CHAPTER XXXIII.

PREPARING FOR THE FINAL BLOW.

September, 1918.



    OUR Divisional Headquarters were now established in the delightful old château at Warlus. In Nisson huts near-by, were the machine-gun battalion and the signallers, and, as I had one end of a Nisson hut all to myself, I was very comfortable. The three infantry brigades were quartered in the villages round about. The engineers and artillery were still at the front. As usual our men soon cleaned themselves up and settled down to ordinary life, as if they had never been through a battle in their lives. The weather was very pleasant, and we were all glad at the prospect of a little quiet after the strenuous month through which we had passed. Our concert party at once opened up one of the large huts as a theatre, and night after night their performances were witnessed by crowded and enthusiastic audiences. Just across a field towards Bernaville the 15th Battalion was quartered in a long line of huts and in the village itself were the 14th and 16th Battalions. I was therefore quite near the men of my old 3rd Brigade. The 16th Battalion concert party gave a fine performance there one evening, which was attended by some Canadian Sisters who came up from one of our C.C.S’s. The play was called, “A Little Bit of Shamrock,” and was composed by members of the concert party. It was exceedingly pretty and very clever, and evoked thunders of applause. The Colonel was called upon for a speech, and, although his words were few, the rousing cheers he got from his men told him what they thought of their commanding officer, who soon afterwards was to be awarded the Victoria Cross. As one sat there in the midst of the men and thought of what they had gone through, and how the flames in the fiery furnace of war had left their cheery souls unscathed, one’s heart was filled with an admiration for them which will never die.
    On looking over my diary during those delightful days while we were waiting to make the great attack, I see records of many journeys to our various battalions and artillery brigades. Wanquetin, Wailly, Dainville, Bernaville, Hautes Avesnes—what memories [Page 298] these names recall! I would rattle over the dusty roads in my side-car and pull up at Battalion Headquarters and get an invitation to dinner. On such occasions I used to visit the cooks first and ask them if they had enough food on hand for me in case the officers invited me to dine with them, and in case they didn’t, if they (the cooks) would feed me later on in the kitchen. When the invitation had been given, I used to go back to the cooks and say, “It’s all right, boys, you won’t be bothered with my society, the officers have asked me to dinner.” In the evening, before I rode off, I used to go round to the men’s billets, or to the Y.M.C.A. tent, if there was one, and have a talk with the men on the war outlook or any other topic that was perplexing them at the time. Often I was followed to my car by some man who had deeper matters to discuss, or perhaps some worry about things at home, and who wanted to unburden himself to a chaplain. On the way back, when darkness had fallen and my feeble headlight warned us against speeding, I would meet or overtake men and have a talk, or tell them to mount up on the box at the back of the car and I would give them a ride. The rows of tall trees along the road would stand out black against the starlit sky, and in the evening air the sweet smells of nature would fill us with delight. We felt too, that nearer and nearer the hour of the great victory was approaching. Who amongst us would be spared to see it? How would it be brought about? What great and fierce battle would lay the Germans low? The supreme idea in the mind was consecration to a sublime sacrifice, which dwarfed into insignificance all previous events in life. We had our fun, we had our jokes, we met our friends, we saw battalions go on a route march, we watched men play their games in the fields; but to me it seemed that a new and mysterious light that was born of heaven hid behind the sunshine, and cast a glory upon men and even nature. To dine at the rude board table with the young officers of one of the companies of a battalion, perhaps in a bare hut, on the floor of which lay the lads’ beds, was something sacred and sacramental. Their apologies for the plainness of the repast were to me extremely pathetic. Was there a table in the whole world at which it was a greater honour to sit? Where could one find a nobler, knightlier body of young men?
    In the garden round the Château at Warlus were many winding paths, where old trees gave a delightful shade. Here at odd moments [Page 299] one could get away for a time into the leafy solitude and think quietly and wonder. Although we were in rest there was of course no remission of warlike activity and preparation. We knew that the next thing that lay before us was the crossing of the Canal du Nord and the push to Cambrai. That was a deed which would not only tax our strength and courage, but depended for its success upon the care and diligence of our preparation.
