Friday, 27 January 2017

A Very British Romance, part 8: aux montagnes

Margaret continues on from last week's entry in the Connie and Angus story:

Frasne station, France, Vincent de Morteau, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0
Frasne station, France, Vincent de Morteau, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0
On 26 January 1917, Connie writes to her mother and father and tells them 'the supposed air raid was a fire alarm only, so no excitement.' The Officer who had taken their tickets returned them with an account of what he had paid for the upgrade to first class for Paris to Lausanne, the sleeper car and registering their luggage through to Chateau d'Oex. He changed Connie's last £5 for her. The hotel bill came to 21 francs for the two of them, bed, early breakfast and dinner of four courses, 'wasn't it reasonable?'

At 9.30pm they were taken to the station, boarded the train, and were soon in their bunks. Connie was worried in case she might sleep in, as she wasn't sure that the attendant understood when they wanted to be called. 'One incident was amusing, I rose and dressed about 5.30am … I went along the corridor and as our door did not latch very well I looked for something to prop against it, I spied a bolster pillow amongst a heap of what I thought bundles of carryalls, pulled it away, when suddenly the supposed bundles leapt to life as the attendant, I got a great shock, and quite forgot for the minute that my explanations in English were no use. However, I just had to leave the door open; he didn't seem to understand I wanted him to put his head against it to keep it shut.'

I have a suspicion he did know what she wanted him to do but possibly being a little disgruntled having been rudely awakened, he decided he didn't want his head used as a doorstop.

Arriving at Frasne [France], a little wayside station, about 7am, Connie and Miss Selby alighted amongst snow.  It was bitterly cold and they were kept waiting in a shed without seats for some time despite being, 'amongst the first'. Here they went past the customs and were asked if they had any English gold or silver or any letters to post. A French woman was taken away to be searched but they got through all right. The waiting room was very similar to Birtley except smaller, and a peasant woman had hot coffee and rolls on the table which they enjoyed. On to Vallorbe [Switzerland], where all their luggage was deposited on a counter and everyone's things searched but theirs. Once Connie managed to get them to understand they were travelling with the Red Cross they chalked them and off they went, 'one more good turn that I have to thank Mr Wilkins for.' They take the train from Lausanne to Montreux and they had lunch on board. They were naturally disappointed when there was no one to meet them, but concluded that they must have met the Wednesday train (as wired) and didn't know what else to do when they hadn't turned up. Undaunted, Miss Selby and Connie went on alone. 
Rising above Montreux on the line to Les Avants and Rossiniere, Switzerland, photo by Victoria
Rising above Montreux on the line to Les Avants and Rossiniere, Switzerland, photo by Victoria
Connie describes her long awaited meeting with Angus in her diary:

'The little Electric train zig-zagged up the mountain side, we rushed like school children one side of the train to the other, as the view changed sides or appeared to... As we climbed higher, we saw the people tobogganing, and skating, and about halfway up the mountain, a crowd, watching the finish of some bobsleigh races, and there, there was Angus, watching for me, he had just finished his race, and had come on to the platform to see if I was there, as he had been doing for three days, he didn't hold out much hope of seeing me on this train, my second wire had not arrived, and when enquiring about the Red Cross Wives Party he was told none were expected, (but that was because our Red Cross lot were bound for Murren this time). I got out quickly, Miss Selby promising to put my luggage out at Rossinieres.

I cannot give my reactions to the Life that greeted me at Les Avants, all were in holiday mood, winter sporting except for the khaki and the men who were wounded, armless or legless, or crippled, it was a pre-war winter sports holiday scene. I felt shy at being introduced, not feeling my best after travelling for 3 days and nights. Angus was in the next race, and when I saw his team of four coming down the run, iced, banked high at an angle at the corners, with a yell that echoed round the hills as each corner was safely manoeuvred, and the final flash past the winning post out of a narrow avenue of pines, my heart stood still, but it was great- and the English Team won! And...’ 


‘...we have the little silver cup Angus got to this day.'

Sorry for the spoiler alert: I am trying to reveal the story as it was revealed to me. Connie's diary provides an interesting contrast between what she chose to write in her letters to her parents and how she described the same events in her diary.

They boarded the next train coming up from Montreux along with the other British interned soldiers and their friends. They both felt very self-conscious as everyone went to the other end of the long compartment to leave them to themselves. At Rossinieres they alighted and climbed up a narrow path through the deep snow to where Angus, his mother and sister were staying. Connie was reminded of 'the slanty climb from the main road up Peggy's Bank, with the Hotel at the top … I felt all eyes were on me, the fiancee from England who had taken so long to get here.'

