CHAPTER X.

SPRING, 1916.



    AT the end of March our Division was ordered back to the Salient, and so Headquarters left St. Jans Cappel. It was with great regret that I bid good-by to the little place which had been such a pleasant home for several months. The tide of war since then has no doubt swept away many of the pastoral charms of the scenery, but the green fields and the hillsides will be reclothed in beauty as time goes on. We stopped for a few days at Flêtre, and while there I made the acquaintance of the Australians, and visited the battalions which were billeted in the neighbourhood.
    It was always delightful to have the Division out in rest. As long as the men were in the line one could not be completely happy. But when they came out and one went amongst them, there was nothing to overcloud the pleasure of our intercourse. One day I rode over to a battalion and found a lot of men sitting round the cookhouse. We had a long talk about war, and they asked me to recite my war limericks. I spent the evening with the O.C. of a battery and the night, on my return, was very dark. One of the battalions had been paid off that afternoon, and the men, who as usual had been celebrating the event in an estaminet, were in boisterous spirits. It was so hard to make my way through the crowd that Dandy got nervous and unmanageable. A young fellow who recognized me in the dark came up and asked me if I should like him to lead the horse down the road. I gratefully accepted his offer. He walked beside me till we came to a bridge, and then he told me that he had been very much interested in religion since he came to the war, and was rather troubled over the fact that he had never been baptized. He said he had listened to my limericks that day, and while he was listening had determined to speak to me about his baptism. I arranged to prepare him, and, before the battalion started north, I baptized him in the C.O.’s room in a farmhouse. The Adjutant acted as his godfather. I do not know where the lad is now, or how he fared in the war, but someday I hope I shall hear from him again. It was often very difficult, owing to the numbers of men one was meeting, and the many changes that were continually taking place, to keep track of the lives of individuals. [Page 122] The revelations of the religious experiences and the needs of the human soul, which came over and over again from conversations with men, were always of the greatest help to a chaplain, and made him feel that, in spite of many discouragements and much indifference, there was always some soul asking for spiritual help.
    The Headquarters of our Division were now at a place called Hooggraaf. It consisted of a few small houses and a large school kept by nuns. Huts were run up for the officers and, at a little distance down the road, a home was built for “C” mess. At one side were some Armstrong canvas huts, one of which was mine. It was a pleasant place, and being back from the road was free from dust. Green fields, rich in grain, spread in all directions. It was at Hooggraaf that the Engineers built me a church, and a big sign over the door proclaimed it to be “St. George’s Church.” It was first used on Easter Day, which in 1916 fell on the Festival of St. George, and we had very hearty services.
    Poperinghe, only two miles away, became our city of refuge. Many of our units had their headquarters there, and the streets were filled with our friends. We had many pleasant gatherings there in an estaminet which became a meeting place for officers. The Guards Division, among other troops, were stationed in Poperinghe, so there was much variety of life and interest in the town. “Talbot House,” for the men, and the new Officer’s Club, presided over by Neville Talbot, were centres of interest. The gardens at the back made very pleasant places for an after-dinner smoke. There were very good entertainments in a theatre every evening, where “The Follies,” a theatrical company of Imperial soldiers, used to perform. Poperinghe was even at that time damaged by shells, but since then it has suffered more severely. The graceful spire, which stood up over the plain with its outline against the sky, has luckily been preserved. We had some very good rest billets for the men in the area around Hooggraaf. They consisted of collections of large wooden huts situated in different places, and called by special names. “Scottish Lines,” “Connaught Lines,” and “Patricia Lines,” were probably the most comfortable. In fact, all along the various roads which ran through our area different units made their homes.
    Our military prison was in a barn about a mile from Headquarters. I used to get there for service every Monday afternoon at six o’clock. By that time, the men had come back from work. [Page 123] They slept on shelves, one over another. The barn was poorly lighted, and got dark early in the afternoon. The first time I took service there, I was particularly anxious that everything should be done as nicely as possible, so that the men would not think they had come under the ban of the church. Most of their offences were military ones. The men therefore were not criminals in the ordinary sense of the term. I brought my surplice, scarf and hymn books, and I told the men that I wanted them to sing. They lay on the shelves with only their heads and shoulders visible. I told them that I wanted the service to be hearty, and asked them to choose the first hymn. A voice from one of the shelves said—

“Here we suffer grief and pain.”

