By Gregory Clark, September 28, 1940.
These three men stepped out of their roles of being “big” persons and became just little men for the moment
In the famous blitzkrieg on France, only three battalions of Canadians, and some artillery, army service corps and stuff got to France. They got there, started on a railway journey inland and were turned around and landed back in the port of Brest within 24 hours. To say they never fired a shot in the blitzkrieg would not be accurate. They did fire their Brens at German mine-layer planes that flew over Brest while the Canadians were packed on a little channel steamer, the Canterbury, tied to the quay, waiting for permission to leave the harbor for England again.
However, some odd things happened on that in-and-out. We had arrived in Brest at daybreak Friday morning. Three battalions in two ships. It was a fine sunny morning.
These Canadians were the first-born of the new war. These were the first comers; and I tried to concentrate my mind and imagination on them to capture if I could the feelings of soldiers going to battle for the first time. But they marched off the ships and got into the waiting trains as glib and easy as children going on a picnic. And mark you, this was June 14, and for more than a month, the world had been rocked by the blitzkrieg. For all they knew, the three battalions of them were heading straight into hell. But it was a fine morning for it.
Alas, or hallelujah, as the case may be, they did not meet hell. We who saw the three battalions off waited around all day Friday in Brest, in expectation of fresh shiploads of Canadians arriving. It was that evening, in Brest, already jammed and seething with refugees and that air of bright-eyed hope on the verge of disaster, that we learned the three trains of Canadians were already being ordered to turn around. The next afternoon, Saturday, they arrived back in Brest and marched without delay straight aboard the little Canterbury tied to the east quays of that crowded harbor.
There at the quay we stayed, tied up, all Saturday evening, all Sunday night and all day long of the bright Sunday, until nearly 6 p.m. before orders came to cast off moorings and hie for England. To me, who had been through the blitzkrieg three weeks before and had been at Boulogne and seen what the Germans could do with Heinkels and Dorniers to a seaport, the delay was agonizing. These blythe Canadians, bitter at being re-embarked, all packed like buttons in in a bag aboard this tiny channel steamer.
Big Man Takes It Easy
It was Saturday evening just before dark, and we all crowded the rails to look ashore in expectation of casting off hawsers any minute, when a big rich-looking civilian car rolled out on the quay. In it sat a chauffeur, and behind a large, elderly gentleman in civilian tweeds. The car was packed to the roof with handsome leather bags, brief and dispatch cases.
Out of the car stepped the large gentleman, with his walking stick, a massive, elderly man with a military moustache. He showed some papers to the guard at the gangway. Officers inspected the documents and the stranger was at once passed up the gangway aboard the ship.
I, being a war correspondent, walked up to the stranger and inquired who he was, the only civilian on this ship. He was Hon. Hugo Baring, continental director of the Westminster bank.
One of the famous Baring family that has been engaged for generations in British banking and world business enterprise. Sixth son of the first Lord Revelstoke, related to the Earl of Cromer and many other Barings who have become peers.
In these brown leather bags were items of interest to Westminster bank, as to its continental affairs. Mr. Baring told me that he had dispatched the bank’s gold, documents, etc., and 30 of its staff off by a more southern French port. He had decided to make a lone departure via Brest.
Could he get a cabin, he inquired? Ah, the cabins were all full of wounded, of nursing sisters and a group of some 20 Salvation Army lassies driven from their canteens across France. Where could he settle himself, then, in the salon or where? Ah, the salon was all rigged up as a first aid and emergency station. How about something to eat? Well, there were no arrangements on board for eating. This was a troopship, and all there was aboard, in the nature of grub, were the rations of the troops.
This elderly, amiable man sat down on his bags on the open deck of the Canterbury finding space for his well-shod feet amidst the legs of recumbent bucks of the R.C.R. and Hasty P’s; rested his big hands on his stick and relaxed. This continental director of one of the greatest and, at the moment, perhaps most embarrassed banks on earth, remarked mildly that this was nothing new to him. It was not until I got back to London and looked him up in the blue books that I found he had been wounded in the South African war with the 4th Hussars, wounded at Ypres with the British G.H.Q.. and had been in Siberia in 1918 with the British forces. That accounted for a kind of limp and a twist the big man showed when he walked.
