My Paris Caper

John Maddox 44B

Tales of ‘derring do’ have figured a plenty in recent copies of OBAN. I really cannot compete with the globetrotting escapades of so many Old Boys but, without travelling to the ends of the earth, I too have ‘had my moments’. Although I never saw the sort of action that so many others experienced, my own military endeavours were not without a certain degree of personal stress.

You may say, “What on earth is he blathering on about?” Well, I will now tell you! It all began when, as a none-too-humble Lance Corporal in the King’s Royal Rifle Corps (KRRC), and suffering greatly while trying to teach National Service recruits how to dress properly, tie shoelaces and neckties, I spied an intriguing notice on the Company notice board. (Readers of ‘The Arborfield Apprentice’ – see page 58 – will recall that John’s transfer to the KRRC came through on the day before his ‘PoP’. Ed.)

I must confess that reading Company notices was not a regular pastime of mine but, on this occasion, my eyes were drawn to the magical word ‘Paris’ and my natural curiosity made me give it my full attention. It was to the effect that vacancies had occurred for a junior NCO and several Privates, on the Headquarters staff of the Benelux nations. This was the military alliance, which preceded both NATO and SHAPE, and which included Great Britain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands (well, all right then, Holland) and (would you believe it?) – Luxembourg! The HQ was in fact situated at Fontainebleau, about forty miles from Paris, and the duties were simply listed as ‘Regimental’. The thought of escaping from the training camp, in which I was presently incarcerated, was all I needed to disobey everything I had been taught at Arborfield – and I VOLUNTEERED! My CSM asked me if I had any particular qualifications for the job and I told him that I could at least speak reasonable French.

My name was duly put forward and, after the usual interminable wait, I was sent to London for an interview. Oddly enough, a civilian and an American Army officer conducted this. They asked me questions about my politics, which I told them were non-existent. However, they were very much into the politics business, wanting to know about my parentage, my parents’ politics, any relatives living abroad, in fact everything but my favourite colour of toilet paper. (Come on John – that’s the one we want to know! Ed.) It seems that they were satisfied as, a few days later, I was told to ‘take up my kit and walk’. In London I reported to the RTO at Waterloo Station and was given my rail tickets (civvy-style) to travel on the Golden Arrow express to Paris.

Travelling in style

Luxury travel indeed, as the other occupants of my reserved compartment were two Colonels and a French Army Captain. They politely asked me what the hell I was doing in their compartment but, on production of my travel documents and ticket, they actually became quite chatty. I discovered that they were going to the Embassy in Paris, but learned that I should take a taxi across Paris to the Gare de l’Este, from which I would get the train to Fontainebleau. On explaining that I had no French currency (indeed all I had in my pocket was a couple of quid’s worth of change), one of the Colonels handed me a 500 franc note. Now that seemed to me a great deal of money, but I later found out that the rate of exchange was 980 francs to the pound!

In the event, I successfully travelled across Paris, to find six other Riflemen waiting for the train; they had come from BAOR. We all travelled third class on the Fontainebleau thunderbolt, which had narrow wooden slatted seats and no toilets. To cover the forty miles took a little over an hour and a half, just a mite slower than the Golden Arrow. We arrived at Fontainebleau at about 2100 hours, to a deserted station. On reconnoitering outside, I collared an ancient local and enquired politely, “Ou est le Chateau des Fougeres, sil vous plait?” He looked at me with a blank expression, leaving me wondering if my French was not as good as I had hoped. It turned out that he was as deaf as I am now, but on showing him the address in writing, he told me that we were only about 300 metres from our destination. So, lugging all our kit, we wearily wended our way to this very imposing building, outside of which stood a tall, stiffly starched and beautifully blancoed Military Policeman. “Is this the Chateau des Fougeres?” I enquired? He grinned (not a pretty sight on an MP) and said, “No, this is only the entry lodge, the Chateau is at the end of this driveway”. The said driveway rose before us at an angle of about 1 in 10 and seemed interminable.

