This will give you an idea of the sort of thing I have been writing.
I look at the Calendar and to my astonishment I see that a further 5 weeks have passed since my last letter.
The first thing I must do is once again apologise for my writing. Hopefully you can see that in my defence I am still using my right hand. I have been very poorly over the past five months let alone weeks but I very much hope that I am on the mend and things seem much clearer in my head than they were in the last letter.
I took the precaution of making a copy of it and I must have left you wondering what direction my war was going to take.
The adventures I have experienced in the past few weeks would have taxed the imagination of a writer of fiction, let alone a chronicler of war. After all the travails I have undergone , I have spent much of the time since my last letter reading such fiction, and also works of poetry and even philosophy.
You must be asking yourself where is this library in the middle of a war? I will describe my surroundings on this 14th day of November 1940. I am in a tiny attic room , lying on a paliasse of straw covered in fine linen. To one side of me is a small dressing table of oak on which sits an earthenware water jug and glass. To the other a bookcase filled with the works of Stevenson, Scott and Burns, and also a new treat to me, the letters of Rimbaud. On the wall, a shelf with the writings of Balzac, Hugo, and Marx. All these , and people of whom you have probably never heard such as Alexandre Kojève and Gabriel Marcel . I have the classics in the form of Pliny the Elder’s “Natural History”, and Plutarch’s “Life Of Alexander” .Such are my bedmates in this biblioteque de la guerre.
I only have natural light which is coming from a tiny skylight window in the roof which is covered with greaseproof paper to obscure the vision of any storks who might want to intrude through the glass.
But once again, I am guilty of over reaching myself.
Let me take you back to a dirty ditch by a cow field in Northern France all of five months ago.
I jumped through the fence and then been pinioned by some unseen barbed wire which bit deep into my arm. I rolled over in panic and pulled and pulled for all I was worth till the fencewire yielded and I finally fell down the banking and into the water.
I don’t know how long I lay there expecting my youthful guards to appear by the fence and put me to rest with a bullet, but no visitor arrived.
I became aware of the men in the field being roused, mustered and marched off. I think I waited at least two hours before I risked getting out of the dub and climbing up to the fence. I was greeted by the sight of a field, empty of all human life, apart from the piles of human waste, dirty bandages and the odd empty sardine tin which my comrades had been forced to leave. Apart from that it was as if the 9,000 men who had spent the night were ghosts who had never been there at all. God help them on their journey to who knows what.
The delight I felt at my freedom was tempered by the realization that I had injured my arm. I peeled of the cloth of my boiler suit and saw I had a series of deep blue/red gashes in my flesh oozing blood through the mud. My arm began to pound with a pain more severe than anything I have felt before and goodness knows what filth had got into the wound.
I found an old field dressing and tied a few strips of it round my arm to try to staunch the blood and put my boiler suit back on.
I was aware of German armour passing on the road below, and decided to stay in my hiding place till dark. By the time the sun set, my arm felt as if it was held in a vice , and throbbed with pain. I was feeling very sorry for myself , and wondered if I had done the right thing in trying to escape. I’m not much good on my own as you know , Fergus. I missed my comrades more than I could say, and the memory of Sergeant McGregor winking at me as I left haunted me.
After sunset I headed in the opposite direction from the road into a wood to the West, and tried to walk through it in the dark. I was forced into the dawning realization that though I could only move in the dark for safety, while I was in the dark I had no idea where I was going. I had stumbled and staggered blindly for quite some time and only succeeded in walking into bramble patches and being scratched by low tree branches. It makes you realise how important knowing the country you are walking through is for navigating safely. If I had found myself in Clune Wood on a night as black as the Earl O’ Hell’s waistcoat, I’d s have got home blindfold . But here in France I was simply lost.
Eventually I sat down in the moonshadow of a fallen oak and realised I must wait for the first light to have any chance at all of getting to safety, whatever the risks.
By dawn I was shivering with cold and had no food nor clean water for 36 hours. The arm on me was getting more and more swollen so I had to find somewhere at least to shelter and at try to get some sleep.
And then the smell. The umistakeble smell of pigs.
I made my way towards the source and through the trees was a pigsty in the middle of a field of glaur.
The pigsty was made of bent hazel with a pine door wedged shut with a piece of oak.
I opened the door and looked in and there was a huge old sow with about 8 of a farrow staring right back at me. There was straw and water and a bowl of neep sheughs in there so I thought no more of it and went straight in. I drank some water and chewed on a bit of neep and then I must have fallen asleep with the warmth of the old pig and my thirst slaked.
I was woken by a noise outside and there was nothing for it but to poke my head out , to be met by an old woman wearing clogs and a long black coat and dress. She took one look at me and started screaming and then ran off . I tried to shout back to her in my poor French. “Je suis un soldat Ecossaise madame” but it was no use. She was off like a shot though I could hear her screeches echoing through the woods for what seemed like an age.
By this time I thought “I can’t run, I can’t hide…I’m going to await my fate and what will be will be.”
I lay in the sty with my new friends and I swear I was dropping off to sleep when I heard a man’s voice shouting at me to get out . I was on my hands and knees and crawled out of the sty repeating my plea, “Je suis un soldat Ecossais” and was just in time to see the blade of a shovel come crashing down on the back of my head.
I can’t really remember then if it was the movement or the noise that woke me, but I was aware of my head moving from side to side. I opened one eye and saw trees moving along above me…then I felt wooden bars at my sides and realised that I was in a wheel barrow with my legs dragging at the back.
I could only see out of one eye but there was a skinny man dressed all in black with a white hankie in his hand at the side of the barrow . He was kind of crouch walking by the side of me, and could just lift my head to see a huge mountain of a man pushing the barrow along. I must have started moaning or crying because the skinny man put the hankie to his mouth and hissed shhhhh through his teeth as we moved out of the woods . We seemed to go across a small country track and then behind a wall at the back of a small cottage. Skinny man disappeared off leaving the giant to hop from one foot to the other. I tired to talk but no words came and the big man was no conversationalist. After a few minutes, skinny came back and I could see that he had a big broad black hat in his other hand. We started off again. I was wheeled through a door somewhere and into the heat of what looked a stable at one end and a smiddy’s forge at the other.
“Je suis un soldat…..”says I.
Skinny once again told me to sssssh…and I could see now that he was a Priest in a long black coat. Him and the giant left me alone in the dark as the door slid shut with nothing for company but a bony old mule in a stall glaring at me as he munched on a hay sack. I could just make it out his brown teeth as pulled out the straw with his pink tongue. Pigs and mules. I couldn’t help wondering if these were to be my only fellow borders in this extraordinary French vacation.
My head was sore fit to burst and as I squinted at the mule, I thought I had gone blind in one eye. I managed to feel my head and realised that they had put a bandage round it that had slipped down . I pushed it up bit and by the grace of God could then see with the other eye too, and could feel with my good arm that the bandage was sticky and crusted. I think I fell asleep again because the next thing I was aware of was this dirty filthy black bearded face looking down at me from underneath a miner’s helmet . He looked a little bit better than a pig or a mule, but there wasn’t much in it. I started croaking….
“Je suis un soldat Ecossais…Je suis”
Blackbeard brought out a dirty finger and put it to my lips. I could taste the coal on it and spat it away. I repeated my chant as if my life depended on it…. “Je suis un soldat Ecossais”.
To my dying day, I will never forget the what he said to me.
“Aye son, so am I . But I widnae shout too loud aboot it. Now haud yer wheesht “
Then everything went black.