He sat and walked among us all that night, next day, next night and then Monday morning saw Plymouth with the rest of us from the foggy deck of the Canterbury. In all that time, he had no food but the bully beef, the little new style hardtack cookies of the private troops, and the sergeant-major’s tea. He slept with his head on a table or a rail, or with his hands clasped on his stick, his body resting forward on it. Elderly, rugged, continental director of a great bank, he seemed perfectly at ease in body and mind. Never referred once to his business. Never wondered aloud what was going on, where was his staff from Paris, where his gold.
But amid all that was abortive, broken, twisted, lost and bewildered amidst the famous in-and-out of Brest, this picture of a great banker, scion of nobility, master of wealth, partner of destiny, dependent upon the charity of private soldiers from the far distant face of the earth, remains to me. He was discovering what wealth is; what nobility; what destiny. All in the hands of private soldiers.
Banker Sews on a Button
It was at Brest I also met a duke and did him a little service. But before I leave one banker, I would like to mention another I met, on board a ship coming to Canada. A most charming man, Simon Epstein, a Jewish banker born in Russia, most of his life spent in Paris, but for the last 10 years in London. An international banker, of great wealth from time to time, probably a millionaire more than once. But at the time I met him, a refugee, not very sure whether he had any money or not. And not much caring, because his wife and sons were safe in America.
Of the many amusing stories he told, this one remains. It was 10 years ago, when he was a Parisian, and spoke English very little. He came to America to visit friends in Chicago. He had only part of a day in New York, so he made the Grand Central Station his headquarters and walked up Fifth and Madison Park Aves., drinking in the wonder and the beauty of downtown New York. It was his first view of the new world and it amazed him. He was a wealthy banker. Strolling the golden streets of New York. He felt his braces slip as a pants’ button came off.
Banker or no banker, he halted and saw the button roll on the pavement. He picked it up and recollected having seen, a few blocks back, one of those little hole-in-the-wall pressing and tailoring establishments, operated by co-religionists of his, tucked in amidst the towering splendors of New York. He strolled back and went in and with his poor English and their various English, managed to purchase a needle and small spool of thread for five cents.
For mark you, one does not become a wealthy banker by being too proud to sew on a button. Mr. Epstein had noted, in the Grand Central Station, that downstairs was a magnificent marble department, the toilets and lavatories, which included among its other marvels, a whole row-of private chambrettes or toilets into which you were able to purchase your private way by inserting five cents in the slot on the little individual door handle.
Mr. Epstein proceeded to select a cubicle. He removed his trousers and sat down on the seat to sew the button on. As he started to thread the needle, the spool, as spools will, rolled off his knee and spun away along the floor, under the partitions of two of the adjoining cabinets.
Mr. Epstein peered under the partitions and tried to draw the spool back. But it just rolled and unwound. No matter what he did, the spool played truant. Now, banker or no banker, five cents or no five cents, a man who is a man is not going to let a spool of thread get away on him. Mr. Epstein opened the cubicle door and peered out. In the great marble hall of these super toilets, nothing stirred. Mr. Epstein, laying his trousers on the seat, nipped out and picked up the spool. And heard the door click behind him.
There stood Mr. Epstein, Paris banker, in his coat and vest but no pants, in the vast, forbidding marble emptiness of the Grand Central gentlemen’s department; and his pants inside and all his money in the pants. In a foreign city, his command of the language sketchy in the extreme, Mr. Epstein felt panic. Down the marble stairs he heard footfalls.
The stranger saw the spectacle of Mr. Epstein, paused and half turned to retreat upstairs.
“A neeckel,” said Mr. Epstein. “A neeckel, please.”
And with motions of his hands, he tried to explain that if he had a nickel, he could open the door and recover his pants. But the stranger eyed him with increasing suspicion and fled upstairs. To return almost immediately with a New York cop swinging his stick and demanding to know what was going on here.
