WE were up nest morning before daybreak. But I did
not feel as if I were getting up early. Indeed, it was quite the
reverse. All about us was a scene of such activity that I felt as if I
had been lying in bed unconscionably long —as if I were the laziest man
in all that busy town. Troops were setting out, boarding military
trains. Cheery, jovial fellows they were; the same lads, some of them,
who had crossed the Channel with me, and many others who had come in
later. Oh, it is a steady stream of men and supplies, indeed, that goes
across the narrow sea to France! Motor trucks—they were calling them
camions, after the French fashion, because it was a shorter and a
simpler word—fairly swarmed in the streets. Guns rolled ponderously
along. It was not military pomp we saw. Indeed, I saw little of that in
France. It was only the uniforms and the guns that made me realize that
this was war. The activity was more that of a busy, bustling factory
town. It was not English, and it was not French. I think it made me
think more of an American city. War, I cannot tell you often enough, is
a great business, a vast industry, in these days. Some one said, and he
was right, that they did not win victories any more; that they
manufactured them, as all sorts of goods are manufactured. Digging and
building—that is the great work of modern war.
Our preparations, being in the hands of Captain
Godfrey and the British Army, were few and easily made. Two great, fast
army motor-cars had been put at the disposal of the Reverend Harry
Lauder, M.P., Tour, and when we went out to get into them and make our
start, it was just a problem of stowing away all we had to carry with
The first car was a passenger ear. Each motor had a
soldier as chauffeur. I and the Reverend George Adam rode in the tonneau
of the leading car, and Captain Godfrey, our manager and guide, sat with
the driver, in front. That was where he belonged, and where, being a
British officer, he naturally wanted to be. They have called our
officers reckless, and said that they risked their lives too freely.
Weel, I dinna ken! I am no soldier. But I know what a glorious tradition
the British officer has, and I know, too, how his men follow him. They
know, the laddies in the ranks, that their officers will never ask them
to go anywhere or do anything they would shirk themselves, and that
makes for a spirit that you could not esteem too highly.
It was the second car that was our problem. We put
Johnson, my accompanist, in the tonneau first, and then we covered him
with cigarettes. It was a problem to get them stowed away, and when we
had accomplished the task, finally, there was not much of Johnson to he
seen! He was 'covered and surrounded with cigarettes, but he was snug,
and he looked happy and comfortable, as he grinned at us, his face was
about all of him that we could see. Hogge rode in front with the driver
of that car, and had more room, so, than he would have had in the
tonneau, where, as a passenger and a guest, he really belonged. The wee
bit piano was lashed to the grid of the second car. And I give you my
word it looked like a gipsy's wagon more than one
of the neat cars of the British Army!
Well, all was ready in due time, and it was just six
o'clock when we set off. There was a thing I noted again and again. The
army did things "on time" in France. If we were to start at a certain
time we always did. Nothing ever happened to make us unpunctual.
It was a glorious morning. We went humming out of
Boulogne on a road that was as hard and smooth as a paved street in
London despite all the terrific traffic it had borne since the war made
Boulogne a British base. And there were no speed limits here. So soon as
the cars were tuned up we went along at the highest speed of which they
were capable. Our soldier drivers knew their business; only the picked
men were assigned to the driving of these cars, and speed was one of the
things that was wanted of them. Much may hang on the speed of a
motor-car in France.
But, fast as we travelled, we did not go too fast for
me to enjoy the drive, and the sights and sounds that were all about us.
They were oddly mixed. Some were homely and familiar, and some were so
strange that I could not give over wondering at them. The motors made a
great noise, but it was not too loud for me to hear larks singing in the
early morning. All the world was green with the early sun upon it,
lighting up every detail of a strange countryside. There was a soft
wind, a gentle, caressing wind, that stirred the leaves of the trees
along the road.
But not for long could we escape the touch of war.
That grim etcher was at work upon the road and the whole countryside. As
we went on we were bound to move more slowly, because of the congestion
of the traffic. Never was Piccadilly or Fifth Avenue, New York, more
crowded with motors at the busiest hour of the day than was that road.
As we passed through villages or came to cross-roads we saw military
police, directing traffic, precisely as they do at busy intersections of
crowded streets in London or New York.
But the traffic along that road was not the traffic
of the cities. Here were no ladies, gorgeously clad, reclining in their
luxurious, deeply upholstered cars. Here were no footmen and chauffeurs
in livery. Ah, they wore a livery— aye ! But it was the livery of glory,
the khaki of the King ! Generals and high officers passed us, bowling
along, lolling in their cars, taking their few brief minutes or
half-hours of ease, smoking and talking. And there were wagons from the
shops—great trucks, carrying supplies, going along at a pace that racked
their engines and their bodies, and that boded disaster to whoever got
in their way. But no one did, there was no real confusion here, despite
the seeming mad welter of traffic that we saw.
