CHAPTER XIX.

PARIS LEAVE.

June 1917.



    MY time for leave was due again, and as we were allowed to spend it in France without interfering with the number of those who desired to see their friends in England, I determined to go to Chamounix. I thought that the sight of a great natural wonder like Mont Blanc would have an uplifting effect upon the mind, at a time when everything human seemed to be going to rack and ruin. The white peaks of the Alps in their changeless purity against the blue of the infinite sky seemed to me a vision which the soul needed. So I started off one lovely morning on my way to Paris. I went by side-car to Amiens, where I took the train. It was a delightful expedition, and I left with a good conscience, because our men were not expected to attack, and were in a quiet sector of the line. The driver of the car, with the prospect of a good meal at Amiens and a good tip, was in the best of humours. The air was sweet and fresh and the grass wore its brightest green. The sunshine beat down from a cloudless sky, and when we paused for repairs, as we had to do from time to time, birds’ songs furnished us with a most enjoyable concert. An expedition of this kind was made doubly charming by having in it a touch of adventure. When we came to a village, at once the map had to be studied and the turns in the road noted. A conversation with some of the villagers as we journeyed, always broke the sense of loneliness, and gave us an insight into the feelings of the people. However, on this particular occasion, I was not able to complete the journey to Amiens in the side-car. Either the car broke down, or the driver preferred to go on by himself, for the thing came to a dead stop just as a car from the Corps was about to pass us. The occupants kindly invited me to go on to Amiens with them. It was a swifter way of continuing the journey and much more comfortable, so I said good-bye to my original driver and started off with my new friends.
    Amiens was a bustling place then and very unlike the Amiens I saw a little over a year later. I started by train at six-thirty p.m., and at eight-thirty, after a pleasant journey, arrived at Paris, where [Page 186] I went to the Hotel Westminster. On the next evening, I started off with some friends for Evians-les-Bains. The train was very full, and there were no berths in the wagon-lit, so we had to stay up all night in a crowded first-class carriage. There was an old French Curé at one end of the compartment, who, quite early in the evening, drew out a silk handkerchief and covered his head and face therewith, leading us to suppose that he had sunk into oblivion. We therefore carried on a very pleasant and vivacious conversation, as the night was warm and we were not inclined to sleep. Suddenly the old Curé pulled off the handkerchief and said in a gruff voice, “It is the time for sleeps and not for talks,” and, having uttered this stinging rebuke, re-covered his head and left us in penitent silence. We arrived at Evians-les-Bains in good time, and went to a very charming hotel with a lovely view of the Lake of Geneva in front. Unfortunately, I had hurt my foot some time before and it looked as if it had got infected. Not wishing to be laid up so far from medical assistance, I decided to return the same evening, which I did, and once more found myself at the Hotel Westminster. I now determined to spend my leave in Paris. There were many of our men in the city at that time. They were all in a very impecunious condition, for there was some difficulty in getting their pay and, in Paris, money did not last long. I did my best to try and help them, and later our system of payment was improved. It was perhaps just as well for some of them that their money was short.
    Poor old Pairs looked very shabby to one who remembered her in former days with her clean streets and many-fountained parks. She wore the air of shabby gentility. The streets were not clean; the people were not well-dressed, the fountains no longer played. France had been hard hit by the war, and the ruin and desolation of her eastern borders were reflected in the metropolis. I spent most of my time in Paris trying to keep men straight, with more or less success. I can imagine nothing worse for a lonely young fellow, who had taken his leave after weary months in the front line, than to find himself in the midst of the heartless gaiety of the French capital. On all sides the minions of vice, diseased in mind and body, lay in waiting for their prey. To one who loved Canada and longed for the uplifting of the pure life of Canadian homes, it was a spectacle which filled the heart with anxiety. Before I left Paris, I wrote a letter to the Continental Daily Mail advocating the taking over of some hotels which could be turned [Page 187] into hostels or clubs for soldiers while on leave. This, I am happy to say was afterwards done.
    I met many of our men at the soldiers’ tea-rooms called “A corner of Blighty” in the Place Vendome, and I organized several dinner and theatre parties which went off very pleasantly. When the men had companionship, they did not feel the lure of vice which came to them in moments of loneliness. I met some interesting people in Paris, and at a Sunday luncheon in the charming house of the Duchess de la M— I met Madame—, the writer of a series of novels of rather lurid reputation. The authoress was a large person with rich orange-coloured hair, powdered cheeks, and darkened eyelashes. She wore a large black hat, enormous solitaire pearl ear-rings, and, as a symbol of her personal purity, was arrayed in white. She lamented the fact that women writers were not allowed to visit the front. When I told her that Mrs. Humphrey Ward had been there, she said, “Oh yes, they allowed her to go because they said she could write good English, but she cannot get the ear of the American people in the way I can.”
    There were two or three French officers present, one of whom was an attaché at the Embassy in Madrid. I was much impressed by their quiet dignified bearing, so typical of the chivalrous heroism of France, and so unlike anything which we could look for in the officers of the German Army. I could not help observing that the French were much depressed and filled with anxiety as to the issue of the war. A French lady said to me “How can we go on much longer; our man-power is nearly exhausted?” It is a supreme delight to me to think that that wonderful nation, which suffered and bled so deeply and bore its wrongs so nobly, has now been avenged on the ruthless enemy, and that the tri-colour once more floats over Alsace and Lorraine. Profoundly patriotic though we of the British Empire are, there is something in the patriotism of the French which goes down into the deepest roots of the human soul. I remember once in the private burying place of a noble family who owned a chateau not far from our front line, seeing a little child’s grave. The child had died in Canada at the age of two years, and its body had been brought back to its ancestral resting place. On the tombstone, under the inscription were the words:—

