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A Minstrel in France
Chapter 16


IT had turned very hot, now, at the full of the day. Indeed, it was grilling weather, and there in the battery, in a hollow, close down beside a little run or stream, it was even hotter than on the shell-swept bare top of the ridge. So the Canadian gunners had stripped down for comfort. Not a man had more than his undershirt on above his trousers, and many of them were naked to the waist, with their hide tanned to the colour of old saddles.

These laddies reminded me of those in the first battery I had seen. They were just as calm, and just as dispassionate as they worked in their mill it might well have been a mill in which I saw them working. Only they were no grinding corn, but death; death for the Huns, who had brought death to so many of their mates. But there was no excitement, there were no cries of hatred and anger.

They were hard at work. Their work, it seemed, never came to an end or even to a pause. The orders rang out, in a sort of sing-song voice. After each shot a man who sat with a telephone strapped about his head called out corrections of the range, in figures that were just a meaningless jumble to me, although they made sense to the men who listened and changed the pointing of the guns at each order.

Their faces, that, like their bare backs and chests, looked like tanned leather, were all grimy from their work among the smoke and the gases. And through the grime the sweat had run down like little rivers making courses for themselves in the soft dirt of a hillside. They looked grotesque enough, but there was nothing about them to make me feel like laughing, I can tell you. And they all grinned amiably when the amazed and disconcerted Reverend Harry Lauder, M.P., Tour came tumbling in among them. We all felt right at hame at once; and I the more so when a chap I had met and come to know well in Toronto during one of my American tours came over and gripped my hand.

"Aye, but it's good to see your face, Harry! " he said, as he made me welcome.

This battery had done great work ever since it had come out. No battery in the whole army had a finer record, I was told. And no one needed to tell me the tale of its losses. Not far away there was a little cemetery, filled with doleful little crosses, set up over mounds that told their grim story all too plainly and too eloquently.

The battery had gone through the Battle of Vimy Ridge and made a great name for itself. And now it was set down upon a spot that had seen some of the very bloodiest of the fighting on that day. I saw here, for the first time, some of the most horrible things that the war holds. There was a little stream, as I said, that ran through the hollow in which the battery was placed, and that stream had run with blood, not water, on the day of the battle.

Everywhere, here, were whitened bones of men. In the wild swirling of the battle, and the confusion of digging in and meeting German counter attacks that had followed it, it had not been possible to bury all the dead. And so the whitened bones remained, though the elements had long since stripped them bare. The elements—and the hungry rats. These are not pretty things to tell, but they are true, and the world should know what war is to-day.

I almost trod upon one skeleton that remained complete. It was that of a huge German soldier, a veritable giant of a man, he must have been. The bones of his feet were still encased in his great boots, their soles heavily studded with nails. Even a few shreds of his uniform remained. But the flesh was all gone. The sun and the rats and the birds had accounted for the last morsel of it.

Hundreds of years from now, I suppose, the bones that were strewn along that ground will still be being turned up by ploughs. The generations to come who live there will never lack relics of the battle, and of the fighting that preceded and followed it. They will find bones, and shell cases, and bits of metal of all sorts. Rusty bayonets will be turned up by their ploughshares; strange coins, as puzzling as some of those of Roman times that we in Britain have found, will puzzle them. Who can tell how long it will be before the soil about Vimy Ridge will cease to give up its relics?

That ground had been searched carefully for everything that might conceivably be put to use again, or be made fit for further service. And yet, when I was there, many weeks after the storm of fighting had passed on, and when the scavengers had done their work, the ground was still rather thickly strewn with odds and ends that interested me vastly. I might have picked up much more than I did. But I could not carry so very much, and so many of the things, too, brought grisly thoughts to my mind. God knows I needed no reminders of the war. I had a reminder in my heart, that never left me. Still, I took some few things, more for the sake of the hame folks, who might not see, and would, surely, be interested. I gathered some bayonets for my collection; somehow they seemed the things I was most willing to take along. One was British, one German, two were French.

But the best souvenir of all I got at Vimy Ridge I did not pick up. It was given to me by my friend, the grave major; him of whom I would like some famous sculptor to make a statue as he sat at his work of observation. That was a club, a wicked looking instrument. This club had a great thick head, huge in proportion to its length and size, and the head was studded with great sharp nails. A single blow from it would finish

the strongest man that ever lived. It was a fit weapon for a murderer, and a murderer had wielded it. The major had taken it from a Hun, who had meant to use it—had, doubtless, used it —to beat out the brains of wounded men, lying on the ground. Many of those clubs were taken from the Germans, all along the front, both by the British and the French, and the Germans had never made any secret of the purpose for which they were intended. Well, they picked excellent men to try such tactics on when they went against the Canadians!

