Thursday, January 27, 2022

Quarante et huit¹

Guillaume Micheaux watched as the men in his squad shuffled along the track, slowly the men being shifted from the Maginot Line to the main front in northern France were boarding the crowded boxcars.

"Caporal, surely these cars cannot hold forty men and eight horses," Marcel Trouvé, a very young soldier asked.

"Not at the same time my boy, it's either forty men OR eight horses, comprend²?"

"Oui, mon caporal, I think so."

Eugène Bachelot, a thuggish man from the slums of Paris guffawed, "Ah, little Marcel, did they teach you nothing at your little school in the Vosges?"

"At ease!" their new sergeant, Pierre Brasseur, a tough little man from Marseilles, barked at the squad. "Keep your traps shut and get on the damned train. The Boche will be in Paris at the rate you crétins are loading. Allez, vite!³"

Guillaume missed Sergent Poisson, the man had been a much calmer sort than Brasseur. He was also concerned at this move to the west. The Maginot Line might be somewhat claustrophobic, but it was well armored and the bunks were fairly comfortable. He couldn't imagine sleeping in a trench as his father and uncles had. Covered in mud, exposed to the elements? At least the fortifications were dry!

Jürgen was dead on his feet, he woke up each day convinced that he couldn't march another step. But he managed.

"One foot in front of the other Junge!" Unteroffizier Hartmann had said, laughing.

They had had to move off the road a number of times as columns of supply trucks, and panzers had passed by. Even the horse drawn units were passing them. Jürgen spat once more to the side of the road, his mouth seemed to be full of dust, his uniform was certainly covered in it.

"We look like Africans Herr Gefreiter!" Schütze Ulrich Waldmüller had a point, their faces were all so dirty that their own mothers wouldn't have recognized them.

"Marsch meine Kinder, marsch⁴! The Poles are running faster than we can chase them!" Unteroffizier Hartmann drove his men to the east, the pace was unrelenting.

Jan Kołodziej had crossed back into Poland wearing civilian clothes and bearing papers in his own name provided by a kindly Romanian officer by the name of Rasvan Dobrescu. The papers were reasonably authentic and had cost Jan the last of his money, these things didn't come free. Apparently Dobrescu had family in the smuggling business, he knew people, who knew other people.

Jan's papers indicated that while indeed he was a Polish citizen, it didn't reveal that he was from the area around Kraków. No, these papers had him as a resident of Bydgoszcz, what the Germans called Bromberg, which was in an area that they considered to be part of the Reich. In fact until 1918 it had been part of Prussia, now it was in the Polish Corridor, an area which the Germans had overrun rather quickly in the first weeks of the war.

Jan could pass for a German, in fact he had on more than one occasion when young, trying to impress German tourists before the war. The female tourists of course.

While he couldn't speak Romanian, Dobrescu spoke French, which was another language Jan spoke very well. Like many educated Poles, he spoke multiple languages: Polish, German, French, and English. He had learned English from an American girl visiting Poland from the United States. She was of Polish descent, from Chicago, when Jan spoke English, people who knew the States swore he was from that city.

So the acquisition of the papers was done in French. After receiving them he had noted that his papers indicated that he was a laborer.

"Captain Dobrescu, I'm an educated man, why laborer?" he had asked.

"Ah, don't you know the Nazis are murdering the elites in your country? If the Nazis think you're an educated man, they'll kill you. But a laborer? With your ability to speak German? You should be safe, don't let on that you have an education, it could mean your life."

As Jan trudged back into his home country, avoiding the main roads, he wondered at the wisdom of returning. He might have been better off boarding that train with Bartek and the others. But here he was, he had to know the fate of his Elżbieta.

Private Billy Wallace was still grousing about the train trip from the Channel ports to the muddy countryside outside Lille. "Damn it, Connor, I expected better accommodations than those bloody Frog boxcars, 'homes and che-vox,' what the bloody Hell does that mean?"

Connor McGuire chuckled, "It's pronounced 'hommes,' not 'homes,' and 'chevaux,' not 'che-vox.' Means men and horses ye daft bugger."

Billy stopped digging long enough to give Connor an evil look, "I didn't know ye spoke Frog, what are ye then, educated?"

Connor laughed again, "Yes, I speak a little French, how else should I impress the mademoiselles? Shite, buck up laddie, the Sar'nt's coming."

