- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Eileen Torrens
- Location of story:
- Larne, Co Antrim
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 09 November 2003
At the end of 1943, my family moved from Belfast, where we had experienced the Blitz, to the small town of Larne.
We children were very interested in the idea of war. The films that we attended on Saturday afternoons (at sixpence a show, financed by our mothers who were always glad to get us out of the house) were quite often about wartime exploits. It was the age of government propaganda and films were made in which winning the war was a forgone conclusion, and we believed it. After all, hadn't we beaten the Germans before!
War-weary Belgians arrive
Then we had our eyes opened to what could happen to allied armies in battle. Out of the blue, a camp was constructed near to where I lived and into it were marched sad ranks of war-weary Belgian soldiers.
When they arrived many of them were without boots and had wrapped their feet in cardboard. They were tired and somewhat fearful to find themselves in a place they had never heard of.
Met with hospitality
The local families rose to the occasion with traditional Irish hospitality and every family who could adopted a Belgian soldier. Ours was called Albert Macshiels - which even I could see was a strange name for a Belgian. He was a small man with light-coloured curly hair and he had a new young wife at home in Antwerp. When he came to visit at first he had not one word of English, which meant we did a lot of smiling and offering him food.
Among us all we had a family smattering of French (mine was all contained in the first 10 pages of the first year French text book). Albert, however, was a Flemish speaker and his French was a bit sketchy as well.
Other towns got Americans whose positive attitude to the war was good for their hosts. In Larne we had a defeated Army and it very soon became apparent that during the time that the re-building of their military expertise and refurbishing of their equipment was going on in the Army camp, the people of Larne would be responsible for restoring their self-respect and supplying surrogate families for the young men. Not that we children understood all this at the time!
A sense of the world outside
For us the Belgians brought the wider world into our little parochial corner. We started teaching our soldiers English in return for their teaching us Flemish or better still, French, if you were lucky. In most households our parents became adopted parents for the younger men and friends to the older ones.
Gradually they all learnt to speak English proficiently (with a Larne accent, of course) and Albert began learning how to read it and write. He said this was so that he could write to us when he went back home. He invited us to parties at the camp and we invited his friends to come and visit us. We took him to concerts and plays (of which there were an abundance in Larne, small town though it was), and we introduced him to the wider family circle.
Back to battle
It was a shock when suddenly our Belgians had reached the standards of military precision that would push them back into battle. All over the town, people wept as if they were saying farewell to their own kith and kin and promised to write.
My parents kept in touch with Albert for years. He went home to his wife and lived happily ever after. Once, when I was married and my family was camping in Europe, I looked Albert up at the last address we had. One of his neighbours told me he had just moved the month before back to Antwerp. We were booked on a boat home two days later and we did not have time to retrace our steps to look for him and, anyway, his neighbour had no address for him.
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