CHAPTER XXVI.

THE GERMAN OFFENSIVE.

March, 1918.



    OVER four months had passed away since my return from Rome, so leave was again due. Immediately after the unveiling of the Artillery monument I started off in a car for Boulogne, and the next afternoon arrived in London. Conditions there were worse than they had been the year before. The streets were darker and food was scarcer. I went as far north as Edinburgh, but when I arrived at that city I found it cold and wintry and wrapped in mists. There were many naval men there, and I paid an interesting visit to a damaged submarine which was being repaired in the dry-dock. It was of course nice to meet friends again, but, beyond that, my last leave was not a pleasant one. It was a time of great anxiety. The Americans had come into the war, but they were not yet ready. Another campaign was before us, and the issue of it none could foresee. I was haunted perpetually by the dread of meeting with some accident, and so being sent back from the front. Several times I had a vivid dream, that I had got back to Canada and found that the war was still going on and I could not return to it. I shall never forget the joy of waking on such occasions and looking with dawning consciousness upon my surroundings and feeling that I was still at the front. It was a happy day for me, therefore, when on March 8th I arrived once more at Bracquemont, in the midst of my beloved war-family, and able to revisit Liévin, Loos, and Hill 70.
    My favourite home in the trenches was the dugout in the chalk-pit, which I have just described, and I often wish I could be suddenly transported there and revive old memories. We were planning at this time to make a big gas-attack along the Canadian Corps front. Three thousand gas-cylinders were to be fired by electricity upon the enemy. As I wanted to see this, I made my way to the chalk-pit. The time fixed for the event was five minutes to eleven at night. If the attack was to come off, the word “Japan” was to come through on the wires; if, owing to the wind being in the wrong direction, the attack had to be postponed, the word “Russia” would be sent. At 10.45 I climbed up the steps to the observation post [Page 240] at the back of the chalk-pit and waited. From this point I had a good view of the line towards Lens. I watched the luminous hands of my watch, and they passed the hour of eleven without anything occurring, as the breeze came from the East. I knew the word “Russia,” the name of the country that failed us, must have been sent over the wires. It was a queer sensation to sit up there in the dark with no sound but the soft murmur of the night wind in our ears, and the crash of an occasional shell. In those long dark stretches of waste land around me, thousands of human beings on both sides of the line were awake and active, either burrowing like ants in the ground or bringing up rations and war material along the communication trenches.
    I spent four nights that week in the chalk-pit waiting for the attack, and on March 21st, the night of the day on which the Germans launched their fierce attack against our Fifth Army, my patience was rewarded and the wind was propitious. I mounted the observation post and once more peered over the black stretches of country under the starlit sky. Suddenly, at five minutes to eleven, there was a burst of artillery fire, and over our heads with the usual swishing sound and gas-cylinders sped forth. The German lines were lit with bursting shells. Up went their rockets calling to their artillery for retaliation. I could hear their gas bells ringing to warn their men of the poison that was being poured upon them. It must have been a drenching rain of death. I heard gruesome tales afterwards of desolate enemy trenches and batteries denuded of men. The display of fireworks was magnificent, and the German artillery in the rear were not slow in replying. A great artillery duel like that in the darkness of the night over a waste of ground on which no human habitation could be seen had a very weird effect, and was wonderful to behold. I climbed down into the dugout and made my way through it to the chalk-pit, and then up to an outpost beyond. Here were four men, and I found that three of them had just come up from the base and that this was their first night in the line. They did not seem to be enjoying it as much as I thought they should, so I remarked that it was a beautiful night and pointed out to them the extraordinary romance of being actually out in the front line during such a bombardment. They seemed to get more enthusiastic later on, but the next morning I was wakened in my room by the laughter of men on the other side of the canvas wall, and I heard one old soldier telling, to the amusement [Page 241] of his fellows, of my visit on the previous evening. He said “We were out there with the shells falling round us, and who should come up but the Canon, and the first thing the old beggar said was ‘Boys, what a lovely night it is.’” The men roared at the idea. It was always illuminating to get a chance of seeing yourself as others saw you.
    That day, before I had gone to the chalk-pit, I heard from a staff officer at Corps of the German attack in the South, and I gathered from his manner that things were not going well. On March 29th we suddenly shifted our headquarters to Château de la Haie. Here we were told that we had to be ready to move again at a moment’s notice. Very bad news had come from the South, for the Germans were advancing, and our Fifth Army had been pushed back. The enemy had now got the initiative into his hands, and things were exceedingly serious. The Americans would not be ready for some time, and the question was how to stay the onrush of the fresh divisions which the Germans were hurling against us. An order from General Currie, couched in beautiful language, told us that there was to be no retreat for Canadians, and that, if need be, we should fall where we stood. There was no panic, only firmer resolve and greater activity in every department. Though I made it a point of never questioning our staff about war secrets, I soon became aware that our Division was to be sent South to try and stem the oncoming tide.
