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  • Finishing Horace and Whittier in WW2 November 3, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback

    Today’s post represents a definite minority interest: poems being started by someone and finished by someone else in the Second World War. (Sorry).  Take the extraordinary exchange between the German general Heinrich Kreipe (obit 1976) and a young British major Patrick Leigh Fermor (obit 2011) [pictured centre and right] late one night in Crete in May 1944. Kreipe had been kidnapped by a British SOE team, assisted by the Cretan underground of which Patrick Leigh Fermor, who would later become a superlative writer of travel memoirs, was the leader.

    There was a certain and understandable distance between the British team and their victim as they avoided German patrols. However, this changed  when Kreips staring up at the Cretan peaks quoted the beautiful lines of Horace about the snow on Mount  Soratte (incidentally one of Kesselring’s hide-outs in 1944) Vides ut alta stet nive candidum… Without missing a beat PLF, who had taken a copy of Horace with him on a jaunt through Europe, in the early 1930s , finished the poem and Briton and German stared at each other. Realising, in PLF’s words, that they had ‘drunk at the same fountain’ the two from then on settled into a mutually beneficial arrangement.  Kreipe swore that he would not try to escape and PLF that he would protect the general from the firing squad. Both kept their word.

    For anyone who knows modern Greek here is a postwar meeting between the two on Greek television (1972): and even if you don’t know the language the general’s surprise entrance is worth a gander.

    Another example from the Second World War of finishing other people’s poems took place in, of all places, Roosevelt’s car in May 1942. Eleanor Roosevelt, Churchill, Harry Hopkins and the President were being driven to Camp David as part of the crucial Anglo-American meetings of that summer: meetings that finally settled the where and when of the second front. (Go Husky go!). While Churchill and Roosevelt always had a certain rapport, there had been tension in the preceding  days as the British and Americans argued out the merits of Italy and France. But as with Kreipe and PLF a poem would bring them together.

    As they were passing through Frederick, Maryland they saw an advert for peppermint rock candy called Barbara Frietchie, a name borrowed from the Union patriot who waved the Stars and Stripes in the face of  ‘rebels’  in the Civil War. Roosevelt, by way of explanation, trotted out the famous line from John Greenleaf Whittier: ‘Shoot, if you must, this old gray head: But spare your country’s flag’. These were probably the only lines he, as most Americans of that generation, knew. But Churchill without pause continued on through sixty lines of Whittier, while the astounded Hopkins, ER and FDR were reduced to singing out the ‘Shoot, if you must,…’ chorus. It is said to have made a huge impression on the three Americans  and transatlantic relations, at least momentarily, thawed.  Churchill, who claimed that he had last read the poem thirty years before, basked in their adulation, though later admitted that they were quite unable  to spot his many howlers as he pushed his way laboriously towards the poem’s end.

    Are there any other such moments out there? Beachcombing has one from modern Irish history bouncing around his head, but he can’t track it down. There are also certainly some examples of codes using couplets but these too escape him. drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com


    4 Nov 2011: Randy writes in to point out that when Churchill was heading north Camp David had the name Shangri-La. It seems that Eisenhower renamed it. Thanks Randy, for the correction!

    20 Jul 2015:

    Kate G writes in with this excellent documentary (covering this story) dubbed into English.

    29 Aug 2015: LTM sends in this. Extract from the book Thresholds of Peace: Four Hundred Thousand German Prisoners and the People of Britain, 1944-1948 by Matthew Barry Sullivan(Hamish Hamilton, London, United Kingdom, 1979):

    The luckless Heinrich Kreipe, the general abducted from Crete had come back from Canada rather earlier. He was twice moved to hospital Camp 99 at Shugborough Park in Staffordshire to have his diabetes treated before being moved to Special Camp 11. His hurt pride, because of the indignity of those eighteen days in the Cretan mountains would dog him for the rest of his life: he would one day take out an injunction against both the book [Ill Met by Moonlight by W. Stanley Moss] and the film about the kidnap appearing in Germany, on the grounds of defamation of character: he had not, he claimed, given his word of honour not to try to escape, as was maintained. He won his case.