CHAPTER XXV.

VICTORY YEAR OPENS.

January and February, 1918.



    VICTORY Year, though we did not know it by that name then, opened with fine bracing weather, and there was the usual round of dinners and entertainments with which we always greeted the birth of a new twelve-month. We had several Canadian-like snow storms. In the midst of one, I met a forlorn despatch rider coming up the main street on his wheel with the blinding snow in his face. I stopped him and asked him if he wouldn’t like to have some dinner, and I took him into the hotel. He had been to Bethune to buy some V.C. ribbon for one of the men of his battalion who was going to be presented with it on the following day, and was so proud of his mission that he made no complaint about the long and tiring journey through the snowstorm. The country behind Bruay is broken up into pleasant valleys, and there are plenty of trees on the hills, so the winter aspect of the district made us feel quite at home. I used to give many talks to the men on what I called “The war outlook,” I thought it helped to encourage them, and I was perfectly sincere in my belief, which grew stronger as time went on, in spite of notable set-backs, that we should have victory before the end of the year.
    We had a visit at this time from Bishop du Pencier, who came to hold a confirmation for us at Divion. There were forty candidates, nearly all of them being presented by chaplains of the 1st Brigade. It was a solemn service and made a deep impression upon the men. The hymns were sung very heartily, and the Bishop gave a most helpful address. I remember specially one young fellow called Vaughan Groves, who came to me for the preparation. He was a small, rather delicate young lad about nineteen years of age, and was a runner for the 2nd Brigade. He had a fine open face and had the distinction of having won the M.M. and bar. To have won these honours as a Brigade runner was a mark of rare courage. I felt the deepest admiration for the boy, who was the only son of a widowed mother in Canada. He never touched liquor and had lived a perfectly straight life, and his was just the type of character which found scope for great deeds in the [Page 234] war. After the confirmation I lost sight of him, until some months afterwards when, as I was going through Arras one night, I looked into a cellar near the 2nd Brigade Headquarters, and seeing a number of men in there, went down to have a talk. I found they were the Brigade runners, and so I at once asked for my young friend. They told me that he had been wounded in the arm and when he came to the dressing station, finding there a man who was dying from loss of blood, had at once offered his own blood for transfusion into the veins of the sufferer. So much had to be taken from him that the boy got very weak and had to be sent back to England to recuperate. The men added that it was just the thing that little Vaughan would do. He was the finest, cleanest little chap, they said, that they had ever met. It was always delightful to hear such testimony from men to the innate power of human goodness. I have never seen or heard of Vaughan Groves since, but I hope that some one may read this book who will be able to tell me how and where he is.
    I was not sorry when our rest was over. There was more time to get home-sick when we were out of the line. If we had to be in the war at all, the happiest place was at the front. So when on January 23rd I left Bruay for Bracquemont, I did so with little regret. My billet at Bracquemont was the same which I had occupied in the previous September, and it seemed quite like home. Once more our men held the trenches on Hill 70 and the battalions in the back area were billeted in Mazingarbe, Le Brebis, and Sains-en-Gohelle.
    The day after I arrived, I determined to do some parish visiting in the slums—as I called the front line. I started off in my old trench uniform and long habitant boots, carrying with me a supply of bully-beef, tinned milk and hardtack. I went through Bully-Grenay and then out through Maroc to Loos. Here once again the dressing station at Fort Glatz was occupied by a doctor and staff from one of our ambulances. I spent a little while there and then continued my journey up the road past Crucifix Corner to the trenches. The 7th and 8th Battalions were in the line. The day was fine and the warm sunshine was hardening the mud, so things did not look too unpleasant. I went to the 7th Battalion first and found the gallant men carrying on in the usual way. Hugo Trench was very quiet, and from it one could obtain a good view of the German lines and of Lens beyond. It was great fun to go into the saps and surprise the two or three men [Page 235] who were on guard in them. The dugouts were curious places. The entrance steps were steep, and protected by blankets to keep out gas. At the bottom would be a long timber-lined passage, dark and smelly, out of which two or three little rooms would open. The men off duty would be lying about on the floor sound asleep, and it was often hard to make one’s way among the prostrate bodies. The officers’ mess would have a table in it and boxes for seats. On a shelf were generally some old newspapers or magazines and a pack of cards. In the passage, making it narrower than ever, were a few shelves used as bunks. At the end of the passage would be the kitchen, supplied with a rude stove which sent its smoke up a narrow pipe through a small opening. In the trenches the cooks were always busy, and how they served up the meals they did was a mystery to me. Water was brought in tins from a tap in one of the trenches to the rear, and therefore was not very abundant. I have occasionally, and against my will, seen the process of dish-washing in the trenches. I could never make out from the appearance of the water whether the cook and his assistant were washing the plates or making the soup, the liquid in the tin dish was so thick with grease. However, it was part of the war, and the men were doing their best under most unpropitious circumstances.