    On the two Sundays that we were at Warlus I had splendid church parades with the Machine-Gun Battalion. Part of their billets were in huts beside the road to Dainville. In one of them one night I found some Imperial officers who were in charge of the wireless telegraph station. They told me some interesting facts about their work. The night was divided into different periods when the communiques of the various countries would be sent out. These, of course, were for all the world to read. The most wonderful thing they told me, however, was that they could pick up the code messages sent from the German Admiralty Headquarters at Kiel to their submarines under the sea. Of course not knowing the code, our officers could not translate these despatches.
    I received a great blow at this time, for my friend Lyons, who acted as the chauffeur of my side-car, was sent off to the 3rd Division to replace one of the despatch riders whom they had lost in the attack. Our own signallers could not give me another man. As I could not run the car myself, a sudden move might compel me to leave it behind. Someone, too, might appropriate it, for the honesty of the army was, as I knew from experience, a grace on which one could not place much reliance. The only person to whom I could apply was my good and kind friend, the builder of my churches and huts, Colonel Macphail, our C.R.E. He was always my refuge in distress. He looked upon the building of churches at the front as an act of such piety that it would guarantee to him at any time the certain admission into heaven. He attributed his piety to the claim which his clan made to be the descendants of St. Paul. Apparently in Gaelic, Macphail means “the son of Paul.” The Colonel was always fond of insisting upon his high lineage. He came to see me once when I was ill at Bruay, and after stating the historical claims of his ancestors, asked me if I had not observed some traits in his character which were like those of St. Paul. I told him that the only resemblance to the Apostle which I had discovered in him [Page 300] was that his bodily presence was weak and his speech contemptible. In spite of those unkind thrusts, however, the colonel manifested the Apostle’s quality of forgiveness, and was always ready to try and make me comfortable. I wrote to him now and asked if he could send me a driver for my car. He did not fail me. A few days afterwards, a young sapper appeared, saluted most properly, and told me that he had been ordered by the C.R.E. to report to me for duty as chauffeur. I was so delighted that I at once despatched the following letter to my friend:-

“Dear Colonel Macphail,
If I had but a tail
    I would wag it this morning with joy,
At your having provided
My car that’s one-sided
    With a good and intelligent boy.

May your blessings from heaven
    Abound in this war,
And be seven times seven
    More than ever before.”

    The possession of a new driver for my car enabled me to pay a last visit to Le Cauroy, where I had left some of my possessions on our trip to Amiens. I found the Curé in high good humor over the way the war was going. The outlook was very different now from what it had been when I was there before. I also visited Arras and the forward area, where I dined one night in a tent with Major Price, who was then in command of my original battalion, the 14th. The men were billeted in trenches and as usual were making the best of things. It was strange to look back to the early days of the war and talk about old times. As I returned in the twilight and gazed far away over the waste land towards the bank of low clouds in the eastern sky, my heart grew sick at the thought of all which those fine young men might have to endure before the crowning victory came. The thought of the near presence of the Angel of Death was always coming up in the mind, changing and transfiguring into something nobler and better our earthly converse.
    In the war, the Bible statement, “We have here no continuing city,” was certainly true. Our happy life in Warlus and its neighbourhood [Page 301] came to an end. On Friday, September 20th, the Division moved to Achicourt near Arras. I took the opportunity to visit some friends in the 3rd Division who were taking our places. Among them was “Charlie” Stewart, of the P.P.C.L.I. I had taught him as a boy at school when I was curate of St. John’s, Montreal. We talked over old times, and the great changes that had taken place in Canada and the world since we were young. He was killed not long afterwards before Cambrai. I went on through Dainville, where I met the 42nd Battalion, and reached Achicourt in the evening. My billet was in a very dirty room over a little shop. One corner of the house had been hit by a shell, and a great store of possessions belonging to the people was piled up on one side of my room. We knew we were not going to be there long, so we did not worry about making ourselves comfortable. I had a view out of my window of green fields and a peaceful country, but the town itself had been badly knocked about.
