CHAPTER XXIV.

OUR LAST WAR CHRISTMAS.



    OUR Division moved back to Barlin and I was once more established in my old billet. As our artillery were still at Ypres, I determined to go back on the following day to the Salient. I started in a car the next morning at six, and arrived at Talbot House, Poperinghe, in time to have breakfast with Padré Clayton, who was in charge of that splendid institution. Then I made my way to Ypres and found my son at his battery headquarters under the Cloth Hall Tower. It was a most romantic billet, for the debris of the ruins made a splendid protection from shells, and the stone-vaulted chambers were airy and commodious, much better than the underground cellars in which most of the men were quartered. The guns of the battery were forward in a very “unhealthy” neighbourhood. The officers and men used to take turns in going on duty there for twenty-four hours at a time. They found that quite long enough, as the forward area was continually exposed to shells and aeroplane attacks. I went on to visit our own field batteries, and found them distributed in a most desolate region. The mud was so deep that to step off the bath-mats meant sinking almost to the knees. In order to move the guns, planks had to be laid in front of them for a track, and the guns were roped and dragged along by the men. It was hard physical labour but they bore it, as they did other difficulties and dangers, with the utmost good humour. It was tiring enough merely to walk out to see them, without having anything else to do. What those men went through at that time no one can imagine. Just to watch them laying the planks and hauling on the ropes which drew the heavy mud-covered guns made me weary. When I meet some of my gunner friends in Montreal and Toronto looking so clean and happy, I think of what they did behind Passchendaele Ridge, and I take off my hat to them.
    I spent three days at Ypres, and then, by jumping lorries, made my way back to St. Venant and Robecq, where I spent the night. The next morning I left for Bethune, and thence by the assistance of lorries and a car continued my journey to our new Divisional Headquarters, which had found a home at Château de la Haie. [Page 230] Here I had a billet in an upstairs room over what had been part of a stable. The room was neither beautiful nor clean, but served as an abode for me and Alberta and her newly-arrived family. The Château was a large house of no distinction, but it stood in delightful grounds, and at the back of it was a pond whose clear waters reflected the tall, leafless trees which bordered it. One fact made the Château popular and that was, that, up to that time, no shell or bomb had fallen in the neighbourhood. It was said that the location of the Château was not to be found on the enemy’s maps. Round about were huts with accommodation sufficient to house a whole brigade. The charm of the place was completed by our 4th Division having erected there a large and most artistic theatre, which would seat on benches nearly one thousand men. It had a good stage and a pit for the orchestra in front. This theatre, when our concert party was in full swing, was a source of infinite delight to us all. It was built on the slope of a hill, the stage being at the lower end and a good view of the play therefore, could be had from all parts. The scenery was beautifully painted and electric lights and foot-lights well arranged.
    Near us was the village of Gouy-Servins, where many men were billeted, and in huts at Souchez and other places along the valley the various units found their homes. The year’s campaign was now over and we could look forward to a quite time during the winter. “C” mess had a very comfortable hut, with an open fireplace. We were supposed to have the liveliest entertainments of any mess at Headquarters, and had therefore many visitors. I shall never forget the jolly face of our president, the D.A.D.M.S., nor the irrepressible spirit of our A.P.M., son of a distinguished father who commanded an Army, nor the dry common-sense humour of our Field Cashier. What delight they took in ragging the Senior Chaplain, whose automatic ears, as he averred, prevented his hearing the things he should not. Nor must we forget the Camp Commandant, often perplexed like Martha with much serving. It was a goodly company and one much addicted to bridge and other diversions. I shall not forget the continual appeals of a gallant staff officer with two or three ribbons, who asked me penitently every morning for a moral uplift, which I noticed completely evaporated before evening. There was a freedom about our gatherings that was quite unique and has left pleasant memories in the mind, in spite of the fact that I told my fellow members they were the most godless crowd in Christendom. [Page 231] One day when we were at Ecoivres, a shell feel by the house, while we were having dinner. Someone asked me afterwards if it had “put my wind up?” “Not a bit”, I replied, “I knew that the Devil was not going to destroy one of his favourite machine-gun emplacements.”
    There was much excitement at this time over the question of conscription. The soldiers were to have votes and much depended upon their being given in the right way. It was a critical time, as our man-power was being exhausted. Recruiting under the voluntary system had become inadequate to meet our needs. Beyond this, however, one felt that the moral effect of Canada’s refusing conscription would be very harmful. The Germans would at once see in it an indication that Canada was growing weary of fighting and they would consequently take heart. It was most essential then that our men should cast a solid vote for the coalition government. I felt it my duty therefore to do as much electioneering work as I could. At night I used to address the men in the theatre between the acts of the play, and tell them that if we threw out the conscription bill, it would go a long way to undo the good of all they had done and destroy the value of the sacrifice our dead comrades had made. Once I was invited to speak to a battalion of the 4rth Division during an entertainment which they were holding. When I closed my address I told them that the last thing I wanted to do was to influence their vote. All I asked of them when they went to the polls was to make a cross in front of Borden’s name. From the laughter and cheers with which this statement was received, I think they probably did. A few of the men told me that the thing which made them hesitate about voting for conscription was that they could not bring themselves to do anything which would force others to come and endure the hellish life at the front. The great unionist victory at the polls in Canada, which we heard of on December 18th, showed us that the heart of the young country was sound, and this no doubt was noted by the Germans.
    One more, (and this was the last,) St. George’s church was built for me near the Château. Thus I was enabled to have a daily celebration of the Holy Communion.
    The arrival of one of the battalions of the 4th Division gave us the first indication that we were to move. On December 20th we left once more for Bruay. Here I found that my old billet was no longer available, but I managed to find a home in a clean little [Page 232] cottage in the same street, where I had a room down-stairs for an office, cheered by an open fire, and a large bare room upstairs in which I put my bed. On the garden-gate I hung out my sign “St. George’s Rectory.” Once again I found myself in the familiar neighbourhood with all the beloved battalions round us as before. The theatre was filled night after night, and there were the old gatherings of officers in the hotel. We regarded it as a great stroke of luck that once more we were going to spend Christmas out of the line.
    On Christmas Eve, when I was preparing to go up to the midnight Communion Service in the theatre, a new C. of E. Chaplain arrived and came with me to assist. On the stage the altar was set as before, and the dear old flag which now for three long years had been devoted to the sacred purpose shone out as the frontal. The band played the Christmas hymns and a large number of men attended. Some of them, but not many, had been there the year before. It was very beautiful and solemn. At midnight on New Year’s Eve we repeated the service. Again there was a large congregation, and to me as I looked back to the gathering held in that place just one year ago it was quite overpowering. How many of those who had been with us at the dawn of 1917 had passed away? The seats where they had sat were filled with other men. The hymns they had joined in were sung by other lips. In my heart went up the cry, “How long, O Lord, how long?” Once more the hands of the weary world clock had passed over the weeks and months of another year, and still the end was not in sight. As we stood in silence, while the buglers sounded the Last Post for the dying year, a wild and strange vision swept before me: I saw again the weary waste of mud and the shell ploughed ridge at Vimy; the fierce attacks at Arleux and Fresnoy; the grim assault on Hill 70 and the hellish agony of Paschendaele. Surely the ceaseless chiselling selling of pain and death had graven deeply into the inmost heart of Canada, the figures 1917. [Page 233]