Mr. Epstein, needle and spool in hand, explained in various French, Russian and English gestures, the calamity of what had happened
“A neeckel,” he pleaded, in conclusion.
It took four nickels to locate the right cubicle, because Mr. Epstein had forgotten which one he had selected, since they all look
alike. But he got his pants, returned the cop’s four nickels very happily, retired into the cubicle, threaded the needle, sewed on the button and duly returned to walk the sounding streets of New York.
And this was the story Mr. Simon Epstein told as we plunged across the wastes of seas off the northwest coast of Ireland, all lights out, and the watch stared into the wind and spray, westward-bound for the new world where Mr. Epstein, international banker, refugee, hoped to see his wife and sons.
Souvenir of a Duke
To get back to Brest for a minute; on the Saturday, as we waited in mounting anxiety for the 48th Highlanders, I got assurance from the officers of the Canterbury that they could not sail for at least a couple of hours by reason of tides; and I went back into the city to visit the hotel which was military headquarters for the area to see if they had any word of the missing Canadians. The city was already showing the unmistakeable signs of that fatal despair which I had seen, three weeks before, in Lille, Arras, Amiens, Boulogne. The streets were jammed from wall to wall with crowds of refugees in a slow-motion, almost immobile anxiety.
At the H.Q. hotel, a captain of the movement control staff eyed my badges and stepped up to me.
“You are a correspondent?” he asked. “My name is Keith-Braden. When are you planning to leave here?”
“I’ve already got aboard the Canterbury,” I said.
“How are you fixed for baggage?” he asked. “We movement control blighters are in a bit of a hole. We have to stay to the last and we won’t have any chance to get our baggage off…”
“You get me a working party,” I said, “and I’ll take all the baggage you want.”
“I’ve got a friend here,” said Keith Braden, and a middle-aged major came over, a quiet, scholar type of a man rather than the sort of dasher they usually have on staffs. The major said he had a suitcase and a cavalry great coat.
“Send ’em along,” I said. “As long as I have somebody to carry the stuff down to the Canterbury …”
The two officers disappeared and presently came back with two big, shabby suitcases, the kind of suitcases of which I have several in the attic. And a huge cavalry great coat. We arranged where I was to deliver them in London.
“Take mine,” said Keith Braden, “to my tailor’s in Bond St. And the Marquess will want his sent to his house, I suppose.”
“The Marquess?” said I.
“This is the Marquess of Cambridge,” explained Keith Braden, and the scholarly gentleman shook hands with me.
“Ah,” said I, “I’ll take your baggage anyway. You don’t have to be a marquess.”
“But he IS the Marquess of Cambridge,” laughed Keith Braden.
And while they tied tags on their shabby suitcases I stood and looked out the big hotel windows at the surging mobs of the poor French, their faces turned upwards while the air raid sirens bansheed, for there were German raiders over by this time. And it did seem a strange thing to see a marquess of the royal connection stooped over, in the foreground of that grim and woeful window picture, tying a tag on a rusty old valise.
I put the bags on the Canterbury deck where the boys of the Hasty P’s and the R.C.R. could see the tag. I left them and the cavalry great coat in the care of the nearest of the lads, sprawled in half sleep on the deck. And when it rained in the middle of the night, went up and found one of the lads had put on the marquess’ great coat and was lying wrapped in its voluminous folds asleep. It was a tidy when I retrieved it in the morning.
And it was all tidy when I returned the baggage to the Marchioness two days later in London.
“How was he when you saw him,” asked her grace.
“Fine,” I assured her, thinking of him bending over tying on tags, against that hotel window with its great surging picture of despair moving across it.
“I do hope he gets away,” she said.
He did. Keith Braden wrote me a note of thanks, and said they nipped off on the last boat, after seeing Brest set afire.
Editor’s Notes: This story was printed as Greg was a war correspondent in WWII. The original photo of him in his uniform in the microfilm of the newspaper was muddied, so I substituted it with a better copy of the same photo from one of his books.