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A Minstrel in France
Chapter 12


UP to that time I had thought I knew a good deal about the war. I had had much news from my boy. I had talked, I think, to as many returned soldiers as any man in Britain. I had seen much of the backwash and the wretched aftermath of war. Ah, yes, I thought I knew more than most folk did of what war meant. But until my tour began, as I see now, easily enough, I knew nothing—literally nothing at all.

There are towns and ports in Britain that are military areas. One may not enter them except upon business, the urgency of which has been established to the satisfaction of the military authorities. One must have a permit to live in them, even if they be one's home town. These towns are vital to the war and its successful prosecution.

Until one has seen a British port of embarkation in this war one has no real beginning, even, of a conception of the task the war has imposed upon Britain. It was so with me, I know, and since then other men have told me the same thing. There the army begins to pour into the funnel, so to speak, that leads to France and the front. There all sorts of lines are brought together, all sorts of scattered activities come to a focus. There is incessant activity, day and night.

It was from Folkestone, on the south-east coast that the Reverend Harry Lauder, M.P. Tour, was to embark. And we reached Folkestone on June 7, 1917.

Folkestone, in time of peace, was one of the greatest of the southern watering-places. It is a lovely spot. Great hotels line the Leas, a glorious promenade, along the top of chalk cliffs, that looks out over the Channel. In the distance one fancies one may see the coast of France, beyond the blue water.

There is green grass everywhere behind the beach. Folkestone has a miniature harbour, that in time of peace gave shelter to the fishing fleet and to the Channel steamers that plied to and from Boulogne, in France. The harbour is guarded by stone jetties. It has been greatly enlarged now —so has all Folkestone, for that matter. But I am remembering the town as it was in peace !

There was no pleasanter and kindlier resort along that coast. The beach was wonderful, and all summer long it attracted bathers and children at play. Bathing machines lined the beach, of course, within the limits of the town; those queer, old, clumsy looking wagons, with a dressing cabin on wheels, that were drawn up and down according to the tide, so that bathers might enter the water from them directly. There, as in most British towns, women bathed at one part of the beach, men at the other, and all in the most decorous and modest of costumes.

But at Folkestone, in the old days of peace, about a mile from the town limits, there was another stretch of beach where all the gay folk bathed, men and women together. And there the costumes were such as might be seen at Deauville or Ostend, Etretat or Trouville. Highly they scandalized the good folk of Folkestone, to be sure; but little was said, and nothing was done, for, after all, those were the folk who spent the money. They dressed in white tents that gleamed against the sea, and a pretty splash of colour they made on a bright day for the soberer folk to go and watch, as they sat on the low chalk cliffs above them.

Gone—gone! Such days have passed for Folkestone! They will no doubt come again—but when? When?

June the seventh! Folkestone should have been gay for the beginning of the onset of summer visitors. Sea bathing should just have been beginning to be attractive, as the sun warmed the sea and the beach. But when we reached the town war was over all. Men in uniform were everywhere. Warships lay outside the harbour. Khaki and guns, men trudging along, bearing the burdens of war, motor trucks, rushing ponderously along, carrying ammunition and food, messengers on motor-cycles, sounding to all traffic that might be in the way the clamorous summons to clear the path—those were the sights we saw!

How hopelessly confused it all seemed! I could not believe that there was order in the chaos that I saw. But that was because the key to all that bewildering activity was not in my possession.

Every man had his appointed task. He was a cog in the greatest machine the world has ever seen. He knew just what he was to do, and how much time had been allowed for the performance of his task. It was assumed he would not fail. The British Army makes that assumption, and it is warranted.

I hear praise, even from men who hate the Hun as I hate him, for the superb military organization of the German Army. They say the Kaiser's people may well take pride in that. But I say that I am prouder of what Britain and the new British Army that has come into being since this war began have done than any German has a right to be. They spent forty-four years in making ready for a war they knew they meant, some day, to fight. We had not had, that day that I first saw our machine really functioning, as many months for preparation as they had had years. And yet we were doing our part.

We. had had to build and prepare while we helped our ally, France, to hold off that grey horde that had swept down so treacherously through Belgium from the north and east. It was as if we had organized and trained and equipped a fire brigade while the fire was burning, and while our first devoted fighters sought to keep it in check with water buckets. And they did! They did!

