THE FADING MARGIN: Serial 10Posted: January 18, 2013
I am part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
The Great Swan
The sunshine in which we watched the first act of the ill-fated airborne operation of Market Garden did not last long. The defeat at Arnhem marked both the end of any bright hope that the war might be over by Christmas and the beginning of what, in the far and backward view, seems to have been a drama for winter scripted by Thomas Hobbes set in a landscape by Pieter Breughel or Hendrik Averkamp, with brief moments here and there from an opium smoker’s happy dream.
With Market Garden over (subsequent minor operations were inevitably to take us on a sightseeing tour of its poignant wreckage), the Germans in the north of Holland, beyond the Rhine, were fighting with a ferocity that gave our own infantry their worst experiences since Normandy. Some of the enemy were battle-hardened German paratroopers. Some – the renowned Kampfgruppen – were the remnants of miscellaneous fighting formations largely destroyed in earlier engagements but now assembled, ad hoc, along with stray personnel even from administrative units. Enhancing the characteristic and unsurpassed military virtues of the German army was an awareness that “unconditional surrender” was the declared policy of their adversaries and that they were part of the last line of defence of their homeland.
It was a very different war from the one that had been fought in summer and a different country from the one that had been left on the far side of the Seine. The civil population of occupied Holland had suffered far worse than that of France, and although they were neither indifferent to their liberation, nor slow to recognise it, those who had delivered it could hardly fail to be aware of what they had never been conscious of in Normandy or during the great ‘swan’ after Falaise – that real hardship, or worse, was never far away.
“The crusade to liberate Europe, upon which many men of the Allied nations embarked with real idealism in June 1944, had degenerated into a series of sodden local manoeuvres”, says Max Hastings. Far from the triumphant, non-stop advance that Montgomery, yearning for the victor’s laurels, had schemed for, the months went by in a savage and relatively parochial skirmishing where many lives were lost but not a yard of Germany gained. “Mopping up” was the term most usually and most inappropriately used.
All downhill and on to Berlin? The regimental history from the start of Market Garden in September to the second week in December records the following different locations occupied for widely varying periods of time. Riethoven – Veldhoven – Eindhoven – Wintelre – Middelbeers – Nijmegen – Berchem – s’Hertogenbosch – Week – Kinroy – Bree – Swartbroek – Baexam – Heijhuijzen. Fourteen moves in eleven weeks. A night or two here, a few days there. The guns in action at this place but not in the next. A bed indoors on one night, but not on another. Lorry, jeep, motorbike, in daylight or darkness. A few days of sunshine, but overwhelming and abiding impressions of fog, mist, rain, mud and bitter cold. Trying to rouse a recumbent sentry outside the ruin of a thatched cow byre one December dawn, I found him dead.
A TOUCH OF MELODRAMA
In our script for the closing months of the year, one scene, in Holland, comes perilously close to melodrama. In an attempt to detoxify it, let us therefore observe the junior officer as at times we observed the hard-pressed schoolboy: noting the facts but going easy on the emotion. It is an October evening in the smoke-filled, candlelit bar of Eindhoven’s Green Man Hotel. Consistent with high authority’s concern for morale (but in reality due to an administrative error, it is maliciously said) an ENSA concert party (ENSA is the acronym of the Entertainments National Services Association) has been sent unusually close to the fighting. The company in the bar of the Green Man includes numerous officers who, like our hero, have come into the city for the evening with parties of men from various front line units in order to attend the show. The candlelight in the bar is not for enhancement of the atmosphere but because of the frequent post-liberation power cuts.
The ENSA show has included a sketch from a popular revue that has been running in London and in which Nicola, our sometime ballerina, has a part. To our junior officer’s surprise and delight, there on the stage in Eindhoven is Betty, who has been with Nicola in the London production and whom, consequently, he has met before. Her presence in the bar, along with that of another very pretty girl from the ENSA company (the soldiery whistled loudly at both whenever they came on), has been organised by tank officers from the Brigade of Guards, one of whom was at school with the junior officer, has encountered him in the cinema and invited him to join the party.
