As I told you in my last blog post, Grandpa Graham’s next destination was the village of Sint- Gillis-bij-Dendermonde in Belgium. Situated between Brussels and Antwerp, it’s an important railway junction and had only just been freed from Nazi occupation a few days before Grandpa Graham and the rest of 143 Company arrived on September 24th.
The liberating soldiers had done their job, stayed overnight and then moved on. But Sint Gillis wanted some soldiers of its own. When 143 Coy clattered over its cobbled streets on a wet and miserable Sunday afternoon, the whole population turned out to greet them, waving flags and smiling.
The welcome soon turned into deep and lasting friendships, especially as many of the soldiers were billeted with local families. Saturday night dances were organised, with music played by the Long Trailers Orchestra, which was formed earlier in the year while they were in England. I thought this sounded rather posh and wouldn’t be easy to dance to, but Mum said it was more like what we’d call a band today.
The favourite dance was the Hokey-Cokey…
…while the favourite song was You Are My Sunshine, which Grandpa Graham would still occasionally sing long after he’d left the Army.
But as well as singing and dancing, there was a lot of hard work to be done. In the early days of the company’s stay in Sint Gillis, they had to fetch every bit of equipment from the port of Cherbourg, almost 400 miles/640 km away in France, as the port of Antwerp was still under Nazi control. This meant that in just one week in September their vehicles clocked up a total of 57,683 miles/92831 km, while in the month of November they clocked up 148,621 miles/239182 km between them.
On Armistice Day in November the Burgomaster invited the Company to attend the remembrance ceremony and lay wreaths at the village war memorial. Everyone who wasn’t out on the road attended and one of the members of the Long Trailers orchestra played the Last Post on his trumpet, which further strengthened the bonds of friendship between 143 Coy and the people of Sint Gillis.
But the greatest act of friendship came as Christmas approached and the men decided to give a party for the local children. Their commanding officer, Major Hartharn, sent a letter round asking who was willing to contribute a gift of money or agree to give up their sweet and chocolate ration for a couple of weeks. This resulted in the offer of almost £100 (£4390 in today’s money), plus 1,000 bars of chocolate, around 40 volunteers to help out and requests for invitations for 250 children – though by the afternoon of the party this number had gone up to 400.
One of the billets in Sint Gillis had been a theatre in more peaceful times (rather like a village hall in the UK) and this was soon decorated with flags and paper chains. People from the village offered to help, including some of the ladies who would look after the smaller children and help out with any language problems.
One man offered a Christmas tree and another said he would decorate it with tinsel and baubles which had last been used at Christmas 1939. Someone else promised a St Nicholas costume and the man who provided the tree agreed to play the part of the kindly saint.
Another man from the village offered to go into Brussels to buy the presents for the children. He was given £80 (£3500 today) and came back with a great collection of toys, children’s books, paint-boxes and so on.
And meanwhile the company’s cooks had been busy. By saving a little bit from every meal for a couple of weeks, they managed to get enough ingredients together to make cakes, scones and rolls. The workshops made cutters in the shapes of animals and birds and these were used to stamp out biscuits and so on.
The party was supposed to start at four in the afternoon, but by half-past three the crowds were gathering and by quarter to four it was decided to let them in. The tables were laid and at each place there was a plate with two sandwiches, a sausage roll and four assorted cakes for a start. Many of the younger ones had never been to a children’s party before and, though they were a bit shy at first, they soon tucked and thoroughly enjoyed themselves.
The meal was followed by entertainment, including a young acrobat from a nearby circus and a funny man who made everyone laugh, though the children chattered away throughout the performance of the local prima donna – and I must admit that I’d have probably done the same!
And, after the entertainment, came the Big Event – a meeting with St Nicholas himself. He was waiting under the Christmas tree which, at 20 feet/6m tall, had to be bent over at the top to get it into the hall.
Each child was given a present and then handed over to one of the soldiers who gave it three bars of chocolate and an apple before escorting it to the door to be met by its waiting parents.
The party, which was supposed to end at seven o’clock that evening, finally broke up at half-past nine. A wonderful time was had by all and it would be talked about for many years to come.
Although it was the season of peace and goodwill, however, the war was not yet over. Grandpa Graham and the rest of 143 Coy still had a lot of work to do and many more miles to travel – but I’ll tell you about that in the New Year…
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