A Swiss watchmaker settled in Chelmsford

Three-minute story

A Swiss watchmaker settled in Chelmsford
– a prisoner of war who stayed

I knew him decades before I went to live in his country and can now appreciate how he had made himself comfortable in his workshop, tucked to one side in the entry to an old-fashioned hotel court-yard. I doubt whether I could find the place now in the re-built and modernised city that is Chelmsford. What I do remember is his work-bench and display cases arranged in a room about the size of a small stable, just like the little watch-makers’ shops I see every year when I find myself back in Zermatt to ski and visit friends.

He had the back off the watch and was examining its entrails, but there was time to talk. Somehow, don’t ask me how, we were talking about Sunday drinking. In some parts of the UK, notably in Wales’ “dry” counties, pubs could not open on Sundays. Where there were large, teetotal, church-going majorities, whole counties were “dry.”

But he had found a way around this for he had married a Welsh girl and when they went to stay with her family there was a need to find somewhere for a pint on a Sunday. That’s how they came to join the Royal British Legion. How did he manage that, I asked: he was Swiss and would not have served with the British armed forces. So, when he was asked in which unit he had served he told the Legion that he had served in the artillery. What he did not tell them was that during The Second World War he had served in the German army, the Wehrmacht, not the British army.

Just before he was born in 1921, the same year as my father, his mother had gone to visit cousins in Germany and her baby had decided to arrive early. When she returned to Switzerland it was with her new-born baby as an addition. Years later he had gone to visit the same relatives for a holiday. On his way home he had shown his Swiss passport. So, the German border guards took note, he had been born in Germany. He was therefore, a German citizen, of military age, and could not return to Switzerland. Within days he was in uniform, was later captured by the British and sent to a prisoner of war camp in Wales where, eventually, he met his wife and where they made a home.

And so when he was asked by his fellow drinkers in The British Legion about his military service he would simply mention the artillery and, despite his soft German accent, he was never challenged. Cheers.

What do you think was the key event in the watch-maker’s story?

Why do you think the writer remembered this story?

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