GENERAL ARTICLES

BEVERLEY BAXTER'S London Letter

They Who Get Slapped

August 1 1945
GENERAL ARTICLES

BEVERLEY BAXTER'S London Letter

They Who Get Slapped

August 1 1945

BEVERLEY BAXTER'S London Letter

They Who Get Slapped

THREE DAYS ago I journeyed from London to Oldham, in Lancashire. It was pleasant to find a vacant seat in a first-class compartment, and I took a quick survey of my fellow voyagers for the five-hour trip. In one corner was a streamlined American girl, in uniform, with a long nose, long fingers and long legs. In another corner was a subaltern on his way to an embarkation centre for India. In yet another corner was an oldish man who never spoke or moved during the entire trip and whom I could not have identified an hour after we had dispersed.

But these three were the mere trimmings, the mere dressing to the salad. The other four occupants were a melancholy-looking foreigner, probably Belgian, with classical features, yet more than a touch of the peasant about him; his wife, a healthy blondish buxom wench, and their little daughters, a brunette of about three and a blonde of about five. The four of them could have posed 1 as the human family through the ages. There was a pensive melancholy about the father, which befits one of Adam’s breed, and there was a strong womanhood about the mother as elemental as life itself.

It will save space to record that the two little girls started at the same time as the train. They laughed, they squealed, they cried, they climbed over Adam, they fell on me, they rolled on the floor, they put their heads out of the window—and the noise was quite deafening. Father Adam smiled apologetically at us. Eve alternately shouted, “Keep quiet!” and exuded maternal satisfaction. Every now and then, her patience exhausted, she would take a whack at one of the children, which always produced a burst of tears and squealing.

Now the strange part of it all was that these slaps usually occurred when the children were quieting down. Apparently the mother had got so used to the noise that when it abated her suspicions were aroused and she felt that something bad to be done about it. This went on for exactly five hours, broken only by perambulations down the corridor and a raid upon a luncheon basket.

As reading was out of the question and sleep impossible, I began to consider the people in the compartment , and gradually it came to me that here was a miniature of the whole world today. In fact what was happening on that train was not unlike events in Europe.

Problem of l)e Gaulle

^"I^AKE for example I'Affaire deCaulle. In 1940 this JL gallant Frenchman became the embodiment of his people’s valor and spirit of independence. With his country in chains, he kept the torch alight so that Frenchmen could still look up and hope. Britain, with

only the Commonwealth and Empire to help her, fought on and kept the safety of the skies and the seas until the maddened Hitler hurled himself on Russia and the destiny of man was saved.

When the British, Canadian and American troops bad cleared France of the Hun, Churchill went to Paris and walked by the side of De Gaulle, to the Arc de Triomphe, amid the tears and cheers of a grateful people. Joy and dignity bad returned to France.

France is always depicted as a woman, and her memory is long. There were a few very old people waving to Churchill and De Gaulle who still remembered when the Germans came to Paris in 1870. There were Parisians, too, who recalled how from 1870 until 1918 the statues of Metz and Strasbourg in the Place de la Concorde were veiled in black.

Yet of all the defeats and humiliations (not always the same thing) which France had endured, none cut so deep into her pride as the surrender to Germany in 1940, after a battle which was numbered in days. But the age of miracles was not yet over. There, before

their eyes, were De Gaulle, the Resister, and Churchill, the Deliverer. France could hold up her head again.

Yet less than a year later British troops were ready, if necessary, to fire upon the French unless they obeyed the British order to cease the bombardment of Damascus. Tragic—and more than a little absurd. “We will not be dictated to,” cries De Gaulle. “His explanation is not according to the facts,” snaps Churchill as he reveals the story to the House of Commons.

Slap, slap. It was just like the mother in the railway carriage, and the squealing was even louder.

Three years ago at the flat of poor Victor Cazalet, who was later killed in the Sikorski plane crash, I dined with De Gaulle and two or three British politicians. His mind was far less rigid than report made it. For example, he said that his book on the use of the tank, a book which made him famous in 1939, was completely out of date—and it is not easy for an author to disavow his own child. Nor was he entirely without humor, although one felt that it might depart swiftly at any threat to his self-esteem. Yet I would not have said that he was a vain man, unless we agree that Joan of Arc was vain. The past is always with us and I felt that this strange, tall, slim soldier was almost the reincarnation of the Maid—stubborn, like she was, inspired perhaps by voices, certainly convinced of his mission. Perhaps he remembered, too, that the British were the prime movers in the arrest and execution of Joan at the stake in Rouen.

For reasons of his own De Gaulle was distrustful of British intentions in the Middle East even when the fortunes of Britain were at their lowest. Long before the Allied Forces landed in North Africa, De Gaulle made several visits to the Arab territories friendly to Britain, and where, not unnaturally, faith in France had dwindled sharply. On more than one occasion De Gaulle’s zeal for France resulted in outspoken criticism of the British. This became known, of course, to Churchill and I venture to guess that on De Gaulle’s return to London there was a certain amount of slapping, followed by a period uf coolness. It has been said of De Gaulle that he has the heart of a lion but a skin that bleeds at the slightest prick. Seldom has greatness had so thin a covering.