The Canadians started no such work, but they were quick to adopt a policy of give and take. It was the Canadians who began the trench raids for which the Germans have such a fierce distaste; and, after they had learned something of how Fritz fought, the Canadians took to paying him back in some of his own coin. Not that they matched the deeds of the Huns; only a Hun could do that. But the Canadians were not eager to take prisoners. They would bomb a dug-out rather than take its occupants back. And a dug-out that has been bombed yields few living men.

Who shall blame them? Not I, nor any other man who knows what lessons in brutality and treachery the Canadians have had from the Hun. It was the Canadians, near Ypres, who went through the first gas attack; that fearful day when the Germans were closer to breaking through than they ever were before or since. I shall not set down here all the tales I heard of the atrocities of the Huns. Others have done that. Men have written of that who have first-hand knowledge, as mine cannot be. I know only what has been told to me, and there is little need of hearsay-evidence. There is evidence enough that any court would accept as hanging proof. But this much it is right to say; no troops along the Western front have more to revenge than have the Canadians.

It is not the loss of comrades, dearly loved though they foe, that breeds hatred among the soldiers. That is a part of war, and always was. The loss of friends and comrades may fire the blood. It may lead men to risk their own lives in a desperate charge to get even. But it is a pain that does not rankle and does not fester like a sore that will not heal. It is the tales the Canadians have to tell of sheer, depraved torture and brutality that has inflamed them to the pitch of hatred that they cherish. It has seemed as if the Germans had a particular grudge against the Canadians. And that, indeed, is known to be the case.

The Germans harboured many a fond illusion before the war. They thought that Britain would not fight, first of all. And, then, when Britain did declare war, they thought they could speedily destroy her "contemptible little army." Ah, weel, they did come near to destroying it! But not until it had helped to balk them of their desire; not until it had played its great and decisive part in ruining the plans the Hun had been making and perfecting for forty-four long years. And not until it had served as a dyke behind which floods of men in the khaki of King George had had time to arm and drill to rush out to oppose the gray-green floods that had swept through helpless Belgium.

They had other illusions, beside that major one that helped to wreck them. They thought there would be a rebellion and civil war in Ireland. They took too seriously the troubles of the early summer of 1914, when Ulster and the South of Ireland were snapping and snarling at each other's throats. They looked for a new mutiny in India, which should keep Britain's hands full. They expected strikes at home. But, above all, they were sure that the great, self-governing dependencies of Britain, that made up the mighty British Empire, would take no part in the fight.

Canada, Australasia, South Africa—they never reckoned upon having to cope with them. These were separate nations, they thought, independent in fact if not in name, which would seize the occasion to separate themselves entirely from the mother country. In South Africa they were sure that there would be smouldering discontent enough left from the days of the Boer War to break out into a new flame of war and rebellion at this great chance.

And so it drove them mad with fury when they learned that Canada and all the rest had gone in, heart and soul. And when even their poison gas could not make the Canadians yield; when, later still, they learned that the Canadians were their match, and more than their match, in every phase of the great game of war, their rage led them to excesses against the men from overseas, even more damnable than those that were their general practice.

These Canadians who were now my hosts, had located their guns in a pit triangular in shape. The guns were mounted at the corners of the triangle, and along its sides. And constantly, while I was there they coughed their short, sharp coughs and sent a spume of metal flying toward the German lines. Never have I seen a busier spot. And, remember; until I had almost fallen into that pit, with its spluttering, busy guns, I had not been able to make even a good guess as to where they were I The very presence of this workshop of death was hidden from all save those who had a right to know of it.

It was a masterly piece of camouflage. I wish I could explain to you how the effect was achieved. It was all made plain to me; every step of the process was explained, and I cried out in wonder and in admiration at the clever simplicity of it. But that is one of the things I may not tell. I saw many things, during my time at the front, that the Germans would give a pretty penny to know. But none of the secrets that I learned would be more valuable, even to-day, than that of that hidden battery. And so, I must leave you in ignorance as to that.

The commanding officer was most kindly and patient in explaining matters to me.

"We can't see hide nor hair of our targets here, of course," he said, "any more than Fritz can see us. We get all our ranges and the records of all our hits, from Normabell."

I looked a question, I suppose.

"You called on him, I think—up on the Pimple. Major Normabell, D.S.O."

That was how I learned the name of the imperturbable major with whom I had smoked a pipe on the crest of Vimy Ridge. I shall always remember his name and him. I saw no man in France who made a livelier impression upon my mind and my imagination.

"Aye," I said. "I remember. So that's his name—Normabell, D.S.O. I'll make a note of that.*"

My informant smiled.

