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To War With The Bays: 84 – A Desire Fulfilled

Years after the war Jack Merewood returns to Italy to visit the places where he and his Bays colleagues battled against the Germans.

To read earlier chapters of Jack’s story please visit http://www.openwriting.com/archives/to_war_with_the_bays/

The memoirs were finished, but writing them had awakened a desire to go back and see some of those places again. In May 1996 we did so.

I wanted to go to Italy, but first it was to France, to visit friends Sheila and I have in Maubeuge near the Belgian border. Pierre had been a French soldier and was stationed in Algeria when it was a French colony. He had even spent some time in Aumale. I told him I had written to the mayor of Aumale on two occasions, explaining I was an English soldier who had been there during the war, and asking if he knew anything of the Hugnit family, but even though my return address was on the envelopes I had had no reply.

Pierre said he wasn't surprised, because in 1960/61 General de Gaulle had given Algeria to the Algerians, who had then required all the French people living there to become Algerian citizens. Most of them objected to this and as a result over 80% returned to France. However he knew that those who returned had formed a repatriation group, and at the moment he is looking into this with the hope of coming up with some information.

Next, south, where we have friends in Toulouse and Marseilles, both of whom speak excellent English and have read the memoirs. Suzette and her family were originally from Marseilles. These friends are also investigating, so who knows, maybe one of them will come up with news of Suzette and Yves.

Then along the French Riviera and into Italy. Pisa, Florence, over a narrow spectacular mountain road to Forli, through Cesena to the east coast and Rimini, for I wanted to find San Martino in Vend Ridge and the graves of Stan and the other boys who had been killed in that dreadful battle.

We found the Italian people extremely kind and helpful, and were eventually directed to the military cemetery at Coriano. From the ridge where they were first buried, the bodies of the Bays killed there had been moved and were now in this cemetery along with men from other regiments. It was a most impressive sight. Row upon row of white headstones with flowers planted around them. Men were cut¬ting the well-kept grass and cleaning the headstones.

Inside a small building is a register with the names and the number of the plot where they are buried. In one plot were the graves of twenty men of the Bays, most of whom I knew, the Bays badge engraved on every headstone.

I found Stan's grave and was completely overcome. I wanted to talk to him and tell him I was there. The times we'd talked together in the bivvy we shared, and dreamed of coming home. It didn't seem right he should be here. Ted Wanless is buried next to Stan, and I couldn't believe it was fifty-two years since I last saw them alive. I could see them as plain as if it were yesterday. We lingered there a long time.

I wanted to go up to the ridge and look down again into the little valley where the battle had taken place. But though we asked numerous people, nobody seemed to know where it was. Every time we were directed to the cemetery. We were about to leave there when we saw an old man and asked yet again, and this time he knew the place and drew a map showing us how to get there. It was evening. We decided to go the following day.

Next morning we went to the cemetery. I wanted to see the graves again and to say goodbye to Stan and Ted. Then we set out for the ridge. We found it, and it was exactly as I remembered, except that at the bottom there were fewer trees now. There were crops and grapes growing. Who would have known that here men had fought and died?

At the top of the hill is a monument to the memory of the men killed there. Nearby was an old shop and bar with a few people sitting around.

In my diary I had written of the day the Adjutant asked me to take some men to tidy up the graves, and I said that some of the children had helped us as we put green leaves on them. One I had mentioned by name — Pia 'our most industrious worker', and how we had taken her and her brother and mother to church one day.

I had the script of the memoirs with me. The two or three men sitting there could speak no English. My Italian is limited to a few simple words, but I mentioned the name Pia. ‘Pia,’ one of the men boomed, ‘mia sorella’ (my sister)!

Now there was a great buzz of excitement and animated talk¬ing and gesturing. A name was called, 'Francesca', and a charming young lady appeared who spoke some English and I was able to make her understand. Pia was her aunt and lived in Rimini. A Barbara, whose English was excellent: ‘Please stay there an hour and we'll come.’

We drove a little way up the road, ate a picnic we had with us, and came back to find what seemed to be the whole family there. Pia and her brother Ivo, the one we'd taken to church, had arrived with Barbara and others.

Barbara read from the memoirs, translating as she went, and had a rapt audience of young and old. They were marvellous. Ivo had his arm round me and seemed he wouldn't let go. Pia beamed with pride when it came to the part where she was 'our most industrious worker'. Of course they remembered, and told the younger ones how the Inglesi had liberated them from the Germans. One lady said: 'We owe our lives to them.' I told them about the book and Barbara asked if I would send one to her. I promised to do so.

We stayed two nights at a hotel at the seaside resort of Miremare. When I told the young lady receptionist why we were here she was almost in tears.

Later another receptionist, a young man by the name of Luigi, said he understood that we were there to look for the graves of my comrades, that I'd been in the fighting in the area, and he wanted to know more about it. I told him I had a few chapters of the script of the book with me. Could he borrow one and photocopy it? Next day he said he'd been so interested, did I have any more? I gave him two more chapters to photocopy. He said that he and many of the younger people there wanted to know more about this war that had taken place in their country.

This was not an isolated case, and we were amazed at the interest shown by so many of the younger people.

We were packing the car ready to leave when Luigi came running out of the hotel and said: 'Wait -I want to give you a bottle of wine.' A few minutes later he returned with two bottles. We felt quite humbled by this kind of attitude which we encountered so often.


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