CHAPTER XXXII

On our return from our usual holiday in England in September, 1938, we found Monte Carlo in a state resembling panic. Italians of the working class, always in the majority in Monaco, were dreading and expecting that they would be called to the colours (which they didn't mean to obey) and anyhow turned out of the Principality and sent back to their own country which to so many who had not yet vowed allegiance to the Fascist régime was equivalent to a sentence of solitary confinement in the penal settlement of the Lipari Islands, or even of death. They ran about the place from house to house, from villas to apartments and hotels clamouring for what money was due to them for work done in the past. Some of them, middle-aged men in a good way of business or in good positions, were quite 'dithery'. Men-servants, charwomen, and femmes de chambre left hastily in a state of terror, ignoring notice and even wages and went off somewhere, I know not where, mostly to the Pyrenees and the Basque country, I believe. The trains were crowded with members of religious communities, nuns and monks fleeing to Spain. Spain and Portugal had, in fact, become the great objectives whence England might be reached by aeroplane (dear, hospitable England!). We all thought that those who ran away so helter-skelter were very silly and we wondered whether England would be willing to shelter the entire fleeing population of Europe.

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Then came the great day when Neville Chamberlain made his noble and great effort for peace by journeying over to Berchtesgaden to interview Adolph Hitler. Here in this small Principality, with its proclaimed neutrality, and its adherence to 'unconquerable' France, Chamberlain was the hero of the hour, as Sir Edward Grey had been in 1914. They were the apostles of peace, and Great Britain as always, the protector of the rights of the entire civilized world. Peace? Well, of course nothing but peace could come--everyone was certain sure of that--of this friendly meeting between two sensible statesmen who were bound to come to an understanding as soon as they meet and could talk over those matters which after all were only a question of misunderstandings between two great nations, both desiring that justice, truth, and right should prevail. When Chamberlain returned to England, everybody in France was convinced that he carried a Treaty of Peace between Germany and Great Britain in his pocket.

It is rather amusing to remember that a memorial to Neville Chamberlain, expressing gratitude for his strenuous efforts toward peace by going personally to confer with Hitler at Berchtesgaden, was got up in Monte Carlo on the initiative of my Italian chef. It was signed by all the employees of whatever nationality, who were in the service of English and American residents and visitors and it was sent to the British Prime Minister, who sent a charming letter of acknowledgment.

Long before this, however, relations between France and Italy had been very strained. I don't mean politically and diplomatically--possibly not; as I say the French did not worry much over the Ethiopians, and more bitter of late, not so much among educated people and the better classes, but it was very marked in the case of workpeople, where Italians are always in the majority in the Principality. The French looked upon the Italians with undisguised scorn. Ces Italiens was as much a term of contempt as ces vagabonds or ces vauriens. There was more than one instance, to my own knowledge, of French workmen refusing to work in our villa because we had several Italian servants in the house, and all of us English residents were 'advised', not to say ordered, by the local authorities to dismiss our Italian employees. However, we at the Villa Bijou did nothing of the sort. Like so many others we never anticipated that Italy would turn against her former allies.

In '39 we went to England as usual, intending to end our summer holiday at Aix-les-Bains, which we did; and here we were when Great Britain and France declared war on Germany over the Polish question just as both nations did in 1914 over the Belgian one. Even before this ominous day the peaceful little holiday resort had prepared itself for the coming conflict. All the hotels, with the exception of one or two were commandeered and fitted up as hospitals. Street lamps were being 'camouflaged' for future black-out. The kind and considerate manager of Barclay's Bank, Monsieur Cascon, advised us not to deposit our ready money in the bank but to keep it by us as a moratorium was threatened, but he promised to cash our cheques on Monte Carlo, Monaco being nominally pays neutre. (We certainly hoped that this would be so, but . . .)

The government had already commandeered a number of cars and chauffeurs for transport. A day or two later telegrams and telephones were only allowed on official business, and in the evening we 'enjoyed' our first 'black-out'. There was gorgeous moonlight over the lake: but all lights had to be out by 10:30 by order of the police, so we all went to bed by moonlight.