Upon arrival at the building, a RASC Sergeant told us that we were not expected for another week and that there was no accommodation. After hunting around, I managed to get all the Riflemen settled, but sleeping on the floor. The Sergeant then conducted me to my sleeping quarters, on the top floor, which was situated up five flights of stairs. He opened a door and said, “There is a folding bed in here, you can use that for tonight”.

On entering, I found myself faced with the said folding bed, minus a leg, plus a row of ten bidets, all neatly arranged along one wall! He then explained that, during the German occupation, the Chateau had been occupied by German Officers and was, in part, conducted as a bordello. The ‘ladies of the night’ had occupied the top floor of the building, where I would now rest my weary head.

The following day, the new arrivals were paraded before our new CO, whose name I am ashamed to admit now escapes me. The unit CSM, a Coldstream Guardsman, told us that he was definitely the man in charge and, thereafter, I seldom ever saw the CO. The function of the British soldiers at the HQ was to supply clerical staff, batmen for the British Officers, and a couple of drivers for everyday transport. I, for my sins and having boasted of my linguistic abilities, would be in charge of local purchases, shoe repairs, laundry, liaison with local tradesmen and the collecting of fresh supplies from Les Halles, the Paris equivalent to our Covent Garden at that time. It turned out that I was the only junior NCO, all other NCOs being either Sergeants or Staff Sergeants. They were all in the RASC or Pay Corps and operated in the offices spread throughout the Chateau. I was then given a billet in the general stores, responsibility for which was also thrust upon me, and off we went.

Under Monty’s supervision

The whole shebang was being commanded by Field Marshal Montgomery, who occupied a large office on the first floor of the Chateau, while we ‘odds and sods’ were accommodated in what had once been the servants’ quarters. These were a couple of hundred yards from the main Chateau and we saw little of the Officer establishment, other than ‘Monty’ himself who, when actually at Fontainebleau, took a daily walk around the grounds. He was always civil, always spoke when saluted and often enquired about the health and general well being of the squaddies on site. Monty already had a KRRC batman and a KRRC driver and had apparently requested that his regimental and supernumerary staff should also come from the Corps. “Why?” I never found out.

My week was spent in running around the countryside, dealing with the locals, and collecting bread daily from the local French baker. He baked our bread to an English recipe, using flour supplied by the Army. The bread was good but the baker said he didn’t know how we could eat such rubbish! The shoemaker repaired boots for us, using leather soles, studs and heel plates, which I supplied from the stores. I found that, for two extra pairs of leather soles, he would repair my civvy shoes ‘free of charge’. The laundry visits always meant sharing a large glass of local red wine with Madame Hamard, the patronne, while stealthily eyeing up the female staff.

On Monday and Thursday mornings, I rose at 0330 hours, had a quick rinse and headed down to the cookhouse. There, I usually had a large mug of coffee, with maybe just a hint of cognac, plus a steak or double-egg sandwich. Then, with my driver, I left for the market in Paris. On arrival, a strict routine had to be followed – first choose a porter, who, with his big two-wheeled cart, would collect all our purchases. There were many available, but we always used the same one, always haggling over his charge, which he and I both knew would end as 500 francs on Monday and 600 francs on Thursday. This ritual completed, a handshake, followed by a trip to the little bistro to seal the bargain with a cognac all round – for the driver the porter and me.

Then it was down to business. First of all, potatoes then fresh veg, then fruit followed by fresh eggs. Haggling was at first a problem, as the market traders didn’t speak the French I had been taught and which served me so well in Fontainebleau. No, they used the local equivalent to Cockney slang and it took me quite a while to get my tongue round it. Nevertheless, we always managed to get what we needed – and within the budget set. Just as well, as I never carried any money, the bills being settled by an officer in the Catering Corps, who usually arrived just as we were finishing. After delivering the purchases to our Bedford QL, we paid off the porter, who insisted that we join him for a drink. So it was then back to the bistro, where Jacques the porter would order three cognacs, then I would also order three cognacs and, on the odd occasion, the driver would also order (yes, you’ve guessed!) another three cognacs.