What a traffic that was ! And it was all the traffic
of the carnage we were nearing. It was a marvellous and an impressive
panorama of force and of destruction that was being constantly unrolled
before my wondering eyes as we travelled along the road out of old
At first all the traffic was going our way. Sometimes
there came a warning shriek from behind, and everything drew to one side
to make room for a dispatch rider on a motor-cycle. These had the right
of way. Sir Douglas Haig himself, were he driving along, would see his
driver turn out to make way for one of those shrieking motor bikes ! The
rule is absolute ; everything makes way for them.
But it was not long before a tide of traffic began to
meet us, flowing back toward Boulogne. There was a double stream then,
and I wondered how collisions and traffic jams of all sorts could be
avoided. I do not know yet; I only know that there is no trouble. Here
were empty trucks, speeding back for new loads. And some there were that
carried all sorts of wreckage; the flotsam and jetsam cast up on the
safe shores behind the front by the red tide of war. Nothing is thrown
away out here; nothing is wasted. Great piles of discarded shoes are
brought back to be made over. They are as good as new when they come
back from the factories where they are worked over. Indeed, the men told
me they were better than new, because they were less trying to their
feet, and did not need so much breaking in.
Men go about, behind the front, and after a battle,
picking up everything that has been thrown away. Everything is sorted
and gone over with the utmost care. Rifles that have been thrown away or
dropped when men were wounded or killed, bits of uniforms,
bayonets—everything is saved. Reclamation is the order of the day. There
is waste enough in war that cannot be avoided; the British Army sees to
it that there is none that is avoidable.
But it was not only that sort of wreckage, that sort
of driftwood that was being carried back to be made over. Presently we
began to see great motor ambulances coming along, each with a Red Cross
painted glaringly on its side—though that paint was wasted or worse, for
it would seem there is no target the Hun loves better, than the great
red cross of mercy. And in them, as we knew, there was the most pitiful
wreckage of all—the human wreckage of the war.
In the wee sma' hours of the morn they bear the men
back who have been hit the day before, and during the night. They go
back to the field dressing stations and the hospitals just behind the
front, to be sorted like the other wreckage. Some there are who cannot
be moved farther, at first,
but must be cared for under fire, Jest they die on
the way. But all whose wounds are such that they can safely be moved go
back in the ambulances, first to the great base hospitals, and then,
when possible, on the hospital ships to England.
Sometimes, but not often, we passed troops marching
along the road. They marched easily, with the stride that could carry
them farthest with the least effort. They did not look much like the
troops I used to see in London. They did not have the snap of the
Coldstream Guards, marching through Green Park in the old days. But they
looked like business and like war. They looked like men who had a job of
work to do and meant to see it through.
They had discipline, those laddies, but it was not
the old, stiff discipline of the old army. That was the thing of a day
that is dead and gone. Now, as we passed along the side of the road that
marching troops always leave clear, there was always a series of hails
"Hello, Harry!" I would hear.
And I would look back, and see grinning Tommies
waving their hands to me. It was a flattering experience, I can tell
you, to be recognized like that along that road. It was like running
into old friends in a strange town where you have come thinking you know
no one at all.
We were about thirty miles out of Boulogne when there
was a sudden explosion underneath the car, followed by a sibilant sound
that I knew only too well.
"Hello—a puncture!" said Godfrey, and smiled as he
turned around. We drew up to the side of the road, and both chauffeurs
jumped out and went to work on the wounded tire. The rest of us sat
still, and gazed around us at the fields. I was glad to have a chance to
look quietly about. The fields, all emerald green, stretched out in all
directions to the distant horizon, sapphire blue that glorious morning.
And in the fields, here and there, were the bent stooped figures of old
men and women. They were carrying on, quietly. Husbands and sons and
brothers had gone to war; all the young men of France had gone. These
were left, and they were seeing to the performance of the endless cycle
of duty. France would survive ; the Hun could not crush her. Here was a
spirit made manifest; a spirit different in degree but not in kind from
the spirit of my ain Britain. It brought a lump into my throat to see
them, the old men and the women, going so patiently and quietly about
It was very quiet. Faint sounds came to us ; there
was a distant rumbling, like the muttering of thunder on a summer's
night, when the day has been hot and there are low, black clouds lying
against the horizon, with the flashes of the lightning playing through
them. But that I had come already not to heed, though I knew full well,
by now, what it was and what it meant. For a little space the busy road
had become clear ; there was a long break in the traffic.
I turned to Adam and to Captain Godfrey.
"I'm thinking here's a fine chance for a bit of a
rehearsal in the open air," I said. "I'm not used to singing so; mayhap
it would be well to try my voice and see will it carry as it should."
"Right oh!" said Godfrey.