    I had come prepared to spend a night in the trenches, and had decided to do so in the large German-made dugout in the chalk-pit which was held by “D” Company of the 8th Battalion. The officer on duty with the 7th Battalion kindly acted as my guide. The day had worn away, and the bright moon was lighting up the maze of yellow trenches. We passed along, exchanging many greetings at different places, until we came to the outpost of the 8th Battalion at the top of the path which leads down to the chalk-pit. Here four men were sitting keeping guard. They gave me a warm greeting, and I told them that if I were not in a hurry to let my guide go back to his lines, I would stop and recite some of my poems in the moonlight. It struck me that they seemed more amused than disappointed. So wishing them good-luck, we started onward down the slippery path which led into the pit, where many shells had torn up the ground and where were remains not only of uniforms and mess-tins and rifles but also of German bodies. We had hardly reached the entrance to the dugout when two or three of those shells which the men called “pineapples” arrived in quick succession. They sounded [Page 236] so close that we dived into the place of refuge. We found the O.C. of the company inside, and he kindly arranged to give me a large bed all to myself in one of the chambers of the dugout. Suddenly a runner appeared and told us that the pineapples had hit the outpost, killing not only some of the men to whom I had just been talking but also the Adjutant of the battalion. I at once got up and went back to the place. The line was quiet now, and the whole scene was brightly lighted by the moon and looked so peaceful that one could hardly imagine that we were in the midst of war, but, lying in the deep shadow at the bottom of the trench, with its face downwards, was the body of the Adjutant. He had been killed instantly. In the outpost beside the trench, were the bodies of the men who had been on duty when I passed a few minutes before.
    I stayed with the sentry guarding the bodies until a stretcher party arrived and carried them away. Then I went back to the dugout and visited the men who were crowded into its most extraordinary labyrinth of passages and recesses. In the very centre of the place, which must have been deep underground, there was a kitchen, and the cooks were preparing a hot meal for the men to eat before “stand to” at dawn. The men of course were excessively crowded and many were heating their own food in mess-tins over smoking wicks steeped in melted candle grease. All were bright and cheerful as ever, in spite of the stifling atmosphere, which must have been breathed by human lungs over and over again. It was quite late when I stretched myself on my wire mattress with my steel helmet for a pillow. Only a piece of canvas separated me from the room where a lot of men were supposed to be sleeping. They were not only not asleep but kept me awake by the roars of laugher which greeted the stories they were telling. However, I managed to doze off in time, and was rudely wakened early in the morning by the metallic thud of pineapples on the ground overhead. I was wondering what it meant when a man came down to the O.C.’s room, next to mine, and aroused him with the somewhat exciting news, “Major, the Germans are making an attack.” It was not long before the Major was hurrying up the steps to the passage above, and it was not long before I followed, because I always had a horror of being bombed in a dugout. In the passage upstairs all the men were “standing to” with fixed bayonets, and plenty of Mills bombs in their pockets. They were a most cheerful crowd, and really I think that we all felt quite pleased at the excitement. A man came up to me and [Page 237] asked me what weapon I had. I told him I had a fixed bayonet on the end of my walking stick. This did not seem to satisfy him, so he went over to a cupboard and brought me two bombs. I told him to take them away because they might be prematures. He laughed at this and said, “How will you protect yourself, Sir, if the enemy should get into the trench?” I told him I would recite one of my poems. They always put my friends to flight and would probably have the same effect upon my foes.
    By this time the rain of pineapples overhead was very heavy, and I went to the door of the dugout where the Major was looking out. It was a curious scene. Day had just dawned, and we could see the heaps of broken rubbish and ripped up ground in front of us, while directly opposite at the top of the chalk-pit was our front line. Pacing up and down this was a corporal, his form silhouetted against the gray morning sky. He had his rifle with fixed bayonet on his shoulder, and as he walked to and fro he sang at the top of his voice the old song, “Oh my, I don’t want to die, I want to go home.” The accompaniment to the song was the “swish” of the shells overhead and the bursting of them in the trenches behind. I told the Major that if we cold only get a moving picture of the corporal and a gramophone record of his song with its accompaniment we could make thousands of dollars by an exhibition of it in Canada.
    The next night I stayed at Cité St. Pierre. Who will ever forget the road up to it, and the corner near the ruined fosse, which was always liable to be shelled unexpectedly? In cellars beneath the unwholesome and dilapidated town our men found billets. They were really quite comfortable, but at night when the place was as black as pitch, and one had to grope one’s way in the darkness along debris-covered streets, shaken every now and then by the German missiles from the sky, one longed for Canada and the well-lighted pavements of Montreal and Toronto.
    On February 14th, at the officers’ club at Corps Headquarters in Camblain l’Abbe, we had a great gathering of all the officers who had landed in France three years before. The one hundred and fifty who sat down to dinner were only a small part of the original number, and, before the anniversary came round again, many of those present were called to join the unseen host to whose memory that night we drank in silence. It was strange to look back over three years and think that the war, which in [Page 238] February 1915 we thought was going to be a matter of months, had now been protracted for three years and was still going on. What experiences each of those present had had! What a strange unnatural life we had been called upon to live, and how extra-ordinarily efficient in the great war game had each become! It was a most interesting gathering of strong and resolute men filled with sublime ideals of duty and patriotism, who nevertheless were absolutely free from all posing and self-consciousness. They had learnt how to play the game; they had learnt both how to command and how to obey; they had learnt how to sink selfish interests and aims, and to work only and unitedly for the great cause.
    On February 19th I held the dedication service at the unveiling of the artillery monument at Les Tilleuls. Owing to its exposed position no concourse of men was allowed, but there was a large gathering of the Staff, including the Army Commander, and of course a number of officers from the artillery. The lines of the monument are very severe. A plain white cross surmounts a large mass of solid masonry on which is the tablet, which General Currie unveiled. It stands in a commanding position on Vimy Ridge, and can be seen for miles around. Many generations of Canadians in future ages will visit that lonely tribute to the heroism of those, who, leaving home and loved ones, voluntarily came and laid down their lives in order that our country might be free. [Page 239]