"Normabell's one of our characters," he said. "Well, you see he commands a goodish bit of country there where he sits. And when he needs them he has aircraft observations to help him too. He's our pair of eyes. We're like moles down here, we gunners; but he does all our seeing for us. And he's in constant communication; he or one of his officers."

I wondered where all the shells the battery was firing were headed for. And I learned that just then it was paying its respects particularly to a big factory building just west of Lens. For some reason that factory had been marked for destruction; but it had been reinforced and strengthened so that it was taking a lot of smashing and standing a good deal more punishment than any one had thought it could. Which was reason enough, in itself, to stick to the job until that factory was nothing more than a heap of dust and ruins.

The way the guns kept pounding away at it, made me think of firemen in a small town drenching a local blaze with their hose. The gunners were just as eager as that. And I could almost see that factory crumbling away. Major Normabell had pointed it out to me, up on the ridge, and now I knew why. I'll venture to say that before night the eight-inch howitzers of that battery had utterly demolished it, and had so ended whatever usefulness it had had for the Germans.

It was cruel business to be knocking the towns and factories of our ally, France, to bits in the fashion that we were doing that day, there and at many another point along the front. The Huns are fond of saying that much of the destruction in Northern France has been the work of allied artillery. True enough; but who made that inevitable % And it was not our guns that laid waste a whole countryside before the German retreat in the spring of 1917, when the Huns ran wild, rooting up fruit trees, cutting down every other tree that could be found, and doing every other sort of wanton damage and mischief their hands could find to do.

"Hard lines," said the battery commander. He shrugged his shoulders. "No use trying to spare shells here, though, even on French towns. The harder we smash them the sooner it'll be over. Look here, sir."

He pointed out the men who sat, their telephone receivers strapped over their ears. Each served a gun. In all that hideous din it was of the utmost importance that they should hear correctly every word and figure that came to them over the wire —a part of that marvellously complete telephone and telegraph system that has been built for and by the British Army in France.

"They get corrections on every shot," he told me. "The guns are altered in elevation according to what they hear. The range is changed, and the pointing, too. We never see old Fritz, but we know he's getting the visiting cards we send him.'

They were amazingly calm, those laddies at the telephones. In all that hideous, never-ending din they never grew excited. Their voices were calm and steady as they repeated the orders that came to them. I have seen girls at hotel switchboards, expert operators working with conditions made to their order, who grew infinitely more excited at a busy time, when many calls were coming in and going out. Those men might have been at home, talking to a friend of their plans for an evening's diversion, for all the nervousness or fussiness, they showed.

Up there, on the Pimple, I had seen Normabell, the eyes of the battery. Here I was watching its ears. And, to finish the metaphor, to work it out, I was listening to its voice. Its brazen tongues were giving voice continually. The guns—after-all, everything else led up to them. They were the reason for all the rest of the machinery of the battery, and it was they who said the last short word.

There was a good deal of rough joking and laughter in the battery. The Canadian gunners took their task lightly enough, though their work was of the hardest—and of the most dangerous, too. But jokes ran from group to group, from gun to gun. They were constantly kidding one another, as an American would say, I think. If a correction came for one gun that showed there had been a mistake in sighting after the last order—if, that is, the gunners, and not the distant observers, were plainly at fault—there would be a good-natured outburst of chaffing from all the others.

But, though such a spirit of lightness prevailed, there was not a moment of loafing. These men were engaged in a grim, deadly task, and every once in a while I would catch a black, purposeful look in a man's eyes that made me realize that, under all the light talk and laughter there was a perfect realization of the truth. They might not show, on the surface, that they took life and their work seriously. Ah, no ! They preferred, after the custom of their race, to joke with death.

And so they were doing quite literally. The Germans knew perfectly well that there was a battery somewhere near the spot where I had found my gunners. Only the exact location was hidden from them, and they never ceased their efforts to determine that. Fritz's aeroplanes were always trying to sneak over to get a look. An aeroplane was the only means of detection the Canadians feared. No, I will not say they feared it! The word fear did not exist for that battery. But it was the only way in which there was a tolerable chance, even, for Fritz to locate them, and, for the sake of the whole operation at that point, as well as for their own interest, they were eager to avoid that.

German aeroplanes were always trying to sneak over, as I say, but nearly always our men of the Royal Flying Corps drove them back. We came as close, just then, to having command of the air in that sector as any army does these days. You cannot quite command or control the air. A few hostile flyers can get through the heaviest barrage and the staunchest air patrol. And so, every once in a while, an alarm would sound, and all hands would crane their necks upward to watch an aeroplane flying above with an iron cross painted upon its wings.

