CHAPTER XXIX.

THE BEGINNING OF THE END.

July to August 7th, 1918.



    THE possession of a side-car gave me the opportunity of getting much further afield in my visits. Our 1st Divisional wing; where the new drafts were received and trained for the front line, was at this time back in a place called Loison, in the quiet and beautiful country between St. Pol and General Headquarters. I had done a great deal of parish visiting among our battalions in rest and given the story of my leave trip to Rome many times, so I though I would make an excursion to the Base. We had a delightful trip down the St. Pol road through little villages and towns which looked as they did in pre-war days. The country where the Divisional wing was stationed was very charming. It was well watered by many pretty rivers, and hills covered with trees gave diversity to the landscape. I told the men they were living in a land flowing with milk and honey. I stayed at the headquarters of the wing in a delightful old house on a hill surrounded with fine trees. Each Brigade had its own reserve, so there were many men in the village, and an old mill pond enabled me to have two or three good swims. In a Y.M.C.A. tent, courses of lectures in connection with the Khaki University were being given on various subjects. One evening, naturally I gave them a talk on our leave trip to Rome. On another, in a corner of the field, I gave them an informal lecture on English literature. Having got so far from home, I determined to go a little further, and so we made a trip to Boulogne, where my son who had been gassed was still a C.C.S., and that afternoon on our return we went to Montreuil to see what G.H.Q. looked like. I was told that Montreuil was a very picturesque old walled city, but that we should not be allowed to enter. However, I had been able to do so many forbidden things in the war that I though it would be worth trying, so the old Clino sped over the hard macadamized roads from Boulogne till we came to the valley on the opposite side of which the town is situated. We saw many cars coming and going, and many troops by the way, and finally we sped up the hill which leads to the entrance gate. A sentry was [Page 267] standing there, who saluted most properly, and we passed into the sacred city without molestation. It was a delightful old French town, full of historical interest. The narrow streets and quaint old buildings carried one back in thought to the days of chivalry and battles waged by knights in shining armour. We saw some of the churches, and then went to the officers’ club for tea. The waitresses at the club were English girls who had taken the place of the men needed at the front. I got them to provide for my friend Lyons in their sitting-room, and I went in to have tea with the officers. A great many were there sitting at small tables. It was interesting to see the badges of so many different regiments. Most of the officers had a good supply of ribbons, and a few of them had lost an eye or a limb, or bore other marks of wounds. I think that almost all of them were staff officers and that some of them were generals. It struck me that the atmosphere to a stranger was rather chilly. The demeanour of the people was much less free than that which we had been accustomed to at the front. Of course Montreuil held the brains of the army, and it was quite right that the directing intelligences there should feel the loftiness of their position. I made up two lines as I was having tea, which I thought hit off the mental attitude of some of the officers present, when they saw a stranger and looked him up and down through their monocles,

“I’m on the staff of the G.H.Q.,
And I’d like to know who the devil are you?”

