Heart-breaking tale from wartime cellar
A secret from the chaos and rubble of World War I in France was recounted around the world in 1921.
Saturdayswere uncanny in Palmerston North’s old-time Manawatu¯ Standard – it was the day the paper ran all the bizarre or out-of-the-ordinary stories held over for leisurely weekend reading.
April 16, 1921, was one of those days. Survivors of the still-recent World War I, at home and abroad, might have been intrigued by a story headlined ‘‘The Musical Clock’’. Reprinted from a long article, ‘‘Drama In Acellar’’ by Eric Fairey in the Sydney Sun, it read:
‘‘Not long ago,
I told this story at a social evening, and when finally at its conclusion I went out on the verandah to hide my tears ... some of my listeners smiled incredulously.
‘‘For five days I had occupied a cellar beneath awrecked building in Villers-bretonneux, France. An oil lamp burned continuously, for no light entered my gloomy abode. My duties as a company clerk confined me to my musty, dimly-lit quarters.
‘‘Here, I was comparatively secure from shell fire, for the wrecked building overhead was really a five-ton pile of protective bricks.
‘My commanding officer was quartered in a cellar 20 yards away, and we communicated with one another by means of a low tunnel which acted as a speaking tube ... It was very quiet at 8pm on the night of June 9, 1918, when I sat at a rickety table to compile the daily ration statement.
‘‘The far end of my underground home was beyond the circle of dim light shed by the small oil lamp on the table, and when I glanced up from my work the two evil-looking eyes of a rat peered downatme from the gloomy end where the cellar’s wall and ceilingmet. I leaned over the table and from thewall picked out a piece of loose brick, which I flung at the glowing eyes.
‘‘But my aim was not good. The brick struck hollow-soundingwood, and to my surprise amerry tinkle filled the cellar. Athin stream of music flowed from the place where the rat had been.
‘‘Picking up the lamp, I explored the spot, and there on a brick ledge just under the roof was an old clock.
‘‘Apart from its musical apparatus, it was not working.
‘‘The brick had splintered its small door, and evidently frightened the tiny tune out of it.
‘‘I lifted the clock off the shelf and discovered, tucked away in a corner of it, three dusty pages covered in pencil writing. I smoothed them out and this is what I translated:
My beloved Jules: When war broke out and for the first time in our lives wewere to be parted, you feared that Imight one day be forced to flee from our beloved Villers-bretonneux. There was a chance that you and I might fail to discover each other’s whereabouts through the misfortunes of war.
So we arranged that I should leave for you amessage in the old clock, and place it on the high ledge in the cellar, if I was forced to flee from home.
This morning, when the news of the advance of the Allemand reached us, I hurried off my mother and little Gabrielle in one of the large automobiles taking our poor terrified people to Amiens.
I was to follow in an hour. When I had secured a bundle of garments and some jewellery, I caught up a pencil and paper, and the old clock, and with a lamp came down into the cellar to write to you that we were fleeing to Amiens ...
When I had hidden it in the clock on the ledge, I turned to go upstairs, and found that the big wooden door which my grandpere had built in the days when he stored valuable wines, had closed afterme. It refused to open. I beat my hands upon it; I threw my body at it, but was hurled back, bruised and shaken.
Jules, fate has played a cruel joke on your poor Lucille. I ama prisoner, and the Allemande is approaching.
At first I was frantic, but now I am calm ...
My beloved, I doubt you will ever again behold me. Soon the Allemand will be here ... and when he arrives, glutton that he is, he will look for wine in the cellars of VillersBretonneux.
Then he will find me ...
‘‘My reading was interrupted by the voice ofmy commanding officer: You’d better come up and have a look at this new order. I’ll leave it on my table. I have to go out to Number 4 post, there are casualties; Fritz is sending over Minnies ...’’ [German trench mortar bombs].
‘‘I was halfway up the tunnel when a tornado of dust and high explosive almost blew me into the C.O.’S quarters. Aminnenwerfer had found its way into my cellar, and the 50-ton pile of bricks had crashed in. A kindly fate had saved my life. Badly shaken, I sat and pondered. Poor Lucille ... how had she fared?
‘‘When the C.O. returned he found me in tears. I told him my story but he pattedme on the back and said: Shell shock, old man.
‘‘Shell shock! Yes, I was shellshocked for certain, but this I knew – beneath a pile of bricks where oncewas a cellar in the old town of Bretonneux are the tattered remains of what I’m afraid was the last letter ever written by a brave French girl.’’
‘‘I lifted the clock off the shelf and discovered, tucked away in a corner of it, three dusty pages covered in pencil writing.’’