A roar of laughter went up from the prisoners, in which I joined heartily.
    At the front, we held Hill 60 and the trenches to the south of it. In a railway embankment, a series of dugouts furnished the Brigade that was in the line with comfortable billets. The Brigadier’s abode had a fireplace in it. One of the dugouts was used as a morgue, in which bodies were kept till they could be buried. A man told me that one night when he had come down form the line very late, he found a dugout full of men wrapped in their blankets, every one apparently asleep. Without more ado, he crawled in amongst them and slept soundly till morning. When he awoke, he found to his horror that he had slept all night among the dead men in the morgue. There was a cemetery at Railway Dugouts, which was carefully laid out. Beyond this there was another line of sandbag homes on one side of a large pond called “Zillebeke Lake.” They were used by other divisions.
    From Railway Dugouts, by paths and then by communication trenches, one made one’s way up to Hill 60 and the other parts of the front line, where the remains of a railway crossed the hill. Our dugouts were on the east side of it, and the line itself was called “Lover’s Lane.” The brick arch of a bridge which crossed the line was part of our front.
    One day I was asked by a British chaplain, who was ordered south, to accompany him on a trip he was making to his brother’s grave at Hooge. He wished to mark it by a cross. As the place was in full view of the Germans, we had to visit it before dawn. I met my friend at 2:30 a.m. in the large dugout under the Ramparts at Ypres. We started off with two runners, but one managed [Page 124] most conveniently to lose us and returned home. The other accompanied us all the way. It was a weird expedition. The night was partly cloudy, and faint moonlight struggled through the mist which shrouded us. The runner went first, and the Padré, who was a tall man, followed, carrying the cross on his shoulder. I brought up the rear. In the dim light, my friend looked like some allegorical figure from “Pilgrim’s Progress.” Occasionally we heard the hammering of a machine-gun, and we would lie down till the danger was past. We skirted the grim borders of Sanctuary Wood, and made our way to Hooge. There my friend got out his map to find, if possible, the place where he had buried his brother. He sat down in a large shell hole, and turned his flashlight upon the paper. It was difficult to find the location, because the place had recently been the scene of a hard struggle. The guide and I looked over the ground and we found a line of graves marked by broken crosses. The night was fast passing and in the grey of the eastern sky the stars were going out one by one. At last my friend found the spot he was looking for and there he set up the cross, and had a short memorial service for the dead. On our return, we passed once more by Sanctuary Wood, and in the daylight looked into the place torn and battered by shells and reeking with the odours of unburied bodies.
    We parted at Zillebeke Bund, and I made my way to Railway Dugouts. It was a lovely morning and the air was so fresh that although I had been walking all night I did not feel tired. The 3rd Battalion was holding the line just behind a piece of ground which was called the “Bean and Pollock.” It was supposed that the Germans had mined the place and that an explosion might be expected at any minute. One company had built a rustic arbour, which they used as their mess-room. The bright sun shone through the green boughs overhead. There was intermittent shelling, but nothing to cause us any worry. I stayed till late in the afternoon, when I made my way towards the rear of Hill 60. There I found the 14th Battalion which was in reserve. They told me that the 16th Battalion in the line was going to blow up a mine that night, and offered to give me a dugout if I would stay for the festivities. I gladly accepted, and just before midnight made my way to a dugout that had just been completed. I was told that there was a bed in it with a wire mattress. When I got into the dugout, I lit a candle, and found to my astonishment that the [Page 125] place was full of men lying on the bed and the floor. They offered to get out but I told them not to think of it. So we lit another candle, and had a very pleasant time until the mine went up. We heard a fearful explosion, and the ground rocked as it does in an earthquake. It was not long before the Germans retaliated, and we heard the shells falling round us. At daybreak I went up to the line to see the result of the explosion. A large crater had been made in No Man’s Land, but for some reason or other the side of our trench had been blown back upon our own men and there were many casualties.
    I stayed in the trenches all afternoon, and on my way back went to an artillery observation post on a hill which was crowned by the ruins of an old mill. The place was called Verbranden Molen. Here I found a young artillery officer on duty. The day was so clear that we were able to spread out a map before us on the ground and with our glasses look up every point named on the sheet. We looked far over to the North and saw the ruins of Wieltje. Ypres lay to the left, and we could see Zillebeke, Sanctuary Wood, High Wood, Square Wood, and Hooge. The light reflected from our glasses must have been seen by some German sniper, for suddenly we heard the crack of bullets in the hedge behind us and we hastily withdrew to the dugout. As I walked back down the road I came to one of the posts of the motor-machine-gunners who were there on guard. They were just having tea outside and kindly invited me to join them. We had a delightful conversation on poetry and literature, but were prepared to beat a hasty retreat into the dugout in case the Germans took to shelling the road, which they did every evening.
    Railway Dugouts was always a pleasant place to visit, there were so many men there. As one passed up and down the wooden walk which ran the length of the embankment there were many opportunities of meeting one’s friends. On the other side of it, however, which was exposed to the German shells, the men frequently had a hard time in getting up to the line.
    There were several interesting chateaus in the neighbourhood. That nearest to the front was called Bedford House, and stood in what must have been once very beautiful grounds. The upper part of the house was in ruins, but the cellars were deep and capacious and formed a good billet for the officers and men. At one side there was a dressing station and in the garden were some huts protected by piles of sand bags. [Page 126]
    A chateau that was well-known in the Salient lay a little to the west of Bedford House. It was called Swan Chateau, from the fact that a large white swan lived on the artificial lake in the grounds. I never saw the swan myself, but the men said it had been wounded in the wing and had lost an eye. It was long an object of interest to many battalions that at different times were housed in the chateau. One day the swan disappeared. It was rumoured that a hungry Canadian battalion had killed it for food. On the other hand, it was said that it had been taken to some place of safety to prevent its being killed. There was something very poetical in the idea of this beautiful bird living on through the scene of desolation, like the spirit of the world that had passed away. It brought back memories of the life that had gone, and the splendour of an age which had left Ypres forever. [Page 127]