Trainwreck

Granville-Paris Express Incident in 1895

 

Trainwreck

How often do we hear railway metaphors and similes used to describe dramatic events in our lives? We say that someone has made a trainwreck of their life; that our plans have been derailed; when we speak of life-changing circumstances. Even in a small way, we might describe a feeling of tiredness as having run out of steam or puff, another allusion to the trains of a bygone era.

The railways have made a great impact on life and language since their eager acceptance by the British public in the 1820s and 1830s. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, train travel represented possibly the fastest and most economical way to cover long distances; and the most endurable if you were not rich enough to command the comforts of life.

Speaking of such things, I found the above amazing image on Wikipedia while researching the Paris railway stations for my Master of Illusion series.

On 22nd October, 1895 (when Madame Dupont was also having a little holiday away from her diary) the Granville-Paris Express overran its buffer stop at the Gare Montparnasse; crossed the concourse before crashing through the wall and came to rest in spectacular fashion, nose first, in the street below.

Incredibly, only one person was killed: not by the train directly, but by falling masonry. And here we see the irony of fate: The poor woman was minding her husband’s stall while he was away running an errand. Definitely, the wrong place at the wrong time!

And what of the stall holder himself? Did he congratulate himself on having had an amazing escape? Or did he wish that it had been him? Or miss her so much that he felt he should have died with her? We will never know.

More recently, the Gare Montparnasse is famous as the venue for the surrender of Colonel Dietrich von Choltitz to General Jacques-Phillipe Leclerc and Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy on 25th August 1944.

Colonel von Choltitz, the German commander of Paris during World War II, was hailed as the saviour of Paris by its grateful populace for his refusal to obey Hitler’s insane orders to destroy the city.

General Leclerc was the commander of the French 2nd Armoured Division formed in London in late 1943. The Division landed in Normandy attached to General George S. Patton’s 3rd U.S. Army and fought alongside the FFI in the Battle for Paris (19th – 24th August 1944).

Colonel Rol-Tanguy, known by his nom de guerre of Colonel Rol during WWII, was the leader of the Paris division of the FFI. A real hero of the French RĂ©sistance, he fought on grimly from the underground through all the years of the war.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Quiet Hero

Lt-Col R.O. Wynne  Image courtesy Mt Wilson and Mt Irvine Historical Society.

Lt-Col R.O. Wynne

 

As well as my grandfather, Jack and his mate, Percy, there were other real-life characters amongst my fictional ones in Angel of Song. One very special hero is referred to by Madame Dupont only as ‘Hugh’s friend’.

He was Lt. Colonel R. O.(Richard Owen) Wynne of the 2nd Regiment, Bedfordshire Rifles and his war record is impressive, to say the least. He was on the Western Front from at least the beginning of 1915 until the end of WW1 and took command of his entire regiment several times in 1917 in what have been considered some of the worst battles of the war. He trained soldiers new to the Front; from time to time commanded other battalions beside his own; and was twice awarded the DSO for conspicuous gallantry and leadership; the second of which he received after the battle mentioned in Angel of Song.

This occurred during March 21- 28, 1918; specifically on March 27 at La Folie when he led a successful assault on enemy machine guns that were decimating our troops, killing their commanding officer and forcing them into retreat.

Lt. Colonel Wynne was a crack shot; with all the speed and accuracy required by the high standard of the Rifles. Later, in his civilian life, he won many shooting competitions. But he wasn’t about to rest on his laurels.

Private research indicates that he led a secret surveillance team ahead of the 6th Division into France in 1940. The team was left stranded to find its own way out when France unexpectedly surrendered to Germany on the 22nd June 1940 and the 6th had to withdraw, leaving them behind.

After many hair-raising adventures, including hiding in olive groves being strafed by Stukas; he finally managed to make it, under Stuka fire, to the Jackal, a destroyer cruising in the Mediterranean; ending up in hospital in Egypt. The Jackal, damaged, but still able to sail out of range of the Stukas, was not as lucky as him and was sunk later in the war. But she got him away to safety.

A letter written from his hospital bed in Alexandria included a tongue-in-cheek comment that the Free French must have been a myth because he didn’t find any of them. In all the months of hardship; making his way through hostile territory, under fire from the enemy; his only complaint was of lice. He said he would always feel sorry for lousy sheep.

From May, 1941, he was found in Australia, maintaining a distinguished but unobtrusive presence as ADC to the Governor of NSW, Lord Wakehurst. Had anything(or anyone) threatened the Governor, Lt. Colonel Wynne would have gone into the kind of action for which his regiment was famous: His ceremonial walking cane was a concealed .22 rifle!

Personification of the courage, integrity and self-sacrifice of the finest soldiers of WW1; modest, unassuming and reserved; with a quiet dignity; yet ‘hell on wheels’ in a battle; Lt. Colonel R. O. Wynne is one of my favourite real-life heroes.

Photo credit: Mt Wilson and Mt Irvine Historical Society.

Private research courtesy of Lt-Col. Wynne’s granddaughter, Avril.