The guardsmen have brought well-deserved quantities of drink with them, and it flows. Our hero and Betty talk. She was with their mutual friend only a week or two ago in London, she tells him. Nicola had been upset at the time, having just heard that her husband had been wounded in Italy. How close a friend Betty has ever been to Nicola our hero has never enquired. Not very close, he thereafter likes to suppose, else her talking casually about a husband as though her listener already knew about him would have been worse than malicious. Afterwards, he is to recall that there had been a din of other talk in the smoke-filled room, so that Betty and he had been leaning towards one another in order to converse and he had been disturbingly conscious of the fashionable Chanel Number Five that she had been wearing. Otherwise, he remembers little except that after the remark about the husband the noise had seemed to increase to a personal assault so that he had wanted only to elbow his way out into the night.
Nothing else about the party. Nothing of what he might have said to Betty, or how long they were together, or how the evening ended. Only that he subsequently consumed the best part of a bottle of gin in a very cold barn before going out to an observation post at first light in a Bren gun carrier and that later the driver, recounting the incident, observed that in spite of the gin the junior officer seemed to have been “cold f—-g dangerously sober”. It was a defining moment; hence the 3-days-to-a-page record of self-pity and introspection for some time thereafter. But with that same detachment which permitted an objective view of the 13-year-old schoolboy, so let the post-Eindhoven condition of the 20-year-old junior officer be reported with compassion rather than disdain. Witness a bundle of more than 100 letters written between June 1944 and May 1945, many mud-stained, sent not to any specified location, but rank, name and unit at an address that includes the letters B.L.A., which is to signify British Liberation Army. Along with sleep and cigarettes, they have for all of Normandy, and much of the time thereafter, been the most precious, sustaining thing in a dangerous world. To see the familiar handwriting on the pale blue envelope has always been instant elation. To read – and believe – the endearments, an exquisite happiness. Though the recipient will never find the courage to throw them away, he will never read them again.
Clinging to the Wreckage was the brilliant title of the late John Mortimer’s autobiography. It would serve admirably for an account of our young hero’s relationship with Nicola following the Eindhoven revelation. For a while the stricken vessel was kept afloat by a reluctance to face the pain of loss; which is to say by unrealistic hopes, by a self-deluding rapprochement and by romantic fantasies. Little by little, however, ever more vulnerable to even the least of unfavourable winds that blew, unseaworthy, unnavigable, it settled lower and lower in the water, a sad relic of what it once had seemed to be. For a while it may still show prominently on our charts but will make no great demands upon our patience. Other people’s love affairs are like their health: we are sorry if they fall ill and glad when they recover but have no wish to hear the details of the physician’s report, far less to be shown any scars.
In this our Hobbesian scenario for the last of autumn and early winter leading up to Christmas, 1944, a conscientious recital of activities would lose to boredom anything that it might gain in authenticity. When not occupied with the banalities of regimental duty, we are likely to be found reading and writing letters, reading books, sleeping, discussing matters as diverse as divorce and post-war social security, or playing cards; very roughly in that order of probability. There is a lot of card playing, nearly always for modest stakes. Not cerebral, patient, or wily enough to play any serious card game competently, in the course of one salutary evening at vingt-et-un I lose almost a month’s pay through characteristically reckless bidding. Generously, my principal creditor later tears up my IOU, but for decency’s sake, if nothing else, I rarely play thereafter and have never seriously gambled since. There is also, and increasingly, much wistful speculation about leave – the kind that will take us back across the Channel. There is no hope of it this year, but opportunities for local leave are meanwhile presenting themselves in the shape of 48-hour furloughs to Antwerp. Even without the menace of V1s, now targeted on Belgium’s premier port as well as on London, the prospect of spending two days and nights in a servicemen’s hotel or hostel in a foreign city has only limited appeal; consequently, there is no competition for passes. By contrast, I am eager. When we left Antwerp, back in September, Léon and Yvette Namier – the dentistry professor and his wife – had seemed sincerely sorry to see me go. Jacqui had cried when I said good-bye and flung her arms round my neck in a way that was as unsettling as it was innocent. “Promise you’ll come back”, she had sobbed. And as countless young men in uniform have done since war began, I had promised, but known that it was a vow I would probably never be able to keep.