Connie naturally misses out most of the details of her meeting with Angus in her letter to her parents, but she does tell them that Mrs Leybourne and Angus’ sister, Muriel, were so pleased to see her. 'They had been to Montreux three days to meet me, it is a long way from here, and had arranged for a lady to meet me the following days in the week, but I had apparently missed her. Will have to stop, will continue in my next, so happy … Heaps of love. Your bairn Connie Kirkup.’

Friday, 20 January 2017

A Very British Romance, part 7: Continental Traveller

This week, Margaret brings us the next episode of Connie and Angus' story.
The top of one of Connie's letters to her parents, letters belong to the Leybourne Family
The top of one of Connie's letters to her parents, letters belong to the Leybourne Family
Six months have passed since Angus invited Connie to visit him in Switzerland as a trainee nurse; his mother and sister arrived; she accepts his proposal of marriage; permission from the authorities is granted; and finally her Dad has given his consent. It is now the end of January 1917 and Connie is finally en route, making a stopover at her Auntie and Uncle's house at Hillcroft Crescent in Ealing, West London. 

Connie writes an affectionate letter to her parents to let them know how she has fared after leaving them. Her relatives escorted her to the permit office. Afterwards, while they were on their way to catch a bus, they met Miss Selby who she would be travelling with. She told them that Thomas Cook's was about to close so they took a taxi and Connie got her ticket, first class boat and second class train and if ‘the party’ are in first class on the train then she will pay the difference. She thought it wise to get the same tickets as Miss Selby. The ‘party’ she mentions is the Red Cross party of internees' wives, close relatives, and soon to be wives. The rest of that day is spent having a cup of tea, doing a little necessary shopping, and collecting her light luggage from the Great Northern.

The next day is Sunday, I imagine Connie is writing at the table in the front parlour, the fire is settling in the grate. The clock on the mantelpiece, having an unexpectedly large audience this Sunday, ticks and tocks as loudly as if Big Ben were its Grandad; and chimes with its best bong, the passing hours of the long afternoon.

'Uncle is preaching in London today'. Connie and the children went to chapel that morning. 'Now Sweetie has gone to Sunday School, Harold is writing a letter, and Ken and his little girl cousin who is spending the afternoon here, are apparently building a chapel, their discussions are most amusing.' She asks her parents to write soon to Switzerland so she won't have to wait long when she gets there. 'I thought of you all about 10.00 and wondered if the band was escorting you home! ... Ask Phil to send Harold his cigarette cards. Also will you send Uncle and Aunt one of my photos (any one please), they have given me theirs to take out with me.'

Connie writes home again the next day, 'in the train between Waterloo and Southampton, 7.00pm January 22 1917.’ She recounts how it was ‘quite a business to get off to Waterloo’, the roads were a sheet of ice and no cabs or horses were to be had. The boys pushed her light luggage to the station on the mail cart. Connie is travelling with Miss Selby and thinks they will have a rush to get their luggage with them, they have light luggage and heavy luggage, but, 'their main point is to keep with the party.' Unable to get her money changed to Swiss francs at Charing Cross as they hadn't any, Connie was told 'English notes hold good anywhere on the Continent.' Connie and Miss Selby are in a first class compartment alone. 'Mr Wilkins [of the Central Prisoner of War Committee in London] was at the station … he presented me to the Lady in Charge, I can't think of her name, she is next door.'

She tells her parents how before she left, 'I put Sweetie and Ken each a box of toffee etc. into their beds for tonight, and Harold 1/- to buy a diary which I heard him say he wanted, it will be a surprise for them tonight. They have all been so kind to me, and the children are the sweetest mannered (even to each other) that I have ever come across … 
Don't be anxious if you don't get a wire for some days, because I am very doubtful about Le Havre, and other wires when not Red Cross seem to take ages.'

The following day, 23 January, Connie writes home again from the Hotel Continental in Le Havre. The hotel is said to be the best in town, 'but it would be considered very, very poor in Newcastle. However we must remember this is France'. She had given her previous letter to the Red Cross officials to post for her at Southampton, and stuck close to the Red Cross party going through customs and on to the boat. They stayed on deck watching the cranes at either end of the boat loading all the heavy luggage and mails, 'it was a wonderful sight to see how expediently it was done'.

Retiring to their berths about midnight, Connie and Miss Selby began their discussion as to how much they were to undress, 'we ended in combs, knicks, socks, and night attire over that, I slept in my life belt, no risks of not getting it on in time for me.'
Example of the sort of life jacket Connie might have been wearing to sleep in © IWM (Art.IWM ART 928)
Example of the sort of life jacket Connie might have been wearing to sleep in © IWM (Art.IWM ART 928)
The next morning Connie was up on deck by 5.30am. She couldn't face breakfast as she felt green and just managed a sip of tea. Landing shortly afterwards Connie and Miss Selby got separated from the party and were left behind at customs, while the party rushed across the town and caught the 7.35am train to Paris without them. 'We followed in a cab. What a cab! it reminded me of nothing but the Scarlet Pimpernel days, and at the station found no train until 5.05pm tonight.' If that train is punctual they ought to catch the same Lausanne train as the party at Paris, if not they will have to go to one of Cook's hotels and will be able to have a look at Paris. 'Miss Selby has her head screwed on the right way I find, and between us we have had quite a nice day…I am beginning to feel quite an experienced Continental Traveller.’