My Jack (then at work in Lausanne) was called up, and he, with his wife and children, came to Aix to see us on their way to England. He was, of course, in the reserve of officers.

The next two days saw the hounds of war unleashed--troops of chasseurs Alpins marching towards the frontier and Aix on a regular war footing. No more English papers or letters, and on the 5th we had our first air-raid alerte at 3 a.m. The 'all clear' sirens went an hour later. Many visitors had already left, though a number of our friends were still here. We, of course, wanted to get home to Monte Carlo as soon as possible, but the difficulties of travelling had become very acute. Trains were overcrowded, the services drastically curtailed, and we had no car. When we sold Padula we also got rid of our Italian car since we were not allowed to bring our Fascist chauffeur into France, and there was every likelihood of the car being confiscated at the frontier. As a matter of fact we had intended to buy a small French car and engage a French chauffeur in Monte Carlo. But somehow we never did. Time seemed to fly away so rapidly, and we were so hard at work that we hardly ever went outside Monte Carlo where it was so easy just to hire a car whenever we wanted one. Now we wished we had not been so thoughtless, for to hire a car to take us from Aix to Monte Carlo was not only difficult, it was terribly expensive. However, it had to be done and we finally got home in October. Lyons, and one or two other localities which we passed on the way, had already suffered enemy bombardments.

In Monte Carlo most of our friends were preparing to return to England as soon as possible. Many had the fond belief that our government would send a ship to convey us all back to where we wanted to go; and our American friends had the same faith in their own government. But nothing of the sort had happened yet. There was general talk of compulsory evacuation of the entire Mediterranean coast, including Monaco of course, though the small Principality stood firmly on the ground of its status of proclaimed neutrality. A few went so far as to hire a car to take them to Portugal, with the intention of continuing their journey homeward by 'plane. But cars were few and prices ruinous, and so the autumn and winter months went by in conditions of nervous anxiety for many and of grave anxiety of another sort for me.

My beloved husband's ill-health had taken a more serious turn. Three doctors in consultation declared that an operation was imperative. As a long and complicated journey to England was out of the question, they advised Switzerland, and the eminent specialist, Niehans, at Clarens near Montreux. Thither we went in April, 1940, and returned in the beginning of June of that fateful year. Travelling, though very long and wearisome for an invalid, was not otherwise difficult, as far as papers and formalities on the frontier were concerned. We were going into a part of Switzerland that was whole-heartedly French in sentiment and pro-English. The Gazette de Lausanne and Journal de Genève published daily glowing accounts of the doings of our Air Force. "Vous verrez," doctors and nurses often said to me, "ce sera votre R.A.F. qui gagnera la guerre." We know now how right was that prophecy.

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On our return to Monte Carlo we found the bulk of the English and American colony in a state of feverish activity. To get away from here, to get back to England somehow, but above all to get away from this coast which would be evacuated--must be evacuated--to the last man before the R.A.F. had done its work of terror and destruction. That was what everybody thought . . . and most of them feared. Forcible evacuation and internment camps for English men, women, and children was the bugbear.

Two days after our arrival here the blow fell. Italy stabbed her old allies in the back. She declared war on England and France. Now there was real panic in Monte Carlo. I wish our British colony had shown up a little better on this occasion, but I must reluctantly admit that they did not. Men of British nationality in good positions at home or those who were in official or semi-official positions in the Principality did not set a good example of quietude nor were they in any way helpful to the helpless and the weak. I daresay that they were worried to death by the crowds of panic-stricken old ladies (of both sexes) who literally besieged them in their homes and in their offices, asking for help and advice, but they themselves were just as scared a those who invaded their privacy and such advice as they gave was non-committal and varied from day to day. Sometimes they would say: "Go! by any means you can command, but go as soon as you can my train, by bus, lorry, anything . . ." At others they would be more cautious: "Don't be in a hurry. Wait and see what happens." As a matter of fact they knew no more than did the rest of the terrorized alien population and they had themselves to think of first and foremost . . . of themselves and their families . . . the days of altruism no longer existed; every man for himself was the order of the day. Never shall I forget the day, when walking along the bridge opposite Monaco railway station, I saw a crowd of close on a thousand men and women amongst whom were several nuns, monks and priests and a number of workmen, old ladies of English and other nationalities, charwomen and so on, all pushing and jostling outside the door of the booking office.