The water buckets served while the hose was made, and the mains were laid, and the hydrants set in place, and the trained firemen were made ready to take up the task.

And, now that I had come to Folkestone, now that I was seeing the results of all the labour 'that had been performed, the effect of all the prodigies of organization, I began to know what Lord Kitchener and those who had worked with him had done. System ruled everything at Folkestone. Nothing, it seemed to me, as officers explained as much as they properly could, had been left to chance. Here was order indeed.

In the air above us aeroplanes flew to and fro. They circled about like great, watchful hawks. They looped and whirled around, cutting this way and that, circling always. And I knew that, as they flew about outside the harbour, the men in them were never off their guard; that they were peering down, watching every moment for the first trace of a submarine that might have crept through the more remote defences of the Channel. Let a submarine appear—its shrift would be short indeed!

There, above, waited the aeroplanes. And on the surface of the sea sinister destroyers darted about as watchful as the flyers above, ready for any emergency that might arise. I have no doubt that submarines of our own lurked below, waiting, too, to do their part. But those, if any there were, I did not see. And one asks no questions at a place like Folkestone. I was glad of any information an officer might voluntarily give me. But it was not for me or any other loyal Briton to put him in the position of having to refuse to answer.

Soon a great transport was pointed out to me, lying beside the jetty. Gang-planks were down, and up them streams of men in khaki moved endlessly. Up they went, in an endless brown river, to disappear into the ship. The whole ship was a very hive of activity. Not only men were going aboard, but supplies of every sort; boxes of ammunition, stores, food. And I understood, and was presently to see, that beyond her sides there was the same ordered scene as prevailed on shore. Every man knew his task; the stowing away of everything that was being carried aboard was being carried out systematically and with the utmost possible economy of time and effort.

"That's the ship you will cross the Channel on," I was told. And I regarded her with a new interest. I do not know what part she had been wont to play in time of peace; what useful, pleasant journeys it had been her part to complete. I only knew that she was to carry me to France, and to the place where my heart was and for a long time had been. Me—and two thousand men who were to be of real use over there.

We were nearly the last to go on board. We found the decks swarming with men. Ah, the braw laddies! They smoked and they laughed as they settled themselves for the trip. Never a one looked as though he might be sorry to be there. They were leaving behind them all the good things, all the pleasant things, of life as, in time of peace, every one of them had learned to live it and to know it. Long, long since had the last illusion faded of the old days when war had seemed a thing of pomp and circumstance and glory.

They knew well, those boys, what it was they faced. Hard, grinding work they could look forward to doing ; such work as few of them had ever known in the old days. Death and wounds they could reckon upon as the portion of just about so many of them. There would be bitter cold, later in the trenches, and mud, and standing for hours in icy mud and water. There would be hard fare and scanty, sometimes, when things went wrong. There would be gas attacks, and the bursting of shells about them with all sorts of poisons in them. Always there would be the deadliest perils of these perilous days.

But they sang as they set out upon the great adventure of their lives. They smiled and laughed. They cheered me, so that the tears started from my eyes, when they saw me, and they called the gayest of gay greetings, though they knew that I was going only for a little while, and that many of them had set foot on British soil for the last time. The steady babble of their voices came to our ears, and they swarmed below us like ants as they disposed themselves about the decks, and made the most of the scanty space that was allowed for them. The trip was to be short, of course; there were too few ships, and the problems of convoy were too great, to make it possible to make the voyage a comfortable one. It was a case of getting them over as might best be arranged.

A word of command rang out and was passed around by officers and non-coms.

"Life-belts must be put on before the ship sails!"

That simple order brought home the grim facts of war at that moment as scarcely anything else could have done. Here was a grim warning of the peril that lurked outside. Everywhere men were scurrying to obey—I among the rest. The order applied as much to us civilians as it did to any of the soldiers. And my belt did not fit, and was hard, extremely hard, for" me to don. I could no manage it at all by myself, but Adam and Hogge had had an easier time with theirs, and they came to my help. Among us we got mine on, and Hogge stood off, and looked at me, and smiled.

"An extraordinary effect, Harry!" he said with a smile. "I declare, it gives you the most charming embonpoint!"

