A Tale of Forgiveness

Ed and Sarah sat in the fading Sunday afternoon sunshine in the drawing room at Budleigh Park playing cards with Fred and Rosie, their estate manager and his wife, when they heard the doorbell ring in the distance. After a few minutes Harris the butler appeared and announced that there were two gentlemen, apparently from the Ministry of Defence, who wished to talk to Captain Edward.

“Well, if they’re from the Government, I suppose needs must but it’s a damned odd time to call. Have they any papers.”

Harris nodded, “Yes, sir. First thing that crossed my mind. Everything looks in order but you might wish to check.”

“Very well. Show them in.” Ed replied, then nodding to the others. “Do excuse this but I’d better see what these chaps are about.”

The visitors were shown in, dressed in three piece suits with hats and overcoats against the winter chill.

“My name’s Carruthers, Colonel John Carruthers” the obviously senior of the two announced, “and this is Mr. Rutherford. We’re from the Ministry of Defence…..”

Then, looking around the room, Carruthers continued, “And who….?”

“Oh, this Fred and Rosie Lowe. Fred is my estate manager – has been for a couple of years.”

“I think we’d rather continue this discussion in private, if you don’t mind,” Carruthers replied. “No offence, but we have some personal questions to ask.” He shot a glance at the Lowes.

“Certainly, we’ll leave,” said Fred getting up rather stiffly and looking uneasy. “Come, my dear.”

After they’d left the room and Harris had withdrawn, Carruthers plainly explained the purpose of his visit. The Ministry was concerned about potential German spies posing as alien immigrants and posing a threat to to the UK. They therefore needed to check…….

“On Fred and Rosie,” Ed cut in. “You think they may be German spies?”

“Well, we have to check, Major Jennings. I’m sure you understand. Two people of German origin, so we understand, living under your roof….” Rutherford asked.

“Not under our roof, they have a cottage on the Estate,” Sarah said indignantly.

“Yes, but you see what we mean,” Rutherford countered.

“Fred and Rosie are no threat if that’s what you’re thinking. The story is complicated in one sense, but simple in others,” Ed replied. “Forgive me, I’ll get some tea and then I’m going to tell you two a story. It may take a while but you need to hear it.”

The tea was duly delivered and Ed began his story.

*************

I am the second son of the Jennings family so, as my late elder brother was to inherit the bulk of the Estate, I was sent to Sandhurst after school – that being the accepted thing – and thence to to the Army to be commissioned in the Devon Light Infantry. That was 1914 and pretty soon we were involved in the War. I served for a time in Mesopotamia against the Ottomans and at Gallipoli before transferring with a battalion of our men to the Western Front in 1917 – bit late for the real show on the Somme – but pretty damn soon we were well and truly stuck into the battles around Ypres.

Anyhow, come November 1917 my troop were in a forward position against the Germans and we were given notice of an attack planned the next morning at first light – not too early given the date and the light – but I will say the strategic planning was madness. But you follow orders – or at least, I used to then. We went over the top as ordered and we quickly got involved in a complete debacle as we’d totally underestimated the German defences. Utter shambles, if you ask me. We got involved in a firefight in No Man’s Land and my men got scattered. About 3.30 pm, I guess, I ended up with my men all over the place if they were still alive, the light fading and no help. I got to a crater for shelter hoping I could make it out at first light or maybe during the night if there were flares.

Then, a short while later, I heard a scrabbling and in the half-light a figure dropped into the hole dragging what looked to be a casualty. I realised straight away the one was a German officer so I cocked my revolver. The German must have heard the click because he said, in pretty good English,

“Mein Herr, please put your gun away because, first, I have one too and we will just end up killing each other which will be pointless and, second, I have here one of your Tommies. He’s badly injured but I thought I should try to help him – he may well die in here but he would certainly die left out there.”

I swallowed hard and put my revolver away. For a minute or so we just sat there in the dwindling light. Then I asked if I could look at the wounded soldier. He was a Corporal and clearly was in very bad shape with shrapnel wounds to his body and part of his face torn away but I managed to make out Tomkins, one of my men. When I addressed him he groaned painfully, gasped, then asked me to tell his family he’d tried to be a good soldier and then whispered,

“And thank the German. Don’t think I’ll make it but he tried. But not what I thought Germans were like.”

The German and I kept Tomkins supplied with sips of water and tried makeshift bandages for his wounds, though he was bleeding badly. To be quite honest, the German was much better at first aid than me and did his best to try and patch Tomkins up. Tomkins died an hour later. In the meantime, I thanked the German for his kindness.