    On Sunday morning, I got the use of a small Protestant church which stood by a stream in the middle of the town. It was a quaint place, and, instead of an altar, against the east wall there was a high pulpit entered by steps on both sides. When I stood up in it I felt like a jack-in-the-box. I had a queer feeling that I was getting to the end of things, and a note in my prayer-book, with the place and date, gives evidence of this. We had not many communicants, but that was the last Celebration of Holy Communion that I held in France. On the following Sunday I was to leave the war for good. I remember walking away from the church that day with my sergeant and talking over the different places where we had held services. Now we were on the eve of great events, and the old war days had gone forever. After the service, I started off in my side-car on a missionary journey to the battalions that had now gone forward. I went off up the road to the ruined town of Beaurains. Here I found the Headquarters of the 16th Battalion in the cellar of a broken house. The officers’ mess was a little shack by the roadside, and among those present was the second-in-command, Major Bell-Irving, who had crossed with me on the “Andania.” Alas, this was the last time I was to see him. He was killed in the battle of Cambrai.
    After lunch I continued up the long pavé road which leads to Croiselles. On the way I saw the 8th Battalion in an open field. Near them were a number of Imperial officers and men of the [Page 302] British Division which was on our right. We made our way through Bullecourt to Hendecourt, near which in trenches were the battalions of the 1st Brigade, and there too Colonel Macphail had his headquarters. There was a great concentration of men in this area, and the roads were crowded with lorries and limbers as well as troops. I stayed that night with the engineers, as the weather looked threatening. The sky grew black and rain began to fall. When one stood in the open and looked all round at the inky darkness everywhere, with the rain pelting down, and knew that our men had to carry on as usual, one realized the bitterness of the cup which they had to drink to the very dregs. Rain and darkness all round them, hardly a moment’s respite from some irksome task, the ache in the heart for home and the loved ones there, the iron discipline of the war-machine of which they formed a part, the chance of wounds and that mysterious crisis called death—these were the elements which made up the blurred vision in their souls.
    The next morning the weather had cleared, and I went on towards Cagnicourt. On the journey I was delayed by a lorry which had gone into the ditch and completely blocked the road. Here in a field the 1st Field Ambulance had established themselves. Later on I managed to get to Cagnicourt and found my son’s battery in the cellars of the Château. They were getting their guns forward by night in preparation for the attack. They gave me a very pressing invitation to sleep there and I accepted it. We had a pleasant evening, listening to some remarkably good violin records on the gramophone. Good music at such times had a special charm about it. It reminded one of the old days of concerts and entertainments, but, at the same time, as in the background of a dream, one seemed to hear beneath the melodies the tramp of mighty battalions marching forward into battle, and the struggles of strong men in the fierce contests of war.
    On the following day I went on to the quarry which was to be our Battle Headquarters near Inchy Station, from which the 2nd Division were moving. I had a view of the smiling country over which we were to charge. Between us and that promised land lay the Canal, the crossing of which was necessarily a matter of great anxiety. It was late at night before I got back to my home at Achicourt, where I had my last war dinner with my friend General Thacker, who, with his staff, was up to his eyes in work. The [Page 303] next day was taken up with arranging for the disposition of our chaplains during the engagement, and about six o’clock I told Ross to saddle Dandy, and on the dear old horse, who was fresh and lively as ever, I galloped off into the fields. The sun had set and the fresh air of the evening was like a draught of champagne. Dandy seemed to enjoy the ride as much as I did, and cleared some trenches in good style. For nearly three years and a half we had been companions. He had always been full of life and very willing, the envy of those who knew a good horse when they saw him. When I returned in the twilight and gave him back to Ross, I said, “You know, Ross, I am going into this battle and may lose my leg in it, and so I wanted to have my last ride on dear old Dandy.” It was my last ride on him, and he was never ridden by anyone again. After I was wounded, he was kept at Headquarters until, in order to avoid his being sold with other horses to the Belgians, our kind A.D.V.S. ordered him to be shot. He was one of the best friends I had in the war, and I am glad he entered the horses’ heaven as a soldier, without the humiliation of a purgatory in some civilian drudgery.
