Friday, 19 June 2020

Chatting to General de Gaulle

As you will probably have seen on the news, President Macron recently visited London to celebrate the anniversary of Charles de Gaulle's famous broadcast from Britain at the beginning of the Second World War, in which he called on the French to continue to resist the occupying army.

This reminded me of a story told by Phyllis Goddard - a wonderful lady, now in her late nineties, who used to come to the writing group I run in Cheddar until she became too frail to do so. Phyllis has lived for many years in Cheddar, but she's from London, and she wrote many pieces about her memories of her life there before, during, and after the war.

One that had us all on the edges of our seats when she first read it was the story of her encounter with General de Gaulle. It happened like this.

Inside the Royal Empire Society - now the Royal Commonwealth Society

When she left school at sixteen, Phyllis's first job was at the Royal Empire Society in the West End. Phyllis was from the East End, and at first she was awestruck by her new surroundings, but she soon settled in. The R.E.S. was a club where members could come and stay, or just drop in. Visitors, particularly those from abroad, would often use it as a forwarding address for their mail, and to begin with, Phyllis worked in the office where this mail was sorted and forwarded or stored. But after the bombing began, there were staff shortages, and she was often called on to be the duty receptionist.

One evening, she noticed two officers sitting talking. She couldn't quite work out where they were from, as they weren't wearing their caps. But one of them, who was particularly noticeable for his great height, came over to the desk with a query, and she realised from his accent that he was not British.

He got chatting to Phyllis, asking her about her family, how old you had to be to be called up, whether women were also conscripted, and so on. The next evening, she received a note from the hall porter, saying that the two men were not to be charged for their visit: the bill was to be sent to accounts. That was unusual, and she was intrigued.

Later that evening, the two men left, but before they did, the tall one came over to see Phyllis. He thanked her for chatting to him the previous evening - perhaps their conversation had provided him with a brief respite from weightier matters? - and gave her a brown envelope. This is how Phyllis described what happened next.

I opened the envelope and inside was a small card and a very nice cream coloured scarf, edged with the blue, white and red colours of the newly formed Free French organisation. I picked up the card and read the words 'Thank you'. On the reverse side was printed 'General Charles De Gaulle'. I was lost for words!

I wondered if those two officers had sought 'sanctuary' in our lovely building and had been in the War Office during the day making arrangements to move on to where they would be safe to do their war work?

Hitler missed them though. They had left when he dropped two bombs on the R.E.S.

Later, in 1944, a 'flying bomb' destroyed our house, leaving no trace of my Free French scarf, but no bomb could destroy the memory connected with it.

The General, broadcasting his famous speech from London to the French

The whole story, along with several others by Phyllis, was published in the first anthology of work by our writing group, Through The Barn Door. This book was intended for families and friends; it is still available, but at quite a price! (Click here.)

Two more recent anthologies, Just Write, and Encounters With War, are available from Amazon at a VERY reasonable price. Profits from both go to the Cheddar Youth Trust.

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