CHAPTER XVII.

A MONTH ON THE RIDGE.

April to May, 1917.



    THE great drawback to a victory in a war of movement, which we were told we were now engaged in, is that, after an advance, one has to follow up the line, and consequently, comfortable billets have to be exchanged for broken down shacks in the forward area. Not many days after our men had taken Vimy Ridge, Divisional Headquarters had to move up to the Arras-Bethune road and occupy a chalk cave which was known as the Labyrinth. It had once been the scene of fierce fighting between the French and the Germans. Deep down, in passages scooped out of the chalk were the various offices of the division and the billets for the staff. The place was very much crowded, and I quickly perceived that the last person whose society was wanted there was the Senior Chaplain. Having taken the situation in at a glance, I made my way to my friend the Staff Captain of the Artillery, and he very kindly invited me to share with him and another officer, the little dugout he had chosen for himself. It was entered by a narrow passage cut through the chalk in the side of the trench, and the roof consisted of a large semi-circular piece of iron under the ground. We had three beds and a table, and so were comfortable. When one stood on the earth which covered our roof, it was impossible to see any suggestion of a home underneath. Nothing was in sight but the wide expanse of rolling country cut up on all sides by trenches and shell holes, and wearing a sort of khaki uniform of light brown mud. To the east of us, lay the road bordered with leafless and battered trees, past which went an interminable line of lorries, guns and limbers. We were very comfortable, and at night when the winds were blowing and the rain was coming down in sheets, it was not half bad after dinner to read aloud Tennyson’s “Ulysses” or other of my favourite poems. I am not sure that I did not at times, relying upon the inclemency of the weather overhead, recite some of my own. I know that one morning, when I had awakened at about four o’clock, I turned on the light of a storage battery which I had found in a German dugout, and sitting up wrote the verses which I [Page 173] called “The Silent Toast” and which my artillery friends approved of when I recited them at breakfast.
    The aftermath of victory is of course very sad. Many were the gallant men whose bodies were laid to rest in the little cemetery at Ecoivres. The cemetery is well kept and very prettily situated. The relatives of those who are buried there will be pleased to find the graves so carefully preserved. The large crucifix which stands on a mound near the gate is most picturesquely surrounded by trees. In the mound some soldier, probably a Frenchman, had once made a dugout. The site was evidently chosen with the idea that crucifixes were untouched by shells, and therefore places of refuge from danger. I often thought, as I looked at the crucifix with the human shelter beneath it, that it might stand as a symbol of the hymn:—

“Rock of Ages cleft for me
Let me hide myself in Thee.”

     The engineers had had a dump for their material near the Bethune-Arras road, and when they moved it forward to a place called the “Nine Elms,” the engineer officer gave me his dugout, which was partly beside the road and partly under it. It consisted of several rooms, one of which contained a bed, and had steps going down to a deep chamber whither one could retire in case of shelling. It was good to have such a large and comfortable establishment, and when Alberta was chained up in her corner and I had strapped myself into my kit bag at night, we both felt very snug. The only trouble was that visitors kept coming at all hours to ask for engineering materials, not knowing that the character of the abode had changed. Early one morning, an officer came in a great hurry, and waking me up, asked if there were any winches there,—he pronounced the word like wenches. I sat up in bed and looked at him sternly, and said, “Young man, this is a religious establishment, I am the Senior Chaplain, and there are no wenches here.” He did not know quite what to make of the situation. “I mean wooden ones,” he said. I replied, “Young man, there are no wenches here, either wooden or any other kind; the engineers have gone forward.” He apologized and left. On another occasion, in the darkness of middle night, an Imperial soldier who had lost his way came down the steps and put his head into my door and began to stammer and hiss in such an extraordinary way that Alberta was [Page 174] roused and barked furiously. I woke up with a start and asked what the matter was, but all I could get from the poor man was a series of noises and hisses. I turned on my flashlight, and a very muddy face covered with a shock of red hair looked in at the door of my little room, and with many contortions and winkings, emitted a series of incomprehensible noises. What with the stammering man and the barking dog, I was at my wits end to find out the trouble. At last by a process of synthesis, I pieced the various sounds together and found that the man wanted the location of a certain British battery. I gave him the best information I could.
    Not far from me, at Arriane Dump, the Chaplain’s Service established a coffee stall, and there men who were going up to or coming from the line could get coffee, biscuits and cigarettes at all hours. The neighborhood had now become so safe that little huts were being run up in various places. I asked our C.R.E. to build me a church, and, to my great joy, an officer and some men were detailed to put up a little structure of corrugated iron. At one end, over the entrance door, there was a belfry in which was hung a good sized German gas bell found in the trenches on our advance. Surmounting the belfry, was a cross painted with luminous paint. Inside the church, I had an altar with crucifix and candlesticks, and the Union Jack for a frontal. I also had a lectern and portable organ. The oiled linen in the windows let in a sufficient quantity of light, and the whole place was thoroughly church-like. I shall never forget the first service we held in it when the building was completed. It was in the evening and the sun was just setting. The air was balmy and spring-like and there was no shelling in the front line. The bell was rung and the congregation began to collect. I went over to the church and there I found, lying wrapped in a blanket on a stretcher beside the building, the body of a poor lad of the 2nd Division. It could not be buried until word had been received from his battalion. I got some of the men to carry the stretcher in and lay it in the aisle. I put on my cassock and surplice, lit the candles, and we had choral evensong, my organist playing the responses. The little church was filled, and there, in the midst of us, was one who had entered into his rest. It seemed to me that the most suitable hymn was:—

Let saints on earth in concert sing
With those whose work is done,
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For all the servants of our King
In heaven and earth are one.

