2   Walking through Frnace

The moon was all but obscured behind dirty looking clouds and a wind, surprisingly cold for mid summer swept across the bleak plain, so that after I had covered about 5 kilometres it began to rain. I was very uncomfortable and sheltered in a ditch under a wispy hedge till the worst had blown over. In the small hours I reached the main road and was so tired that I went into a barn (open to the road) -a foolhardy act I knew, found a heap of cut chaff and fell sound asleep. When I awoke it was quite light and the farm birds were making a great clacking fuss. By half past six I had breakfasted and appreciated my little bone handled pen knife more than ever, as it cut through the coarse fare. I enjoyed that food for the first few meals but later it palled.
    All that day I walked. It was very hot but I was keen to put as many kilometres between me and the crash as I could. I was repeatedly returning a greeting from somebody. Old peasant women in their dirty black dress's, stood in their dingy front doors and eyed me curiously as I trudged by. I had assumed a fine shambling stride as I was supposed to be a labourer, and strove to act the part convincingly. To this end I spat horribly if I chanced to cough and wiped my nose never on my handkerchief. After passing through several villages I came to one which was quieter than most, probably because it was time for the mid-day meal. A small cafe stood open. I passed slowly by and got a good look round the interior, - empty! In I went.
    A pretty, dark eyed young woman came through into the shop from the rear as I entered. To her I gave a "Bon jour" and asked for a glass of beer. She regarded me questioningly and handed me the glass. When I had to pay with a hundred franc note, the smallest I had, her suspicion was thoroughly aroused. She started talking to me very rapidly. I, not knowing her purpose I decided to throw myself on her mercy and discretion. I shook my head and smiled. "I am an English aviator" I told her and she in turn smiled, held out her dainty hand to me and led me through into the back parlour where I was introduced to Madame.
          I asked for water to have a wash. This was my first since I landed in the country and extremely welcome, dusty and dry as I was. I was advised not to let my beard grow, not to wear my collar and tie, which I had foolishly left on. Who ever saw a French farm labourer in a collar and tie? I think these good people had helped others in my position for they told me several things which I would not have had the sense to realise, absurdly simple though they seem now on looking back at them.
    If questioned, I was to say I was Polish which would account for any bad French spoken. I was told to make my way further west before turning south, as that way, even if I traversed Soissons where there was a "Kommandantur" I was less likely to be stopped by Germans. Apparently there were no road checks to be feared. I was directed to a barbershop in Soissons where I would be well received by some relations. I had another two glasses of small beer and went on my way in good heart.
    My road led through Braine and some rather pretty country. The little villages, clustering round their churches appealed to me. The tree-lined road was almost deserted, except for the occasional German army truck with its cargo of grey-green clad men. The first few of these trucks caused me to feel very conspicuous but after a while I remembered stories of people dressed in Nazi uniforms who had not been stopped in London, and after awhile I felt easier, and almost persuaded myself I looked a Frenchman.
    I had come through Braine quite easily and felt that if it was always to be as simple as this I had no reason for misgivings. Outside Soissons my feet which felt very much the worse for wear, called on me to rest them. I sat down by the roadside. A German soldier with an enormous pack on his back came up, obviously in some distress, looking very red and moist beneath his tin helmet. He saw me by the roadside and came across, threw off his burden and sprawled on the grass by my side. Neither of us spoke. He pulled out some shabby cigarettes, lit one and settled himself to rest. I think he must have been going on leave for he glanced at his watch, then got to his feet and tried to refasten his monstrous bundle on his back, with the hurried air of one who has a train to catch. ; Poor wretch! He could not fasten a clip under his armpit. I rose. "Je veux vous aider" I volunteered, and help him I did. This started him off in a long speech in German. I shrugged my shoulders, said I did not understand and was French. He grunted, nodded and wheezed off up the road. I followed at about fifty paces, indulging I am afraid in a spate of self-congratulation. As I expected he turned off down a little byway and a few yards down this was a railway station, the tracks from it crossing the main road a few yards further on.
    Also that day and not many kilometres further on, while I was again resting my blistered feet and having a snack at my pork (the fat of which was running in the heat) I heard the air raid sirens distinctive wailing. From Soissons, over the next rise in the road, came a small army people on bicycles. I reflected that if this was the usual procedure every time the sirens sounded, people must be kept pretty mobile in Soissons, but I did not witness this phenomenon again in France. I waited for the all clear and went on into Soissons, quite a large town with a Cathedral. The railway station had been damaged and a stray bomb had partly demolished a private house close to the railway lines. On the ruin had been scratched in tar. "lei RAF?" But the bombing had been good for all that.
    The instructions given to me at the roadside cafe as to the location of the barber's shop were quite inadequate I found, so I made my way through the town, making for Chateau Thierry. France was very well sign posted and a traveller on foot had no trouble finding his way. J passed by the entrance to the Kommandatur and was privileged to see a high ranking German Officer step from a smart car and pass the stiffened sentry. A few yards further down the road was a poor looking barbershop. This I entered. Inside were two shaving chairs, the usual debris of hair clippings on the floor, empty shelves, cracked and spotted mirrors, and of human occupants, the greasy haired barber, another nondescript Frenchman and myself! The barber was at work on his other customer, bade me "good day" and ignored me. French magazines of years ago were stacked near the hatrack. I selected one and waited my turn. When it came I tried to look of a very surly disposition. I asked to be shaved and settled into the chair. Cold water for a shave rather surprised me. The blunt razor that followed would have made any regular customer complain in no uncertain terms, but I sat still, said nothing and survived it! was able to pay in small change thanks to my beer drinking earlier in the day and passed on my way out of Soissons probably little noticed.
    By now my shambling gait was no affectation as my blisters had burst and the raw flesh rubbing in those unkind boots caused me to limit my stride considerably, and quite literally my progress was painfully slow. I got a short lift on a farm wagon the other side of town. The carter questioned me. "Where was I going"? I said to Chateau Thierry. "Where had I come from"? I replied that I was from Soissons. "You are not French are you "? " No" I lied. "I am Polish". What a mistake that was! It brought about a flood of speech in a curious, soft, tongue, I knew to be Polish. I had met a Pole transported to France by the Germans in one of their "foreign workers schemes". It was a very crestfallen John who then took the Pole into his confidence. He listened attentively but his faith in me was shaken and I doubt if he believed a word of the truth I told him. He assured me he would say nothing. I don't suppose he did.
    On my wretched feet again I made a few more kilometres that day and slept in the straw at yet another open barn, once more handy at the roadside. It was a fine, still night and despite my tortured feet I slept soundly. Next morning I ate my last meal of bread and salt pork, hiding what was left in the straw. The meat had taken on a strong smell and I jettisoned it almost gratefully. On the road again, I knew it was foolish to go much further with my feet in this condition. I made for the village of Oulchy le Chateau. On the way I was nearly involved in a nasty and dangerous affair. In a little village German troops were leading some horses down the street to water them. One of the animals took fright at something and the foolish soldier belaboured the poor beast with some reins. He was sent flying into the ditch for his pains and as the panic spread all the horses fled. They were coming my way but I sheltered by the stone drinking trough at the roadside and they sped by, the troops in pursuit shouting gutturally after them. I remember at the top of one hill I lay down quite despondent and bewailing my bad luck in footwear. The sun was high, the road had been dusty and it was then, I decided I must get proper aid for the throbbing, raw things that were encased in those unrelenting boots.


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