Authors: Hilary Green
The author wishes to thank the following people:
Tony Davis for the original idea and for sharing his expertize in all things related to the French canal network.
M. Philippe Bernard, ex-lock-keeper at Augy n°79V.S for information about the use of canals during World War II.
My husband David for his unstinting help and support, particularly in matters relating to computers.
uke read the notice over the heads of the little group of peasant farmers and petit bourgeois gathered outside the
. ‘Obligatory work service’. He felt a tightening in his stomach, part angry resentment, part fear. The notice was signed by Pierre Laval, head of the nominally ‘free’ government in Vichy, but everyone knew that it had been issued at the behest of the occupying Nazis; just as they knew that it meant transportation to Germany to work in the armament factories, freeing German workers to join the army. As Luke headed home, a course of action he had been contemplating for some time hardened into a firm resolve.
His mother, Isabelle, was in the low ceilinged, stone-flagged kitchen preparing the soup for the midday meal. A neighbouring farmer had slaughtered a pig and had agreed to exchange some of the meat for a case of wine, so today the soup would be enriched with stock from the bones. It was illegal, of course, under the rationing regulations, but it made a welcome change from a diet consisting largely of vegetables. Luke sniffed appreciatively, but the prospect of food could not dispel the tension in his guts.
His mother put down the spoon and turned towards him and, as she registered the expression on his face, he saw her turn pale.
‘What is it?’
have tightened up the regulations for STO. Now they are saying all men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five.
And there are to be no exceptions. All the previous exemptions have been rescinded.’
! I thought we had a couple of years’ grace, when they asked for 20-year-olds. But now…. When does this take effect?’
‘The week after next. We have to report to the station at Clermont-Ferrand. It’s organized by the first letter of your surname, so I’d be in the first batch.’
‘What shall we do? The local people know that you’re not French, but they’ve accepted us – more or less. The mayor has been prepared to give you and Christine ration cards. But if you have to present your papers to register for this work there will be no way he can conceal the fact that you are a British citizen. And once the Nazis find out, God knows what will happen….’
‘Don’t worry,’ Luke assured her. ‘It won’t come to that. I’ve been thinking for a long time that I ought to be doing something more useful than helping out in the vineyard. I shall go to the Maquis.’
‘No!’ Isabelle spoke more forcibly than usual. ‘I won’t have you mixing with that band of outlaws. Everyone knows that most of them are just common criminals, using the Occupation as an excuse to extort money and goods from hard-working people.’
‘That’s not true!’ Luke protested. ‘Some of them may be crooks, but most of them are patriots who just want to strike a blow against the
‘Huh!’ his mother responded. ‘I’ve yet to see any evidence of that.’ She turned back to stirring the soup with a deep sigh. ‘If only I’d let you go back to England with your father when he went to join up! You would both be safe with your other grandparents now.’
‘I wish you had let us go,’ Luke said. ‘Then I could have joined up, like Dad.’
Isabelle sighed. ‘Oh, come on. We’ve been over this so many times. I thought – we both thought – you would be safer here in rural France than you would be in England under the blitz. But
that was when this part of France was ‘free’. What a fiasco that turned out to be! Two years of that weak-kneed lot in Vichy kowtowing to Hitler’s every whim and then, when the
get the wind up about the Allies invading from the Mediterranean, they let them march in and take over the whole country. And now they want to drag our boys off to work in their filthy factories!’
The kitchen door banged open, letting in a blast of icy air. It was March, but even here in the southern Auvergne there was little sign of spring. With the cold, came Christine, Luke’s younger sister, wiping her hands on a piece of oily rag and grinning triumphantly.
‘There you are! I told you I could fix it.’
In spite of his worries, Luke found himself grinning back.
‘You’ve got grease on your nose, sis.’
‘Have I?’ She wiped the back of her hand across her face, spreading the oily mark further. ‘Never mind. At least the tractor goes again now.’
