Huy: August 3rd, 1940 - September 6th, 1940


17 years ago a delegation of Belgian Drones went to the Chateau-Fort of Huy to unveil this commemorative plaque. From the beginning of August to the beginning of september Plum was an unwilling visitor of this small city in French-speaking Belgium, when he as a British civilian was interned when the Germans occupied France. It was quite a ceremony, in the company of the cities mayor and a select representation of Drones, and the plaque still hangs there. 

What follows are quotes from a biography I recently bought in Alnwick, in that magnificent second hand bookshop called Barter Books, in an old Railway station. As some expressions are very British I made an effort to explain them in footnotes for those of us that did not receive a British education. I hope you enjoy the read. 


August 3rd, 1940. Breakfast. Whistle goes at 6.30, parade at 7. We are told soup will be at 9.30 and we must be ready to leave by 11.30. We parade with baggage in boiling sun for an hour and drive down to station in covered wagons, 25 men to each - absolute Hole of Calcutta (1). - Into cattle trucks at station. After 4-hour journey to do 25 miles.
Very hot.
Parade in street for almost 1/2 an hour, then march up to Citadel carrying baggage. Appalling trip - Citadel at top of steep hill with glorious view of Meuse (2).
...
August 4th, 1940. ... The morning was given up to cleaning - I cleaned sills and a man in a room above emptied a bucket of water all over me, silly ass. We cleaned up passages and washroom. Now gradualy being borne upon us that we are a ruddy peripatetic fatigue party - we cleaned up Liege and they moved us on, and now we shall clean up Huy and presumably move on again.
...
August 5. We hear that tomorrow all the Germans have been able to buy for us is 28 kilos of macaroni.
...
August 7. Rainy morning - not cheered by rumour that someone has escaped. (This proves to be true). Atmosphere that of Dotheboys Hall after escape of Smike. (3)
...
I went to wash up the dishes at the pump next to the guard room. I was feeling like a naughty boy after the search of (our) room and was prepared to be told not to do something by anybody I met. At the pump was a very tough looking German private and he said something to me in what sounded like a rough annoyed voice and I was just about to say 'Yes, sir, very good, sir' and retire, thinking that he was telling me I ought to be in my room, when I suddenly found that he was offering us soup. He filled both our tins, and I never tasted anything better - thick rice with strips of meat. This is the most touching thing that has happened to me since the invasion began.
...
August 11. For first time, I fetch soup in bucket from cookhouse. Frightful sense of responsability - suppose I dropped it!
...
August 12....It's extraordinary how one's whole soul becomes obsessed with food....
...
August 13...I have a theory about these parades. I believe Mister Big is the German equivalent of the Colonel living in Cheltenham or Bexhill (4), - they have dug him out after years of retirement and given him this fairly important job, and it has gone to his head - he loves the feel of strutting up and down in front of us and having interpreters giving orders...
...Mister Big is 62 and retired. - Ex-inspector of police. - Thinks everyone is a crook (like Baxter (5)). - Volunteered for this job. - Loves being a little king. - Bexhill stuff.
...
August 16. After lunch three sudden whistles for parade - evidently something wrong and we all feel like schoolboys at Dr Grimstone's (6) - Sergeant and three men go down ranks with a nervous-looking spectacled man who looks after electric lights. A long harangue in German from Sergeant. It gradually develops that man was insulted by a boy who said that he would 'throw him in the river'. The idea of this as a threat is comic - (a) it would need a damn fine throw, and (b) most of us would welcome being thrown into river. The B5694s are paraded for about 3/4 of an hour while the man seeks vainly for the boy...The Sergeant says he had intended to bring the thing up to Kommandatur but will settle it amicably if we all promise not to do it again- we do, enthusiastically.
...
August 18...
Another substitute now prevalent is tea or straw instead of Tobacco - tea smoked has a horrible sweet, sickly smell and is very unpopular with rest of dormitory. Orders keep being given on parade - eg Boys must not gather round guard room like pelicans in wilderness - but they still do. Als no smoking on parade, but we blandly roll up in a fragrant cloud of smoking tea. - Also, we must get on parade quicker - we must come at the Double. But we are like the Fifth, who 'don't dance' - we don't double - we still remain the languid saunterers we have Always been (7). Also no hands in pockets.
...
August 21...and today I hear the Holland frontier has been closed so cheese will be probably unavailable...
We are rather like Falstaff's army in Henry V (8). New Sergeant starts parade by shouting 'Good morning' - we shout back. A little like Captain S Pinafore (9).
...