    Every night the 4th Divisional concert party gave an entertainment in the theatre, which was crowded with men. A stranger could not have told from the roars of laughter that shook the audience from time to time that we were about to face the fiercest ordeal of the war. The 2nd Brigade was quartered round us first, and one night in the theatre an officer appeared in front of the stage between the acts and ordered all the officers and men of the 5th Battalion, who were present, to report at once to their headquarters. Instantly the men got up and left, the rows of vacant seats looking quite tragic. The play went on. Again, another battalion, and another, was called off. The audience dwindled. It reminded one of the description in the “Tale of Two Cities” of the condemned men in prison waiting for the call of the executioner. Before the close of the performance the theatre was almost empty. The 2nd Brigade moved away that night and the 3rd took their places the next day. I knew that they, too, would have to move suddenly, [Page 242] so I arranged that at night we should have a service followed by a Celebration of the Holy Communion in the theatre after the play was over. Once again the building was crowded with an enthusiastic audience, and, after the play was ended, I announced the service. To my astonishment, most of the men stayed and others crowded in, so we must have had nearly a thousand men present. The concert party had received orders to pack up their scenery immediately and move off. While I was on the stage getting the altar ready the scene shifters were hard at work behind me. In spite of this disturbance, we had a wonderful service. I gave them a short address, and spoke about the high call which had come to Canadians to do big things, and how the eyes of the world were upon us. We were the champions of right, and I asked them to go forth in the power of God and do their duty. Then I began the Communion Service. The colours of the flag which hung over the altar glowed like an inspiration. The two altar lights shone like stars above it. At the back of the stage (but we heeded them not) were the busy men packing up the scenery. We sang the hymn “O God our help in ages past,” and at the time of communion about two hundred officers and men mounted the stage in turn and knelt in rows to receive the Bread of Life. It was a thrilling moment, and it showed how, underlying the superficial thoughtlessness of the soldier’s life, there was the deep and abiding sense of the reality and need of God. The service ended about eleven P.M.
    After shaking hands with some of the men I went back to my billet and there found that we had to start that night for parts unknown. All our surplus baggage had been sent off and only what was absolutely necessary was retained. The members of “C” mess were sitting round the table having a little liquid refreshment and waiting for the bus which was to take them off. Our A.D.M.S., who was starting at once, kindly offered to take me with him in an ambulance. Alberta and I, with two or three men, got into the vehicle, and I bid farewell for the last time to Château de la Haie. It was a bright moonlight night and the air was cold, but the roads were dry and dusty. The A.D.M.S., who was the only person who knew our destination, sat in front with the driver and told him the various turns to take. Clouds of dust blew back into the ambulance as we sped onward. It was a curious expedition. The war seemed to be more real than ever. One felt that a new page in its history was being turned. I wondered what was in store for us and what [Page 243] our experiences were going to be. I was also surprised that one was able to go forth without any emotion upon an adventure of such magnitude. On and on we rattled down the moonlit roads, past sleeping villages, and round sharp curves which jolted us in the car, until at last, at half-past two, we pulled up suddenly in front of some large iron gates which gave entrance to the grounds of a château standing back some distance from the road. The A.D.M.S. and his staff got out and hunted for a cottage which they could use as an office.
    I thought I had better go off and find a place where I could spend the rest of the night. With my haversack over my shoulder and followed by Alberta, I entered the gate, and made my way up the avenue till I came to the Château. I was a large and picturesque building, and stood out nobly against the outline of the trees in the park. The moon lit up the gray stone front, which was made all the richer by the variegated light and shade. The mansion, however, showed no inclination to be hospitable. All the windows were tightly closed with shutters, and there was no appearance of life anywhere. I knew we were not far from the advancing Germans, and I supposed that the inhabitants had all fled. I was so cold and tired that I determined to force an entrance and spend the night inside. I walked round to the back, where I saw a great park richly wooded. A large door in the centre of the building, reached by a broad flight of stone steps, seemed to offer me a chance of getting inside. I went up and tried the handle, when, to my surprise, the door opened and I found myself in a beautiful hall richly furnished and lighted by a lamp. Antlers hung on the wall, and the place had the appearance of an English country-house. After my long ride, and at that hour of the night, I felt as if I were in a dream. I saw a door to the right, and opening it was admitted to a modern drawing-room luxuriously furnished. A grate fire was burning on the hearth, and on a centre-table stood silver candelabra with lighted candles. There were also plates of bread and butter, some very nice cups and saucers, and a silver coffee-pot. At once I said to myself, “I am evidently expected.” It was like a story from the Arabian Nights. I looked about the place and not a soul appeared, Alberta tucked herself up on a rug and was soon fast asleep. I was just preparing to partake of the refreshments which, it seemed, some fairy godmother had provided, when in came one of our A.D.Cs. He was as much surprised to [Page 244] see me as I was to see him. He told me that our Divisional Commander had arrived there about an hour or two before and had gone to bed, and that we were in the home of a certain count whose servants had all fled. He also told me that there was a bedroom that I could have upstairs, and which would not be occupied by our staff until the next evening. I had a cup of coffee, and then, calling Alberta and taking a candle, I climbed a very rambling staircase till I reached the top storey, where I found an empty room with a very dirty bed in it. However, I was glad to get a place in which to rest, and so, with my rain-coat for a covering, I went to sleep. The next morning, having foraged for some water in which I had a good wash, I went off to the village to get some food. I met many of our units coming up in busses. Some were halted by the wayside, and nobody knew what we were going to do or why we were there. The Imperial transport officer in charge had either acted under wrong orders or else the drivers did not know the roads. Some of our battalions had lost their way, one even entered a village at the other end of which were the Germans, and two of our Engineer Companies disappeared completely for two days.