And so we dug Johnson out from his snug barricade of
cigarettes, that hid him as an emplacement hides a gun, and we
unstrapped my wee piano, and set it up in the road. Johnson tried the
piano, and then we began.
I think I never sang with less restraint in all my
life than I did that quiet morning on the Boulogne road. I raised my
voice and let it have its will. And I felt my spirits rising with the
lilt of the melody. My voice rang out, full and free, and it must have
carried far and wide across the fields.
My audience was small at first; Captain Godfrey,
Hogge, Adam, and the two chauffeurs, working away, and having more
trouble with the tire than they had thought at first they would, which
is the way of tires, as every man knows who owns a car. But as they
heard my songs the old men and women in the fields straightened up to
listen. They stood wondering, at first, and then, slowly, they gave over
their work for a space, and came to gather round me and to listen.
It must have seemed strange to them ! Indeed, it must
have seemed strange to any one who saw and heard me ! There I was, with
Johnson at my piano, like some wayside tinker setting up his cart and
working at his trade ! But I did not care for appearances, not a whit.
For the moment I was care free, a wandering minstrel, like some
troubadour of old, care free and happy in my song. I forgot the
black shadow under which we all lay in that smiling land, the black
shadow of war in which I sang.
It delighted me to see those old peasants, and to
study their faces, and to try to win them with my song. They could not
understand a word I sang, and yet I saw the smiles breaking out over
their wrinkled faces, and it made me proud and happy. For it was plain
that I was reaching them, that I was able to throw a bridge over the gap
of a strange tongue and an alien race. When I had done and it was plain
I meant to sing no more they clapped me.
"There's a hand for you, Harry," said Adam. "Aye, and
I'm proud of it!" I told him for reply.
I was almost sorry when I saw that the two chauffeurs
had finished their repairs and were ready to go on. But I told them to
lash the piano back in its place, and Johnson prepared to climb gingerly
back among his cigarettes. But just then something happened that I had
There was a turn in the road just beyond that hid its
continuation from us. And around the bend now there came a company of
soldiers. Not neat and well-appointed soldiers these. Ah, no ! They were
fresh from the trenches, on their way back to rest. The mud and grime of
the trenches were upon them. They were tired and weary, and they carried
all their accoutrements and packs with them. Their boots were heavy with
mud. And they looked bad, and many of them shaky. Most of these men,
Godfrey told me after a glance at them, had been ordered back to
hospital for minor ailments. They were able to march, but not much more.
They were the first men I had seen in such a case.
They looked bad enough, but Godfrey said they were happy enough. Some of
them would get leave for Blighty, and be home, in a few days, to see
their families and their girls. And the thought of where they were going
cheered them and helped to keep them going.
A British soldier, equipped for the trenches, on his
way in or out, has quite a load to carry. He has his pack, and his
emergency ration, and his entrenching tools, and extra clothing that he
needs in bad weather in the trenches, to say nothing of his ever-present
rifle. And the sight of them made me realize for the first time the
truth that lay behind the jest in a story that is one of Tommy's
A child saw a soldier in heavy marching order. She
gazed at him in wide-eyed wonder. He was not her idea of what a soldier
should look like.
"Mother," she asked, "what is a soldier for?"
The mother gazed at the man. And then she smiled.
"A soldier," she answered, "is to hang things on."
They eyed me very curiously as they came along, those
sick, weary laddies. They didn't seem to understand what I was doing
there, but their discipline held them. They were in charge of a young
lieutenant with one star—a second lieutenant. I learned later that he
was a long way from being a well man himself. So I stopped him.
"Would your men like to hear a few songs,
lieutenant?" I asked him.
He hesitated. He didn't quite understand, and he
wasn't a bit sure what his duty was in the circumstances. He glanced at
Godfrey, and Godfrey smiled at him as if in encouragement.
"It's very good of you, I'm 'sure," he said slowly.
So the men fell out, and squatted there, along, the
wayside. At once discipline was relaxed. Their faces were a study as the
wee piano was. set up again, and Johnson, in uniform, of course, sat
down and tried a chord or two. And then suddenly something happened that
broke the ice. Just as I stood up to sing a loud voice broke the
"Lor' love us!" one of the men cried, " if it
ain't old 'Arry Lauder!"
There was a stir of interest at once. I spotted the
owner of the voice. It was a shrivelled-up little chap, with a wizened
face that looked like a sun-dried apple. He was showing all his teeth in
a, grin at me and he was a typical little
Cockney of the sort all Londoners know well.
"Go it, 'Arry!" he shouted shrilly. "Many'a the time
h'I've 'eard you at the old Shoreditch!"
So I went it as well as I could, and I never did have
a more appreciative audience. My little Cockney friend seemed to take a
particular personal pride in me. I think he thought he had found me, and
that he was, in an odd way, responsible for my success with his mates.