“Why not? It’s the least I could do. You will think of me as strange but I think this War pointless. I was never convinced – but you obey orders. Why get involved because of some stupid argument in the Balkans? Now I see the slaughter and it sickens me….. By the way, I am Loewe, Friedrich von Loewe, Kapitan in the First Pomeranian Infantry Regiment.”

“Captain Edward Jennings, 1st Battalion Devonshire Regiment.”

Loewe had a cigarette case and lighter and offered me one – he explained that, until now, he hadn’t time to sit and reflect so we sat and smoked and talked. Loewe and his men had been ordered to counter the British advance and had gone over the top in the early afternoon when the British attack seemed to be faltering but had been dragged into a fierce firefight with a group of British soldiers, which had obviously been my men, and he commended us British for our spirit. The situation had degenerated – to which I readily testified – into chaos such that he and a group of his men had been separated from the rest of his troop. I replied that it was a similar story to mine and so, here we were, sharing a shell hole and smoking a cigarette in the middle of No Man’s Land.

We smoked some more and I asked about Loewe’s upbringing, as his English was so good. He explained he came from a family of prosperous Prussian Junkers who owned large estates in Pomerania to the east of Berlin. Like me his elder brother, Ernst, was to take over the running of the Estate when their father stepped back – he mentioned casually that their father had served as a General in the Prussian army in the 1870 war against France and was what we would called “a big cheese” in their part of the world.

So whilst Ernst had gone off after military service to learn about estate management, he, Friedrich had gone to Potsdam to become an officer in the Prussian Army. But he had been allowed as part of his education to spend time in Lancashire working for his aunt’s brother who owned a cotton mill, hence his good English.

“I think it is good to learn about other cultures and a different language. It broadens the mind and makes you question certain things you take for granted. I think every educated person should travel. And it is enjoyable….” his voice trailed off, “I met a delightful English girl and that’s when my father ordered me home. Pity, but perhaps my father and brother should have travelled; it would have done them so much good.”

Well, I explained that I’d never travelled in the proper sense until the War, though my father had visited South Africa twice when younger. We had enjoyed family holidays in the South of France staying mainly around Nice, although we had ventured off to Avignon and into the hinterland of Provence.

“Aah, so you must have learned some French?” Friedrich asked.

‘Not so much. Learnt a bit at school and on holiday but it’s not much use in the British Army or in the Middle East. It’s the top brass that converse mainly with the French over here.’

“Ja, well perhaps I should have joined the Imperial Navy then I might have served in Tsingtao and seen some of the East. I have this urge to travel but the families of Junckers serve in the Imperial Army, particularly those from our part of Pomerania or as I prefer to say Brandenburg, so here I am, here we are. So much I would like to have done. So many dreams….”

‘Well, what do you suggest we do? I asked.’

“I think we have to wait until morning and see who comes out looking. If we have a choice, I am happy to be picked up by a British detachment as I think you will treat me well and perhaps you will say a good word for me. If a German regiment, you may not be treated as well, depending….. If you run into some Bavarians then they will likely treat you better than if they are Prussians.”

‘I sense you are not happy with your situation,’ I questioned Friedrich.

“No, in truth, I am not. My eyes were opened from the time I spent in Britain. I would hope we meet British troops tomorrow.”

Well, Friedrich had his wish granted. After a few hours sleep we looked over the top of the crater at first light and saw some British troops approaching. We signalled discreetly and they saw us.

“Go easy on my friend here,” I commanded. “I think he’s actually a good fellow and, believe it or not, as sick of all this as we are. He could have shot me last night but didn’t and he tried to save Baxter there. He might be German but we’re all human beings. And can we get poor Baxter to a safe place of burial? By the way one of his last words was to ask me to thank Friedrich here for trying to rescue him.”

The troops nodded and we moved off quickly to the Allied trenches. Once there, I repeated my request that Friedrich be treated well and gave him a piece of paper with my name and address and bid him good luck.

I didn’t hear from Friedrich for a couple of years and then I received a letter – must have been about 1921 – telling me about his time as a prisoner of war and his subsequent removal back to Germany and the family estates. He had had a quarrel with his father when he had decided to leave the Army but had been given a position looking after some family farms in Brandenburg some distance away from the main estates but nominally under the control of Ernst. I replied cordially telling him of my impending marriage to Sarah, the not unexpected death of my father and totally unexpected death of my elder brother. I invited Friedrich to visit Budleigh House the following autumn after my marriage but I received no reply until just before Christmas 1922 when I received a very courteous apology from Friedrich explaining there had been some upheaval in his family but that he hoped he could visit the following year.