Now, in the middle of November, I do keep it. From the area near Swartbroek that the regiment is occupying for a night or two, a 3-tonner lorry takes some half dozen ticket-of-leave men, myself the only officer, on a very uncomfortable six-hour ride into the city centre, where the other ranks will stay in a hostel and I in the Excelsior Hotel. After a glorious wallow in the first proper bath that I can remember having had since leaving England almost six months ago, I go shopping for luxuries that will be welcomed at home and for chocolates (which prove to be coals to Newcastle) to give to Yvette and Jacqui Namier. We all meet for tea in the hotel lounge, where an orchestra is playing and Jacqui is teased for allegedly looking at me “with sheep’s eyes”. A week or two after I had first met them, the Namiers tell me, a near miss by a V2 had made their flat uninhabitable and they were now living in a much smaller one. Not having known that I was going to turn up without warning, Yvette and Léon are not free for the evening, but hope that I will have dinner with them next day.
On this first night I dine very agreeably at the hotel with another subaltern from the 53rd Welsh Division whom I met in the bar, then go early and contentedly to bed after confiding to my diary that the Namiers “really are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met”. Late the next evening, when we say goodbye, they insist that I come to see them whenever I get the chance. Hotel availability or not, provided I wouldn’t mind what was mostly used as an ironing room in their present flat, but that had a single bed in it, I could always stay with them.
The chance comes again after only a few more weeks, during one of which the River Maas breaks its banks, inundating large areas of the already-sodden countryside, and I am sick with a severe stomach upset. In this time, too, a forward observation post that I am occupying for thirty-six hours is targeted from a distance by a single enemy gun, and my report to our own guns of the compass bearing and time of firing, plus time of impact is accurate (or lucky) enough for the offender to be silenced by counter-battery action. All the windows in the upstairs room of the house which I am occupying happen to shatter noisily while I am telephoning the battery, greatly alarming the gun position officer and lending drama to what in truth is a routine occurrence in not especially dangerous circumstances. Thus is born a flattering (and, as I later had reason uncomfortably to suspect beneficial) reputation for steadiness under fire.
Then, quite out of the blue, or rather, out of the dreariness, comes a gift from the gods. One of my seniors is told by the colonel to have a rest and a change of scene. He, too, made friends when we were first in Antwerp and now proposes that we drive there in his jeep, which will be a considerable improvement on a 3-tonner. The suggestion is as good as an order and one that I am not slow to obey. The other officer is twenty-eight, very good looking (mutual Belgian friends will later always refer to him as le beau major) and has been described by a slightly strait-laced colleague as having “more charm than is good for him”. In Antwerp he will not be accommodated in an ironing room with a single bed but rather more sybaritically in the apartment of Simone, an independent and bounteously companionable young woman of twenty-three whose indulgent father owns one of the country’s largest breweries. I met her briefly back in September and fully understand the beau major’s enthusiasm for a reunion.
By now, Antwerp is under more or less daily attack from flying bombs and rockets. Courageously, the brewer’s daughter and the Namiers are still there, so on an evening in December I am back with Yvette and Léon, drinking champagne. My hostess is a superb cook and supper is truly epicurean. There is a potted gardenia but no sign of an ironing board in my bedroom and I am quite soon a little drunk with the joy of it all. Because of the bombs and rockets, Jacqui is now living with her grandparents in Brussels, to whose large mansion off the Avenue Louise Yvette and I go by train next day. There is a Steinway grand in the drawing room, so that still I cannot hear a Chopin waltz without seeing Jacqui perched on the piano stool, hearing her protests about going to bed at ten o’clock (“mais ce n’est pas toujours que Nigel est avec nous!”) and wondering if I could have been falling in love with a child of thirteen.
A few days later, the beau major’s forward observation post is pinpointed by an enemy 88, fatally wounding his signaller and his driver, a V2 falls on a crowded cinema in Antwerp, killing more than 1,000 people, several hundred of them Allied servicemen, and all leave to the city is stopped.