CHAPTER XXXIV.

THE CROSSING OF THE CANAL DU NORD.

September 27th, 1918.



    WHEN I got to the sunken road above Inchy I found that No. 1 Company of the Machine-Gun Battalion had a little sandbag house there, and were waiting for the attack. I went in and the young officers and men made me at home at once. I divested myself of my pack, coat and steel helmet, and determined to settle down for the night. Suddenly a shell burst in the road, and I went out to see if anyone was hit. Two or three men were wounded but not severely. We got them in and the young O.C. of the company bound up their wounds and sent them off. There was a row of these sandbag huts against the bank, and at one end of them was the entrance to a dugout in which the 1st Battalion and the General of the 1st Brigade had made their headquarters. I went down the steep steps into a long dark passage, lit here and there by the light which came from the rooms on either side. The whole place was crowded with men and the atmosphere was more than usually thick. I made my way down to the end where there was a pump which had been put there by the Germans. Here the men were filling their water-bottles, and I got a fresh supply for mine. Not far from the pump a few steps led down into a room where I found the C.O. and a number of the officers of the 1st Battalion. It was about two a.m., and they were having a breakfast of tea and bacon and invited me to join them. After the meal was finished, the Colonel, who was lying on a rough bed, said to me, “Sit down, Canon, and give us some of you nature poems to take our minds off this beastly business.” It was very seldom that I was invited to recite my own poems, so such an opportunity could not be lost. I sat down on the steps and repeated a poem which I wrote among the Laurentian mountains, in the happy days before we ever thought of war. It is called, “The Unnamed Lake.”

“It sleeps among the thousand hills
    Where no man ever trod,
And only nature’s music fills
    The silences of God. [Page 307]

Great mountains tower above its shore,
    Green rushes fringe its brim,
And o’er its breast for evermore
    The wanton breezes skim.

Dark clouds that intercept the sun
    Go there in Spring to weep,
And there, when Autumn days are done,
    White mists lie down to sleep.

Sunrise and sunset crown with gold
    The peaks of ageless stone,
Where winds have thundered from of old
    And storms have set their throne.

No echoes of the world afar
    Disturb it night or day,
But sun and shadow, moon and star
    Pass and repass for aye.

’Twas in the grey of early dawn,
    When first the lake we spied,
And fragments of a cloud were drawn
    Half down the mountain side.

Along the shore a heron flew,
    And from a speck on high,
That hovered in the deepening blue,
    We heard the fish-hawk’s cry.

Among the cloud-capt solitudes,
    No sound the silence broke,
Save when, in whispers down the woods,
    The guardian mountains spoke.

Through tangled brush and dewy brake,
    Returning whence we came,
We passed in silence, and the lake
    We left without a name.”

