CHAPTER XIV.

MY SEARCH IS REWARDED.



    WE had now reached the middle of November, and the 4th Division was expected to come north very soon. My only chance of finding my son’s body lay in my making a journey to Albert before his battalion moved away. I woke up one morning and determined that I would start that day. I told Ross to get my trench clothes and long boots ready, for I was going to Albert. At luncheon my friends asked me how I proposed to travel, for Albert was nearly fifty miles away. I told them that the Lord would provide, and sallied off down the road with my knapsack, thoroughly confident that I should be able to achieve my purpose. An ambulance picked me up and took me to the Four Winds cross-roads, and then a lorry carried me to Aubigny. I went to the field canteen to get some cigarettes, and while there I met a Canadian Engineer officer whom I knew. We talked about many things, and as we were leaving I told him that I was going forth in faith as I hoped to get to Albert that evening. I said, “You know my motto is ‘The Lord will provide.’” As we walked along we came to a turn in the road, where we saw at a little distance a side-car with a driver all ready. I said to my friend, “It is just the thing I want. I think I will go to the owner of that car and say to him the Lord has provided it for me.” He burst out laughing and said, “I am the owner of that car, and you may have it.” I thanked him and started off. It was along ride, and at the end a very wet and muddy one, but I got to Tara Hill that evening and had dinner at General Thacker’s Headquarters. I told the officers there of the purpose of my visit, that I was going up to the front line the next morning, and asked if they would telephone to one of the batteries and tell the O.C. that I should arrive some time in the middle of the night. The Brigade Major of course tried to dissuade me, but I told him that I was going in any case, that he was not responsible for my actions, but that if he liked to make things easier for me he could. He quite understood the point, and telephoned to the 11thy Battery. I then went back to the reserve headquarters of the 4th Division in the town, and prepared myself for the journey. When I had to make an early [Page 154] start in the morning, I always shaved the night before, because I thought that, of all the officers, the chaplain should look for the freshest and cleanest. I was in the middle of the process of shaving, and some staff officers were making chocolate for our supper, when a German plane came over and dropped a huge bomb in the garden. It was about one a.m., and we could not help laughing at the surprise the Germans would have felt if they could have seen our occupation going on quite undisturbed by their attempt to murder us.
    About half-past one, I started up the street which led to the Bapaume road. The moon was shining, and I could see every object distinctly. Near our old Headquarters I got a lift in a lorry, which took me almost to Pozières. There I got out and proceeded on my way alone. I entered the Y.M.C.A. hut and had a good strong cup of coffee, and started off afresh. That lonely region in the moonlight with the ruined village to one side and the fields stretching far away on either hand gave me an eerie feeling. I came upon four dead horses which had been killed that evening. To add to the strangeness of the situation, there was a strong scent of tear-gas in the air, which made my eyes water. Not a living soul could I see in the long white road.
    Suddenly I heard behind me the sound of a troop of horses. I turned and saw coming towards me one of the strangest sights I have ever seen, and one which fitted in well with the ghostly character of the surroundings. It was a troop of mounted men carrying ammunition. They wore their gas masks, and as they came nearer, and I could see them more distinctly in the moonlight, the long masks with their two big glass eye-pieces gave the men a horse-like appearance. They looked like horses upon horses, and did not seem to be like human beings at all. I was quite glad when they had passed. I walked on till I came to what was known as Centre Way. It was a path, sometimes with bath-mats on it, which led across the fields down to the battery positions in the valley. Huge shell holes, half filled with water, pitted the fields in every direction, and on the slippery wood I had great difficulty to keep from sliding into those which were skirted by the path. Far off beyond Courcellette I saw the German flare-lights and the bursting of shells. It was a scene of vast desolation, weird beyond description. I had some difficulty when I got into the trench at the end of Centre Way, in finding the 11th Battery. The ground had been ploughed by shells and the trenches were heavy with soft and clinging mud. [Page 155] At last I met a sentry who told me where the O.C.’s dugout was. It was then about half-past three in the morning, but I went down the steps, and there, having been kindly welcomed, was given a blanket on the floor. I started at 6 a.m. with a young sergeant for Death Valley, where I was to get a runner to take me to Regina Trench. The sergeant was a splendid young fellow from Montreal who had won the D.C.M., and was most highly thought of in the battery. He was afterwards killed on Vimy Ridge, where I buried him in the cemetery near Thélus. I had been warned that we were going to make a bombardment of the enemy’s lines that morning, and that I ought to be out of the way before that began. I left the sergeant near Courcellette and made my way over to the Brigade Headquarters which were in a dugout in Death Valley. There with the permission of his O.C., a runner volunteered to come with me. He brought a spade, and we started down the trench to the front line. When I got into Regina Trench, I found that it was impossible to pass along it, as one sank down so deeply into the heavy mud. I had brought a little sketch with me of the trenches, which showed the shell hole where it was supposed that