I had my doubts about his use of the word charming. I know that I should not have cared to have any one judge of my looks from a picture taken as I looked then, had one been taken,

But it was not a time for such thoughts. For a civilian, especially, and one not used to journeys in such times as these, there is a thrill and a solemnity about the donning of a life preserver. I felt that I was indeed, it might be, taking a risk in making this journey, and it was an awesome thought that I, too, might have seen my native land for the last time, and said a real good-bye to those whom I had left behind me.

Now we cast off, and began to move, and a thrill ran through me such as I had never known before in all my life. I went to the rail as we turned our nose toward the open sea. A destroyer was ahead, another was beside us, others rode steadily along on either side. It was the most reassuring of sights to see them. They looked so business-like, so capable. I could not imagine a Hun submarine as able to evade their watchfulness. And moreover, there were the watchful man birds above us, the circling aeroplanes, that could make out so much better than could any lookout on a ship, the first trace of the presence of a tin fish. No —I was not afraid! I trusted in the British Navy, which had guarded the sea lane so well that not a man had lost his life as the result of a Hun attack, although many millions had gone back and forth to France since the beginning of the war.

I did not stay with my own party. I preferred to move about among the soldiers. I was deeply interested in them, as I have always been. And I wanted to make friends among them, and see how they felt.

"Lor' lumme—it's old 'Arry Lauder!" said one Cockney. "God bless you, 'Arry—many's the time I've sung with you in the 'alls. It's good to see you with us!"

And so I was greeted everywhere. Man after man crowded around me to shake hands. It brought a lump into my throat to be greeted so, and it made me more than ever glad that the military authorities had been able to see their way to grant my request. It confirmed my belief that I was going where I might be really useful to the men who were ready and willing to make the greatest of all sacrifices in the cause so close to all our hearts.

When I first went aboard the transport I picked up a little gold stripe. It was one of those which men wear who have been wounded, as a badge of honour. I hoped I might be able to find the man who had lost it, and return it to him. But none of them claimed it, and I have kept it, to this day, as a souvenir of that voyage.

It was easy for them to know me. I wore my kilt and my cap, and my knife in my stocking, as I have always done, on the stage, and nearly always off it as well. And so they recognized me without difficulty. And never a one called me anything but Harry—except when it was Arry! I think I would be much affronted if ever a British soldier called me "Mr. Lauder." I don't know— because not one of them ever did, and I hope none ever will!

They told me that there were men from the Highlands on board, and I went looking for them, and found them after a time, though going about that ship, so crowded she was, was no easy matter. They were mostly Gordon Highlanders, I found, and they were glad to see me, and made me welcome, and, I had a pipe with them, and a good talk.

Many of them were going back, after having been at home, recuperating from wounds. And they, and the new men too, were all eager and anxious to be put there and at work.

"Gie us a chance at the Huns; it's all we're asking," said one of a new draft. "They're telling us they don't like the sight of our kilts, Harry, and that a Hun's got less stomach for the cold steel of a bayonet than for anything else on earth. Weel, we're carrying a dose of it for them!

And the men who had been out before, and were taking back with them the scars they had earned, were just as anxious as the rest. That was the spirit of every man on board. They did not like war as war, but they knew that this was a war that must be fought to the finish, and never a man of them wanted peace to come until Fritz had learned his lesson to the bottom of the last grim page.

I never heard a word of the danger of meeting a submarine. The idea that one might send a torpedo after us popped into my mind once or twice, but when it did I looked out at the destroyers, guarding us, and the aeroplanes above, and I felt as safe as if I had been in bed in my wee hoose at Dunoon. It was a true highway of war that those whippets of the sea had made the Channel crossing.

Imphm, but I was proud that day of the British Navy! It is a great task that it has to perform, and nobly it has done it. And proud and glad I was again when we sighted land, as we soon did, and I knew that I was gazing, for the first time since war had been declared, upon the shores of our great ally, France. It was the great day and the proud day and the happy day for me!

I was near the realizing of an old dream I had often had. I was with the soldiers who had my love and my devotion, and I was coming to France —the France that every Scotchman learns to love at his mother's breast.

A stir ran through the men. Orders began to fly, and I went back to my place and my party. Soon we would be ashore, and I would be in the way of beginning the work I had come to do.


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