There is not much in the poem, but, like a gramophone record, it carried our minds away into another world. For myself, who remembered the scenery that surrounded me when I wrote it and who now, in the filthy hole, looked at the faces of young men who in two or three hours were to brave death in one of the biggest tasks that had been laid upon us, the words stirred up all sorts of conflicting emotions. The recitation seemed to be so well received that I ventured on another—in fact several more—and then I noticed a curious thing. It was the preternatural silence of my audience. Generally speaking, when I recited my poems, one of the officers would suddenly remember he had to dictate a letter, or a despatch rider would come in with orders. Now, no one stirred. I paused in the middle of a poem and looked round to see what was the [Page 308] matter, and there to my astonishment, I found that everyone, except the young Intelligence Officer, was sound asleep. It was the best thing that could have happened and I secretly consoled myself with the reflection that the one who was unable to sleep was the officer who specialized in intelligence. We both laughed quietly, and then I whispered to him, “We had better go and find some place where we, too, can get a little rest.” He climbed over the prostrate forms and followed me down the passage to a little excavation where the Germans had started to make a new passage. We lay down side by side on the wooden floor, and I was just beginning to succumb to the soothing influences of my own poetry, when I thought I felt little things crawling over my face. It was too much for me. I got up and said, “I think I am getting crummy, so I’m going off.” I looked in on the General and the Brigade Major, and then climbed up the steps and went to the machine-gun hut.
    The night was now well advanced so it was time to shave and get ready for zero hour. A little after five we had some breakfast, and about a quarter past I went up to the top of the bank above the road and waited for the barrage. At 5.20 the savage roar burst forth. It was a stupendous attack. Field guns, heavy guns, and siege batteries sent forth their fury, and machine-guns poured millions of rounds into the country beyond the Canal. So many things were flying about and landing near us, that we went back under cover till the first burst of the storm should subside. At that moment I knew our men were crossing the huge ditch, and I prayed that God would give them victory. When the barrage had lifted I started down towards the Canal, passing through a field on my way where I found, lying about, dead and wounded men. Four or five were in a straight line, one behind another, where a German machine-gun must have caught them as they advanced. A young officer of the 2nd Battalion was dying from wounds. Two or three decorations on his breast told his past record in the war. While I was attending to the sufferers, a sergeant came up to me from the direction of the Canal and asked the way to the dressing station. He had a frightful wound in his face. A bit of a shell had dug into his cheek, carrying off his nose. He did not know at the time how badly he had been hit. I asked him if he wanted me to walk back with him, but he said he was all right as the dressing station was not far off. I often wondered what became of him, and I never heard till the following year when a man came up to me in [Page 309] the military hospital at St. Anne’s, with a new nose growing comfortably on his face and his cheek marked with a scar that was not unsightly. “The last time I met you, Sir,” he said, “was near the Canal du Nord when you showed me the way to the dressing station.” I was indeed glad to find him alive and well, and to see what surgical science had done to restore his beauty.
    I went on to the Canal, and found that at that point it was quite dry. I climbed down to the bottom of it in which men were walking and the sappers were at work. Some ladders enabled me to get up on the other side and I had the joy of feeling that the Canadians had crossed the great Canal du Nord. Our battalions were now moving up and I joined them, avoiding a part of a field which the men told me was under the fire of a machine-gun from the mill in Marquion. The country was open and green. The day was fine, and once more we experienced the satisfaction of taking possession of the enemy’s territory. Before us the ground rose in a gradual slope, and we did not know what might meet us when we arrived at the top, but it was delightful to go with the men feeling that every step was a gain. When we got to the top of the rise, we had a splendid view of the country beyond. Before us, in the distance running from right to left, lay the straight Arras-Cambrai road with its rows of tall trees. Where we stood, there were a number of deserted German trenches. Here the M.O. of the 3rd Battalion opened up an aid post, and the chaplain went about looking for the wounded. Our men went on down into the valley and got into some forward trenches. I stayed on the hill looking at the wonderful scene through my German glasses. On the left in a quarry beside the village of Marquion, I saw two Germans manning a machine-gun. Our 3rd Brigade had taken the place, and some Highlanders were walking on the edge of the quarry just above the Huns, of whose presence they were unaware. I saw the enemy suddenly hide themselves, having noticed the approach of the Highlanders, but when the latter had passed the two Boches reappeared and went on firing as before. It was not long before the German artillery turned their guns on our hill and I told some men of the 2nd Brigade, who were now coming forward, to take cover in the trench or go in extended order. I had hardly uttered the words when a shell burst, killing one man and wounding in