Over the following few years, we corresponded quite regularly – I reporting on the birth of my eldest son, James – Friedrich on his seemingly mundane life in Brandenburg, but interspersed with strong hints that all was not well at home. A failed betrothal to a young Prussian lady seemed to be at the root of the problem. Eventually, he wrote in 1926 to say that he had taken a position of some responsibility in the Federal Tax Office in Hamburg, saying that he found it more liberating to be away from the family in Pomerania. Then in 1928 Friedrich asked if he could visit for a few weeks with his new wife Rosa to which we readily agreed and in late August they arrived by carriage from Sidmouth station.

We greeted each other warmly although I had not seen Friedrich for twelve years and, although he looked older and somewhat worn, he seemed ecstatically happy with his new wife Rosa. Rosa herself was very friendly and attractive, somewhat younger than Friedrich, with dark hair and brown eyes and a slightly heavy accent. A day or so later, Friedrich confided in me over a cognac and cigar after dinner,

“Edward, I need to tell you a few things about the past few years – if you don’t mind….”

“I guessed as much as there seemed a number of things you were perhaps hiding in your letters,” I replied.

“I moved to Hamburg because I could no longer stand the way of life at home, even in Brandenburg, the formality, the deference to the army. The attempt to marry me to the daughter of a well-to-do Prussian family was a farce. I realised my views had become far too liberal. So then I moved to Hamburg to work and I met Rosa……” Friedrich hesitated. “I don’t know how to say this…..”

“She’s a Jew,” I said.

“Yes….. how do you know?

“Her looks – though I hand it to you she’s very beautiful and well-educated – the fact you’ve been defensive in your letters to me, what I read about Germany. But she’s a lovely lady and you two are obviously very much in love. I commend you on your choice of bride.”

Friedrich had blushed and nodded in appreciation.

“Edward, I meant to ask you, but if it ever came to it – and I think it will – could Rosa and I come here. There are growing clouds in Germany especially for Jews.” He looked beseechingly at me.

“Of course,” I replied. “Even if I can’t help with a job, I’ll ask around. Most of my friends and acquaintances are pretty tolerant – if they weren’t they wouldn’t be my friends for long….”

When Friedrich and Rosa left a few days’ later, Sarah and I felt sorry for them. There seemed real regret, particularly, in Friedrich’s eyes that he was leaving to go back to Germany. He wrote thanking us profusely but it was clear he wasn’t comfortable. Our correspondence continued until 1931 when, out of the blue, we received a telegram from Germany – well, I say “we”, but I was out at Exeter market so Sarah took the telegram and relayed the contents to me as soon as I got home.

“May we come to see you in England? Need to recover from illness. F & R”

Sensing a crisis building I replied straight away, I sent Harris straight off to the Post Office although it had gone five o’clock to send a reply, “Come at once. Telegram when when you land in UK.”

And so, three days later, Friedrich and Rosa arrived, the latter obviously pregnant, with one suitcase each. I asked them if that’s all they had to which Friedrich replied that’s all they had time for as they felt threatened on account of Rosa’s background. The door to their apartment had been daubed with red paint and insults and Friedrich and Rosa spat at in the street. They were terrified. They weren’t really ill, as such,although they looked worn and exhausted but they couldn’t say openly in a telegram what the problem was.

They stayed with us for several months until I found Friedrich a job with a local land agent where he did very well until I needed a manager for the estate here when Friedrich and Rosa moved into a cottage I own with their, by then, two children. I recommended they change their names a couple of years’ ago when, I hasten to add, they were naturalised as British citizens with backing from Sarah and me. And a first rate worker he is too.

“Let’s remember, Fred Lowe – let’s use his proper name now – could have killed me quite easily and he tried to rescue a British soldier” I addressed Rutherford and his colleague.

“I have utter confidence in Fred and his wife as loyal citizens. If it comes to it I know Fred would serve alongside me in any war and I would trust him implicitly. I think it’s entirely probable that many Germans do not share in their country’s policies, either past or present. I think we should careful before tarring everyone with the same brush. And I take it you or your colleagues are alert to Moseley’s little bunch. Do I need to say more?”

The two civil servants sat in their chairs silent before Carruthers stood up.

“I’m sorry we have disturbed you and I’m sorry for any distress. We were just following orders.”

“Like so many these days.” Ed replied.

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