It was early evening on Sunday August 6, 1944. The Allies’ bloody struggle to liberate Normandy from the Nazis had reached the village of Vaudry.
As gunfire broke out on a farm near the Pont du Vaudry, 40 members of one French family threw themselves into a trench next to the house. They pulled torn mattresses and tarpaulins over their heads; those sheltering ranged in age from very elderly grandparents to a four-week-old baby.
The lives of the Le Chevalliers hung in the balance as Allied and German bullets were exchanged just above their heads. The family had inadvertently made their situation yet more dangerous: the tarpaulins they hid under were distinctively German.
Peeping from beneath the coverings, several watched in horror as four British soldiers raised their hands to throw grenades. Then, just at that moment, the tiny baby, Martine, let out a loud cry.
They held their breath. What next? They never forgot their relief as the soldiers froze, before dropping their hands. The grenades were not thrown and, the way the family always saw it, their lives were saved by those four young British men, their sauveurs.
My father (pictured below), then aged 20, was one of those soldiers. As an officer, he may have been the one to order the cease fire. He was certainly, at that point, in charge of a platoon ordered to ‘nettoyer les Allemands’, as the French put it.
Philippe le Chevallier, then a 15-year-old schoolboy, wrote an account immediately afterwards, in an exercise book. He had retreated to the trench, originally dug for a German lorry, with ‘Maman’, ‘Papa’ and his baby sister, Martine. ‘At about six o’clock in the evening a German came behind our shelter. He fired at the Englishmen who arrived at the farm. The English thought we were the enemy. First because shots had been fired from our direction, second because the tarpaulins were German.
‘The English fired back, hitting our little shelter and the bullets whistled past our ears. Bits of the tarpaulin and wool from the mattresses flew up and landed on us. We struggled to avoid the bullets flying close to our heads…my little sister Martine began to cry “à toute force”.’ Here Philippe paused in his account to ask the question: ‘Did the soldiers hear her cry?’
It seemed that they did. After holding their fire, the four soldiers crept up to the trench. Philippe continued: ‘They came up very quietly and bent over our trench. They just stared in amazement and Papa cried out to them: “Français.”’ He added that the expressions of the soldiers, stunned and full of pity, were ‘à peindre’. All four carried in their hands the grenades.
How long did it take for my father and the three other soldiers to take in the enormity of that near-disaster? Philippe wrote that the men told the family pretty smartly to clear out — ‘Allez vous en’ — otherwise they would all be killed. The soldiers then crept away, as ‘doucement’ as they had come.
I don’t know what my father thought of all this, as he never discussed any details of his experiences of the war with us, his family.
Forty years later, in June 1984, by then established as the journalist Colin Welch, he wrote a general description of the horrific scene in Normandy: ‘It isn’t a military country: let loose a full-blast war in it, and the result is a gigantic abattoir, bodies every-where, human, animal, theirs, ours, French, no chance to bury them, all stiff and hideously swollen, covered with white dust or mud, faces blown away or dreadfully distorted, crawling with flies, rotting, giving off that terrible sweet-sour stench which, once smelt, is not forgotten. The smell of Normandy was death.’
Ten years further on, in June 1994, he was persuaded, by members of his old regiment, to return to Vaudry to attend a series of 50-year commemorative ceremonies. He was usually chary, even slightly dismissive, of such events. During one of the ceremonies, he mentioned the baby’s cry and it was a French official who piped up: ‘I know the story. I know the baby. She’s my sister-in-law.’ She told my father that the ‘baby’, Martine, was now married and living in Provence.
A brief correspondence followed between my father and Martine’s husband, Nicolas Journe. In September 1994 Nicolas sent his first, effusive letter. He wrote that he and Martine were overjoyed to have found ‘the man’ they had heard so much about. In fact, of course, there had been four men. How often had he, Nicolas, been told the story of the ‘child of the battle who, by her cries, saved the family?…had you not stopped your movement, life would have been completely different for all of us’. He described their lives: he and Martine had worked in supermarkets before starting a bakery. He enclosed a cheery photograph
of himself, with Martine and their four grown-up children, then aged between 18 and 23. The eldest, Florence, he added, worked in hotels, while Clothilde was a lawyer, Gregoire a fire officer and Thibault a student in Avignon.