the thigh the one to whom I was talking. I went over to him and found that no artery had been cut, and the chaplain of the 3rd Battalion [Page 310] got him carried off. Down in the valley our advance had evidently been checked for a time. While I was trying to see what the trouble was, a young officer, called Cope, of the 8th Battalion came up to me. He was a splendid young fellow, and looked so fresh and clean. He had lost a brother in the Battalion in the early part of the war, I said, “How old are you, Cope?” He replied, “I am twenty.” I said, “What a glorious thing it is to be out here at twenty.” “Yes,” he said, looking towards the valley, “it is a glorious thing to be out here at twenty, but I should like to know what is holding them up.” He had hardly spoken when there was a sharp crack of a machine-gun bullet and he dropped at my side. The bullet had pierced his steel helmet and entered his brain. He never recovered consciousness, and died on the way to the aid post.
    The 2nd Brigade was now moving forward, so I went down the hill past a dugout which had been used as a German dressing station. There I secured a bottle of morphine tablets, and spoke to our wounded waiting to be carried off. Just before I reached the Arras-Cambrai road, I came to the trench where the C.O. of the 3rd Battalion had established himself. The chaplain and I were talking when an officer of the 2nd Battalion came back with a bad wound in the throat. He could not speak, but made signs that he wanted to write a message. We got him some paper and he wrote, “The situation on our right is very bad.” The 4th Division were on our right, and they had been tied up in Bourlon Wood. So now our advancing 2nd Brigade had their right flank in the air. As a matter of fact their left flank was also exposed, because the British Division there had also been checked in their advance. I crossed the road into the field, where I found the 5th and 10th Battalions resting for a moment before going on to their objective. In front of us, looking very peaceful among its trees, was the village of Haynecourt which the 5th Battalion had to take. The 10th Battalion was to pass it on the left and go still further forward. We all started off, and as we were nearing the village I looked over to the fields on the right, and there, to my dismay, I saw in the distance numbers of little figures in grey which I knew must be Germans. I pointed them out to a sergeant, but he said he thought they were French troops who were in the line with us. The 5th Battalion went though Haynecourt and found the village absolutely deserted and the houses stripped of everything that might be of any value. Their C.O. made his headquarters in a trench to [Page 311] the north of the village, and the 10th disappeared going forward to the Douai-Cambrai road.
    It was now quite late in the afternoon. The sun was setting, and I feared that if I did not go back in time I might find myself stuck out there for the night without any food or cover. I though it was wise therefore to go to Deligny’s Mill, where I understood the machine-gunners were established. In the road at the entrance of Haynecourt, I found a young German wounded in the foot and very sorry for himself. I think he was asking me to carry him, but I saw he could walk and so showed him the direction in which to make his way back to our aid posts. I was just going back over the fields when I met a company of our light trench mortar batteries. The men halted for a rest and sat down by the road, and an officer came and said to me, “Come and cheer up the men, Canon, they have dragged two guns eight kilometers in the dust and heat and they are all fed up.” I went over to them, and, luckily having a tin of fifty cigarettes in my pocket, managed to make them go round. I asked the O.C. if he would like me to spend the night with them. He said he would, so I determined not to go back. Some of the men asked me if I knew where they could get water. I told them they might get some in the village, so off we stared. It makes a curious feeling go through one to enter a place which has just been evacuated by the enemy. In the evening light, the little brick village looked quite ghostly with its silent streets and empty houses. We turned into a large farmyard, at the end of which we saw a well with a pump. One of the men went down into the cellar of the house hunting for souvenirs, and soon returned with a German who had been hiding there. We were just about to fill our water-bottles, when I suggested that perhaps the well had been poisoned. I asked the German, “Gutt wasser?” “Ja, ja,” Then I said, “Gutt drinken?” “Nein, nein,” he replied, shaking his head. “Well, Sir,” the men said, “we are going to drink it anyway.” “But if the well is poisoned,” I replied, “it won’t do you much good.” “How can you find out?” they said. A brilliant idea flashed upon me. “I tell you what, boys,” I said, “we will make the German drink it himself and see the effect.” The men roared with laughter, and we filled a bottle with the suspected liquid and made the unfortunate prisoner drink every drop of it. When he had finished, we waited for a few minutes (like the people who watched St. Paul on the [Page 312] Island of Melita after he had shaken off the viper into the fire) to see if he would swell up or die, but as nothing of that kind happened we all began to fill our water-bottles. Just as the last man was about to fill his, a big shell landed in the garden next to us, and he, catching up his empty bottle, ran off saying, “I’m not thirsty any longer, I don’t want any water.”