One army of the living God
To His command we bow;
Part of the host have crossed the flood,
And part are crossing now.”

All present sang the hymn most heartily, and we felt its appropriateness. I never hear it now without thinking of that evening service in St. George’s Church at Arriane Dump. To those at home, I suppose, it will appear strange that an incident of that kind would not be almost too moving. At the front, however, death did not seem to be such a terrible thing—it was part of our life and something to be expected and met uncomplainingly. Every morning, until we moved, I had a Celebration of the Holy Communion in the church at eight o’clock, and every evening I had Evensong at six. I was told long afterwards that when General Horne paid his first visit to our Battle Headquarters, he pointed to the little iron structure with its belfry and white cross, and asked what it was. When they told him it was a church, he said, “A church! Now I know why the Canadians won Vimy Ridge.” Unfortunately, the point of the observation was lost by the fact that the church was built, not before, but after we had taken the Ridge.
    When we left Arriane Dump, I handed over the church to the Senior Chaplain of the British division which took our place, and he had the building taken down, put in lorries, and re-erected in the village of Roclincourt, where he adorned it with a painted window of St. George and the Dragon.
    Along the Arras-Bethune road are various cemeteries where the men of the different battalions are buried. The greatest care was taken in collecting the dead and making their last resting place as neat and comely as possible. A plank road was constructed to connect the Bethune-Arras road with the Lens-Arras road further forward. It lay in a straight line over the broken ground cut up by trenches and huge craters, and brought one to the headquarters of the siege battery in which my son was a gunner. On all sides stretched the plain which our men had won. Far off, on clear days, one could see in the distance the little hamlets behind the German lines.
    We had taken the Ridge, but there were villages in the plain which were not yet in our hands. I heard there was to be an attack [Page 176] one morning early. So the night before, I left my dugout at one a.m. It was a strange, weird walk along the plank road and then down the railway track to Farbus wood. The barrage was to open at four-thirty, and at four-ten a.m. I walked into the dugout where the Headquarters of the 3rd Artillery Brigade were. We waited till four twenty-five, and then I went up to see the barrage. Before us lay the plain, and all round us on the hillside, except in the space before us, were trees of Farbus Wood. At four-thirty the barrage opened, and we had a fine view of the line of bursting shells along the enemy’s front. For a time our fire was very intense, and when it eased off I started down the hill to the town of Willerval, where in a dugout I found the officers of one of our battalions regaling themselves with the bottles of wine and mineral water which the Germans had left behind them in their well-stocked cellars. Willerval was badly smashed, but enough was left to show what a charming place it must have been in the days before the war. In the shell-ploughed gardens, spring flowers were putting up inquiring faces, and asking for the smiles and admiration of the flower-lovers who would tread those broken paths no more. I sat in a quiet place by a ruined brick wall and tried to disentangle the curious sensations which passed though the mind, as I felt the breeze lightly fanning my face, smelt the scent of flowers, heard the skylarks singing, saw the broken houses and conservatories, and listened to the shells which every now and then fell on the road to the east of the village. That super-sensitiveness to the charms of nature, which I have mentioned before, thrilled me with delight. The warm spring sun beat down from a cloudless sky, and the glorious romance of being out in the war-zone added to the charm.
    One of our ambulances had a dressing station in the cellars of the Château, and there were a number of German prisoners there who were waiting their turn as stretcher bearers. From Willerval I went to the dressing station in the sunken road, where one of our chaplains was hard at work rendering assistance to the wounded. We had taken Arleux, but of course had to pay the price, and over the fields in different directions one could see stretchers being carried, bearing their loads of broken and suffering bodies. Our grand old Division never failed in taking its objective, and later on, we advanced from Arleux to Fresnoy, which completed [Page 177] for us our campaign on Vimy Ridge. The Divisions on each side of us were held up, but when we left the Ridge we handed over Fresnoy to our successors in the line. Later, they were obliged to relinquish it.
    There is something splendid in the esprit-de-corps of a Division, and none could be greater than that which animated all the units of the 1st Canadian Division, or as we were called, “the boys of the old red patch,” from the red patch which we wore as a distinguishing mark upon our arms.
    On May 4th, orders came to us that we had to move, and at night I walked over the old plank road to say good-bye to my son—for their battery was to retain its position—and on the next day, followed by little Alberta, I road form Arriane Dump to my old billet in Bruay, breaking the journey by a visit to the 87th Battalion at Château de la Haie. We had returned to our old quarters covered with glory, and, on all sides, the French people were sincere in their admiration for what the Canadian Corps had done. It was certainly delightful to get back to clean billets, and to be able to enjoy the charming spring weather on roads that were not shelled and in fields that were rich in the promise of summer. Our Headquarters once again made their home in the Administration Building in the square, and the usual round of entertaining went on. During the day-time, battalions practiced the noble art of open warfare. The sense of “Something accomplished, something done,” inspired our men with the ardour of military life, and bound us all even closer together in the spirit of valiant comradeship. [Page 178]