“Petit ange
Priez pour
la France.”
[Page 188]

I was very much struck by the prayer. That the sorrow for a child’s death should be coupled with the love of country seemed most strange and pathetic. I venture to say that it would be impossible to find a parallel instance of such a blending of emotions in any English churchyard. The present owner of the Château, which was at least two or three hundred years old, was away fighting for his country, and long grass and weeds filled the uncared for corner by the side of the old church. In past history, we have fought with the French again and again, but we always felt that we were fighting with gentlemen, and were sure that every courteous deed done by us would meet with an equally courteous response. One of the saddest things in the war was that, while we often admired the military efficiency of the Germans, we had absolutely no respect for their officers or men, nor could we regard them as anything but well-trained brutes. The ties which bind us to France now are very intimate and personal, and it is a matter of thankfulness to all who love human idealism and true culture, that the reproach of the defeat of 1870 has been washed away in blood, and that France will emerge from her fiery trial a purer and a loftier nation.
    I was not sorry when my Paris leave was over and I returned to my Headquarters at Château d’Acq. It was always delightful to get back to my war home and settle down again in the midst of those on whose shoulders the fate of civilization rested. I arrived back on June 29th, just in time to prepare for the special services which were to be held throughout the Corps on Sunday, July 1st, it being the jubilee of the Dominion. I made arrangements with the band of the Royal Canadian Regiment, as our Divisional band was away, to march over from Villers au Bois and play for us at the service. We had special hymns and prayers neatly printed on cards, which the men were to retain as souvenirs. The parade was held just outside St. George’s Church, our new Divisional Commander, General Macdonell, and his staff attending. The occasion was particularly interesting to me, because I was the only man in the whole Canadian Corps at the front who could remember the first Dominion Day. I could remember as a child being taken by my father on the 1st of July, 1867, to hear the guns firing a salute on the grounds of McGill College, Montreal. Canada had travelled a long distance on the path of nationhood since that far-off time, and now, after fifty years, I had the satisfaction of being [Page 189] with the great Canadian Army Corps on European soil, engaged in the biggest war of history. Such an experience is not often the privilege of a human life, and the splendid body of men before me gave promise of Canada’s progress and national glory in the future. Everyone felt the peculiar significance of the celebration.
    Owing to the fact that my foot was still troubling me, I was sent down to the rest-camp at Fresnicourt, where I met many of the officers and men in that delightful old Château. The country round about was very pretty, and the views from the hills were charming. Every night I used to have either a service, or a talk with the men, on the grass beside a little stream. They were all enjoying the rest and refreshment that came from being able to live in pleasant surroundings and away from shells and work in the trenches. On July 18th, I went by sidecar to St. Omer where the Senior Chaplains of the Army were summoned to a conference. We were billeted in the large building used as the Chaplains’ Rest Home, and there enjoyed the great privilege, not only of meeting one another, but of listening to some splendid addresses and lectures by those in charge. It was pleasant to revisit St. Omer. The quaint old French town, with its rambling streets and polite inhabitants, took one away from the thoughts of war and gave one almost a feeling of home. In the smoking room at night, we had the opportunity of discussing with one another the various moral and religious problems with which the chaplain had to contend, and many were the interesting experiences of those chaplains. On the last day of our meetings, at the early Eucharist, we had an address from the Archbishop of York, who had just come over to France. Later on, he gave an address at a general meeting of the chaplains at Bethune.
    While at St. Omer I paid a visit to the Second Army School in their magnificent buildings in Wisques, where I saw the room that my son had occupied, and met some of the people who remembered him. The place was used as a training school for officers and was most wonderfully equipped. The building was a modern convent, and the large unfinished chapel, with its high vaulted roof, was used as a dining-room. It was inspiring at dinner to see the hundreds of young officers, all so keen and cheery, sitting round the tables, while a good band played during the meal. It was hard to realize that they were only having a momentary respite from the war, and, in a week or two, would be once more up in the line facing [Page 190] wounds and death. The Commandant took great pride in the institution, and told me of the splendid records of the men who had passed through his hands.
    Our Divisional Headquarters now moved to a place called Bracquemont, near Noeux les Mines. Here I had a very fine room in the house of the manager of one of the Mines, the offices of which were on the other side of the road. The house was well built, and had a most charming garden at the back. It was large and commodious, and I always feared that my billet would attract the covetous desires of some high staff officer and that I should be thrown out to make way for him. My room was on the ground floor with two large windows opening on the street, enabling me to get the Daily Mail from the newsboy in the morning. The ceiling was high and the furniture most sumptuous. A large mirror stood upon the marble mantel-piece. I had linen sheets on the bed and an electric light at my side. It did not seem at all like war, but the end of the mahogany bed and some of the chairs, also one corner of the ceiling, had been perforated by bits of shrapnel. So in the midst of luxury, there was the constant reminder that the war was still going on—a death’s head at the feast. [Page 191]