‘Not for much longer,’ her mother said. ‘We won’t be able to get any more fuel for it when it runs out. I really don’t know why I let you persuade me to buy the wretched thing. We managed perfectly well with the horse – and we’ll soon have to again.’ She regarded her daughter with a look that combined regret and irritation. ‘Do go and get yourself cleaned up, Chris. Lunch is ready. And take those oily overalls off. Why you can’t put a skirt on like any other girl I don’t understand!’
Christine exchanged a look with her brother.
‘Because, dearest Maman, I’d look pretty silly on my back under the tractor with my bare legs sticking out so anyone passing could see straight up my skirt.’
‘I just wish you would tidy yourself up and do something with your hair,’ her mother responded. ‘Don’t you want to look attractive?’
‘Who for? You and Luke? Or Grandad? There’s no one else round here I want to attract.’
‘There are still some perfectly nice young men in the village.’
‘Peasants! Is that the best you think I can do?’ Christine returned tartly, as she left the room.
Isabelle sighed again. ‘I don’t know what is going to become of that girl.’
‘Never mind that, Maman,’ Luke said. ‘We’ve got more important things to worry about.’
‘Yes, I know,’ she replied. ‘But I need time to think, Luke. Go and fetch your grandfather, will you? And don’t say anything at lunch. There’s no need to worry him.’
Luke found his grandfather sitting in his wheelchair by the window of his bedroom, with a shawl round his shoulders and a rug over his knees. They had moved him to a room on the ground floor and he liked to sit there, gazing out at his beloved vines, even now when they were nothing but bare stems; as if in his mind’s eye he could see them heavy with grapes. The vineyard had been in the family for generations. It was on an early tour of France that Roger Beecham, a buyer for a company of wine merchants in London, had discovered Domaine des Volcans, a small winery in an obscure corner of the country, and fallen in love with its produce – and with the vigneron’s only daughter. Then, five years ago, a stroke had incapacitated the old man and brought Isabelle and her husband and children from England to manage the vineyard. That had been in 1938, when peace had still seemed possible.
It was only after the meal, when the old man had fallen asleep as he usually did, that Luke was able to tell Christine about the notice outside the
. She looked at him with wide eyes.
‘But I thought the idea was for people to volunteer, in exchange for French soldiers in POW camps in Germany.’
‘How many men do you know who were prepared to volunteer?’ her mother asked. ‘And how many POWs came home? Very few. Not one for every ten men who went to Germany. The
soon realized that they were not going to get enough men that way. So then they introduced the STO for men aged 20 to 22 and allowed exceptions for those working in agriculture, or the sons of
POWs. And that hasn’t produced the numbers they want either; too many claiming exemption, and too many
, who simply disappeared instead of showing up for transportation. So now they want to drag in everyone they can get.’
Christine looked at her brother. ‘You can’t do it, Luke. You can’t work for the Germans.’
‘Of course I can’t! I wouldn’t, even if my papers were in order and I could pass as French. I’ve told maman I’m going to the Maquis.’
‘And I’ve told you I won’t allow it!’ his mother returned. ‘We shall have to think of some other way.’
‘What other way is there?’
‘You may have to go back to England after all.’
‘And how am I supposed to do that? Just turn up at Calais and ask the Germans to give me a ticket for the Channel Ferry?’
‘There are ways. I’ve heard rumours. People are smuggled over the border into Spain or Switzerland. Leave it for now, Luke. We’ve got a little time. I’ll make some enquiries.’
‘For God’s sake, Mother!’ he exclaimed. ‘Don’t you know how dangerous that would be? If the
get wind of it….’
‘I’m not a fool, Luke! Now please, say no more for now. There’s work to be done in the vegetable patch. Make yourself useful, while you are still here.’
Luke hesitated for a moment, inclined to continue the argument, but his sister touched his arm and shook her head. He looked at his mother’s set face and turned away without another word to put on his working coat.
It seemed that further discussion of the problem was taboo for the rest of the day. That night, Luke slept badly. For months now, he had been dreaming of joining the men who had abandoned home and livelihood to live rough in the forest, preferring that to subjugating themselves to German rule. He knew it was true, as his mother said, that for some of them it was simply a way of escaping the law – whether German or French – but there were plenty of
rumours going round of acts of sabotage and defiance and Luke imagined himself ambushing convoys and derailing trains. He had only been fifteen when war broke out, so there had been no question of joining up; but since he turned eighteen he had felt more and more guilty at his failure to play any active part in the conflict.
