CHAPTER XXVII.

IN FRONT OF ARRAS.

April, 1918.



    ETRUN was a convenient place for a headquarters. My hut was comfortable, and the tree that grew beside it stretched its thickly-leaved boughs over it, as though wishing to protect it from the sight of enemy planes. Visitors were always welcome. In the garden were many other huts, and a path led to the churchyard in which stood the old church. It was strongly built, but very crudely furnished, and spoke of many generations of humble worshippers to whom it was the gate of heaven. On one side of the garden was a stream, which turned a quaint mill-wheel, and an island in the stream, connected with the banks by a bridge, made a pleasant resort. A little nest of beauty, such as Etrun was, in the midst of the war, most restful to the soul, especially after a visit to the line. Of course, we had to be careful about screening all lights, for a shell landed one night in a hut opposite mine. Luckily the shell was a “dud.” Had it not been, my sergeant, groom, and batman would have been no more, for it burrowed its way into the ground under the floor of their abode, as they were having supper.
    On one occasion about one in the morning, we were awakened from sleep by three terrific explosions. They sounded close, so I thought that some of our men might have been hit. I got up and went off to see where the shells had landed. The quaint old hamlet lay silent in the moonlight, and not a soul was stirring. I went down one of the narrow streets, and met a tall figure in black coming towards me. It was the Curé, who was bent on a similar mission, fearing that some of his people had been wounded. We went round the place together until we met a man coming up the road, who told us that a bomb had struck the railway bridge and exploded two mines which we had in readiness in case the Germans were to make an advance. The bridge had been completely shattered, but luckily our sentries there had escaped. The Curé and I then parted and went back to our beds.
    It was a great treat for our men who were billeted in villages [Pages 248] in the Scarpe Valley to have plenty of water, and in the various mill-ponds they found swimming-places. Our front line at this time extended for quite a long distance north and south of the Scarpe. In fact the river acted for a short distance as No Man’s Land. On the north of the Scarpe were the ruins of the village of Fampoux, and on the south those of Feuchy. How well our men will remember the towns of Maroeil, Anzin, St. Nicholas and St. Aubin. I used to go off across the meadow lands, now bright and fresh with spring verdure, till I got to the St. Eloi road, and then by jumping lorries would make my way to St. Nicholas and on to Cam Valley. On the east side of the valley were quaint dugouts which were occupied by the battalion in reserve. A path up the valley led to the communication trench, and finally down Pudding Lane to Pudding Trench. The ground was elevated, so that from one of the trenches which led down towards Fampoux I was able to see with my glasses the country behind the German lines. I saw quite distinctly one day the spires of Douai, and in another direction on a hillside I could make out a railway train which must have been carrying German troops. I had many interesting walks through the trenches, and slept there several times. On one occasion I took Alberta with me, but she would persist in going off into No Man’s Land hunting for rats. The arrival of a minnenwerfer, however, gave her a great fright and made her jump back into the trench with alacrity, much to the amusement of the men, who said that she knew the use of trenches.
    One day I went down the trench which led into Fampoux. Whizzbangs were falling every now and then, so the men were keeping low. At one place there was a good view of the German lines. An officer and a sergeant stood there looking through their glasses and pointed out to me a spot in the hillside opposite where we could see a number of the enemy. They came out of one trench, crossed the road, and went down into another. The officer told me that he had counted over a hundred that day. I asked him why he did not telephone to Battalion Headquarters to inform the artillery. He told me he had no telephone. Then I said, “Why don’t you send a runner?” He explained that Fampoux was occupied as an outpost, and that no runners were allowed to be sent from there during the daytime; orders to this effect being very strict. “I am not a runner,” I said, “and I am not in your Battalion. If you will give me the map-location of the place where you [Page 249] think the Germans are congregating, I will take it back with me to the liason officer at Battalion Headquarters.” He was very pleased with my offer, because at this time we were daily expecting a big attack upon our lines. To get back we had to crawl down a steep place in the trench, which was in view of the Germans, until at last we reached the cellar of a ruined house which the O.C. of the company used as a billet. He got out his maps and gave me the exact location of the road and trenches where the Germans had been seen to pass, and where apparently they were massing. I got him to write down the map-location carefully on a piece of paper, and then, armed with this and feeling very important, I started back, this time avoiding the trench and going up the Fampoux road on the side of which there was some torn and broken camouflage. I came across a steel helmet by the wayside with part of a man’s head in it, and the road had been pretty well battered by shells, but I felt exceedingly proud at being able to do something which might possibly avert an attack upon our men. I went on till at last I saw in the hillside the beginning of a trench, and made my way up this to Pudding lane and found Battalion Headquarters. The Artillery officer had been having a quiet time and was delighted at the prospect of ordering a “shoot.” At once he telephoned back to the brigade, and not long after, when the quiet sun was setting in the West, a most terrific bombardment of artillery, both field and heavy, smashed the German trenches on the hill opposite. The headquarters men and I looked over the valley and saw the line of bursting shells. Much to their amusement, I told them that this was my music, that I had ordered the shoot. I felt like the fly on the axle of a cart, who said to his companion fly, “Look at the dust we are making.”
