welsh Fusiliers had had to make an attack down to our right in an attempt to open the road to Bastogne and had come under extremely heavy gunfire and had lost 27 men during the attack. (If anyone ever goes down through the Ardennes on the way to Austria and Switzerland, as I did one year with my family going on holiday to Italy, completely intentionally so as to show my family where I had been in the war, they will come upon a large piece of rock set into the hillside on which is inscribed —
“to the memory of 27 men of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers who fell nearby in an attempt to drive back the German Panzer division, etc”. Maybe not in those same words but “to the memory of 27 men “ does appear on that single slab of granite rock.) So there we were in this ward of the British Military Hospital in Lille, biting our lips and wishing that the medics would, hopefully, lift the ban on our return to our units and the battlefront. However, instead of being discharged from the hospital and sent back to our units, I found myself, with some others, transferred from the hospital to a Convalescent Camp in St Pol sur Ternoise in the Pas de Calais.
Here we had to relearn to march and use our legs again after a couple of months lying in bed and one way to do this, it was decided, was to organise dances in the camp almost every day to which many of the local young ladies were invited. They came along very willingly and took part in the dances and I recall that I taught one very nice young French girl how to do the jitterbug, having become somewhat of an expert in this form of dancing when I was a young lad living down in Blackwood in Monmouthshire. I wonder if that young maiden with whom I enjoyed many an afternoon and evening dancing is still alive today? Paulette Cheret, 199 Rue de Bethune, St Pol sur Ternoise, Pas de Calais, France. I also sent her a few letters after we parted. I never kept any copies of these letters nor of the ones I received in return, deeming it too risky to do so in view of the extremely uncertain future of my life. Whilst in this camp we formed a Concert party and put it on show to an enthusiastic audience. I had a small part where I had some tins of corned beef and other rations tied up with string dangling from one wrist whilst with the other hand I kept hitting them with a stick. “What are you doing?’ cried the compere. “Flogging the rations’ cried I to howls of delight from audience. From St Pol I was transferred to a Convalescent and Transit Camp in Hasselt, in Belgium to be prepared for my return to my unit, by now in Germany, having crossed the Rhine together with the rest of 30 Corps in the invasion of the German territory. I was there on 8 May 1945 when the war was declared over and done with. We were given special permission to leave the Convalescent Depot and go into town that night. And we had a few beers to celebrate the event!!
From my bedroom windows, I could, each evening, enjoy the sound of nightingales singing in the trees and nothing sounded sweeter than those wonderful songbirds on the night of 8 May 1945 when I had returned to the Camp from that night of celebration in town. That was one night when the dreaded sound of “return to barracks by 2359 hours” — or else — was not heard.
Yet, I had fallen in love twice in the space of about three months during my stay in Belgium and France, and even today I wonder how I managed to stay alive and single and without a promise to return and marry either one of those beautiful young girls, one in Belgium in Leuven and one in France in St Pol sur Ternoise. Was I unconsciously being faithful to the beautiful young girl I had become engaged to in the town of Ulverston, in North England, where I had been stationed prior to having to go to France, a certain Miss Joan Davies? She certainly occupied a lot of my spare time when I used to write letters expressing my undying love for her and promising to go back and get married when this war was over. And yet …….. and yet……….. that never did take place! When I managed to get my first period of leave to the UK after the war was over, I went to visit her but, after what I had been through, the magic of our initial romance was no longer there and so that affair eventually petered out. BUT ---………………………
Has anybody seen that film, what was it called? The Road to Bastogne? Something like that. Did you see any British soldiers in that? I saw it but cannot recall seeing any Brits — or even mention of Brits — in it. Yet in my mind I can still see that large lump of rock alongside the road in Belgium where the words — “In memory of the 27 men of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers” appear. Strange how Hollywood sees that part of that war!
