CHAPTER XXXI.

WE RETURN TO ARRAS.

August, 1918.



    ON Friday the 16th of August our Division left Beaufort and moved back to billets at Le Quesnel. Here there was a good sized château which was at once used for office purposes. The General and his staff made their billets in a deep cave which was entered from the road. It was of considerable extent, lit by electric light, and rooms opened out on both sides of the central passage. I had one assigned to me, but as I did not feel well enough to stand the dampness I gave it to the clerks of the A.D.M.S., and made my home with the veterinary officer in the cellar of the school-house which stood beside the church. The latter, which had been used by the Germans as a C.C.S., was a modern building and of good proportions. The spire had been used as an observation–post. One or two shells had hit the building and the interior, though still intact, was in great disorder. The altar ornaments, vestments, and prayer books were thrown about in confusion. The school-house where I was lodged must have been also the Curé’s residence. A good-sized room downstairs served as a chapel for my Sunday services. The cellar, where the A.D.V.S. and I slept was quite comfortable, though by no means shell-proof. As the only alternative abode was the cave, he and I, deciding we would rather die of a shell than of rheumatism, chose the cellar. The Corps ambulances were all together in a valley not far away, and in trenches to the east, near the cemetery where the 8th Battalion officers and men had been buried, there were some reserves of the 3rd Brigade.
    Things were quiet now in the front line, so I determined to make a trip to Albert to see my son’s grave. It was a long and dusty journey and the roads were rough. We passed back through the district over which we had advanced, and saw everywhere gruesome traces of the fighting. When we came to Albert, however, we found it was still in the possession of the enemy. The Americans were holding the line, and an American sentry stopped us at a barrier in the road and said that no motor-cycles were allowed [Page 288] to go any further in that direction. It was strange to hear the American accent again, and I told the lad that we were Canadians. “Well”, he said, with a drawl, “that’s good enough for me.” We shook hands and had a short talk about the peaceful continent that lay across the ocean. There was nothing for us to do then but to return.
    On the following Sunday, the Germans having evacuated Albert a day and a half before, I once more paid a visit to the old town. I left my side-car on the outskirts of the place and was taken by Mr. Bean, the Australian War Correspondent, into his car. He was going up to take some photographs. The day was intensely hot, and the dust of the now ruined town was literally ankle-deep and so finely powdered that it splattered when one walked as though it had been water. I saw the ruins of the school-house which our ambulances had used, and noticed that the image of the Virgin had been knocked down from the tower of the Cathedral. I passed the house where our Headquarters had been. The building was still standing but the front wall had gone, leaving the interior exposed. I made my way up the Bapaume road to Tara Hill, and there to my great delight I found the little cemetery still intact. Shells had fallen in it and some of the crosses had been broken, but the place had been wonderfully preserved. A battery on one side of it had just ceased firing and was to advance on the following day. While I was putting up some of the crosses that had fallen, Mr. Bean came up in his car and kindly took a photograph of my son’s grave. He also took a photograph of the large Australian cross which stands at one corner of the cemetery. Tara Hill had been for six months between the German front and reserve lines, and I never expected that any trace of the cemetery would have been found. I shall probably never see the place again, but it stands out in my memory now as clear and distinct as though once more I stood above the dusty road and saw before me the rows of little crosses, and behind them the waste land battered by war and burnt beneath the hot August sun. Over that very ground my son and I had ridden together, and within a stone’s throw from it two years before we had said good-bye to one another for the last time.
    Our Division had now come out of the line and were hurrying north. On August 26th Lyons and I started off in the car, and after a tedious and dusty journey, enlivened by several break-downs, [Page 289] arrived in Arras very late at night and found a billet with the Engineers in the Place de la Croix. Once more our men were scattered about the old city and its environs as if we had never left it. Our Battle Headquarters were in the forward area and rear Headquarters in a large house in Rue du Pasteur. It was a picturesque abode. The building itself was modern, but it was erected on what had been an old Augustinian Monastery of the 11th century. Underneath the house there was a large vaulted hall with pillars in it which reminded one of the cloisters of Westminster Abbey. It was below the level of the ground and was lit by narrow windows opening on the street. It was a most interesting place and had been decorated with heraldic designs painted on canvas shields by a British Division that had once made its headquarters there. We used the hall as our mess and from it passages led to several vault-like chambers and to cellars at the back, one of which was my bedroom. A flight of steps led down to stone chambers below these and then down a long sloping passage to a broken wall which barred the entrance into the mysterious caves beneath the city. The exhalations which came up to my bedroom from these subterranean passages were not as fresh or wholesome as one could have wished, but, as it was a choice between foul air and running the chance of being shelled, I naturally chose the former.
    We moved into this billet in the evening, and early the following morning I was lying awake, thinking of all the strange places I had lived in during the war, when close by I heard a fearful crash. I waited for a moment, and then, hearing the sound of voices calling for help, I rushed up in my pyjamas and found that a huge shell had struck a house three doors away, crushing it in and killing and wounding some of our Headquarters staff. Though Arras was then continually being shelled, some of the inhabitants remained. Opposite our house was a convent, and in cellars below the ground several nuns lived all through the war. They absolutely refused to leave their home in spite of the fact that the upper part of the building had been ruined by shells. Our nearness to the railway station, which was a favourite target for the German guns, made our home always a precarious one.
    One day the Paymaster was going into our Headquarters, when a shell burst in the Square and some fragments landed in our street taking off the fingers of his right hand. I was away at the time, but when I returned in the evening the signallers showed me [Page 290] a lonely forefinger resting on a window sill. They had reverently preserved it, as it was the finger which used to count out five-franc notes to them when they were going on leave.
    Our Corps dressing-station was in the big Asylum in Arras. The nuns still occupied part of the building. The Mother Superior was a fine old lady, intensely loyal to France and very kind to all of us. When the Germans occupied Arras in the beginning of the war, the Crown Prince paid an official visit to the Asylum, and, when leaving, congratulated the Mother Superior on her management of the institution. She took his praises with becoming dignity, but when he held out his hand to her she excused herself from taking it and put hers behind her back.
    The dressing-station was excellently run and the system carried out was perfect. The wounded were brought in, attended to, and sent off to the C.C.S. with the least possible delay. The dead were buried in the large military cemetery near the Dainville road where rest the bodies of many noble comrades, both British and Canadian. A ward was set apart for wounded Germans and it was looked after by their own doctors and orderlies.
    Meanwhile our Division was preparing for the great attack upon the Drocourt-Quéant line. The 2nd Division were in the trenches and had taken Monchy. We were to relieve them and push on to the Canal du Nord and, if possible, beyond it. Movements were now very rapid. All the staff were kept intensely busy. The old days of St. Jans Cappel and Ploegsteert, with their quiet country life, seemed very far away. This was real war, and we were advancing daily. We heard too of the victories of the French and Americans to the South. It was glorious to think that after the bitter experience of the previous March the tables had been turned, and we had got the initiative once more. Our Battle Headquarters, where the General and his staff were, lay beyond Neuville Vitasse. They were in a deep, wide trench, on each side of which were dugouts and little huts well sandbagged. Over the top was spread a quantity of camouflage netting, so that the place was invisible to German aeroplanes. The country round about was cut up by trenches, and in many of these our battalions were stationed. All the villages in the neighbourhood were hopeless ruins. I tried to get a billet in the forward area, as Arras was so far back, but every available place was crowded and it was so difficult to get up rations that nobody was anxious to have me. [Page 291]