In her next letter, writing from Paris on 24 January, Connie paints a lively picture of the business at the Le Havre train station: finding luggage; having it weighed; paying 4fr.70c for the excess; chasing up and down trying to find their porter with the light luggage; then having to trust him to get it on the train with the heavy luggage. She did not dare venture out of the train to check in case the train started, 'and one has to climb up two steps to get into continental trains, no easy matter.'

'The train was called, "Paris, Rapide", but oh my, what a slow affair… it left on the tick and arrived two hours late, of course after our train to Lausanne had gone.' A Red Cross man met them and said that the ‘wives’ had left word what train Connie and Miss Selby were coming by, and they were taken to the headquarters of the Red Cross, a hotel which 'was most luxurious.' Next morning, the breakfast was of course French, but no rolls, as they were not allowed. Most of the people in the room were 'khaki clad, men and women, and a few visitors, I suppose like ourselves.' The Red Cross officer in charge enquired into their case, took care of their tickets and the little slip of excess luggage, promising to send to the station to get their boxes and take them to the Gare de Lyon. 
Grands Magasins du Louvre, c.1890, originally from fr.wikipedia, public domain
Grands Magasins du Louvre, c.1890, originally from fr.wikipedia, public domain
The ladies headed out on to the streets of Paris, and straight to the shops via L'Arc de Triomphe and the underground to the Palais-Royale. They found a huge shop after the style of Whiteley's in London [this would have been the Grands Magasins du Louvre]. Having wandered from top to bottom, they found a delightful ladies’ luncheon and tea room which even had an English speaking waitress. She directed them to the Louvre, where on arrival, they understood enough French to find out that the main part was closed to the public, but they saw what was open.

'Afterwards another parlez with a Gendarme, with necessary actions, really I shall be able to act French if I cannot talk it after this. He showed us the way to the Hotel de Ville (town hall) and across the Seine to the church, Notre Dame...’ Later in the evening while Connie and Miss Selby were chatting in their room, a chambermaid came in and drew the curtains, word had arrived that ‘Zepps’ were coming, 'but everything seems going on the same, we have lights on, vehicles are going about, and this lounge although lighted by electric candles has light coloured blinds is it not strange, (perhaps it has outside shutters), (no it hasn't).’ Connie hoped that they wouldn't prevent them from leaving for Switzerland that night. 'Greatly as I have enjoyed the day, I want to get to Angus very badly, and I'm afraid he will be wondering where I am.'

Friday, 13 January 2017

John McDonald, a postscript

Back in December, John Sheen wrote about the story of John McDonald of the Durham Light Infantry who he had received an enquiry about, and the response to his assistance. John McDonald was one of the men ‘shot at dawn’, and his daughter, Florence, 102 years old and living in Australia, didn’t know what had happened. You can read that story here first:
Margaret and Jenny, John McDonald's granddaughters, at his grave in France, photo from Joan and Vincent Procter
Margaret and Jenny, John McDonald's granddaughters, at his grave in France, photo from Joan and Vincent Procter
John has been in touch with a postscript. The previous post had anonymised the rest of the family’s names, but they are happy for us to use them. The UK cousins, Joan and Vincent Procter, have sent a bit more background information and family reaction to the manner of John McDonald’s death. 

John McDonald’s widow, Hannah, would not have been entitled to a military pension, making life very difficult trying to raise three children. Florence stayed living in Sunderland with her grandmother, after her mother, Hannah, moved to Oldham with her other two children and her new husband, Frank Diggle, at the end of the war. Frank had also served in the First World War, initially in France with the Sherwood Foresters, then in Sunderland with the Royal Engineers. Florence rejoined the family in 1924, before leaving for Australia in 1928.

After learning of how her father died, Florence said she ‘now understands why she may have been left alone in Sunderland and was very sad to hear that her father was one of the poor souls shot at dawn. She also said she was glad to know at last there was nothing untoward that happened within her family as they never spoke about John MacDonald in their early days in Australia or indeed in the following years. This also made her feel quite resentful towards her mother but now we know the reason it is maybe understandable and she feel more at peace - such a pity it has taken so long.’
Florence McDonald, daughter of John McDonald, sat centre,  photo from Joan and Vincent Procter
Florence McDonald, daughter of John McDonald, sat centre,  photo from Joan and Vincent Procter
Margaret, John’s granddaughter who visited the UK and France with Joan and Vincent, said ‘after a very interesting and informative trip around England and particularly Sunderland having now learned the truth it made her feel very, very, sad but also very angry with the British Army.’