And then it was back to my unit in Germany. They were now billeted in a small town called Velbert. This is quite near to Wuppertahl where they have that funny little elevated railway running around the town. My company was billeted in a school called the Real Gymnasium Velbert mit Realschule..How do I recall that? Because one day whilst rummaging around in the attic of the school, I happened across a small banner of the school. Beautiful little thing. About a foot square in gold and cream. In the centre is a black eagle with a crown on its head bearing a sword in one claw and with lightning and fire held in the other claw. But what was of more interest to me at the time was the back of the little banner. The cap-badge of the 2nd Bn The Monmouthshire Regiment was the Welsh Dragon which required a piece of green felt behind it and on the back of this banner was a foot square of wonderful green felt. I gave a few pieces of this felt to one or two of my friends but the rest I retained for personal use. I still have this lovely little banner but of the green felt (or baize, if you want to be picky) there is not much left. I sometimes think I should see if this school is still in existence and send them back their little pre-war banner. Unfortunately, I would not be able to place another piece of green felt at the back, but it could stay as it is to show what had happened to their banner. Should I do this? Or should I retain this to pass on to my grandchildren together with the flag bearing the Nazi Swastika and the German Iron Cross Medal which I have? Actually, I would prefer not to pass it on to my grandchildren. I was brought up in an age when we used to say that ‘the only good German is a dead German’, when we spoke of “ni….rs” and we children were threatened that if we did not go to sleep the “black-man will come and get you”. When the IRA was even in those days leaving the odd bomb around the place and the Jews were hated because they seemed to be in control of everything, especially the banks, and were taking the money and thus the food from the mouths of English babies. Now, having fought in a war against the Germans and having been involved in the troubles in Palestine in 1947/48, married an Italian girl whose brother moved to Germany in search of work after the war and married a German thus making me the brother-in-law of a German girl, and having made friends with a wonderful old lady from Berlin who celebrated her one hundredth birthday this year whom we had met whilst we were on holiday in Majorca a few years ago and at the same time having become friendly with an ex-German paratrooper who fought at Monte Cassino in Italy, I believe I have managed to submerge most of my rascist attitudes (it is a littler difficult sometimes) and would therefore not wish to pass on to my descendants the sentiments and hatreds with which I was brought up. But I do like that little banner!! Should I send it back? You tell me!
My wife is now dead as is also her brother but the friendship that grew up over the years endures between our families and we still go on holiday together whenever it is possible.
But back to the story of my sojourn in Velbert. This started just after the end of the war and the regulations then were “No Fraternisation”. We were not allowed to speak or have any contact with the Germans. Strictly forbidden. Which was enough for most of us to disobey. Too many beautiful young girls roaming the streets for young hot-blooded soldiers to forgo the innocent(?) pleasures of female company simply because of an order not to fraternise. One evening whilst taking stroll through the streets of the town, looking all around, and whistling one of the songs of the time to myself, I heard from behind me another whistle echoing my tune. I turned and encountered a young German lad. He could speak English and we got talking and he asked me if I would like to go with him to his sister’s house to meet her. I thought at first that he might be trying to get me to go to a brothel, so, nothing lothe, I agreed but, due to the non-fraternisation ban, I could not be seen walking in the street with him so would follow him at a discreet distance. Eventually we arrived at a house and, after making sure that there were no other military persons in the vicinity, I entered into the house. Not a brothel. Just a normal family house. He introduced me to, not his sister, but his cousin, Ilse Zimmerman. She was, initially, frightened of me, thinking that I had come to the house to arrest her. Why? Well, it turned out she had been a Zweijaahr Gefleiter (Corporal?) in the Wehrmacht and had deserted her unit which had been stationed in Denmark when the war ended and she had decided that she had had enough. She had been a Flack-kasern madchen.(?) In other words, working on the anti-aircraft batteries in Denmark and one night she boasted that they had actually shot down a British bomber as it flew over. I gradually began to learn some German with these two young people. I, myself, was only 20 years old. Lots of kisses but no intercourse was possible. She confessed that a few days before the war ended she had been to the hospital and had been found to be suffering from gonorrhea. She wanted me to get her some medicine to cure it. Where on earth could I go? I tried but had to be extremely circumspect. Not only was I breaking the no-fraternisation rules but I was also trying to assist a deserter from the German army. One evening I was introduced to another lady at the house who turned out to be the Auntie of these two young people I had met. She lived not all that far from where we were billeted so I offered to escort her home. At one point she stopped and drew me into the shade of a hedge and kissed me. “Ich habe hunger’, she said, ‘mein mann ist ein griegsgefangener in Russland“ liebe mich, bitte“. Now I had learnt a little of the German language but only just enough to understand that but I could understand the ‘call of nature!!’. I never did get to know her name because after that evening she never came back to the house that I had been frequenting. And I certainly could not ask for her address because this might have meant having to confess what had transpired between me and their auntie. Such is life! I also met another family in Velbert where the mother was friendly with one of our sergeants and who had three daughters so together with two comrades we spent many a happy hour or so ‘en famille’ Not long afterwards my battalion was transferred from Germany down to Italy and Genoa in particular. And there was another slice of heaven. But the telling of it will have to wait. Can you?
Larry Southgate — ex 14441343 Pte T.H.Southgate, D Company, 2nd Bn The
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