CHAPTER III.

ON SALISBURY PLAIN.

October 18th, 1914, to January 1st, 1915.



    ON Sunday the 18th, our men entrained and traveled to Patney, and from thence marched to Westdown South, Salisbury Plain. There tents had been prepared and we settled down to life in our new English home. At first the situation was very pleasant. Around us on all sides spread the lines of tents. The weather was delightful. A ride over the mysterious plain was something never to be forgotten. The little villages around were lovely and quaint. The old town of Salisbury, with its wonderful Cathedral and memories of old England, threw the glamour of romance and chivalry over the new soldiers in the new crusade. But winter drew on, and such a winter it was. The rains descended, the floods came and the storms beat upon our tents, and the tents which were old and thin allowed a fine sprinkling of moisture to fall upon our faces. The green sward was soon trampled into deep and clinging mud. There was nothing for the men to do. Ammunition was short, there was little rifle practice. The weather was so bad that a route march meant a lot of wet soldiers with nowhere to dry their clothes upon their return. In some places the mud went over my long rubber boots. The gales of heaven swept over the plain unimpeded. Tents were blown down. On one particularly gloomy night, I met a chaplain friend of mine in the big Y.M.C.A. marquee. I said to him, “For goodness sake let us do something for the men. Let us have a sing-song.” He agreed, and we stood in the middle of the marquee with our backs to the pole and began to sing a hymn. I do not know what it was. I started the air and was going on so beautifully that the men were beginning to be attracted and were coming around us. Suddenly my friend struck in with a high tenor note. Hardly had the sound gone forth when, like the fall of the walls of Jericho at the sound of Joshua’s trumpets, a mighty gale struck the building, and with a ripping sound the whole thing collapsed. In the rain and darkness we rushed to the assistance of the attendants and extinguished the lamps, which had been upset, while the men made their way to the counters and put the cigarettes and other dainties into their pockets, lest they should get wet. On [Page 30] another occasion, the Paymaster’s tent blew away as he was paying off the battalion. Five shilling notes flew over the plain like white birds over the sea. The men quickly chased them and gathered them up, and on finding them stained with mud thought it unnecessary to return them. On another night the huge marquee where Harrod’s ran the mess for a large number of officers, blew down just as we were going to dinner, and we had to forage in the various canteens for tinned salmon and packages of biscuits.
    Still, in spite of all, the spirits of our men never failed. One night when a heavy rain had turned every hollow into a lake, and every gully into a rushing cataract, I went down to some tents on a lower level than my own. I waded through water nearly a foot deep and came to a tent from which I saw a faint light emerging. I looked inside and there with their backs to the pole stood some stalwart young Canadians. On an island in the tent, was a pile of blankets, on which burnt a solitary candle. “Hello, boys, how are you getting on?” “Fine, Sir, fine,” was their ready response. “Well, boys, keep that spirit up,” I said, “and we’ll win the war.”

    At first we had no “wet” canteen where beer could be procured. The inns in the villages around became sources of great attraction to the men, and the publicans did their best to make what they could out of the well-paid Canadian troops. The maintenance of discipline under such circumstances was difficult. We were a civilian army, and our men had come over to do a gigantic task. Everyone knew that, when the hour for performance came, they would be ready, but till that hour came they were intolerant of restraint.
    The English people did not understand us, and many of our men certainly gave them good reason to be doubtful. Rumour had it at one time that we were going to be taken out of the mud and quartered in Exeter. Then the rumour was that the Exeter people said, “If the Canadians are sent here, we’ll all leave the town.” I did not mind, I told the men I would make my billet in the Bishop’s Palace.
    The C.O. of one of the battalions was tempted to do what David did with such disastrous results, namely number the people. He called the roll of his battalion and found that four hundred and fifty men were absent without leave. But as I have said, we all knew that when the moment for big things came, every man would be at his post and would do his bit.
    Just before Christmas the 3rd Brigade were moved into huts at Lark Hill. They were certainly an improvement upon the tents, [Page 31] but they were draughty and leaky. From my window I could see, on the few occasions when the weather permitted it, the weird and ancient circles of Stonehenge.
    The calm repose of those huge stones, which had watched unmoved the passing of human epochs, brought peace to the mind. They called to memory the lines;—

“Our little systems have their day,
They have their day and cease to be:
They are but broken lights of Thee,
And Thou, O Lord, art more than they.”

    In order to give Christmas its religious significance, I asked permission of the Rector of Amesbury to use his church for a midnight Eucharist on Christmas Eve. He gladly gave his consent and notice of the service was sent round to the units of the Brigade. In the thick fog the men gathered and marched down the road to the village, where the church windows threw a soft light into the mist that hung over the ancient burial ground. The church inside was bright and beautiful. The old arches and pillars and the little side chapels told of days gone by, when the worship of the holy nuns, who had their convent there, rose up to God day by day. The altar was vested in white and the candles shone out bright and fair. The organist had kindly consented to play the Christmas hymns, in which the men joined heartily. It was a service never to be forgotten, and as I told the men, in the short address I gave them, never before perhaps, in the history of that venerable fane, had it witnessed a more striking assembly. From a distance of nearly seven thousand miles some of them had come, and this was to be our last Christmas before we entered the life and death struggle of the nations. Row after row of men knelt to receive the Bread of Life, and it was a rare privilege to administer it to them. The fog was heavier on our return and some of us had great difficulty in finding our lines.
    It seemed sometimes as if we had been forgotten by the War Office, but this was not the case. We had visits form the King, Lord Roberts and other high officials. All these were impressed with the physique and high spirits of our men.
    The conditions under which we lived were certainly atrocious, and an outbreak of meningitis cast a gloom over the camp. It was met bravely and skillfully by our medical men, of whose self-sacrifice and devotion no praise is too high. The same is true of their conduct all through the war. [Page 32]
    Our life on the Plain was certainly a puzzle to us. Why were we kept there? When were we going to leave? Were we not wanted in France? These were the questions we asked one another. I met an Imperial officer one day, who had just returned from the front. I asked him when we were going to train for the trenches. “Why” he said, “what better training could you have than you are getting here? If you can stand the life here, you can stand the life in France.” I think he was right. That strange experience was just what we needed to inure us to hardship, and it left a stamp of resolution and efficiency on the First Division which it never lost. [Page 33]