BUT INTRIGUING STORY
Anybody of the 'older' generation -born either before or after the Second World War- will remember at least the name of Field Marshal Montgomery. Like Churchill, De Gaulle and Patton the man went down in history as one of the most famous people of the 20th century. And although 'Monty' was clearly a failure as a human being, he is generally regarded as one of the greatest strategists ever known. His victory at El Alamein in October 1942 was certainly the peak of his military career and is truly considered the turning point of the Second World War. Of this, Winston Churchill later was to say: "Before Alamein we never had a victory, after Alamein we never had a defeat."
Bernard Law Montgomery (1887-1976) was the son of a bishop but from early boyhood the young Monty displayed a clear prowess to become a professional soldier. Though only a small man, his 'foxy' traits indicated a keen character and that was later to show up in battle. Mont-gomery started his soldier's career at Sandhurst Military Academy and soon the eager young lieutenant found himself on the battlefields of Flanders. Unfortunately, late 1914 he was wounded in the chest at Meteren, a village on the Franco-Belgian border. But it was of course in the Second Conflict that the man was to show his mettle. Being at loggerheads with General Patton a race evolved to be the first to clear occupied Europe from the Nazis.
As history would prove, neither won, for it were the Russians who eventually captured Berlin. Indeed, as they say, when two dogs fight for a bone a third one runs away with it. This story, however, is not about the man's military achievements but about what happened in Westvleteren, now more than half a century ago. On 24th May 1940 Major General Montgomery -then already a Divisional Commander- passed through south west Flanders during the withdrawal of the British Expeditionary Force to Dunkirk. On arriving at Westvleteren, he took up his headquarters in Saint Sixtus Abbey there.
On 28th, being in a state of haste and apprehension, he asked the Abbot to conceal a number of valuable things for him. Everybody at the abbey was convinced that these items contained military secrets, and that they should never fall into the hands of the German Army, now quickly advancing on West Belgium. Indeed, Monty's 3rd Division was one of the last to be evacuated from the Dunkirk beaches and only days after they had left, German troops arrived, knocking on the abbey gates. After a thorough inspection of the grounds and premises, General von Bock decided to take up his headquarters in the very same abbey.
In the meantime, the monks had become uneasy with the concealment of the so-called 'Monty trunk', which contained military documents, letters, and some personal items such as a lunch basket, a big suitcase and a pair of shoes with matching shoe-trees. Initially, they hid the trunk in the church choir and later in a cavity between some bookcases in the library. But in view of the Germans' presence, this was thought unsafe and the monks buried the trunk in a plot where they kept their bee hives! After a year and a half it was decided to move it again for the monks feared that if the trunk submerged the papers would be ruined.
On opening it, they saw the letters 'SECRET', which only added to their apprehension. Now, they had to find an even safer place, they thought. It was decided to keep the papers apart and so they were put in a metal case, which was soldered down and finally bricked up into a wall. As for the trunk and the rest of its contents, these were kept in the monastery itself. Reckoning that Monty would not take umbrage at his decision one of the monks took the pair of brand-new gentleman's shoes. Having only his old, worn-down shoes and these being the perfect fit, it was a justified thing to do, he thought. And so, using this 'epikea' he would wear them for the duration. But as always, jealousy makes tongues wag. So the word spread about the shoes and the secret documents... until eventually the German Police heard of this! So, in 1943, the monk in question was called to their headquarters in Ghent and interrogated about the Monty documents.
Before the interview the German officer reminded the monk that -being a clergyman- he must not lie and that, if he told the truth, he didn't have to fear any reprisals. The stern interrogator came straight to the point and asked: "Father, are you in the possession of Field Marshall Montgomery's shoes?" The monk remained silent but instead put his shoes on the officer's desk, thus showing his willingness to cooperate. A little baffled by the man's obvious honesty, the officer went on: "Tell me, are there any secret documents in the trunk?" To which the monk instantly replied "No!" (In fact, the man wasn't lying as the officer had put the question in the present and the monk had given the right answer. In fact, there WERE not but there HAD been!) And so, convinced by this straightforward answer the officer let the monk go.
Montgommery painted by Jules Boudry
Montgomery did not, however, return personally to collect his belongings, though his ADC and one Sergeant Morris (a war correspondent) did so on 19th September 1944 but they only took the (important) papers back. Monty himself returned to the area twice. Once to Poperinge after the liberation on 6th September 1944 and once on 18th March 1945 to Ieper, where he was presented with a painting by Jules Boudry, one of South West Flanders' best painters at the time. Montgomery was deeply touched by this show of gratitude but at the same time unhappy about the ordeal he had put the monks to in the first place. On 16th of that month the Field Marshall in person wrote a letter to the Abbot to thank him for looking after his belongings. About this rather intriguing story, Monty later wrote in his memoirs: "The last headquarters of the 3rd Division before it moved into the final Dunkirk bridgehead was in a portion of the Abbaye de Saint Sixte, at Westvleteren in Belgium. I still had all my kit with me, and some interesting papers which were not secret but which I did not want to lose; I also had a very good lunch basket. So I asked the Abbot, Frère Rafaël Hoedt, if he could look after a few things for me; possibly they could be buried in the garden. He agreed to take a small box, and my lunch basket, and he had them bricked up into a wall of the abbey in a very clever manner. I told him we would return to Belgium in due course, and then I would come for my possessions. When we liberated Belgium in September 1944, the Abbot wrote to me and said he had my belongings ready for me; they had remained safely in their hiding-place and had never been discovered by the Germans. I will always be grateful to the Abbot and his brave band of monks for their kindness in those days. They little knew the risks they were running; nor did I at the time. It is clear to me now that I should not have asked them to hide my belongings, which in point of fact, were only of sentimental value to myself." (© Collins, London 1958)
It may be interesting to know that Monty's ADC only took the papers and left a trunk and some other items behind, perhaps as a token of gratitude. These are now in the equally safe hands of a local man who wouldn't part with them for 'all the money in the world', he says. That is, perhaps, until you get the old cheque book out...