That Slender Chance
Obey The Last Order!
My father Frederick Naylor joined the British Army in 1915. So keen to fight for his country, he lied about his age, adding two years to his 17. An apprenticed fitter, he was sent to France to be a mechanic in the Royal Flying Corps, maintaining the airplanes, an innovation in a war still using horses.
To put the air war in perspective, the first time an airplane was used in combat was in 1911, when an Italian pilot flew over Libya with a small suitcase of round bombs and a spare one in his pocket. Presumably he tossed them out the window. The word ‘bomber’ had not yet been invented. The Royal Flying Corps, originally intended for reconnaissance, eventually became the Royal Air Force.
Fred’s war was safer and less wretched than that endured by men in the trenches. He shared with us his recollections, recalling a company of Scottish soldiers playing lively bagpipes as they marched bravely to the front. A few days later only a straggle of survivors returned, marching dejectedly to the tune of one bagpipe.
Fred’s dangerous missions were to go beyond the lines at night to retrieve the wreckage of fallen planes. One evening he was about to leave on such a task when he was ordered to go on sentry duty. “But sergeant,” he said, “I’m going to retrieve an engine from a wreck,” and the officer barked at him, “Obey the last order!” His friend went in his place, and was killed that night. Upon that slender chance depended his survival, mine and all his offspring.
He told me that once a pilot described a strange noise in his engine and Fred said “Take me up to let me hear it.” When Fred stepped out of the cockpit onto the wing of the biplane to listen more intently, the pilot shouted “Get back in, you fool!”
Fred was there when the Red Baron crashed in an airfield after being shot down by the British. As they pulled him out of the wreckage Fred noted his strong hair and healthy features, and thought how sad that such a vital young man was dead.
Towards the end of the war his company was in Belgium, utilizing a flat field as landing ground near the small village of Clermont, near Charleroi. In the village square on his arrival he rigged up the first demonstration of electricity that the villagers had ever seen, using a truck as generator to give light. Fred gave his chocolate ration to a small girl in the crowd. The men were billeted with locals, and that first evening the little girl, Marie-Antoinette, recognized him, telling her mother of his kindness. Thus he met with a welcome that never faded. A young couple who would later marry, became his friends for life. Laurence was 19 and Alexandre 20. By now Fred was 20 also. After the war Alexandre would become the local electrician. He and later his son made a good living thus for the rest of their lives.
After WWI, aged 27, Fred went back to visit his now married friends. He learned French from reading books and writing to his friends at intervals throughout his life. He was self-educated, studying seven years in the merchant navy for his Chief’s ticket as an engineer. His wanderlust must be in our genes. I lived in Spain when I was young, and later in France and America, and my sons are scattered around the globe. In contrast his five siblings never moved away from the north of England village where they were born.
Fred was legendary in Clermont: in 1945 when the villagers wanted to let young men in the Resistance know that they could soon come home from hiding in the woods, they sent a message that “Frederique is coming down the road!” This was understood by the locals as a metaphor for Liberation.
After WWII, Fred wrote to discover how they had fared, and what we could send them that would be helpful. They had all survived the ordeal, although Laurence had been obliged to sip 18 cups of coffee some mornings before the Germans billeted with her would drink it. Laurence asked for woolen socks and soap, unobtainable there, which we duly posted. The next year my parents, older brother and I went to stay with them for two weeks holiday. I was nine. In all our lives we never experienced a warmer welcome. Each evening they served seven course meals, digging out their best wine, covered in cobwebs, from the underground cache where it was hidden during the Nazi occupation. In those days my Father was the only French speaker, obliged to translate every conversation for our benefit, but my brother and I later became fluent. Playing with the children, I learned my first words of French, a head start when I started French lessons in school at 11.
I was fifteen when we went again. As we walked around the village, pausing to talk to everyone we passed, I said to my Father “I could never live here.” “Why is that?” he asked. “Because all that ever happens here is: you get born, you grow up, you get married, you have children and you die.” He smiled. “That is all that ever happens anywhere,” he said.
My Father’s war experience deeply affected him and forever after he realized his good fortune to have survived. He went to see the new film “All Quiet on the Western Front” but half an hour into it, he had to leave the cinema, in tears.
My family and I visited Clermont in 1978 when my children were young. They played with Laurence’s grandchildren. Of the older generation only Laurence was still alive. She spoke fondly of Frederique and gave me the RFC silver wings brooch my Father had given her sixty years before. I was moved.
I’m still in touch by Christmas correspondence with Laurence’s daughter Emerance, a couple of years older than I, both now in our seventies. In five years it will be a century since Frederique gave chocolate to her aunt.
Fred died in 1965 when I was expecting my second child. The books beside his bed were by Maupassant and Molière, in French. He would be astonished to know that he has five grandsons living in England, Ireland, America and Australia, who have produced 12 great grandchildren, issue of that family flimsily dependent on the sergeant’s command to “Obey the last order!”