A Conversation for A Place to Call Home
Array Started conversation Nov 27, 2020
The maquisards decided to move from the quarry, as its location was becoming known. Michel and Pedro had heard there were some disused farm buildings in the hills, so they went scouting. They found the farm in a little valley. There was a tree growing out of the barn roof, but the main house was intact, though dirty and full of leaves and cobwebs. As Michel walked round, he found himself comparing it with the farm where he had grown up. It was smaller and had no cowshed, but some overgrown vines showed that the main harvest had been grapes. The place was screened from the road by trees and had the merit of having a well. The maquisards set to work cutting down bushes and repairing the buildings, with the result that they had more comfortable quarters.
By the time summer came, Michel had almost completely recovered from his injuries, except for some loss of movement in his right wrist. That made his jobs mending vehicles more difficult, and he sometimes wondered how he would live if he survived the war. He told himself not to worry about the future, as the present was precarious enough. However, he often thought of Henri on his farm. There would always be work to do: the peach harvest would be underway, followed by wheat. Work would start early in the morning but there would be a long break for lunch. In peaceful days, there would have been a big lunch of bread, cheese and ham, washed down by local wine. Now, he imagined, even Henri and his family would find it hard to put much food on the table. However, he felt a certain envy for Henri, going about his work in relative peace.
In the camp, speculation was growing about when the Allies would land in France. Everybody agreed the landings would come soon. The maquis group had a wireless and some volunteer operators, who listened into BBC broadcasts, and there was a feeling of tension as everyone waited for news. Michel convened a meeting in the barn, where the was room for everyone to sit. He looked round the gathering. He knew most of the men by name, with their skills and weaknesses.
“I think we're all agreed we should be ready to act when the time comes,” he said.
“We're ready to fight,”someone said and there was a murmur of approval around the group.
“The question is what we can most usefully do.”
“We've got explosives,”Pedro said. “We can blow up the railway line if we hear they are sending reinforcements north by train.”
“And, if they are sending units north by road, we ambush them,”said someone else.
At this, Michel shook his head. “We have to be realistic. We have plenty of rifles, revolvers and ammunition. But we don't have heavy weapons. We wouldn't last long against tanks.”
“We need to choose our spot,” said Pedro. “If we catch them in a town or village, we can hide behind buildings. Tanks can't manoeuvre in minor roads or alleys.”
“We need reliable intelligence,” said Michel. “I want some of you, at least, to go out into towns and villages and listen for news. Keep your ears open.”
There was a rush of volunteers and he picked a number of men. When everyone had filed out of the barn, however, he sat at the long table alone, took out a Gauloise and smoked. He remembered the hurried marches south in 1940, and the dawning realisation the French army was no match for the Germans. Now, he had only a handful of lightly armed men. All they could realistically do was slow down the progress of the enemy forces a little. He had the terrible fear he and his men would be rushing into the jaws of death. Moreover the attack would bring reprisals on the local people.
To take his mind off the coming conflict, he joined a group going into the town, with the aim of having a quiet drink with Jacqui. At this time of year, it was pleasant to walk through the streets, with his arm around her waist. There were signs, even in this peaceful place, of the effects of five years of war. Jacqui had stories of operations cancelled because the surgeons lacked the right drugs or equipment. Few of the buildings in the town had been decorated, so paint was peeling and the flowers in the municipal parks had been replaced by cabbages and rows of beans. The clothes people wore as they walked through the streets were dowdy – jackets and trousers were patched and shoes were worn down at heel.
He and Jacqui were careful not to visit the same cafe every time, and they varied their route through the town. This time, they found themselves in a rather superior place near the river. They sat at a table from which they could watch the road. If they saw someone suspicious, they could make a quick exit through the kitchen. The menu featured beef which the waiter assured them was local. Michel's mind returned to Henri looking over the fence at his cattle.
“You're very quiet tonight,”said Jacqui.
“Sorry, I'm thinking.” He took her hand across the table. “I don't know what's going to happen, or even if I'm going to live much longer.”
She squeezed his hand. “You have to take each day at a time. All the more reason to enjoy ourselves while we can.”
“If I live, I want to find Danielle and Jeannot. If they’ve survived. But if I die and they’re alive, I don’t know what will happen to them.”
“Don't talk about dying,”she said. “Let's go to the cemetery instead.”
Although he smiled in return, Michel reflected there was a certain shallowness about Jacqui. He couldn't imagine Danielle dismissing his concerns in this light hearted way. Perhaps it was realism rather than light heartedness, though. In her job at the hospital, she had seen almost as much of death as he had in his days as a soldier.
