Maurice MacLean and the Red Cross by Colin MacLean
On 15 February 2016, my dad (Maurice MacLean) died aged 96. On 17 April our son Simon will do the Great Edinburgh Run to raise money for his grandpa’s favourite charity, the Red Cross. Can I explain the background?
Maurice always hated what war did to people, but he also believed that sometimes war was necessary to confront a great evil. He summed up his thinking in a talk he gave long after the war:
“It’s easy to be at peace with everyone if you never become involved, never voice an opinion, even when you see an injustice which should be challenged. This is a very selfish, sterile form of goodness.”
I think that was why the young man who hated war volunteered in September 1939, when he was not yet 20 years old. A few months later, in the summer of 1940, his regiment was captured by the German Army at St Valerie in northern France. They walked from there to Silesia (in what is now Poland) and he spent the next four and a half years working in coal mines and on local farms.
Conditions were harsh, life was very difficult and he saw brutalities and cruelties that no-one should have to. He knew there was a nearby town where ‘bad things happened’ – and realised after the war ended that had been Auschwitz. Despite that, I never heard him ever say anything negative about Germany or the German people. He believed, very simply and powerfully, that most of the Germans he met during that time were decent people.
As a child, he spoke English and French at home. At school he learned Latin and Classical Greek. It was, therefore, natural that he learned German and Polish during his time in Silesia and he used them to good effect to help everyone deal with the challenges of living and working together in such difficult circumstances.
It was only when he did an oral assessment back in St Andrews University in 1946 that he discovered what he had been learning; Mr MacLean – there are only two things wrong with your German – firstly half of it is Polish and secondly the other half is not suitable for mixed company.
The following two examples illustrate how his knowledge of German / Polish came in useful.
The German word ‘gift’ means ‘poison’ – so my dad quickly understood why the guards were very suspicious of a parcel that arrived containing ‘a gift from the Red Cross’. He was able to reassure them and ensure the parcel was delivered.
Once, when he was working in the farming village, there was a New Zealand soldier called Doug Shaw who had Diphtheria and was about to die if he didn’t get to hospital. My dad asked the Germans if they could take Doug to hospital.
They said that was impossible because their field hospitals were overrun with wounded Germans coming back from the Eastern Front. He asked the local Poles if there was a local hospital that could treat him. They said no. However, there was apparently space in a hospital in the next large city but no transport.
My dad persisted and established that there was transport but no fuel. He then established that the resistance could supply fuel but were terrified of being betrayed when it was delivered. Through patient negotiation – he got the German guards to stay in their billet all night – the allied prisoners to stay inside and not escape even though they knew there were no guards – the resistance to deliver jerry cans of fuel – and a local farmer to drive Doug to hospital. Amazingly Doug survived and wrote to my dad for many years after the war.
As part of his love of language, one of his great passions was poetry. He loved Wordsworth, Tennyson, Burns, Violet Jacob (who wrote about his beloved Angus countryside) and many others. He could quote them lovingly and at length – and taught generations of schoolchildren, including me, to love the beautiful sound of language.
He wrote poems when he was in Silesia which I suspect kept him sane amid the horrors. The following short poem he wrote in 1943 sums up for me so much of what mattered to him.
O, but my soul is weary sitting here
Watching each empty day sink to its close.
Youth was not made to gaze on sterile rows
Of weeks and months – another wasted year
Now while my heart is fresh, my eye is clear
While yet my brow no furrowed wrinkle shows
I long once more to breathe the air that flows
Among these Angus braes I hold so dear.
But patience, heart, God grants a second way
For memory knows no bounds of time or place
And even here I smell the new mown hay
In homeland meadows, hear the simple grace
We used at meals, and, with the dying day
I see again each well remembered face.
Why was the Red Cross his favourite charity? Because he experienced first hand the tremendous support they give to people who are, like he was in 1940, caught up in and helpless to influence dreadful circumstances. Red Cross parcels were a lifeline to the prisoners of war and many millions were sent across Europe during the Second World War.
They included basic items of mainly tinned food that supplemented the meagre rations, and some also contained vital medical supplies. (Uniquely, those from the Scottish Red Cross also contained oatmeal!) As well as providing physical nourishment, they also provided a link to home that sustained them emotionally.
Many years later, we went on holiday to Poland and found the village he had been based in. We met a lady who had been a young child during the War who remembered fondly the chocolate bars she got from the Scottish soldiers. My dad explained afterwards that they had done a deal with the local farmers: Red Cross chocolate for the local children in return for loaves of bread for the PoWs.
The Red Cross (with its partner bodies such as the Red Crescent) continues this vital humanitarian work. My mum died a couple of weeks before he did, and at their funerals, we raised £1000 for the Red Cross. Simon is hoping to add substantially to that total.
If you are moved to contribute, Simon’s just giving page is: