CHAPTER XVIII.

A WELL-EARNED REST.

May and June, 1917.



    THREE days after we had settled at Bruay I was invited by one of our staff officers and the Colonel of one of our battalions to accompany them on a visit to our old trenches on the Somme. We left in the morning and went south, over the roads and past the little villages which we knew so well, till we came to Albert. We went up the Bapaume road, now deserted and lonely. Our frontline was some miles to the east, and so all that waste of country over which we had fought was now without inhabitants. We left the motor near Courcellette and walked over the fields to the old trenches where the First Brigade had made their attack. It was a dreary day. Low clouds hung over the sky and a cold wind blew from the east. Spring had made very little advance in those wide fields of death, and the grass was hardly green, where there was any grass. We walked over the well-known tracks reviewing incidents of the great battle. We crossed Death Valley and saw our old lines. The place was so solemn that by mutual agreement we did not talk, but each went off by himself. I found a number of Canadian and German bodies still unburied, and all over the fields were rifles and mess tins, spades and bits of accoutrement. One could hardly imagine a scene more desolate and forlorn. Every inch of that ground had been fought over and bought with the price of human blood. The moan of the wind over the fields seemed like the great lament of Nature for her sons who had gone. It was impossible to identify the bodies we found, but we knew that burial parties would soon set to work to collect them. Over each poor brown and muddy form I held a short service and used the form of committal from the burial office in our prayer-book.
    It was with a sense of relief that we walked back up the road, past the ruins of Courcelette, and rejoined the motor. The scene was too painful and made too great a pull upon the heart-strings. In the great army of the slain that lay beneath that waste of mud were many whom we had known and loved with that peculiar love which binds comrades in the fighting line to one another— [Page 179]

“God rest you valiant Gentlemen
Who sleep beneath that ground.

Once more, at the end of the month, I paid another visit to Regina Trench, when I was on my way to place a cross over my son’s grave in the cemetery at Tara Hill. By this time, the grass was green, the trenches were filling up and in the cloudless blue sky larks were singing. The impression of dreariness was passing away, and the wounds on the breast of nature were being healed.
    Our life at Bruay as usual was exceedingly pleasant, and the men thoroughly enjoyed the beauty and freshness of the country. Games and sports were indulged in and the nightly entertainments in the theatre given by our concert party were most enjoyable.
    I shall never forget the happy rides on Dandy down the roads and across the fields to the various battalions and artillery brigades. At every turn I would meet men whom I knew, and to shake hands with those glorious lads who had done such great things for the world was an honour and privilege. In looking back to that time faces and places come before me, and I feel once again the warm spring winds over the fields of France, and see the quaint old villages of Houdain, Ruitz and Hallicourt where our various battalions were billeted. Sometimes, at exalted moments, I had meals with generals in their comfortable quarters; sometimes with company officers; sometimes with then non-coms, but I think the most enjoyable were those that I took with the men in dirty cook-houses. With a dish-cloth they would wipe off some old box for a chair, another for a table; then, getting contributions of cutlery, they would cook me a special dinner and provide me with a mess-tin of strong hot tea. When the meal was over and cigarettes had been lighted, general conversation was indulged in, and there would be talks of home, of war experiences, and many discussions of religion and politics. One question which was asked me again and again in trenches and dugouts and billets was—“Are we winning the war?” It may be hard for people at home to realize how little our men knew of what was happening. The majority of them never saw the newspapers, and of course the monotony of our life and the apparent hopelessness of making any great advance was a puzzle to them. I never failed to take the question seriously and give them, as far as I was able, a general idea of the aspect of the war on the various fronts. In order to be able to do this I read “The Times” [Page 180] daily with great care. It was really the only paper that one could depend on, and its marvellous influence on the conduct of the campaign completely justified its claim to be still the exponent of British policy, and its inherited right to the title of “The Thunderer.”
    Our artillery were still in the line along the Ridge, but our infantry brigades were all at rest. It was proposed that we should have a thanksgiving service for victory with each brigade. The Senior Chaplain of the Corps took the matter in hand with the Senior Chaplain of the Army. A form of service was printed on slips of paper, and on Sunday, May 13th, we had services for the three infantry brigades. It was a lovely warm day, and the services were held at the most convenient points. The 2nd Brigade were assembled at Ruitz. It was a splendid sight. The 5th, 7th, 8th and 10th Battalions were drawn up in a great square, generals and staff officers were present; a band played the hymns and the army chaplain gave us a most stirring address. The next service was with the 1st Brigade in a field near Coupigny, where the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th Battalions were drawn up, making a magnificent show of young, ardent and stalwart manhood. The moment it was over the general and staff were motored over to the 3rd Brigade at Chateau-de-la-Haie. Here were assembled the 13th, 14th, 15th and 16th Battalions. General Horne attended this Service, and, after the religious ceremony was over, gave an address. His admiration for the achievement of our men was evidently sincere, and he always showed the deepest interest in everything connected with the welfare of the Canadians.
    Near Bruay on the way to Houdain were some large aerodromes and the headquarters of the squadron. I had met their chaplain before at Armentiéres when he was attached to the infantry. He very kindly invited me up to his quarters, and several times I dined with him at the officers’ mess. He was the chaplain of several squadrons, and had to fly from one to another to take services on Sundays after the manner of a true “sky pilot.” He told me some splendid tales of the gallantry of the young men to whom he had to minister. On one occasion the order was given that six German observation balloons along the front line had to be brought down, for we were about to make an advance. Six men were therefore, told off for this important but dangerous duty. The chaplain told me that at once the question arose as to how [Page 181] they were to dress for the encounter. Should they wear old clothes or should they be arrayed in their best? They decided that if they were brought down they would like, by their appearance, to do most credit to their squadron, and so it was determined that they should wear their newest uniforms. He told me that to him, who knew the dangers underlying the enterprise, it was most pathetic to see the young fellows in the highest spirits getting themselves polished up as if they were going to an investiture at Buckingham Palace. He had thought of having a service of Holy Communion for them, but there was no time, so he saw them start off on their voyage telling them that he would follow them with his prayers. The danger of such an undertaking was very great, as the planes had to fly low over the German trenches and then rise up and attack the balloons. That night six young airmen came to dinner in the mess as usual, but there were six observation balloons less in the German lines.
    One night when I went to dinner with the officers of the squadron I was placed at the right hand of the O.C. He was late in arriving, and I wondered what sort of man would come to fill the vacant chair. To my surprise, when we were half way through dinner, a young officer, not much more than a boy came and took the seat and welcomed me to the mess. I asked him if he were the Major. He said he was, and on his left breast were several decorations. I was just going to make some remark about his youthful appearance when he said, “Now don’t say it, Padré, don’t say I look young, I really can’t help it.” I had a long and interesting talk with him about his work. He was full of enthusiasm, and his knowledge of men impressed me deeply. There was a large number of officers at the table all under his command. I thought it was wonderful that a man so young should have such a knowledge of human character. This war has certainly shown that mellowed age is not such a necessary qualification for right judgment as we thought it was. Old age has had its day, and the young world, that has just been born in the anguish and travail of the old, must be “run” by young men who unite in themselves the qualities of judgment and the love of adventure. The hut used as a mess-room was most artistically decorated, and made a fine setting for the noble young fellows, who sat round the table chaffing one another and laughing as if they never had to face death in the blinding mists of morning or the blazing sun of noon, with the rain of [Page 182] shells and machine gun fire falling round them, as they climbed higher and higher like skylarks into the wide vault of heaven.
    On the first of June, we were ordered back to the line, and our Divisional Headquarters was to be divided. The General and staff were to be at the advanced position in the huts and dugouts on the La Targette road, and the non-combatant officers were to be billeted near Villers au Bois in Chateau d’Acq, a comfortable modern house with a large garden on one side and a pleasant tree-covered hill at the back. Here, to my surprise and delight, I found myself in possession of a large front room with furniture in it that appeared almost gorgeous. I had one comfortable night’s sleep in it, but alas only one. On the next evening, when the full moon was shining with that fateful power which she has of turning night into day and of guiding the flight of hostile bombers, we were sitting smoking our cigars after dinner at the artillery headquarters in the La Targette road, when suddenly we heard the pulsating buzzing of a German plane. At once someone called out, “A Boche plane, put out the lights.” In an instant the lights were out, but the fatal moonlight shone with clear and cruel lustre. There was a huge crash, then another, then another, then another, and someone said, “It had discharged its load.” For a few moments we waited in silence, then we heard the sound of voices and men calling for help. I went across the open to the huts where the staff officers and the clerks lived. The German plane kept buzzing round and round at a low altitude, the observer evidently trying to find out what mischief he had done. To my dismay, I found that sixteen persons including the A.D.M.S. and the Assistant to the A.P.M., had been wounded, two of them fatally. We could not use the lights in attending to the wounded for the German airman was on the watch, and it was not until he went away that we could get ambulances to carry them off.
    The General did not think it was worth while to risk a second attack by remaining at the place, so, in the middle of the night, with great dispatch the headquarters was moved back to the Chateau, and instead of my occupying the mahogany bed in the front room, I found myself on the floor of one of the huts in the garden. The General quite rightly and naturally taking to himself the bed which I had left.
    Château d’Acq was for many weeks and at different times our comfortable and delightful home. There were many Nissen huts [Page 183] round the Château and under the beautiful trees on the hillside. Here the different branches of the service had their offices, and the engineers built for me a little house of tar paper lined with green canvas, over the door of which was painted the sign “St. George’s Rectory.” The C.R.E. also built me a new St. George’s Church on the other side of the road. It was to be the chef d’oeuvre of his architectural skill, and to be made as complete and perfect as possible. A compass was brought and the true east and west found. The material of which the church was to be built was tar paper and scantling. The roof was to be covered with corrugated iron. The belfry was to be hung this time with two German gas bells, which were dignified with the title of a chime of bells. The windows, filled with oiled linen, were to be pointed after the manner of Gothic architecture. The church was to be cruciform, with a vestry on one side balanced by an organ chamber on the other. We had a nice altar, with the legal ornaments, and an altar rail. We had a lectern, and the proper number of benches for the congregation. We even had a font, which was carved out of chalk by the C.R.E.’s batman and given as an offering to the church. The C.R.E., a most devout and staunch Presbyterian, was proud of his architectural achievement and told me that now he had handed over to me a complete church he wished every service which the Church of England could hold to be celebrated in it. He said, “In addition to your usual services, I want men to be baptized, to be married, and to be ordained in that church.” When I protested that possibly no men could be found desiring these offices, he replied, “The matter is perfectly simple. Like the centurion in the Bible, I am a man under authority. All I have to do is to call up ten men and say ‘Go and be baptized tomorrow morning in Canon Scott’s Church,’ and they will go. If they don’t, they will be put in the guard room. Then I will call up ten more men and say, ‘Go and be married in Canon Scott’s church.’ If they don’t, I will put them in the guardroom. Then I will call up ten more men and say, ‘Go and be ordained in Canon Scott’s Church.’ If they don’t, I will put them in the guard room.” All this was said with perfect solemnity. As a matter of fact, when another division was occupying Château d’Acq, a man really was baptized in the little church. It was used daily for a time by the Roman Catholic Chaplain.
    A photograph of the building is preserved in the Canadian War Records Office. The first morning I rang the chime of bells for the [Page 184] early service, our A.D.M.S. avowed that he, mistaking the character of the sound, and supposing that it was a warning of a gas attack, sat up in his bed in the sweltering heat and put on his gas helmet.
    From Château d’Acq I used to go and take services for the siege artillery on the Lens-Arras road, and also at the charmingly situated rest camp at Fresnicourt. We knew however that a bombing raid might occur at Château d’Acq on any clear night. Whenever we heard German planes in the air we always felt how unprotected we were, and it gave us a sense of relief when the buzzing sound grew fainter and fainter and died off in the distance.
    The cool green shade of the trees made a pleasant roof over our heads on the hot days of early summer, and at dawn in the woods opposite we could hear the nightingales. Later on, the owner of the Château sold some of the bigger trees, and we found on our return to it in the following year that the beauty of the place had been destroyed, and the hillside looked like the scene of a Canadian lumber camp. However, the rose-trees in the garden with their breath of sweetest odour were a continual joy and delight to the soul. [Page 185]