    On another occasion, I was filled with almost equal pride, when, meeting on the roadside a company of men who were going into the trenches for the first time and were waiting for a guide, I offered my services and actually led the company of young heroes into the trenches myself. The humour of the situation was so palpable that the men felt as if they were going to a picnic.
    The trenches on the Feuchy side of the Scarpe were well made, and led up to the higher ground to the east of Arras, where they joined the lines of a Scots Division. At one point we saw in No Man’s Land a lonely tent, which I was told had been occupied by a British chaplain before we had been driven back. I paid a [Page 250] most enjoyable visit to the engineers in Arras and stayed at Battalion Headquarters. They were in a large and comfortable house in the Place St. Croix. In the dining room we had a grate fire, a rug on the floor, and several easy chairs. A most sumptuous dinner was served, and one could scarcely believe that we were in a war.
    The men of the battalion were billeted in the deep cellars under a row of houses at the end of the Grande Place. Some of these houses dated back to the time of the Spanish occupation, so the cellars must have been very ancient. They were vaulted in stone and were connected together by passages, so they were not only quite safe from shells but were exceedingly interesting and picturesque. We had several services for the men and one for a field ambulance which made its home in the Deaf and Dumb Asylum. In a large room in the Asylum there was a good piano, so it enabled us to use the place at one time as a church and at another as a ballroom. There was a strange charm about dear old Arras which is quite indescribable. In spite of the ruined buildings and the damaged grass-grown streets, there was the haunting beauty of a quiet medievalism about the city. The narrow streets, the pleasant gardens hidden behind the houses, spoke of an age that had passed. Arras has been the centre of interest in many wars, and Julius Caesar made his headquarters there in B.C. 65. The river Scarpe has carried to the sea many memories of hostile hosts that have fought along its banks. To walk back from the dressing station in the small hours of the morning, when the moon was shining on the silent and half-ruined streets and squares, was a weird experience. Surely, if ghosts ever haunt the scenes of their earthly life, I must have had many unseen companions with me on such occasions. There were still two or three shops in the place where souvenirs and other small articles were sold to the men, and there were hoards of champagne and other wines in some of the cellars, but only a few of the inhabitants remained and they lived hidden lives in the underground retreats.
    Our Division, however, was soon moved from Etrun to Château d’Acq, where I arrived at four one morning after a visit to the trenches. I found my billet in an Armstrong hut. The people who had occupied the Château since we were there must have experienced an air raid, because extraordinary precautions had been taken to guard against bombs. I lit my lamp and found that [Page 251] the bed was surrounded on all sides by a wall composed of two thicknesses of sandbags. When I got down into it I felt as if I were in a grave. In the morning I got my batman to remove the fortification, as I thought there was no occasion to anticipate the sensations of being buried. However, at night I often heard German aeroplanes overhead, and it was a relief when their intermittent buzzing died off into the distance.
    We were now a long way from the front line, but by jumping lorries I was still able to go forward and visit the slums. On returning from such a visit one afternoon I suffered a great loss. The order had gone out some time before that all stray dogs were to be shot, and many poor little four-footed souls were sent into whatever happy land is reserved for the race which has been the earliest and best friend of man. I had kept a sharp lookout on Alberta, but I never dreamt that anyone would shoot her. However, that evening while I was getting ready to go off to Ecoivres, and Alberta was playing in front of my hut, the sergeant of the police, carried her off, unknown to me, and ordered a man to shoot her. When I came out from my hut, and whistled for my faithful friend, I was told that she had been condemned to death. I could hardly believe it; but to my dismay I found that it was only too true, and the poor little dog, who was known all over the Division and had paid many visits to the trenches, was not only shot but buried. Filled with righteous anger, I had the body disinterred and a proper grave dug for it in front of a high tree which stands on a hill at the back of the grounds. There, surrounded by stones, is the turf-covered mound, and on the tree is nailed a white board with this epitaph neatly painted in black:—

HERE LIES ALBERTA
of Albert
Shot April 24th, 1918.

The dog that by a cruel end
Now sleeps beneath this tree,
Was just the little dog and friend
God wanted her to be.

Alberta, much respected in life, was honoured in death, for nearly all the men at Headquarters were present when she was buried, and one of them told me that at a word from me they would lay out [Page 252] the police. I should have liked to have given the word, but I told them that we had a war on with the Germans, and that we had better not start another till it was finished. On the following day the board with the epitaph was placed in position in the presence of a Brigadier-General and our kind-hearted and sympathetic C.R.E. I was so filled with indignation at the loss of my companion, who, wherever I tied up Dandy, would always mount guard over him and allow no one to approach him, that I determined to seek a billet away from Headquarters, and near the front. However, this intention was frustrated a day or two later by an order which came through for our Division to go into rest at a place called Le Cauroy, not far from the town of Frevent, and about 15 kilometres to the southwest of Château d’Acq. [Page 253]