A week later, my father wrote back, thanking Nicolas for his moving and generous letter. He made light of any gratitude: ‘You are too kind in crediting me with saving the family. It was not, alas, in my power to do so, though I did what I could. God saved them, as I now know with joy.’ He admired the ‘charming and vivacious’ figures in the photograph. ‘Often I have wondered about the family I met under such awful circumstances. Often I have reached for the place, but never till this summer with success. I recognized the manor at once, I think accurately.’
After the commemoration, my father would admit that he had helped a mother and tiny baby, but would never say more. My mother, who had accompanied him to Vaudry, was equally reticent. Myths developed: he had helped a mother while she was having a baby; he had delivered the baby himself; finally, he had met and embraced the 50-year-old ‘baby’ in Vaudry in June 1994. The letters from Nicolas Journe were not discussed.
It was only after the 75-year D-Day commemorations this year that I pieced together some of the facts. I unearthed the two letters from Nicolas Journe, along with the draft of a reply from my father. This was the first I heard mention of any grenade. At the end of June I decided to send a letter to Nicolas and Martine in Provence, asking for details. The address I had was, of course, 25 years old. I had little hope of a reply.
Days later, however, Nicolas sent a moving message back, via email, saying how happy he was to hear from our family and that he would keep my letter like a ‘précieuse relique’. He gave the date and rough time of the incident and told me where it had happened. He described how baby Martine cheated death twice that day. Shortly before her brush with the grenade, she had been lifted out of a pram to be placed in the trench beneath her mother’s legs. Seconds later, the pram was shot to pieces.
A few weeks later, Nicolas sent me Philippe Le Chevallier’s schoolboy account. He extended an invitation to me to stay in Provence: it would not just be an honor, he wrote, it would be a small way to repay a debt. Of course what Nicolas and Martine had really wanted was to meet my father, the ‘sauveur’ himself. In his first letter, Nicolas had pressed for a meeting, either in England or France, and my father had seemed keen, replying: ‘We thought of coming (to Vaudry) next summer. Any chance of you all coming there again?… Provence is an awful long way for people no longer so young as they were in 1944. Do let us arrange something, we have so much to talk about.’
Nicolas Journe’s second letter went a stage further, telling my father that a party of the Le Chevallier family were all set to visit my father at my parents’ house, in Wiltshire. Martine had not been to England and could not speak English, but that would be part of the adventure: ‘Our map is not precise enough to have been able to find where you live, but we suppose it is between Southampton and Bath!… I’ll buy soon a big map to be able to find where you are!’
My father always maintained that he had fallen passionately in love with Europe in 1944, even though, as he admitted, ‘the old beauty was not at her best’. Indeed he was a lifelong Europhile and wrote several times of the importance of the European Union. In that 1984 piece about Normandy, he wrote in The Spectator: ‘We did not fight…for Brussels’s swarming bureaucrats…but we did resolve that, so far as lay in our power, it must never happen again, that Europe must be given institutions which would prevent another civil war and guard her against enemies without.’
And in September 1993, nine months before the 50-year D-Day commemoration, he issued a sort of plea to the readers of the Independent: ‘Be kind and patient, if you can, to those of us who once saw clearly into hell and remain faithful to the glorious vision of a united Europe.’
With all my father’s initial expressions of hope for a meeting with the ‘baby’, Martine, Nicolas and the other Le Chevalliers, part of him would undoubtedly have been full of dread. Besides his reluctance to talk about his wartime experiences, he was always plagued with nightmares and remained, of course, uncertain about accepting the family’s gratitude.
Nicolas now tells me that the reply to his second letter came from my mother. His letter had been particularly pressing: ‘Please tell us what would be the best moment to meet you during the week of December 12 to 17.’ My mother, the better linguist, now stepped in, explaining, with all sorts of regrets, that my father was too ill to see them. It was more likely to have been a failure of nerve.
In any case, the plans never came to anything. Months after the exchange of letters, in April 1995, my father unexpectedly suffered a stroke from which he never recovered. He died in January 1997.
Twenty-two years later, Nicolas and Martine Journe, both now 75, remain full of gratitude. From the Le Chevalliers’ perspective, it was not only their lives that were saved, but the lives of their then unborn children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Nicolas’s homage is poetic: ‘Instead of just obeying orders without thinking, your father held back his weapon of destruction, because he heard a baby’s cry pierce the tumult of war…God bless him.’