Thank God he did not make the mistake of disobeying the British order to cease fire in Damascus. I remember the sickening of the heart when we heard that the British Navy had bombarded the French Fleet at Oran. It would have been a pitiful tragedy if, after the defeat of Germany, British and French soldiers killed each other in Syria.

More than ever Britain and France must march together. France, Britain, the U. S. A. and Canada are the four great Atlantic

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Powers (it is time that Canada should he given her proper place in the world) and together they are the ramparts and citadel of Western Civilization. They cannot afford to squeal and slap. They are not children in a train.

Red Black-outs

But my study of the family scene in the compartment did not bring only De Gaulle to my mind. In these days it is not easy to leave Russia out of anything.

I am going to be perfectly frank and admit that over the last two months I ha/e shared with many others in London the greatest perplexity and considerable misgivings about the Soviet. Wherever the Russians freed a country from the Germans, whether it was Romania, Hungary, Austria, Poland or Czechoslovakia, a complete black-out occurred. No Allied newspaper correspondents or military observers were allowed to go there. All the information vouchsafed to the Allied peoples, and, apparently, to the Allied Governments, was what appeared in the Government-controlled Russian Press.*

Stalin was appointing provisional governments without any apparent consultation with London or Washington. The climax came when the Russians entered Berlin, the infamous capital which had been destroyed by the Allied Air Forces and whose capture was made inevitable by the Allied invasion of Europe. Yet Russia was treating it as if it were her bird alone, and hers for what plucking remained.

What was going on? Did Stalin intend to put into power the turncoat German generals who had been captured at Stalingrad and who had been the main instrument of Russian propaganda against Hitler? Was Stalin planning a military alliance with what was left of the German Army? Such questions arise because where there is silence there is mystery, and where there is mystery there is fear. 1 can assure you that Stalin was being slapped pretty roughly by a lot of people in London, although admittedly slaps at a distance do not hurt as much as the other kind.

The situation was exasperating, to put it mildly. Here was the western half of Europe, under the Allies, like an open book for anyone to read. There was the eastern half shrouded in impenetrable darkness. Surely it was the strangest climax to a war in all history.

Then, suddenly, the Russian High Command invited Eisenhower and Montgomery to be their guests of honor in Berlin. They were presented with the highest order in the Soviet, consisting of a diamond-studded decoration worth some £4,000. They drove through the ruined streets and noted that the Russians have made no attempt to sovietize or communize the shops of Berlin; that instead of plunging Berlin into the blood bath which everyone had forecast, the Russians were under perfect discipline and tried to bring back some of the amenities of life to the sullen numbed Berliners: that there was more food for the population and a reopening of such theatres and cinemas as survived, to say nothing of a football match between Russian and German soldiers. What is more, the Russians agreed to a cycle of administration whereby each of the I Allies in turn will occupy and. govern Berlin.

I do not suggest that we should now I throw our hats into the air and shout that all is for the best in the best of all

possible worlds, but is it not likely t hat Stalin is something of a child who wants everything in the nursery to be exactly right before he invites the boy next door to come in and envy him? Or is it that the Russian Government is not used to press criticism and did not want foreign correspondents to describe things to the world while they were still chaotic? Is, in fact, the brooding dictator of the Kremlin really a sort of benevolent Santa Claus?

It will relieve my critics to hear that I haven’t got the faintest idea as to what is the real answer. These are times when one has to approach truth with all the delicacy and caution of an invading army looking for booby traps.

The rise of Russia as a colossal military power is a fact which must be recognized, and marshals who have won great victories with a revolutionary arrrry do not find it easy to go back to the less exciting pursuits of peace, but fear is a bad counsellor to reason.

I do not believe for a moment that our troubles with Russia are over, or that the Kremlin is going to conduct its negotiations with the skilful niceties of the Quai d’Orsay or the British Foreign Office, but this much must be recognized and proclaimed: with the possible exception of Poland, the conquering Russians have shown restraint and humanity in dealing with countries they have freed and occupied. The cynic will say that this is done with a purpose. Then let us at least applaud the purpose which produces such results.

At the beginning of this letter I told you that the train was going to Oldham. And eventually we got there. The American girl, who had maintained an attitude of resolute isolation, departed. So did the silent old man who seemed to represent the inarticulate masses of the world. The young lieutenant wished us all good luck and started toward his great adventure. Adam took down the luggage, while Eve spruced up the children—and so they went out into the unknown, the human family, which survives war, floods, earthquakes and the centuries.

My head was still throbbing with the noise of the children and the sound of those slaps, but somehow I felt a certain buoyancy, a returning confidence in the future of mankind. It had been a long and trying journey but we had arrived.

Perhaps in the larger sphere of world affairs we too shall journey and arrive safely, and the slaps of today will be the smiles of tomorrow. Remember, the British guns did not fire at Damascus. Let’s hold onto that, for without confidence and hope we cannot ask for sanity.

Pass Along Your Maclean9 s to the Boys in Uniform

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