    After their rest and refreshment, the company went over to a sunken road on the east side of the village. It was now getting very chilly and the daylight was dying rapidly. From the ground above the road one could see in the distance the spires of Cambrai, and in some fields to the southeast of us, with my glasses I could distinctly see numbers of little grey figures going into trenches, apparently with the idea of getting round to the south of our village on our exposed flank. I met a young officer of the machine-gun battalion, and lending him my glasses pointed out where the Germans were massing. He got the men of his section and took up a forward position along a ditch which ran at right angles to the sunken road. Here too were some of the companies of the 5th Battalion. They had hardly got into position when the Germans shelled the road we had been on, most unmercifully. I took refuge with a number of the men of the 5th Battalion in a garden, beside a brick building which had been used by the German troops as a wash-house and which was particularly malodorous. Two or three shells dropped in the orchard, breaking the trees, and we had to keep down on the ground while the shelling lasted. I could not help thinking of the warning the 2nd Battalion officer had given us about the situation on our right. It did seem pretty bad, because, until the arrival of the 7th and 8th Battalions, our right flank was exposed, and the enemy might have gone round to the southeast of the village and attacked us in the rear. When things settled down, I went back up the sunken road, and, as I did so, thought I saw some men going into a gateway in the main street of the village. I made my way to the open trenches where the Colonel of the 5th Battalion had his headquarters, and I determined to spend the night there, so they kindly provided me with a German overcoat. I was just settling down to sleep when a runner came up and reported that some men were wounded and were asking the way to the dressing station. Someone said they thought the M.O. had made his headquarters in the village. Then I remembered having seen some men enter a gateway in the street as I passed, so two of us started [Page 313] off to find out if this was the regimental aid post. The night was absolutely black, and my companion and I had to feel our way along the street not knowing who or what we might bump into, and expecting every moment that the Germans would begin to shell the place as soon as they thought we had had time to find billets there. At last to our great relief, we came to a large gateway in a brick wall and found some of our men, who told us that the M.O. had made his dressing station in the cellar of a building to the right. We went down into it and came upon a place well lighted with candles, where the devoted M.O. and his staff were looking after a number of men on stretchers.
    The Germans were determined that we should not have a quiet night and very soon, as we had expected, they began to shell the village. The dressing station was in a building which they themselves had used for the same purpose, so they knew its location, and shells began to fall in the yard. We got all the men we could down to the cellar; but still there were some stretcher cases which had to be left in the rooms upstairs. It was hard to convince them that there was no danger. However the “straffing” stopped in time, and I went down to the end of the cellar and slept in a big cane-seated chair which the Germans had left behind them. In the morning I went back again to our men in the line. The 10th Battalion had established themselves partly in a ditch along the Cambrai road not far from Epinoy, and partly in outposts behind the German wire. The country was undulating, and in places afforded an extensive view of the forward area. German machine-gun emplacements were in all directions, and our men suffered very severely. I was in an outpost with one of the companies when I saw in the distance one of our men crawling on his hands and knees up to a German machine-gun emplacement. The helmets of the enemy could be distinctly seen above the parapet. It was very exciting watching the plucky fellow approach the place of danger with the intention of bombing it. Unfortunately just as he had reached the side of the trench the Germans must have become aware of his presence, for they opened fire, and he had to crawl back again as fast as he could.
    Though many wounded were brought in, we knew that some were still lying out on the other side of the wire in full view of the enemy. As soon as it was dark enough, a bearer party, which I accompanied, started off to try and collect these men. With my cane I managed to lead the party through a gap in the wire. I came [Page 314] to a poor fellow who had been lying there since the previous night with a smashed arm and leg. He was in great pain, but the men got him in safely, and the next time I saw him was in a Toronto hospital where he was walking about with a wooden leg, and his arm in a sling. I went down to an outpost where I saw some men. We could only talk in whispers, as we knew the Germans were close at hand. They told me they were one of the companies of the 10th Battalion. I asked, “Where are your officers?” They said, “They are all gone.” “Who is in command?” They replied, “A Lance-Corporal.” I rejoined the bearers and we had great difficulty in getting back, as we could not find the gap in the wire, which seemed to go in all directions.