Suitably fortified, we then wended our way through the chaotic Paris traffic, with one hand on the horn all the way, just like every other Parisian motorist. On one occasion, we had been told to detour to the British Embassy to collect an officer’s kit for delivery to Fontainebleau. On leaving, we made our entry to the Place de la Concorde, where the driver turned left instead of right onto the roundabout. This was not a good move, as we found ourselves faced by six lanes of traffic, hurtling at speed towards us and honking furiously! After much profanity and not a little sideswiping, we managed to get free of the crush, but my driver swore he would never use that route again.

One of those moments

At the beginning of this tale, I said that I had ‘had my moments’ – let me therefore describe just one of them. We had been in the market for about ten minutes, when I needed a visit to the pissoir, one of those ornate but half-sized gents’ urinals found all over Paris. There one nonchalantly stands, doing what comes naturally, while surveying the surroundings over the chest-high wall. On this occasion, while I was engaged in relieving myself, a large, rotund French lady (and I use the term loosely!) approached, clutching this enormous cabbage in her meaty hand. Flourishing this under my nose, she demanded to know where else, other than at her stall, could I buy such a beauty for only ten francs? I had by then gotten into the French habit of talking with my hands but, due to the business in hand, felt that I was unable to reply with a suitable gesture at this precise moment!

Another thing about the market, the eggs were never more than half the size we are used to in England. So our allowance, which was numerical rather than by weight, didn’t go very far. Our cook told me he needed twelve eggs to make a decent omelette. I did, after filling in reams of paperwork, manage to get this allowance doubled, but often wondered was it worth the effort. I also found that our duty-free cigarettes were a useful form of currency. If you have ever smoked or even smelt original French Gauloise cigarettes you will know just how evil they are.

The French National Servicemen, who were paid the princely sum of seven francs a day (one old shilling a week), were issued with forty cigarettes every two weeks, when they were paid. These were of the Gauloise Troupe brand, made especially for the Forces. They consisted of nothing but tobacco dust and, if you lit one and inhaled, the flame would run the length of the cigarette and burn your nose. The art of smoking one was to angle it upward in the mouth, light it and withdraw the light before inhaling. The ‘upward’ tilt was to prevent the tobacco simply falling out of the end! National Servicemen in France were paid so poorly to encourage them to sign on, when their pay went up to about 500 francs a day. Of course, the snag was that, as soon as they signed on, they were shunted off on the next draft to Indo-China, where losses of men were astronomical.

Another of my many duties was to prepare the drinks and supervise the waiters at Monty’s monthly cocktail party. This was held at his residence, the Chateau de Courances, some distance from the Headquarters. I would be given three French waiters and three of our British squaddies to serve the drinks while I, being bilingual, acted as supervisor. The other part of my duties was to mix the drinks. As about 100 to 120 officers and ladies would be in attendance, I chose to mix the drinks in a sunken marble bath, situated in that part of the Chateau not in normal use. What went into the ‘potion’ depended entirely on what I had been given by Monty’s cook on the particular occasion. There could be cognac, red and white wines, gin, Pernod, Martini and, sometimes, a bottle of best malt whisky. Whatever it was, I mixed it all in with a large wooden paddle. The resulting mixture was then ladled into large enamel jugs, from where it was served into the glasses. Monty himself always attended, precisely at 6pm, circulating among his guests and departing precisely at 7pm. He did not imbibe my ‘magic potion’, but a waiter followed him around, bearing a glass of pure orange juice, freshly squeezed, on a silver salver – ‘just in case’. On the only occasion he ever turned to take it, a portly Belgian officer beat him to it. Give him his due, he just smiled at the terrified waiter and carried on talking.

The tales to be told would fill a large tome, but one last incident I thought funny needs to be related. At a conference, while supervising the doling out of tea and biscuits, the bar was approached by a very tall, athletic looking American officer, a Captain I believe. Although America was not a partner of the Benelux Agreement, it was American money that funded it and so ‘observers’ were often present. Anyway, behind this giant figure, pushing through the crowd, came a tiny man, but wearing the uniform of an American Air Force General and the biggest peaked cap imaginable. On his reaching the table, the Captain picked up a plate of biscuits and said, “Hey General, would you like a cookie?” I almost poured hot coffee over myself, as this big, big man owned the highest pitched falsetto voice I have ever heard! The General replied, in a really deep, out-of-your-boots voice, “Not now son, maybe later”.