    The country people were hurrying off in carts, taking their household goods with them. I found a primitive farmhouse where I was able to buy some eggs and bread, and I invited a number of stragglers in to have something to eat. By noon, however, we got orders from the Army to move back to a place called Fosseaux. There we occupied an empty château which before the war must have been a very fine place. A wide grassy road nearly a mile in length, bordered on each side by fine old trees, stretched off into the distance in front of the central door. The entrance to the road was guarded by an exquisitely wrought iron gate, flanked on each side by stone pillars surmounted by carved heraldic figures. It was now cold and rainy, and our two Artillery Brigades were halted in a field opposite and were awaiting orders. Before nightfall they had left, and the forward section of our Division made their headquarters in a hut at Warlus; the members of “C” mess remaining at Fosseaux.
    March the 29th was Good Friday, and a strange one it was. There was much stir and commotion everywhere, and we were so unsettled, that all I could do was to have a service in the cinema in the evening, and on Easter Day two Celebrations of Holy Communion at which I had only twenty-eight communicants. Our [Page 245] men had gone in to the line to the southeast of Arras, round Telegraph Hill, where an attack by the Germans was expected, as their advance to the south had been checked. I made my way to Arras, and spent the night in one of the mysterious caves which lie under that city. It was called St. Sauveur Cave, and was entered from a street behind the station. The 1st Brigade was quartered there. In the morning I walked down the long dark passage till I came to an opening which led me to some high ground where there had evidently been a good deal of fighting. From there I made my way over to the front line, where the 1st Battalion was entrenched. I passed numbers of wooden huts broken by shells. Many men must have been quartered there at one time. It was sad to go into them and see the waste and desolation, and the lost war material scattered in all directions. On my way I came to a deep trench which some Imperial machine-gunners were holding. They had had an anxious time, and were glad to have a visitor. Several of them regretted that they had not been able to attend any Easter service. I told them we would have one there and then, as I was carrying the Blessed Sacrament with me. So we cleaned a corner of the trench, and there I had a short service and gave the men communion.
    Our trenches were not satisfactory, as we did not know accurately where those of the Germans were. That night, instead of going back to the 1st Brigade I made my way to the huge Rouville Caves under Arras, where the whole of the 3rd Brigade were quartered. It was a most curious abode. No one knows when the caves were dug. They were probably extended from time to time as the chalk was quarried for the purpose of building the town. Long passages stretched in different directions, and from them opened out huge vaulted chambers where the battalions were billeted. I spent the night with the 14th Battalion, and the next day held services in turn for each of the four units of the Brigade. The 16th Battalion occupied a huge cavern with others branching off from it. I could hardly imagine more picturesque surroundings for a military service. The candle flames twinkled like stars in all directions in the murky atmosphere, and the singing of the men resounded through the cave. Overhead was the town which the enemy was shelling. In one of the caves we found the foundation of what had been an old prison, with a date upon it of the 18th century. It was very pleasant wandering down the passages, with [Page 246] a candle stuck on the top of my steel helmet, and meeting everywhere old friends who were glad of the temporary rest. Life there, however, was very strange. One could not tell whether outside it was day or night. I made my way back that afternoon by a passage which led out to one of the Arras sewers, by the side of which there was a stone pavement enabling one with a good flashlight to walk safely. The exit from the sewer, which now consisted of a shallow stream of perfectly clear water, led me up to a house in one of the streets, and thence by a car I made my way to Warlus, and home to Fosseaux.
    A few days afterwards our headquarters were moved up to Etrun, and there we found ourselves crowded into the quaint little town. The Château was our headquarters, and a tar-paper house which the Engineers built for me under a spreading hawthorn tree became my home. Etrun was a most interesting place historically. It had been the site of a Roman camp where Valentinian had his headquarters in the 4th century. The large mound, or vallum, which the Romans had thrown up to protect themselves from the attacks of the German tribes, is now a thickly wooded hill, pierced by the road which connects the village with the Arras highway. The grounds of the Château were most delightful, and before the French Revolution the house had been a convent. In the garden was the recumbent stone effigy, overgrown with moss, of one of the sisters. The most beautiful thing about the place is the clear stream, wide and deep, which comes from underground and flows over sparkling white pebbles through the green meadows to the river Scarpe. This stream was evidently the source of attraction to the Romans, who always made their camps where there was a plentiful supply of running water. The garden on one side was built up in stone terraces along which were gravel walks, where, no doubt, the nuns of old enjoyed their holy meditations. In the stream, as it wandered through the meadows, there was a plentiful supply of water-cress, which looked exquisitely green against the pebbles at the bottom. How one did long for the war to end, so that we might be able to lie down in the grass, free from anxiety, and enjoy the drenching sunlight and the spring song of the birds. [Page 247]