My lesson for life arrived on a postcard, from someone I had never met.
It arrived through the door one winter’s day from Egypt, and left me with so many memories. It was written by an old soldier who had served with my father during the World War 11. He offered his thoughts and feeling up to me.
“I write my memoirs and remember the night in Feb. 45, when after a night skirmish, I was digging in when Hugh came to my position saying: ‘The Colonel has lost the battalion and wants someone to go and look.’
I was frozen with fear; to go out in the dark woodlands seemed a certain equation to be shot at by both sides, as I put it. He was sensitive to my abject fear and said: “Jim White will do it.”
How did he know?
Lt. White was carried in later after stepping on a schu mine. No one said anything, but I was rather shamed.
A fine man.”
Reflecting on the content of this brief note, I became inspired by this old soldier’s comments. I knew the story from Hugh’s perspective, as he was my father. The postcard provided insight into his ability as Commanding Officer: who, having asked for assistance from his new Platoon Commander, possessed the experience and confidence to understand that to turn this request into an order would serve no purpose.
So, I will tell Hugh’s story, as I have now told it to James, who in 1945 was totally unaware of the position my father found himself in.
For the last three years, Hugh had marched, fought, lived and laughed with his men. He had depended on them throughout the 2,000 mile trek across North Africa to The Sicily landings. Through the horror and stress of the D-Day landings, they were beside him. As Northern of France merged into Holland then Germany, they had been his constant companions.
By the date mentioned in the Postcard, he was a Major, and the end of the war in sight. In February 1945, Hugh had just returned from 7 days R&R to discover that, while he was away, the the battle of the Reichswald had taken place, and the “Para Boys” as Hitler’s elite fighting unit was known, had decimated his entire Company. At first, the shock of having no Company to command was unbearable.
Of the three platoons who had joked with him just a few days before, a handful had survived. His loss was agony: the lack of trusted support difficult to bear. The faces of his brothers in arms seemed real, as he summoned the memory of each in turn. He was daunted. As the war neared its end the most challenging battles lay before him, none of these trusted fighters would be by his side.
With the arrival of replacements, new faces took the place of his friends. In his dazed and disbelieving state, he tried to assess, through small tasks, the strengths and weaknesses of his new troops. Many had never seen battle before, and seemed a different breed.
So, while the task was important, he understood that the Lieutenant Finlay’s response and fear was part of the growing process. Although Hugh was under severe pressure, it was important not to belittle this new soldier. Therefore, understanding that his new Platoon Commander was not yet ready for the task, he made no attempt to convert the request to an order. Fear is contagious, and renders the individual not only useless but dangerous in this situation.
This lesson had a powerful effect on me. That so may years later, this could still have such meaning to the soldier, spoke loudly of a sensitive leader.
Value your troops, and they will value you.
© Linda Jane McLean
(My sincere thanks go to James Finlay, who wrote the postcard with courage and humility, and for his permission for me to record it publicly. LJM)