One of the cells where Plum and his fellow Brits lived during their internment

August 22. Big day. I am asleep in afternoon when soldier comes to window and says I am wanted. - I go to guard room and there is my beloved Oberst, who has stopped to see me off on his way to Germany on leave.
The Oberst tells me my poor Bunny is worrying, as I feared she might. He is going to tell her I am all right...He tells me all the Paris Plage wives of British subjects, whether English or Frenche, have had to leave.
I say to Arthur that there has been scarcely a really dull eventless day since we came - Always some parade or visit or excitement. I say the Germans must have an Entertainment Committe for our benefit.
Stray thought - How marvellous if the other 18 men in Room 34 suddenly decided to go on hunger strike and gave me their ration.
...
August 25. In canteen room, looking at view and talking to Jock, Yule and Algy - when two men rush in. Their wives are down below, hundreds of feet. They lie on broad window still, looking down and shouting and we hear women's voices. Finally we drag them in, afraid they might lose their heads and jump, and Algy, wonderfully gentle, makes them sit on bench. - They sit there with bowed heads, crying, adn Algy talks to them like a mother, saying they know their wives are allright and we shall soon all be out etc....
August 26. Parcels arrive. New Lieutenant - Mr Big and entire company left yesterday - has them openend and everything in them opened - bread, sardine tins, everything. (Letters are destroyed after being read by recipient for fear of code.)
It looks as if this new lieutenant may succeed in smartening us up, a task that has defeated hundreds. Sergeant on parade yells 'Achtung' and startles me - spring to attention....
August 29. Man comes up to me in upstairs corridor and asks me how Ukridge would have liked this life....He says this life has completely cured his kidney trouble - he used to get out of bed all doubled up and now is lissom. I find too, that my rheumatic finger, before quite stiff, is now flexible. We appear to be getting here sort of treatment you pay heavily for at places like Ruthven Castle....We are old on parade not to parade with our hands in pockets. Quiet amusement on our part and hands thrust deeper into pockets.
August 31. Talking to Reeves, the padre. He tells me that Kandhu, owing to cadging food from the Germans, has acquired 128 biscuits as  a sort of reserve of capital. All one's values change in a place like this - news like that makes me feel Kandhu is a millionaire - it is like hearing of the Duke of Westminster (10).
September 4: Jeff went to town to oculist's and came back with bread, given to him by population. Divided among our 19, it ran to one smaal slice apiece, but very welcome.
...
September 7. We wake this morning to find that 16 new prisoners have arrived in the night. All Jews, headed by Rabbi. Distinct lowering of the tone.

A day later Plum was moved to Upper-Silesia. A last quote: Some humorist on parade: 'When the war is over, if I have any money, I'm going to buy a German and keep him in the garden and count him!'

From the book PG Wodehouse. The Authorized Biography., Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1982, p. 177-193.

(1) An expression known to every Brit, and it is an essentail part of colonial history. The Hole of Calcutta was a small dungeon in Fort William, Calcutta. Fort William was built by the East India Company to protect its local trade but when the Company decided to reinforce it in 1756 the native ruler, the Nawab, decided to attack it. The British fled, but left behind 146 soldiers to defend it. Desertion and demotivation led to its fall on the 20th of June, and 64 soldiers were imprisoned in a small room measuring 4.30 to 5.50 metres. The next morning only 23 of them were still alive, the others succombing lo lack of oxygen and water, and many were tramped or pressed to death in attempts to reach the sole window. The dead were thrown in a ditch. Sir Robert Clive recaptured Calcutta in january 1757, and stories by the survivors soon filled the Britis newspapers.

(2) The Citadel is built on a hill that controls a bridge over the Meuse, the big river that via Li├Ęge flows into the Netherlands and the North Sea. The view from the fort is indeed stunning and worth a visit.

(3) Scene from Nickolas Nickleby by Charles Dickens, his third published novel, about a boarding school where the horrible Wackford Squeers starves and mistreats his pupils. Smike is one of them and act as an unpaid servant so Squeers. When he runs away he is caught and beaten severely. For the full story: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicholas_Nickleby or read the book !!

(4) Cheltenham is a Regency Spa town on the edge of the Cotswolds that I never visited, but I have been often to Bexhill, home of the beautiful De La Warr Pavillon. Both were popular towns to retreat to after your career was finished and were very popular with retired military and civil servants. It gave the towns a very old-fashioned, stiff upper lipp population, often mocked in the press. But i quite like Bexhill. Do take a look here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bexhill-on-Sea

(5) Lord Emsworth's secretary, a model of efficiency (and mistrust). More about him here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rupert_Baxter

(6) Dr Grimstone is the cane-wielding headmaster in the 1882 comic novel Vice-Versa: A lesson to Fathers by Thomas Ansley Guthrie. It was a popular play during the interbellum.

(7)I have not been able to find this one, but I think it refers to the Fifth 'Northumberland' Regiment in the Peninsular War. If somebody knows more, please react !

(8) Falstaff is a famous Shakespeare character, a fat, vain, boastful and cowardly knight and a bad influence on the young Henry V, but it is one of Shakespeare's great creations, so great in fact that he developed a life on its own in other plays and opera's like Verdi's Falstaff.

(9) from a song in the Gilbert & Sullivan musical.

(10) One of the richest men in Britain in the thirties, owner of large parts of Belgravia, and famous as lover of Coco Chanel, with the habit of hiding diamonds under the pillows of his lovers.

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