Mornings in the farmhouse followed a regular routine. While Isabelle attended to her father’s needs, Luke fetched in wood and built up the fire in the big kitchen range to brew coffee – or the ersatz substitute made from roasted barley that was all that was available – and Christine cycled into the village for the miserable ration of 100 grams of bread for each of them. That morning, he was gazing gloomily out over the rows of blackened vines when the door crashed open in his sister’s usual tempestuous manner.
He swung round irritably.
Nom de Dieu
, Chris. Can’t you ever….’ The words died on his lips as he saw the expression on her face. ‘What is it? What’s wrong?’
‘Come outside.’ Her voice was hoarse with distress. ‘Come and look.’
He followed her out of the door. One side of the long, low, stone house was directly on the road leading to the village. Along it, someone had scrawled in red paint the words:
– English whore and below that:
espion – spy
‘Why?’ Christine demanded, on the verge of tears. ‘Why would anyone write that?’
‘God knows,’ Luke said. ‘But Maman mustn’t see it. We must paint it out, quickly. There’s some whitewash down in the cellar. I’ll get it.…’
He turned to go but it was too late. His mother was standing in the doorway, deathly pale and grim faced.
‘I’m sorry, Maman,’ Luke stammered. ‘If I’d known.…’
‘It isn’t your fault,
,’ she answered. ‘You couldn’t expect this.’
‘It must have been done during the night,’ Christine said. ‘It
must have been there when I went out, but I was going the other way. I didn’t see it until I got back. But why? Why would anyone do that?’
Isabelle shook her head sadly. ‘I think I understand what is behind it. You two don’t know how much hostility there was to my marriage to your father. Domaine des Volcans has been in the family for generations – you know that much – but I think there were those in the village who hoped to get their hands on it, either by marrying me or by persuading me to sell. When I married your father and moved to England, people still thought I wouldn’t come back, so when Grandpapa had his stroke they thought their chance had come. I’m afraid there is still a lot of resentment, carefully hidden until now, at the idea of the vineyard passing into British hands.’
‘But what has that got to do with … with this?’ Luke waved a hand at the graffiti.
took over, I’ve heard some terrible stories. Some people have seen this as an opportunity to settle some old scores or grab land they have been trying to get hold of. It’s hard to believe, but I have heard of people being denounced to the Germans for all sorts of petty infringements of regulations – like having a wireless set concealed so they can listen to the BBC.’
‘And you think someone wants the
to see this?’ Christine said. ‘But what’s the point? It’s so obviously not true.’
‘It’s true that I am married to an Englishman,’ her mother pointed out. ‘And that you two are technically British citizens. That is probably enough to…. Listen! What’s coming?’
They all heard the roar of engines and a moment later, a convoy came into sight over the brow of the hill. Two motorcycle outriders led the way, followed by a staff car with two officers in the back. After them, came an armoured car, a helmeted German head protruding from the gun turret, and then several lorries packed with German soldiers. Instinctively, Isabelle and her two children had drawn back against the wall, in an attempt to conceal the words written there. The men were singing and as they passed
several of them waved cheerfully, as if they were among their own people, but as far as Luke could see, none of them reacted to the graffiti.
‘So! Now we know why the words were written last night,’ Isabelle said.
‘You mean someone knew that convoy was going to pass here this morning?’
‘It looks like it.’
‘I don’t think they read it,’ Christine said.
‘They probably wouldn’t understand it, anyway,’ Luke pointed out.
‘I’ve no doubt someone would have translated it for them,’ Isabelle replied. ‘But the question is, were they just passing through, or are they staying somewhere near here.’
‘I’ll find out,’ Christine said, grabbing her bike from where she had left it against the wall. ‘I’ll ride into the village and snoop around. Someone will know if they are going to stay.’
‘All right. But be careful,’ her mother warned her. ‘And we will paint over this … this mess. Luke, fetch the whitewash and a couple of brushes.’