    The 10th Battalion was relieved that night by the 8th, the C.O. of which made his headquarters with the C.O. of the 5th Battalion in a large dug-out by the sunken road. There, late at night, I shared a bunk with a young machine-gun officer and had a few hours of somewhat disturbed sleep. The next morning, Sunday, September the 29th, the fourth anniversary of our sailing from Quebec, our men were having a hard time. The German defence at Cambrai was most determined, and they had a large quantity of artillery in the neighbourhood. I went back to the road and into the trench beyond the wire and found a lot of men there. The parapet was so low that the men had dug what they called, “Funk holes” in the clay, where they put as much of their bodies as they could. Sitting in a bend of the trench where I got a good view of the men, I had a service for them, and, as it was that festival, I read out the epistle for St. Michael and All Angels’s Day, and spoke of the guardianship of men which God had committed to the Heavenly Hosts. Going down the trench later on, I came to a place from which I could see, with my glasses, a German machine-gun emplacement and its crew. I went back and asked for a sniper. A man who said he was one came up to me and I showed him the enemy and then directed his fire. I could see from little puffs of dust where his bullets were landing. He was a good shot and I think must have done some damage, for all of a sudden the machine-gun opened fire on us and we had to dive into the trench pretty quickly. I told him that I thought we had better give up the game as they had the advantage over us. To snipe at the enemy seemed to be a curious way to spend a Sunday afternoon, but it was a temptation too hard to resist. I crawled back through the trench to the road, and there finding a man who [Page 315] had just lost his hand, directed him to the aid post near Battalion Headquarters. I accompanied him part of the way and had reached the edge of the sunken road, when a major of the Engineers came up to me and said, “I have got a better pair of German glasses than you have.” It was an interesting challenge, so we stood there on a little rise looking at the spires of Cambrai and comparing the strength of the lenses. Very distinctly we saw the town, looking peaceful and attractive. Suddenly there was a tremendous crash in front of us, a lot of earth was blown into our faces, and we both fell down. My eyes were full of dirt but I managed to get up again. I had been wounded in both legs, and from one I saw blood streaming down through my puttees. My right foot had been hit and the artery in the calf of my leg was cut. I fell down again with a feeling of exasperation that I had been knocked out of the war. The poor major was lying on the ground with one leg smashed. The same shell had wounded in the chest the young machine-gun officer who had shared his bunk with me the night before. I believe an Imperial officer also was hit in the abdomen and that he died. The chaplain of the 10th Battalion who happened to be standing in the sunken road, got some men together quickly and came to our help. I found myself being carried off in a German sheet by four prisoners. They had forgotten to give me my glasses, and were very much amused when I called for them, but I got them and have them now. The major not only lost his leg but lost his glasses as well. The enemy had evidently been watching us from some observation post in Cambrai, for they followed us up with another shell on the other side of the road, which caused the bearers to drop me quickly. The chaplain walked beside me till we came to the aid post where there were some stretchers. I was placed on one and carried into the dressing station at Haynecourt. They had been having a hard time that day, for the village was heavily shelled. One of their men had been killed and several wounded. I felt a great pain in my heart which made it hard to breathe, so when I was brought into the dressing station I said, “Boys, I am going to call for my first and last tot of rum.” I was immensely teased about this later on by my friends, who knew I was a teetotaller. They said I had drunk up all the men’s rum issue. A General wrote to me later on to say he had been terribly shocked to hear I was wounded, but that it was nothing in comparison with the shock he felt when he heard that I had taken to drinking rum. Everyone in the dressing station [Page 316] was as usual most kind. The bitter thought to me was that I was going to be separated from the old 1st Division. The nightmare that had haunted me for so long had at last come true, and I was going to leave the men before the war was over. For four years they had been my beloved companions and my constant care. I had been led by the example of their noble courage and their unhesitating performance of the most arduous duties, in the face of danger and death, to a grander conception of manhood, and a longing to follow them, if God would give me grace to do so, in their path of utter self-sacrifice. I had been with them continuously in their joys and sorrows, and it did not seem to be possible that I could now go and desert them in that bitter fight. When the doctors had finished binding up my wounds, I was carried off immediately to an ambulance in the road, and placed in it with four others, one of whom was dying. It was a long journey of four hours and a half to No. 1 C.C.S. at Agnez-les-Duisans, and we had to stop at Quéant on the way. Our journey lay through the area over which we had just made the great advance. Strange thoughts and memories ran through my mind. Faces of men that had gone and incidents that I had forgotten came back to me with great vividness. Should I ever again see the splendid battalions and the glad and eager lives pressing on continuously to Victory? Partly from shell holes, and partly from the wear of heavy traffic, the road was very bumpy. The man above me was in terrible agony, and every fresh jolt made him groan. The light of the autumn afternoon was wearing away rapidly. Through the open door at the end of the ambulance, as we sped onward, I could see the brown colourless stretch of country fade in the twilight, and then vanish into complete darkness, and I knew that the great adventure of my life among the most glorious men that the world has ever produced was over. [Page 317]