Once again, written in pencil… and once again, the ability to rotate the image was sacrificed in favour of ‘legibility’ – not sure if that was a sensible decision.
16th July 1941
Dear Mother & Dad
With the conclusion of the show, we have been moved from the rugged mountain country in which we fought to very different surroundings – a pleasant but very quiet spot on the coast. How long we’ll be here of course we don’t know and the the question everybody is asking, is – where next?
I had the most unique experience of my life, the day after the signing of the armistice. We were at an outpost and a screed was sent round that everything beyond the occupied area was out of bounds. However, someone said there was a river on the other side of the mountains – and we were badly in need of a wash so Pete McCowan and I decided to take the risk and give it a go. Just in case there was a river and any fish we took a couple of hand grenades – a method of fishing we had found very satisfactory at Mersa Matruh. About two hours mountaineering brought us into the best and richest valley we’d seen in this country – and the little township nestling under the mountain had an ajar of prosperity and was so different to anything we’d seen that we thought it must be a French settlement, and decided to look the place over. On the corner at which we entered the town there was a chemist shop and as we passed the chemist greeted us with Bonjour Messieurs – welcome. We shook hands with him – Pete keeping one hand on the grenade (just in case) and more by signs than words we were given to understand that he wanted us to have a cup of coffee so we went in and sat down at a table.
While the coffee was being prepared he sent a number of men out, apparently on messages and in a few seconds the shop was full and between two and three hundred people had gathered outside. Peter was quite sure we were in a trap. When the crowd parted, number of fellows whose manner and deportment marked them as notables came in. The foremost of the group spoke to us in English – told us that although Syrian by birth he was an American citizen. He further told us that Machgarah was a Syrian township and that eighty percent of the people were British sympathisers – although French was the language. He assumed that we were Australian officers (as we were the first British troops to enter the town) and had come to see the place before occupying it.
Our Yankee friend then did the honours and introduced us to the Mayor, the town councillors, the priest and two doctors. They then hurried us away from our coffee to the police station. Here some fourteen Gendarmes formed a guard of honour. At the door we were met by the Commissioner and the Chief of Police. We had another speech of welcome, which the Yank interpreted – incidentally the Commissioner himself was also a Frenchman. We had a glass of arak – the most potent of all potencies – followed by a cup of black coffee and a glass of water – the last named being by far the most enjoyable. Whilst all this was going on numerous messengers came and went and presently accompanied by the commissioner we toured the town. The streets were lined with people who cheered and waved. The only two greetings they apparently knew were Bonjour and Welcome.
At the conclusion of our triumphal tour we inspected a number of houses damaged by our artillery and assured the owners that they’d get a good hearing when the place had been occupied. We then visited the flour mill and tannery and were told if we went back in the afternoon we would be presented with a belt. During our tour quite a number of them asked us for permits to visit other towns in the war zone and we told them that it was not safe just then but arrangements would be made as soon as possible.
We then had lunch with the mayor – and what a meal. It brought to mind the time those Japs came down to dinner and as our interpreter was not present we were able to express ourselves freely in our opinions of the meal. It was apparently a four course meal because there were four plates at each setting, but one course more than sufficed for me. The top receptacle was a bowl about twice or three times as big as a soup plate. In the bottom of this a servant put some stuff like cornflakes, then enough rice to feed a battalion. Over the rice she spread minced raw onion then meat cut in chunks and over it all poured stuff like curry – she then mixed it all together. I felt quite hungry before the meal started but the very sight of so much food more than satisfied my appetite. Pete struggled through the first course but I had to pique halfway through. The mayor and the other members of his family went through the four courses like champions. With the meal we drank strong wine and after it strong black coffee.
In the afternoon we were invited to a function welcoming home a prominent citizen who had been imprisoned for British sympathies at the outbreak of the show. On arrival at the reception hall we found som fifty or sixty people, many of whom we’d met in the morning. As we entered the door someone said ‘Les Capitaines’ and everyone stood up until we had taken the seats of honour. We listened to numerous speeches, drank more arak and more coffee, and through the interpreter made our goodbyes, the mayor asking that we bring our troops as soon as possible.
It was the funniest experience I’ve ever had for we definitely forestalled any visitors and had all the limelight and glamour of Princes or ambassadors. It would have been just too bad if an officer had arrived while we were there – as it was we got our ears chewed a bit when we got back.
I’ve just been detailed for a job so must to to work.
Goodbye for the present – Love to May & Anne & regards to the boys
Your loving son
We got our ears chewed
According to his diary, ‘The crowd were waiting for us to move out’ (see below – the move began at midday on the 15th). So there would have been quite a bit of frustration around their absence, I imagine….quite apart from the fact that they were clearly in a ‘no go’ zone.
The town : Machghara
In his diary, Dad mentioned that on their way down the valley, he and Pete ‘passed several machine gun posts blown out by our artillery – bloody good shooting’. This was where the artillery fire directed at D Company in the previous week had originated (see previous post – July 10 1941). In his later recollections, Dad named the town concerned as Machghara. The map (from The Footsoldiers) shows this town almost directly east of Jezzine, with D Company’s position between the two. A recent photo (by hajj1st) gives some idea of the terrain –
Publication of the story
When his mother received this letter, she decided to submit it for publication in the Australian Womens Weekly – which was more of a newspaper than the glossy magazine of recent times. There was a section called Letters From Our Boys where suitably edited items were shared. It seems the procedure involved firstly getting official approval from the Army. This letter is the most fragile int he collection, and had a slip pinned to it, indicating it had been left at the Barracks in Hobart –
The edited letter was published in the Weekly’s edition of September 13.
Years later, the Weekly’s version was also published in the book Digger by John Laffin.
With the conclusion of the show…
Extracts from The Footsoldiers:
With the Australian 21st and 17th Brigades’ success at Damour (on the coast – where they had received great support from the British Navy) aided by pressure by the 23rd and 30th British Brigades at Merdjayoun, and the 16th British Brigade and Free French at Jebel Mazar west of Damascus, the Vichy forces gave in. The British and Indian advances in the desert, the approach of the 4th British Cavalry Brigade to Homs, and the 20th and 21st Indian Army Brigades’ move on Aleppo helped persuade the enemy. The French accepted the terms of surrender laid down by GOC 1st Australian Corps, Lieut-General Lavarack. On the night of 11 July, orders were issued to cease fire…..The armistice was eventually signed at the ancient seaport of Acre …on 13 July. The agreement provided for the occupation of Syria by the Allies, the granting of full military honours to the French, and allowing any French to return to Algeria if they did not elect to some over to the Free French. The French were allowed to retain personal arms. The area of the Australian occupation was : 17th Brigade, Latakia; 21st Brigade, Tripoli; 25th Brigade, Beirut; all on the coast, north from Beirut, and on the western slopes of the Lebanon. At midday on 15 July, 7th Division units began moving forward to their positions for the occupation.