And so he was especially glad when they cheered me and thanked me as
My concert didn't last long, for we had to be getting
on, and the company of sick men had just so much time, too, to reach
their destination— Boulogne, whence we had set out. When it was over I
said good-bye to the men, and shook hands with particular warmth with
the little Cockney. It wasn't every day I was likely to meet a man who
had often heard me at the old Shoreditch! After we had stowed Johnson
and the piano away again, with a few less cigarettes, now, to get in
Johnson's way, we started, and as long as we were in sight the little
Cockney and I were waving to one another.
I took some of the cigarettes into the car I was in
now. And as we sped along we were again in the thick of the great
British war machine. Motor trucks and ambulances were more frequent than
ever, and it was a common occurrence now to pass soldiers, marching in
both directions; to the front and away from it. There was always some
one to recognize me, and start a volley of "Hello, Harrys" my way, and I
answered every greeting, you may be sure, and threw cigarettes to go
with my "Helios."
Aye, I was glad I had brought the cigarettes ! They
seemed to be even more welcome than I had hoped they would be, and I
only wondered how long the supply would hold out, and if I would be able
to get more if it did not. So Johnson, little by little, was getting
more room, as I called for more and more of the cigarettes that walled
him in, in his tonneau.
About noon, as we drove through a little town, I saw,
for the first time, a whole flock of aeroplanes riding the sky. They
were swooping about like lazy hawks, and a bonnie sight they were. I
drew a long breath when I saw them, and turned to my friend Adam.
"Well," I said, "I think we're coming to it, now!"
I meant the front; the real, British front.
Suddenly, at a sharp order from Captain Godfrey, our
cars stopped. He turned around to us, and grinned, very cheerfully.
"Gentlemen," he said, very calmly, "we'll stop here
long enough to put on our steel helmets."
He said it just as he might have said: "Well, here's
where we will stop for tea."
It meant no more than that to him. But for me it
meant many things. It meant that at last I was really to be under fire;
that I was going into danger. I was not really frightened yet; you have
to see danger, and know just what it is, and appreciate exactly its
character, before you can be frightened. But I had imagination enough to
know what that order meant, and to have a queer feeling as I donned the
steel helmet. It was less uncomfortable than I had expected it to he;
lighter, and easier to wear. The British trench helmets are beautifully
made, now; as in every other phase of the war and its work they
represent a constant study making for improvement, lightening.
But, even had it not been for the warning that was
implied in Captain Godfrey's order, I should soon have understood that
we had come into a new region. For a long time now the noise of the guns
had been different. Instead of being like distant thunder it was a much
nearer and louder sound. It was a steady, throbbing roar now.
And, at intervals, there came a different sound; a
sound more individual, that could be distinguished from the steady roar.
It was as if the air were being cracked apart by the blow of some giant
hammer. I knew what it was. Aye, I knew. You need no man to tell you
what it is; the explosion of a great shell not so far from you!
Nor was it our ears alone that told us what was going
on. Ever and anon, now, ahead of us, as we looked at the fields, we saw
a cloud of dirt rise up. That was where a shell struck. And in the
fields about us, now, we could see holes, full of water, as a rule, and
mounds of dirt that did not look as if shovels and picks had raised
It surprised me to see that the peasants were still
at work. I spoke to Godfrey about that.
"The French peasants don't seem to know what it is to
be afraid of shell-fire," he said. "They go only when we make them. It
is the same on the French front. They will cling to a farmhouse in the
zone of fire until they are ordered out, no matter how heavily it may be
shelled. They are splendid folk. The Germans can never beat a race that
has such folk as that behind its battle line."
I could well believe him. I have seen no sight along
the whole front more quietly impressive than the calm, impassive courage
of those French peasants. They know they are right. It is no Kaiser, no
war lord, who gives them courage. It is the knowledge and the
consciousness that they are suffering in a holy cause, and that, in the
end, the right and the truth must prevail. Their own fate, whatever may
befall them, does not matter. France must go on and will, and they do
their humble part to see that she does and shall.
Solemn thoughts moved me as we drove on. Here there
had been real war and fighting. Now I saw a country blasted by
shell-fire and wrecked by the contention of great armies. And I knew
that I was coming to soil watered by British blood ; to rows of British
graves ; to soil that shall be for ever sacred to the memory of the
Britons, from Britain and from over the seas, who died and fought upon
it to redeem it from the Hun.
I had no mind to talk, to ask questions. For the time
I was content to be with my own thoughts, that were evoked by the
historic ground through which we passed. My heart was heavy with grief
and with the memories of my boy that came flooding it, but it was
lightened, too, by other thoughts.
And always, as we sped on, there was the thunder of
the guns. Always there were the bursting shells, and the old bent
peasants paying no heed to them. Always there were the circling
aeroplanes, far above us, like hawks against the deep blue of the sky.
And always we came nearer and nearer to Vimy Ridge—that deathless name
in the history of Britain.