They paid their bill and wandered back through the town hand in hand. The cemetery was less shadowy than it had been in the winter. For a while, they wandered between the graves, read the names on the tombs and looked at the statues. They found their familiar spot under the cypress tree in a corner, where they laid down and made love. Michel was aware his lovemaking was more urgent than usual, because he had the sense they were running out of time.
When the message came that the Allies had landed the mood in the camp was euphoric. Some of the members of the group wanted to stir up insurrection in the towns. There was much talk of liberating them from the Germans straight away. Michel and Pedro had to insist on proper planning and organisation. They made contacts with the mayors and gendarmes they knew to be friendly, to negotiate an orderly transition of power where possible. After a couple of weeks, a message came from contacts to the East. A German division was on its way west from Cahors, although nobody knew whether it would pass through the villages in their area.
Michel and Pedro held a meeting with the maquisards, in an effort to put together a plan. Maps were laid out on the table where the men ate their meals.
“If they go through Bournac, we could ambush them there,”said Pedro.
“Then there will be reprisals against the local people,” said Michel. He knew his views had changed. In the past, he might have been tempted into arrange an ambush in the town, without thinking too hard of the consequences. After seeing injuries and death among both fighters and civilians, he was becoming more cautious.
“If they go along the main road, it passes under a railway bridge,” Gervais said. “Could we bring it down?”
“Do we have enough explosives? asked Michel.
The man they called Le Prof, who was a civil engineer, nodded.
“We don’t have much time,” said Pedro. “They’ll be here tomorrow.”
They looked at maps and decided that a wood close to the bridge might give the maquisards enough cover for them to carry out an ambush. Michel looked round the group of men, who had become friends. He knew they couldn’t do much against tanks, and he feared high casualties.
“ All we can do is slow down the convoy, pick a few men off. When the tanks start firing, we must retreat. There’s no point in being slaughtered.”
There was some murmuring, because many of the men were young and keen to get at the enemy
“We’ll join up with the main French army in the end, and then you’ll be involved in real fighting.”
Early next day, when it was still dark, the maquisards drove a couple of trucks towards the bridge and parked, one near a local church and another on a farm track. The men split up, walked quietly to the wood by the bridge and lay down behind trees. Michel attached charges to the plinths of the bridge and trailed the wires back through the bushes. Before parting, Michel and Pedro embraced.
“If I don't see you again, you've been a great comrade,”said Michel.
The sun rose behind the trees, filtering warm light between green leaves. Michel listened to birds singing in the treetops. The beauty of the day made a strange contrast to their warlike purpose, but together the two elements gave him a strange sense of reassurance. They could do little more than harass the German convoy as it passed, and they might be killed in trying. However, in the end, France would be liberated and these little towns would be at peace again. Michel sent the order round, not to fire until the charges under the bridge exploded .
They heard the tanks approaching, a grinding, thundering noise along the road. From his hideout between the trees, Michel watched the men in the first couple of tanks and recognised they were in a very different mood from the Germans he'd seen in the Battle of France. Those had been assured, even jubilant. These faces were grim, in some cases smeared with dirt and full of fatigue. As the first tank reached the bridge, he pressed the switch on the detonator. The explosion shook the bridge, cracks appeared and bricks fell but, for a moment, it looked as if the main structure would hold. Then the cracks zigzagged to the ground and the whole structure collapsed in a pile of masonry and a plume of smoke. Meanwhile, the crews in the tanks nearest the bridge were jumping out of their vehicles.
“Fire,” shouted Michel.
He rattled off rounds of ammunition, among volleys of rifle fire from those around him. Some of the men from the leading tanks sprawled on the ground but, further down the column, the men returned fire. A tank swung its turret round and fired, and a plume of earth rose as the shell landed somewhere.
“Retreat,” Michel yelled.
He started crawling away between the trees, with other men alongside him. Shells landed among the trees, and the rifle shots were finding their range. The maquisards crawled from one tree to another. Michel stopped for a moment, turned and raised himself up to see if his comrades were following, but something hit him in the shoulder and he fell backward, sprawled in the grass.
Fwr Posted Nov 27, 2020
Facing the panzer division must've been truly frightening. We have family who were gunners/tank commanders who fought in WW2,sadly gone now but some of the old photos remain. Pure devastation in some parts of France.
Caiman raptor elk - Escaping the Array Posted Nov 27, 2020
Resisting is not good for your health. Not resisting even more so.
Dmitri Gheorgheni - Post Editor Posted Nov 27, 2020
My Dutch teacher was Flemish. He was exactly old enough that his first memories were of Allied planes flying over in 1944. Like the little boy in this story.
Array Posted Nov 27, 2020
In the town on which Bournac was based, the resistance members were having a meeting when the Germans arrived. They were rounded up and hung.
paulh, the apocalypse is coming, it's just late Posted Nov 28, 2020
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