CHAPTER XIII.

OUR HOME AT CAMBLAIN L’ABBE.

November and December, 1916.



    FROM Roellencourt we moved up to our new headquarters in the Chateau at Camblain L’Abbe, which, after we left it in December, was long the home of the Canadian Corps. I had an Armstrong hut under the trees in the garden, and after it was lined with green canvas, and divided into two by green canvas curtains, it was quite artistic and very comfortable. Opposite the Chateau we had a large French hut which was arranged as a cinema. The band of the 3rd Battalion was stationed in town and gave us a concert every evening, also playing at our services on Sundays. After the concert was over I used to announce a “rum issue” at half-past nine in the building. The men knew what it meant, and a good number would stay behind. Then I would give them a talk on temperance, astronomy, literature or any subject about which I thought my audience knew less than I. We generally finished up by singing some well-known evening hymn. Very pleasant were the entertainments we had in that old cimema. One night, before a battalion was going up to the line, I proposed we should have a dance. The band furnished the music, and the men had one of the most enjoyable evenings they had ever had. Camblain L’Abbe was not a large place, so we were cramped for room, and a Nissen hut had to be built for “C” mess.
    My little friend Philo had been stolen on our march, so his place was taken now by a brindle bull terrier which had been born in Albert. I called her “Alberta” and as time went on she became a well-known figure in the First Division. She often accompanied me on my walks to the trenches, and one day was out in No Man’s Land when a minnenwerfer burst. Alberta did not wait for the bits to come down, but made one dive into the trench, to the amusement of the men, who said she knew the use of the trenches. She was my constant companion till her untimely end in 1918.
    The country round about Camblain l’Abbe was very peaceful and pretty, and the road to the left from the Chateau gave one a fine view of the towers of Mont St. Eloi, which were not then damaged by shells. The two towers and the front wall of the old abbey were [Page 149] a striking object against the horizon, and could be seen for miles around. They made a beautiful picture in the distance when seen at sunset from the trenches beyond Arras. Those two towers must stand out in the foreground of all the memories which Canadians have of that region which was so long their war-home. As far as I could learn, Mont St. Eloi had been the site of an old monastery which had been destroyed in the French Revolution, the towers and the walls of the church alone surviving. The farms of the monastery had passed to secular ownership, but were rich and well cultivated. A spiral stone staircase led up to an observation post at the top of one of the towers. The place was visible from the German lines, and till we had taken Vimy Ridge no one was allowed to climb the tower unless on duty.
    Our trenches now were extremely quiet, and were a pleasant contrast to those we had left on the Somme. The whole Corps had only a few casualties each day. The spirits of the men, who had been under a heavy strain, were now completely restored. Our Corps Headquarters at this time were at the beautiful Chateau of Ranchicourt, where they were very comfortably settled, the country round about being hilly, richly wooded and well watered. We had church parades in the cinema, and I often wished that the people at home could have heard the singing of the men when we had some favourite hymn which the band accompanied. Every morning I had a celebration of the Holy Communion there, and sometimes had a good congregation. One night I was talking to some men in a cook-house on the opposite side of the village and I announced the service. When I was leaving, one of the men followed me and asked me if I would speak to his officer for him and get him sent back to some quiet job. He told me that he had once had an attack of nervous prostration, caused by the shock of his father’s sudden death, and that he could not stand life in the trenches. He seemed very much upset, and I felt that perhaps it would be wise to get him out of the line, but I could not avoid a sense of disappointment in the midst of my pity. He told me that he had been confirmed, but had never made his Communion and was coming to my service the next morning. I promised I would speak to his officer and went off.
    The next morning, the man was at the service, and after the others left, waited to speak to me. I thought he wanted to remind me of my promise. But, instead of that, he came up and said to [Page 150] me, “I don’t want you to speak to my officer, Sir, God has given me strength to carry on. I have determined to do so and go over the top with the others.” I was delighted to see the change in him. It meant everything to him and was one of the turning points in his life. Whatever the future had in store, it was the man’s victory over himself, and I gave him a glad hand-shake and told him how proud I was of him. Months afterwards, after the taking of Vimy Ridge, I was passing down the lines of his battalion, which was in tents near the La Targette road, when the young fellow came running up to me, his face radiant with smiles, and told me he had been through all the fighting and had gone over the top with the boys, and that it wasn’t half so bad as he had thought. In the spring of 1919, I was going into the Beaver Hut in the Strand one day, when a young fellow came up to me and thanked me for what I had done for him in the war. I did not recognize him and asked him what I had done for him, and he told me he was the man who had been at that service in Camblain L’Abbe and had been through all the fighting ever since and had come out without a scratch. I met similar instances in which the human will, by the