Bruce Shand’s light-hearted reminiscence of life in a ‘good’ regiment during the Phoney War of 1939 — 40 in France epitomizes the studiedly unserious flavour of pre-war soldiering in the British army. Commissioned from Sandhurst into the 12th Lancers in 1937, he had spent the years of peace riding to hounds, playing polo and making friends, of whom he accumulated a large number.
His insouciance was, however, an affectation. A man of keen intelligence and marked literary gifts, he proved when the real war came both an efficient and a brave soldier, twice winning the Military Cross before he was taken prisoner in the Western Desert. Still thriving, he personifies the type of beau sabreur who had officered European armies since the days of Louis XIV and of which a few survive to this day.
ThePhoney WarinFrance, 1940(for fun)
After seeming hours the stocky form of Captain Dowell, RAMC came through the door. ‘Well, Bruce, what’s the matter with him?’ ‘Probably clap,’ I diagnosed. ‘Well, we’d better give him a catheter.’ Once again a heavy sweat broke out on me, but with the doctor’s arrival I had averted my eyes from the patient to look out of the window and could see his truck and the orderly now talking to Sergeant Ditton. With a presence of mind that has seldom visited me since, I opened the window and shouted to Ditton to send the orderly up and then removed myself cravenly from this urinary battlefield. Stinker [Dowell, the medical officer] bore me no ill will and later came up to our mess to have a much-needed drink saying that he’d ‘given the old bastard a good blow through’.
Later, in the winter, I managed to become stricken with ’flu which developed into mild pleurisy. Stinker was in his element and put in much time listening to my lungs, finally recommending that I needed to recuperate in a warm climate. I had hoped that I might have returned temporarily to England but, before long, I was on the Blue Train en route for Cannes.
Dozy Willis, who would have had friends on Pitcairn Island should a visit have been contemplated there, had long known Lady Trent, widow of the original Jesse Boot, the cash chemist. Part of the year she lived in a handsome villa on the Californie hill, which she and her husband had equipped as an officers’ convalescent home in the previous war. She was patriotically prepared to repeat the performance but as events turned out I was to be the only beneficiary of her bounty.
I left Fonquevillers on New Year’s Day, lunched with some friends in Paris and boarded the Blue Train in the evening. During dinner I had some desultory conversation with a middle-aged Hungarian lady who spoke tolerable English. I had quite a lot of magazines and papers with me, some of which she asked to borrow, saying that she should return them in the morning. I slept remarkably well until the wagon-lit attendant called me the next day, bringing in the journals, about which I had forgotten. He gave the rather surprising information that the lady had been removed in the night at Dijon by the French police. I looked carefully through the Bystander, Horse & Hound and other unlikely publications for hidden messages, without avail.
Lady Trent’s White Russian chauffeur met me at the station in a dark green Rolls-Royce and I moved for ten days into a sybaritic existence. She was a delightful and unaffected person living with her unmarried sister in considerable comfort and served by admirable servants. I was treated far too well, especially as many people seemed to think I had been wounded, despite there being no fighting. Indeed, there was a rather embarrassing moment when a young French naval officer and I, as symbols of allied unity, were made to stand on a dais in the Carlton Hotel, at some charity gala, clasping each other by the hand before both national anthems were played. On another occasion, taken to luncheon by Lady T, in the house where Prince Leopold died of haemophilia, I drew as my neighbour the widow of Marshal Joffre, an interesting link with the past. She was, I think, his second wife, a formidably upholstered lady. Luckily I had been informed that ‘Papa’ had been a great trencherman, so we cruised fairly easily along gastronomic channels.
A retired doctor of the Indian Medical Service and a very social French physician examined my chest rather perfunctorily before lunch one day and agreed that I was sound. Back I went to Fonquevillers, though strangely I have no recollection of the return journey from Cannes.
No sooner had I returned to ‘A’ Squadron than there was an alert and we moved up for the second time to the Belgian frontier. We were billeted near Roubaix, with our mess in a turreted villa of unbelievable hideousness. However, at least it was warm, a great blessing in that very cold winter, and we made the best of our circumstances with a battalion of the Coldstream Guards as congenial neighbours. We must have stayed there for a week before the alarm subsided and it was during this period that our regimental chaplain preached a sermon of such power (‘Be strong and of a good courage’) that a couple of troopers and certainly one young officer were obliged to retire from the congregation.
This interesting cleric, the Revd Godfrey Macmanaway, had joined us when we arrived in France. An Ulsterman, currently Rector of Londonderry and the son of a former Bishop of Clogher, he had been an airman in the First War and proudly wore RFC [Royal Flying Corps] wings on his tunic. Extremely convivial, eloquent in the pulpit (he never prepared his sermons), rather idle and immensely social, he was an asset to any assembly, and there was little he did not appear to have done in his life. At a later date we briefly shared quarters and I observed that he invariably had his servant bring him a glass of warm whisky and water before getting up in the morning. He then smoked a powerful pipe before arising to his ablutions and a hearty breakfast. He claimed never to have had a hangover.
Assiduously political, he resigned his living in 1950 when elected to Westminster as Unionist Member for West Belfast. Confusion then arose as to whether he should be permitted to take his seat, since there was doubt about whether the Church of Ireland was disestablished or not. After considerable excitement — I think his case warranted a leading article in The Times — he was disqualified. He returned to Belfast in some chagrin and died the following year of a fall or a stroke when leaving the Ulster Club.
A constant feature of my life was Trooper Smallridge, who had been assigned to me before the war as first servant. A Welshman from a mining family in Treherbert, Glamorganshire, he was roughly my age, perhaps a little older, a remarkably good driver, small and lithe, with a slight stutter. He made friends wherever he went, from my august grandmother (his youngest sister came to work for her as a housemaid) to the most ill-assorted Arabs.
Before the war he cannot have had too many military duties (officers’ servants were the bane of sergeant-majors - they could never get their hands on them for their own purposes), as most of his time must have been taken up in attending to the voluminous wardrobe that was needed for even an ordinary subaltern’s life. He came away with me all the winter when I was hunting, cleaning my clothes and boots to a degree of perfection that will never be seen again. He still lives in Treherbert and we correspond and telephone periodically, though he would be appalled if he could see the undisciplined attire in which I am writing these words. Our ways only parted when I was wounded and captured. He soldiered on until after the end of the war, finally leaving the regiment at Villach in Austria some time in the summer of 1945. He returned then to me for a brief time while I was still in the Army, bringing with him my Everyman copy of Lord Chesterfield’s Letters to His Son,which had cost about 2/6d when I purchased it in Reigate in 1941. It had travelled with me to the Middle East, was with me throughout the desert campaign and was in my jeep when I was taken prisoner. Smallridge hung on to it for the rest of the war and it went with him through the remainder of the North African campaign and then to Italy. I still possess this battered and much travelled volume.
Despite the various alarms, life during that particular hard winter and spring was both monotonous and uncertain. Our training was restricted both by geographical boundaries and by a limitation on the use of petrol. Living in close proximity, with not too much to do, was irksome at times, especially for those with a temperament like Andrew Horsburgh-Porter, who was the epitome of the free-range officer. Someone coming into the small farmhouse parlour that we used for a squadron mess said that it resembled a scene fromJourney’s End, but ‘above ground and without shellfire!’ Our only view was that of the midden.