the body had been buried. The previous night a cross had been placed there by a corporal of the battalion before it left the front line. No one I spoke to, however, could tell me the exact map location of the place where it stood. I looked over the trenches, and on all sides spread a waste of brown mud, made more desolate by the morning mist which clung over everything. I was determined, however, not to be baffled in my search, and told the runner who was with me that, if I stayed there six months, I was not going to leave till I had found that grave. We walked back along the communication trench and turned into one on the right, peering over the top every now and then to see if we could recognize anything corresponding to the marks on our map. Suddenly the runner, who was looking over the top, pointed far away to a lonely white cross that stood at a point where the ground sloped down through the mist towards Regina Trench. At once we climbed out of the trench and made our way over the slippery ground and past the deep shell holes to where the white cross stood out in the solitude. We passed many bodies which were still unburied, and here and there were bits of accoutrement which had been lost during the advance. When we came up to the cross I read my son’s name upon it, and knew that I had reached the object I had in view. As the corporal who had [Page 156] placed the cross there had not been quite sure that it was actually on the place of burial, I got the runner to dig the ground in front of it. He did so, but we discovered nothing but a large piece of a shell. Then I got him to try in another place, and still we could find nothing. I tried once again, and after he had dug a little while he came upon something white. It was my son’s left hand, with his signet ring upon it. They had removed his identification disc, revolver and pocket-book, so the signet ring was the only thing which could have led to his identification. It was really quite miraculous that we should have made the discovery. The mist was lifting now, and the sun to the East was beginning to light up the ground. We heard the crack of bullets, for the Germans were sniping us. I made the runner go down into a shell hole, while I read the burial service, and then took off the ring. I looked over the ground where the charge had been made. There lay Regina Trench, and far beyond it, standing out against the morning light, I saw the villages of Pys and Miraumont which were our objective. It was a strange scene of desolation, for the November rains had made the battle fields a dreary, sodden waste. How many of our brave men had laid down their lives as the purchase price of that consecrated soil! Through the centuries to come it must always remain sacred to the hearts of Canadians. We made a small mound where the body lay, and then by quick dashes from shell hole to shell hole we got back at last to the communication trench, and I was indeed thankful to feel that my mission had been successful. I have received letters since I returned to Canada from the kind young fellow, who accompanied me on the journey, and I shall never cease to be grateful to him. I left him at his headquarters in Death Valley, and made my way past Courcellette towards the road. As the trench was very muddy, I got out of it, and was walking along the top when I came across something red on the ground. It was a piece of a man’s lung with the windpipe attached. I suppose some poor lad had had a direct hit from a shell and his body had been blown to pieces. The Germans were shelling the road, so with some men I met we made a detour through the fields and joined it further on, and finally got to the chalk-pit where the 87th Battalion was waiting to go in again to the final attack. I was delighted to see my friends once more, and they were thankful that I had been able to find the grave. Not many days afterwards, some of those whom I then met were called themselves [Page 157] to make the supreme sacrifice. I spent that night at the Rear Headquarters of the 4rth Division, and they kindly sent me back the next day to Camblain l’Abbe in one of their cars.
    On November 24th I received a telegram saying that a working party of one of the battalions of the 4th Division had brought my son’s body back, and so on the following day I motored once again to Albert and laid my dear boy to rest in the little cemetery on Tara Hill, which he and I had seen when he was encamped near it, and in which now were the bodies of some of his friends whom I had met on my last visit. I was thankful to have been able to have him buried in a place which is known and can be visited, but I would say to the many parents whose sons lie now in unknown graves, that, after all, the grave seems to be a small and minor thing in view of the glorious victory and triumphant life which is all that really matters. If I had not been successful in my quest, I should not have vexed my soul with anxious thought as to what had become of that which is merely the earthy house of the immortal spirit which goes forth into the eternal. Let those whose dear ones lie in unrecorded graves remember that the strong, glad sprits—like Valiant for Truth in “Pilgrim’s Progress”—have passed through the turbulent waters of the river of death, and “all the trumpets have sounded for them on the other side.”
    In June of the following year, when the Germans had retired after our victory at Vimy Ridge, I paid one more visit to Regina Trench. The early summer had clothed the waste land in fresh and living green. Larks were singing gaily in the sunny sky. No sound of shell or gun disturbed the whisper of the breeze as it passed over the sweet-smelling fields. Even the trenches were filling up and Mother Nature was trying to hide the cruel wounds which the war had made upon her loving breast. One could hardly recall the visions of gloom and darkness which had once shrouded that scene of battle. In the healing process of time all mortal agonies, thank God, will be finally obliterated. [Page 158]