As for the two of us and our devoted and loyal English maid, we kept quite calm in the midst of all this turmoil. There was no definite news of any English ship being sent by our Government to take us away from this danger zone, but even if there were my beloved husband--hardly yet recovered from a serious operation--could not have borne the voyage at all; the doctors both in Switzerland, and that brilliant diagnostician, Dr. Van Tricht, said the one word "Impossible". So we just remained quietly at the Villa Bijou, hoping that the evacuation order if it ever touched the Principality would spare us if only because of my husband's state of health and because of his age.

Well! the evacuation order did come. Was it a blunder on the part of some minor official or a desire on the part of local bigwigs to get rid of all 'enemy aliens', or merely a misunderstanding as between the Sovereign Prince and his ministers? I know not. Anyway, the order was promulgated for all except the members of the defense passive, which meant doctors, certificated nurses and able-bodied stretcher-bearers--and with the exception of course of all Monégasques who desired to remain in their homes; there are about 10,000 born Monégasques who can claim to be enfants du pays (i.e. of Monégasque parentage for four generations).

And so that was that. Already the bulk of English and American residents and visitors had left Monte Carlo. Some had gone to Portugal by train or car, there to await the possibility of getting to England or America by 'plane--others were content to get as far as Cannes where there was no talk of evacuation as yet, and where official or semi-official rumour had it that a British ship was due to arrive in the harbour and take all British nationals to England. The forcible evacuation of Monaco appeared as an official order and everybody whom it touched had to go. Italy had declared war on France, stabbing her old ally in the back, at the moment when the Germans had broken the Maginot Line. Already--it was definitely asserted--the Italians were marching on Mentone. Nice was evidently their objective; they had always coveted it and claimed it as their inalienable right--as they did Savoy--and the poor little Principality of Monaco was the only way through which their army could pass to reach that objective.

Our Italian chef who had served us so faithfully and devotedly for twenty years, who never took part or even mere interest in politics was arrested by the French police without any warning, in just what he stood up in, and with the pistol of a gendarme held against his side, he was brutalized as if he were a criminal. We tried to get in touch with the Monégasque authorities: the Minister of State was a personal friend, the Sovereign Prince had often dined with us and spent many a happy evening in the Villa Bijou, but apparently there was nothing doing. Nobody wanted to interfere. All that we gained was an assurance that we would be kept au fait as to the place where our faithful servant would be interned, and that presently we would be allowed to send him his clothes and parcels of various comforts. We had really no ground for complaint. Italy was, by her own initiative, at war with France, and the internment of Italian nationals was in accordance with the usages of civilized warfare.

And the evacuation was still in force. What could we do but obey as quietly as we could this order against which seemingly there was no appeal. Pets could not for the most part be left behind and separation from them were some of the saddest moments on this day of anxiety and sorrow. (Many of them were sent to the vet to be quietly put to sleep.) Through the activity and kindness of a Monégasque shopkeeper with whom we had dealt for years we were able to hire a car to take us to Cannes. If the eagerly awaited British cruiser did come, and there was such accommodation on her as would make it possible for a very sick man to travel on her . . . well! . . . perhaps . . . perhaps . . . If not, then it might be possible to go thence somewhere inland into the country where one might be allowed to remain in peace. . . .

In Cannes the rumours about a British cruiser still persisted. Many declared that she was already sighted. . . anyway, she was most certainly due to arrive. . . . But nothing happened for the next two or three days except one or two air-raids when Italian airmen dropped a few desultory bombs on the outskirts of the city, doing very little damage. We still had letters from England forwarded from Villa Bijou and on Sunday an earnest and very young Toc H priest gave us a very nice service and Holy Communion in the English church. He preached a patriotic and enthusiastic sermon, and we sang 'God Save the King' with hearts full to bursting. My English maid was with us and we all felt a little bit happier and comforted.