help of God, was able to master itself and come out victorious. Once at Bracquemont a man came to my billet and asked me to get him taken out of his battalion, and sent to some work behind the lines. He told me his mother and sisters knew his nerves were weak and had always taken special care of him. He said that up to this time God had been very good to him in answering his prayer that he might not have to go over the parapet. I asked him what right he had to pray such a prayer. He was really asking God to make another man do what he would not do himself. The prayer was selfish and wrong, and he could not expect God to answer it. The right prayer to pray was that, if he was called to go over the parapet God would give him strength to do his duty. He seemed quite surprised at the new light which was thus thrown upon the performance of what he considered his religious duties. Then I told him that he had the chance of his life to make himself a man. If in the past he had been more or less a weakling, he could now, by the help of God, rise up in the strength of his manhood and become a hero. His mother and sisters now doubt had loved him and taken care of him in the past, but they would love him far more if he did his duty now, “For,” I said, “All women love a brave man.” I told him to take as his text, “I can do all things through Christ which [Page 151] strengtheneth me,” and I made him repeat it after me several times. I saw that the young fellow was pulling himself together, and he shook hands with me and told me he would go up to the line and take his chance with the rest—and he did. Later on, he was invalided to the Base with some organic disease. I do not know where he is now, but he conquered; and like many another soldier in the great crusade will be the better for all eternity for his self-mastery.
    On the road which led to Ranchicourt there was an interesting old chateau at a place called Ohlain, which is mentioned by Dumas in “The Three Musketeers.” The chateau is surrounded by a large moat, and was built in medieval times. It has a very fine tower, and some other old buildings surrounding a little courtyard with a garden. The place is entered by a drawbridge which in olden days used to be raised up against the massive gateway by chains. One night I had service in the courtyard at sunset, with the 16th Battalion. One could hardly imagine a more picturesque setting for a war service in dear old France. At one point, however, we were disturbed by the arrival of three men who had been dining in an estaminet in the village, and coming unexpectedly upon a church service were a little too hearty in their religious fervour. They had to be guided to some quiet spot where they might work it off in solitude. Incidents of that kind during voluntary services were always a little embarrassing, for officers and men felt, as well as myself, that under the softening influences of religion we could not be over-hard on the transgressions of frail mortality. Nothing but the direst necessity would compel us at such times to resort to the process of military discipline.
    Near Camblain l’Abbe, our ambulances were set up on an elevation of the ground where two roads crossed. The place rejoiced in the name of “The Four Winds,” and anyone who has resided there for any length of time feels that the title is an appropriate one. At times the wind would sweep over the place, and, when rain was mingled with the gale, it was rather an unpleasant corner. But the ambulances were comfortable, and the patients were well looked after. Near by is the little cemetery, where the bodies of many Canadians lie in peace.
    Our life at Camblain l’Abbe, after the hard fighting at the Somme, was really very pleasant, and the battalions were filled up with new drafts from the Base. We felt that as the winter was [Page 152] approaching there would probably be no hard fighting for some months. Special pains were taken to provide concert parties in the different battalions, so that the men might have amusement in the evening. It was wonderful what talent was discovered in the various units. As I look back upon some of those entertainments at the front I think I never enjoyed anything more. Not only were the performers clever and resourceful, but the audience was one that it was thrilling to sit amongst. In the cinema the stage was well appointed and lighted with electric lights; the costumes of the men, especially those who took the part of ladies, were good and well made. The music, vocal and instrumental, was all that could be desired. But the audience, composed of hundreds of strong, keen, young men who had endured hard things, and perhaps, in a few hours after the show, would be once again facing death in the front trenches, was a sight never to be forgotten. Could any performer ask for a more sympathetic hearing? Not a joke was lost upon the men, not a gesture was unobserved; and when some song with a well-known chorus was started, through the murky atmosphere of cigarette smoke would rise a volume of harmony which would fairly shake the building. I have often stood at the back and listened to a splendid burst of song, which to me had an added charm from the deep unconscious pathos of it all. Some of those men that were joining in the rollicking ragtime tune were dying men. Some of the eyes kindling with laughter at the broad farce of the play, within a few hours would be gazing upon the mysteries behind the screen of mortal life. The pathetic chorus of “A Long, Long Trail” always moved me, and I wondered how many of those brave young hearts in the crowded hall, now on “the long, long trail,” would ever see again the land of their dreams. I took good care not to let the men know that I was ever moved by such sentimentalism. We were out to fight the Germans, and on that one object we had to concentrate all our thoughts to the obliteration of private emotions. [Page 153]