Other family members expressed feelings of shock and sadness, some anger, but also understanding as to why no one spoke of John. 

Whilst there was never going to be a happy ending to this story, it is wonderful that Florence has finally had an answer to what happened to her father.

We’d like to thank John Sheen, Joan and Vincent Procter, and of course Florence McDonald, for sharing their story with us, and allowing us to share it with you.

Friday, 6 January 2017

A Very British Romance, part 6: Cinders

January 1917 was a busy time for Angus and Connie so there will be a few instalments of a Very British Romance from our volunteer, Margaret, this month. Here's a link to the previous entries:
Montreux, Switzerland (photo by Victoria, 2015)
Montreux, Switzerland (photo by Victoria, 2015)
When we left Angus and Connie in 1916, permission had been granted by the authorities for her to travel out to Switzerland. In the meantime there has been Christmas and a birthday. Preceding his letter of 8 January 1917, Connie must have told Angus that his Christmas telegram and arrived on her birthday. In the letter he confesses he is ‘a little ashamed if I do not know the date of your birthday, but I notice you are rather unfortunate in having it very near Christmas as presents generally get rolled into one.’

Angus acknowledges that he is to expect her any time after the 14 January, but wishes she was out now as there is so much he wants to tell her, and it would be awfully nice to have her to go to Montreux and Lausanne ‘and all these places.’ He tells her that they were talking of chaperones the other night and he suggested that Muriel was ample, but his mother was not quite certain:

'Well! Well! we will just have to carry on as best we can under the cloak of etiquette. Give my love to your father and mother and keep heaps for yourself.
I am yours to a cinder
E. Angus Leybourne'

Obviously in high spirits Angus signs off with a grand flourish.

This use of formal, full name, signatures remind me of the scenes in the John Wayne movie, 'The Searchers', and how exasperated Laurie Jordanson was by Martin Polly signing off his letters in that way when he ought to know they were engaged. Angus, now that he is almost certain that he's engaged, has thrown convention to the wind; E. Angus Leybourne has become 'Yours to a cinder, E. Angus Leybourne.' I haven't heard that expression before, and it's not likely to be heard now, since the days of coal fires and cinders are long gone (wood burners don't make cinders). Connie would know what he meant. 

On the 17 January 1916 Angus writes again and gives a little restrained insight into his life as an internee:
'Just had a rather interesting day up at Chateau d'Oex.  There are a lot of things with regard to this abnormal existence which are better not put onto paper and which if I tried with my limited powers of writing, would be totally inadequate to explain to you all the little petty incidents which make up our life here … A local Major with a particular animosity towards the Leybourne family and others as well is doing his best to get us out of the Grand Chalet. However I have the matter well in hand and certainly do not intend to allow him to "strafe" me.'

Lieutenant Colonel HP Picot, Senior Officer, British Interned Switzerland, wrote a report, The British Interned in Switzerland, which was published in 1919. The British Internees were initially under the command of Swiss Officers, with a Colonel Hauser as the officer in charge. Picot had difficulty persuading Hauser that the men would not respond well to this arrangement and urged him to allow the British Junior Officers to organise the men, especially in the training and setting up of workshops. This he agreed to do, eventually, and the British camps became much more efficiently run than those of the French and Germans camps where the Swiss Officers remained in sole charge. However, it remained a fact that the British Internees were at a disadvantage compared to the French and German Internees with regard to the language barrier and the cultural differences. For example, any man charged with a misdemeanour could be sentenced to 3 days confined to bed, which caused some amusement among the British who were used to being punished by being confined to barracks.

Some of the men had been diagnosed in the first stages of Tuberculosis and with more and better food and fresh air and sun cure, which was recommended to heal wounds as well, they began to recover and were under-employed. The French and German Armies at the beginning of the War were made up of Tradesmen, whereas the British Internees, especially those who were the first to arrive in Switzerland, were almost entirely made up of professional soldiers, who had been recruited at a young age. This meant that the British did not have the skills needed to set up workshops as readily as the French and Germans were able to do.

Before finishing his letter, Angus mentions that he has heard, ‘certain rather discomforting rumours today about Switzerland, which are I hope not true.  However, you will probably hear about it before me.’  He gives no indication as to what the rumours are, and there is no further mention.

This is the last letter from Angus to Connie for a while.  The next letter in the collection is from Connie to her parents, her journey to Switzerland has begun.