But that same afternoon came the first inkling that Belgium had laid down her arms and that France was seeking a separate peace.

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It was Cannes now that was seething with excitement. Crowds of people were pouring in from everywhere into the town. The long promised cruiser--so it was definitely asserted--would be in Cannes the next day to take British nationals to England. Everyone had got the jitters owing to the French collapse, but no details about the ship were available, not even a certainty about her nationality. Most of our friends from Monte Carlo were going on her, including our chaplain, Canon Tupper Carey, his substitute, and the young and warlike Toc H preacher.

Well! two ships did come in ready to take British nationals on board for ? destination. They were coal boats which had discharged their cargo in Toulon, and were chartered by a private transport agency. They had no passenger cabins whatever on board and no sanitary accommodation save that provided for the crew! All day they lay in the bay: a crowd of close on a thousand persons were huddled on the quay pushing and jostling to get on board. The ships, with between them some eight hundred passengers, left at 10 p.m. We did not wait to see them off.

The Headquarters of the British Legion had asked British subjects to register their name and address with them, in case another homebound ship might be available, but this, they said, was very doubtful. We tried to do this the next day, but found a crowd nearly as big as the one that went off in the two coal boats. Here again it was a perfect pandemonium. Some irresponsible people from Monte Carlo put it about that though the evacuation order was not in force there, the place was impossible; there was no gas, they said, no water, no electricity. This we did not believe and simply made arrangements for returning to the Villa Bijou the next day.

We found Monte Carlo perfectly normal, just as we expected. The Principality stood firmly on its claim of neutrality, which was all to the good. We had quite a good night, lulled to sleep by the perpetual sound of heavy guns from the Mentone side or from the sea or both, which reminded one of the four years at Snowfield when the sound of heavy guns over from Flanders and Picardy never ceased day or night.

The next day gunfire was much louder, apparently much nearer. The Italians were shelling Mentone, and our local forts--the Tête de Chien and Mont Agel just over our heads--responded to their gunfire. Fragments of shells were dropping about, and many who were foolish enough to leave their homes in order to hurry to one of the very inadequate shelters devised by the municipality were hit, though none seriously. Many aeroplanes were overhead and gunfire went on all day and through the night, when matters were made more unpleasant by a terrific thunderstorm which added to the din, and a deluge of almost tropical rain.

This went on until dawn when gunfire ceased. The Italians had occupied Mentone after four days desperate resistance on the part of the French garrison.

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On July 10th, the B.B.C. announced that the two coal boats had arrived in England after twenty days of unspeakable misery. We were told subsequently that the announcement was a broadcast by Mr. Somerset Maugham, who had been one of the passengers on board, but I heard later that it was a most realistic description of his experiences. There had been a great shortage of water for the wretched passengers and they had to queue up for bully-beef. One of them had died on the way and several were so ill and their minds became so deranged that they had to be put on shore somewhere in Portugal, whilst most of those who arrived in England were in a state bordering on collapse; but, as I say, I was not listening-in when the broadcast came over the air. I did, however, hear subsequently by letter via Portugal, from several friends who had suffered the ordeal without any serious consequences and have been well and happy in England ever since. Nevertheless I thanked God with a full heart that dear Dr. Van Tricht was so dead set against my darling husband undertaking the arduous journey at his age and in his very serious state of health as he undoubtedly never could have borne the strain of such an ordeal.

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Then came the day of mourning for France--mourning and humiliation. Despite France's solemn undertaking not to seek a separate peace, and General de Gaulle's heroic appeal to the existing self-constituted Government, armistice with Germany and Italy was asked for and signed. Hostilities ceased half an hour after midnight of June 25th. The glorious French army had surrendered and had fled across France in hopeless panic and disorder. Close on two million prisoners were in German hands, whilst our heroic forces suffered the terrible disaster of Dunkerque.

 

©Blakeney Manor, 2001