There had been such a democratic upsetting of traditions and customs in the Service, owing to the obliteration of the original British Army, that it was quite refreshing to find that a remnant of Israel had been saved.
    I paid two visits to the Divisional wing within a few days of each other, and on one occasion, on a baking July day, addressed a battalion of draftees who were about to be sent up to the front. They were a fine looking lot of men and knew their drill. Poor boys, they little knew what was in store for them in those last hundred days of the war.
    Rumours were current now that the time for our great attack had come, so there were no more joy-rides for me to the pleasant fields and society of Loison. On my return on July 14th I found our Headquarters once again at Etrun, and our Division were [Page 268] holding their old trenches to the north and south of the Scarpe. Once more I had the pleasure of sleeping in Pudding trench and doing what I called “consolidating the line.” I did a good deal of parish visiting in the trenches at this time. I felt that big changes might occur at any moment, and I wanted to be with the men in any ordeal through which they might have to pass. Very strange scenes come before me as I look back upon those days before our great attack. One night I stayed with the gallant Colonel of the Canadian Scottish at Tilloy. His headquarters were in No Man’s Land, and the front trench ran in a semi-circle to the rear. The Colonel, having found a good German dug-out in the cellars of the ruined château, preferred to make his headquarters there. We did not know where the enemy’s front line was, and our men were doing outpost duty in shell-holes further forward. They had to be visited every two hours when it was dark, to see that all was well. That night I asked the Colonel if I might go out with the patrol. He demurred at first, and then gave his consent only on condition that I should take off my white collar, and promise not to make any jokes with the men on duty for fear they should laugh and give away our position. I made my promise and started with the patrol officer and his runner. It was a curious sensation wandering off in the darkness as silently as possible, tripping now and then on bits of wire and almost slipping into the trenches. We came to the different shell-holes and whispered conversations were held. The sentries seemed surprised when I spoke to them, as they could not recognize me in the darkness. I whispered that I had promised the Colonel not to tell any funny stories for fear they should laugh, so I merely gave them the benediction, in return for which spiritual function I got a very warm handshake. To do outpost duty in a place like that must have been more interesting than pleasant, for at all times the sentries had to keep straining their eyes in the darkness to see if a patrol of the enemy was coming to surprise them. On our return we saw some shells falling to the right in the shadowy desolation of what was called Bully-beef Wood.
    On another occasion, I was coming out near Feuchy along the railway triangle when the Germans dropped some gas shells in the cutting. Two of the men and I were talking together, and we had just time to dive into Battalion Headquarters and pull down the gas blankets. We put on our helmets, but not before we had got a dose of the poison. As I sat there with my throat burning, I was [Page 269] filled with alarm lest I should lose my voice and be unable in the future to recite my poems. It was hard enough, as it was, to keep my friends long enough to hear my verses, but I thought that if I had to spell them out in deaf-and-dumb language no one would ever have patience to wait till the end. However, after a few days my throat got better, and my friends were once again forced to lend me their ears.
    The railway triangle was a well-known place, and any men who may have lived in some of the dug-outs along the banks are not likely to forget it. In the valley there was a large artificial lake in which I had some of the most pleasant swims I have ever enjoyed, although the waters were sometimes stirred up by the advent of a shell.
    It was part of our strategy to let our men get the impression that we were going to stay in the trenches before Arras for a long time. We had several raiding parties with a view to finding out the position and strength of the enemy, and our C.C.S’s were well equipped and looked as if they were going to remain there forever. Our Corps Headquarters, too, were not far from Etrun, and the concentration of Canadians in the neighbourhood gave us the impression that we had found a more than temporary resting place. An American Chaplain was sent up to stay with me for a visit in order to see what conditions were like at the front. He was a Lutheran, although not of German extraction. I took him up to Arras one night, where we had dinner with the engineers, and afterwards saw the 10th Battalion start off for the trenches. He was much impressed with the spirit and appearance of the men. It was late when we got back to my quarters, and to my surprise on the next morning an order came through that the American Chaplain had to return immediately. Neither he nor I could understand it. I began to think he must have got into some scrape, as no explanation was given. The real reason came out afterwards.