    That night some bombs were dropped near the station at Arras on units of the 3rd Division, which passed through Achicourt in the afternoon, causing many casualties, and we felt that the Germans knew another attack was at hand. It was the last night I had a billet in France. On the next morning we moved forward to some trenches on the way to Inchy, and I parted from Headquarters there. This was really the most primitive home that the Division had ever had. We had in fact no home at all. We found our stuff dumped out in a field, and had to hunt for our possessions in the general pile. A few tents were pitched and the clerks got to work. In a wide trench little shacks were being run up, and I was to be quartered in the same hut as the field cashier, which was thus to be a kind of union temple for the service of God and the service of Mammon. I looked down into the clay pit and saw the men working at my home, but I knew that I should probably not occupy it. I determined to go forward to our Battle Headquarters, prepared for a missionary journey, and find out when the attack was going to be made. I put into my pack some bully-beef, hard-tack, tinned milk and other forms of nourishment, as well as a razor, a towel and various toilet necessaries. On the other side of the road, the signallers had their horse-lines, and our [Page 304] transports were near-by. I got my side-car and, bidding good-bye to my friends, left for Inchy. We passed down the road to Quéant, where we saw the wounded in the field ambulance, and from there started off through Pronville to Inchy Station. The roads as usual were crowded, and the dust from passing lorries was very unpleasant. We were going through the valley by Inchy Copse when we suddenly heard a loud crash behind us which made my driver stop. I asked him what he was about, and said, “That was one of our guns, there is nothing to be alarmed at.” “Guns!” he said, “I know the sound of a shell when I hear it. You may like shells but I don’t. I’m going back.” I said, “You go ahead, if I had a revolver with me, I would shoot you for desertion from the front line. That was only one of our guns.” He looked round and said, “You call that a gun? Look there.” I turned and sure enough, about a hundred feet away in the middle of the road was the smoke of an exploded shell. “Well,” I said, “you had better go on or there will be another one pretty soon, and it may get us.” With extraordinary speed we hurried to our destination, where I left the car, taking my pack with me. I told the driver, much to his relief, that he could go home, and that when I wanted the car again I would send for it.
    The quarry was, as I have said, our Battle Headquarters, and here in the deep dugouts which I had visited previously I found our staff hard at work. They told me that this was “Y” day, and that zero hour when the barrage would start was at 5.20 the next morning. At that hour we were to cross the Canal and then press on into the country beyond. We had a two battalion front. The 4th and 14th Battalions were to make the attack, and be followed up by the other battalions in the 1st and 3rd Brigades. When these had reached their objective the 2nd Brigade was to “leap frog” them and push on to Haynecourt and beyond. I was glad that I had come provided for the expedition, and bidding good-bye to General Thacker, whose parting injunction was not to do anything foolish, I got out of the quarry and made my way down the hill towards Inchy. A railway bridge which crossed the road near me was a constant mark for German shells, and it was well to avoid it. An officer met me and asked where I was going. I said, “I don’t know, but I think the Spirit is leading me to the old 14th Battalion in Buissy Switch Trench.” He told me the direction to take, which was to cross the road and follow the line of railway. The tins of [Page 305] milk and bully-beef cut into my back so I stopped by a culvert and taking off my pack and tunic, sat on the ground and cooled off. There was no sign of Buissy Switch anywhere, but I got up and went on. The evening was closing in by this time, and, as I am never good at seeing in the dark, it began to be difficult to keep from tripping over things. At last the road brought me to a trench in which I found the 14th Battalion. They were getting ready to move off at midnight and wait in the wood by the edge of the Canal until the barrage opened. It made one proud to be with those young men that evening and think what they were called upon to do. What difficulties they would encounter in the Canal they did not know. They said they might have to swim. We hoped, however, that there was not much water, as the canal was still unfinished.
    I said good-bye to them and wished them all good-luck. Crossing the road I entered another trench, where I found the 13th Battalion, and beyond them came to the 1st Battalion. By this time, it was dark and rainy, and the ground was very slippery. I had to feel my way along the trench. A company of the 4th Battalion who were to be in the first wave of the attack, passed on their way forward to take up their position for the following morning. Probably never in the war had we experienced a moment of deeper anxiety. The men would have to climb down one side of the canal, rush across it, and climb up the other. It seemed inevitable that the slaughter would be frightful. At home in the cities of Canada things were going on as usual. Profiteers were heaping up their piles of gold. Politicians were carrying on the government, or working in opposition, in the interests of their parties, while here, in mud and rain, weary and drenched to the skin, young Canadians were waiting to go through the valley of the shadow of death in order that Canada might live. [Page 306]