Ooh la lah! We’re English!

During my first Christmas in France, a party of ORs, about thirty in number, arranged to visit the Follies Bergere in Paris. This cabaret show was reputed to be the ‘only show in town’, with scantily clad dancers and – hold it – the odd naked lady! Needless to say, our contingent included six sailors, all signallers, who formed the entire naval contingent at the HQ. They were not stationed at the Chateau, but at a French Army barracks in Fontainebleau. On arrival at the Follies, we all trooped in to the gallery, where we occupied the front row. The show was good, the comedy turns totally unintelligible – but the dancers! Now, that was what the boys had come to see!

During the interval, as is the French custom, everybody tripped off outside as, even in those days, ‘No Smoking’ was the strict rule in cinemas and theatres across France. We all met in the foyer of the theatre, where the dancers, now offering trays of expensive mementos for sale, paraded around. Upon their seeing a clutch of British uniforms, we were suddenly surrounded by these nubile young ladies who, to my great surprise and without exception, turned out to be English! Most of them were ‘Brummies’ and they explained that the reserved French girls would not strip or wear the flimsy outfits on stage. Needless to say, we really enjoyed the experience (and the show as well).

There are many tales told about Monty, how he was a ‘martinet’, who hated smokers and drinkers etc. But Jackson (his driver) told me that, when on a long journey by road, Monty would order him to stop about every hour, then dismount from the car and take a walk. Jackson enjoyed a cigarette and Monty knew it, so the breaks were to give Jackson the chance of a quick ‘spit and a drag’. Monty didn’t drink alcohol, so when the Humber Company presented him with a custom-built Humber Super Snipe, he was more than a bit put out to see that the rear of the front seat opened out into a little bar, complete with glasses etc. Needless to say, the vehicle was returned and altered before he used it.

One day, an order was issued that all we odds and sods would parade for a cross-country run, as the ‘big white chief’ thought that we didn’t get enough exercise. This we duly did and, as we returned to the Chateau, all out of condition and out of breath, several French and Belgian officers catcalled us out of their office windows. Apparently, they were unaware that the big chief was in his office – and overheard them. The following day, a memo was circulated to all officers under the age of 40 years, telling them to parade for an ‘exercise run’ the next day. We were not supposed to know about this, but the grapevine worked as well as ever. About thirty officers actually attended and took part, with Monty in attendance at the start. Military Policemen were stationed around the route, to ensure that all went well and the Field Marshal was at the finish to see them all return. It was satisfying to note that, if we were deemed ‘out of condition’, then some of the officers had obviously never been in condition!

I’m all right Jacques!

CSM Hughes, our Coldstream boss, also decided that we Riflemen needed smartening up and so it was decreed that, as he knew nothing about Rifle drill, I should be the one to take a one-hour drill parade once a week. This meant forming up my little band of warriors and marching them at a respectable ‘Rifles’ pace – out through the main gates, round the corner into a quiet cul de sac, where we could all fall out and enjoy a quiet smoke! A little way up the road from our quarters stood the Café de Paris, a quite large establishment run by a retired Sergeant Major of the Foreign Legion, Jacques by name. It was popular with our boys, as Jacques spoke quite good English and popular with French National Service men because he often gave them a free bottle of wine. I do suspect that he grossly overcharged our bods, to make up the shortfall, but nobody bothered, as we were quite ‘wealthy’. We were given a Local Overseas Allowance of 26/8d a day (£1.33 for the Jeeps among you), which was greatly appreciated, especially as my Army basic pay at that time was only about £2.40 a week. This LOA was supposed to bring our pay up to the equivalent buying power to that in England, but it was complete nonsense of course. In France, clothing was expensive, while a bar of soap was three times dearer than at home. But we didn’t really need clothing and we had a small NAAFI for the bare essentials.

Leave a Reply