Indeed Sergeant Bill Greaves was coming, he could see that Wallace was again bumping his gums and not working.

"Wallace! The Army doesn't pay ye to stand about yapping, get to digging laddie!"

"Aye Sar'nt Greaves, it's digging I am!" Grumbling, Billy drove his spade once again into the French soil. Muttering under his breath he said to Connor, "I didnae sign up to be a bloody miner!"

The fighting in the east continued, Warsaw was besieged and the Luftwaffe was attempting to bomb the city to rubble. Civilians were dying by the thousands in Poland.

Jan had good reason to be worried about Elżbieta.

She was in Warsaw.

¹ 40 and 8, a French railcar designed to carry 40 men (quarante) or 8 horses (huit)
² understand? (comprend)
³ jackasses (crétins), Allez, vite! (Go, quickly!)
⁴ March my children, march! (Marsch meine Kinder, marsch!)


  1. The VFW in Mauston, WI, had a 1940's truck, that had been converted into a replica French locomotive, It had 40 et 8 on the front of the " boiler ".

    1. I've seen pictures of that truck.

    2. There used to be at least 2, maybe more, pseudo locomotives belonging to various American Legion Posts, usually mounting a Winchester 10ga. saluting cannon, in the 4th of July parade every year. One year there was an actual 40 & 8 boxcar on a lowbed trailer that came over from France and was touring the U.S. I was taught that it was a WWI thing. Old Guns

    3. They were still used in WWII, I first heard of them from my Dad, who rode in one.

    4. (Don McCollor)...With the 40 & 8s, there is a WW1 story of American troops riding in one on a cold winter night that stopped at a small Frech train station. There was There was an enticing red hot potbelly stove in the middle of the room. A diversion was arranged to get rid of the stationmaster. Two soldiers were on the shoulders of two others using their overcoats to protect their hands taking down the stovepipe. Four others shoved boards under the stove and carted it to the boxcar. When the train pulled out, there was a smoking stovepipe sticking out of the door. The Stationmaster insisted it had to have been the Americans..."Nobody but an American could steal a hot stove"...

  2. Heh heh. I have worked in places where their space planning was the equivalent of 40 men AND 8 horses.

    The pictures at the beginning of the war are some of the most melancholy to me. Men smiling away, having no idea what they are about to encounter. And for the British and the French, their belief of what they are about to encounter has almost no relationship with what they will really be stepping into. The risk of living in the past without learning from it.

    1. The storm that's coming will stun everyone.

    2. Are you sure it was an entire 8 horses? Or was it instead merely 8 horses' posteriors, perchance?

    3. That's the car for the staff officers.

  3. There is a 40 et 8 veterans club in Shelton Washington, I went in one day to ask what it meant.

  4. Warsaw. Rotterdam. But oh, the complaining when the same meal was served to them.

  5. Dark days full of fell deeds. A world collapsing in on itself.

    And it all sounds so familiar. You can see it happening all over again today.

    Will we ever learn?

    1. Only the dead have seen the end of war.

      And stupidity.

  6. Trains for everyone. I like that touch.
    Another great installment.

    1. Railroads were very important in WW2.

      Thanks JB.

    2. ALCO ( the American Locomotive COmpany ) developed their RS road switcher locomotives, in part, for the U S Army Transportation Corps, for use in France, as the 9th USAAF made locomotives scarce in Europe.

    3. The 9th had a thing for locomotives on the French rail system.

    4. As Eeyore would say, " How like them ".

  7. not to underline the point too heavily, but another reason why the Germans decided to bomb Warsaw so heavily is that the city held the greatest number of Jews in Poland: "Warsaw's prewar Jewish population of more than 350,000 constituted about 30 percent of the city's total population. The Warsaw Jewish community was the largest in both Poland and Europe, and was the second largest in the world, second only to New York City."
    Holocaust Encyclopedia

    1. The Pabst Plan. Destroy Warsaw completely and rebuild it as a small German town, serviced by its own slave labor camp on the other side of the Vistula.

      Hideous, beyond evil.

  8. Hey Old AFSarge;

    I remember a "Willie and Joe" cartoon where Willie told Joe that "Some Hommes should have cleaned up after the Chaveux" after looking inside a boxcar.


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