    On August 1st our Division suddenly packed up and started once more for Le Cauroy. We knew now that big things were in store for us and that the Canadian Corps were going to attack. We heard rumours of the preparations the French and Americans had made in the South, and we felt that at last the Allies were going to get the initiative into their hands. Whither we were going, however, we did not know, but we all devoutly hoped that it would not be the Salient. The secret of our destination was kept most profoundly. We [Page 270] were told that everything depended upon our holding our tongues and exciting as little curiosity as possible among the inhabitants. Once again, as before Vimy, but to even a greater extent, we felt the electric thrill which kindles the imagination of an army going into battle. The rapid move which the Canadian Corps now made was the most sporting thing we ever did, and it appealed strongly to the hearts of young men who were keen on games and had been inured to a hardy life in Canada. Swiftly and secretly the battalions entrained at various points and left for parts unknown. I went in my side-car to the machine-gun headquarters at Liencourt, and on the next day to the Curé’s house at Le Cauroy. I found out from Headquarters that our Division was going south within a day or so, but that I was not to tell the men. The brigades were billeted in the neighboring villages, but were soon to move. I was only one day at Le Cauroy, and on the 3rd of August, after a rainy morning, started off in my sidecar for Hornoy, a little village not far from Amiens. We left Le Cauroy in the afternoon, and soon the sun came out making the freshly washed country more beautiful than ever. It was very interesting finding our way by the map, and as we neared our destination I met many friends in the other divisions who were stationed in the villages through which we passed. By the time we reached Hornoy, the sun had set. My billet was to be with the Curé. I went over to the neat white Presbytère which was approached by a large gate leading into the garden. The old man came to meet me at the door of his house, and put me through a lot of questions in what I thought was a needlessly gruff manner. I found out afterwards that he was very kind, and that his gruffness was only assumed. He gave me a room upstairs comfortably furnished, and invited me to come into his office whenever I pleased. The church, which could be entered from the garden, was in good order, and parts of it were very old. The day after we arrived at Hornoy was Sunday, August 4th. It was the fourth anniversary of our declaration of war, and I had hoped to hold a big service for the men. Unfortunately, we were all scattered and, as our hymn books did not turn up, having been confiscated as a reprisal by some of the crown and anchor men, my plans were frustrated. In the afternoon I went by sidecar to Amiens and found the city looking very different from its appearance on my last visit. The streets were absolutely deserted. Many of the houses had been damaged by [Page 271] shells. The Cathedral roof itself had been pierced in some places and the noble interior looked very dreary, the floor of the nave being covered with bits of broken stone and glass. It was sad to think that it might share the fate of Rheims. Some Canadians were wandering about the streets rather disconsolately. The empty city gave one a terrible sense of loneliness. On the following evening about midnight the 16th Battalion and the 3rd Battalion of Engineers passed through Hornoy in trains, going forward.
    Our own orders to move came two days later, on August 7th, and I left for St. Feuchien. I went off in my side-car to the quaint old village. It is situated on the top of a low hill, and consists of a few streets and some large buildings standing in their own grounds. One of these was the country home of the Archbishop of Amiens, and this was to be our billet. I entered the grounds by a broken-down gate and drew up in front of a large brick building, one wing of which was a chapel and kept locked up. In front of the building was a well full of empty tins and other refuse. The interior of the place had once been quite fine, but was now absolutely filthy, having been used as billets. The billiard tables, however, could still be used. The room assigned to me was on the ground floor at the back. The dirt on the floor was thick, and a sofa and two red plush chairs were covered with dust. A bed in the corner did not look inviting, and through the broken windows innumerable swarms of blue-bottle flies came from the rubbish heaps in the yard. The weather was very hot and there was apparently no water for washing. I made an inspection of the building upstairs, but all the rooms had been assigned to different officers. The Archbishop’s room was very large with a huge bed in it, but wore an air of soiled magnificence.
    Everybody was in a great rush and, although I did not know when our attack was to take place, I felt that it might happen at any moment; and so, not worrying about my billet, I started off in my sidecar to see General Thacker at Château Longeau. I found, as I passed through Boves and other villages, that the whole Canadian Corps was concentrated in the neighborhood. The dusty roads were crowded with lorries, tanks, whippets and limbers, besides numbers of men. When I got to Château Longeau I found, to my surprise, that the General had gone to Battle Headquarters in Gentelles Wood, and an officer whom I met on the road told me that zero hour was on the following morning. I determined therefore not to [Page 272] return to the archiepiscopal palace at St. Feuchien, but to go off to the attack. I returned to Boves, where, having washed and shaved, I had dinner in a damaged house with some officers of a light trench mortar battery, and after dinner started on my way to Gentelles Wood. It was a time of intense excitement. Less than a week ago we had been in the line at Arras, and now we were about to make our great attack at Amiens. The warm summer evening was well advanced when I reached our Battle Headquarters behind the wood. All the staff officers were so busy that to ask one a question was like putting a spark to a powder magazine, so I kept out of their way and journeyed up the road to the barrier beyond which no vehicle was allowed to pass. I said good-bye to Lyons and then started off to find the trenches from which the 16th Battalion was going to lead the charge. [Page 273]