Then, and, as a rule, then only, fire would cease for a few minutes. There was far less chance of detection when the guns were still. At the height at which our Archies—so the anti-aircraft guns are called by Tommy Atkins—forced the Boche to fly there was little chance of his observers picking out this battery, at least, against the ground. If the guns were giving voice that chance was tripled. And so they stopped, at such times, until a British flyer had had time to engage the Hun and either bring him down or send him scurrying for safe shelter behind his own lines.

Fritz, in the air, liked to have the odds with him, as a rule. It was exceptional to find a German flyer like Boelke who really went in for single-handed duels in the air. As a rule they preferred to attack a single plane with half a dozen, and so make as sure as they could of victory at a minimum of risk. But that policy did not always work—sometimes the lone British flyer came out ahead, despite the odds against him.

There was a good deal of firing on general principles from Fritz. His shells came wandering querulously about, striking on every side of the battery. Occasionally, of course, there was a hit that was direct, or nearly so. And then, as a rule, a new mound or two would appear in the little cemetery, and a new set of crosses that, for a few days, you might easily enough have marked for new because they would not be weathered yet. But such hits were few and far between, and they were lucky, casual shots, of which the Germans themselves did not have the satisfaction of knowing.

"Of course, if they get our range, really, and find out all about us, we'll have to move," said the officer in command. "That would be a bore, but it couldn't be helped. We're a fixed target, you see, as soon as they know just where we are, and they can turn loose a battery of heavy howitzers against us and clear us out of here in no time. But we're pretty quick movers when we have to move. It's great sport, in a way too, sometimes. We leave all the camouflage behind, and sometimes Fritz will spend a week shelling a position that was moved away at the first shell that came as if it meant they really were on to us."

I wondered how a battery commander would determine the difference between a casual hit and the first shell of a bombardment definitely planned and accurately placed.

"You can tell, as a rule, if you know the game," he said. "There'll be searching shells, you see. There'll be one too far, perhaps. And then, after a pretty exact interval, there'll be another, maybe a bit short. Then one to the left, and then one to the right. By that time we're off as a rule, we don't wait for the one that will be scored a hit! If you're quick, you see, you can beat Fritz to it by keeping your eyes open, and being ready to move in a hurry when he's got a really good argument to make you do it."

But while I was there, while Fritz was inquisitive enough, his curiosity got him nowhere. There were no casual hits, even, and there was nothing to make the battery feel that it must be making ready for a quick trek.

Was that no weird, strange game of hide and seek that I watched being played at Vimy Ridge? It gave me the creeps, that idea of battling with an enemy you could not see ! It must be hard, at times, I think, for the gunners to realize that they are actually at war. But, no; there is always the drone and the squawking of the German shells, and the plop-plop, from time to time, as one finds its mark in the mud near by. But to think of shooting always at an enemy you cannot see !

It brought to my mind a tale I had heard at hame in Scotland. There was a hospital in Glasgow, and there a man who had gone to see a friend stopped, suddenly, in amazement, at the side of a cot. He looked down at features that were familiar to him. The man in the cot was not looking at him, and the visitor stood gaping, staring at him in the utmost astonishment and doubt.

"I say, man," he asked, at last, "are ye not Tamson, the baker?"

The wounded man opened his eyes, and looked up, weakly.

"Aye," he said. "I'm Tamson, the baker."

His voice was weak, and he looked tired. But he looked puzzled, too.

"Weel, Tamson, man, what's the matter wi' ye?" asked the other. "I didna hear that ye were sick or hurt. How comes it ye are here? Can it be that ye ha' been to the war, man, and we not hearing of it, at all?"

"Aye, I think so," said Tamson, still weakly, but as if he were rather glad of a chance to talk, at that.

"Ye think so?" asked his friend, in greater astonishment than ever. "Man, if ye've been to the war do ye not know it for sure and certain?"

"Well, I will tell ye how it is," said Tamson, very slowly and wearily. "I was in the reserve, do ye ken. And I was standin' in front of my hoose one day in August, thinkin' of nothin' at all. I marked a man who was coming doon the street, wi' a blue paper in his hand, and studyin' the numbers on the doorplates. But I paid no great heed to him until he stoppit and spoke to me.

"He had stoppit outside my hoose and looked at the number, and then at his blue paper. And then he turned to me.

"'Are ye Tamson, the baker?' he asked me— just as ye asked me that same question the noo.

"And I said to him, just as I said it to ye, 'Aye, I'm Tamson, the baker.'

"Then it's Hamilton Barracks for ye, Tamson,' he said, and handed me the blue paper.

"Four hours from the time when he handed me the blue paper in front of my hoose in Glasgow I was at Hamilton Barracks. In twelve hours I was in Southampton. In twenty hours I was in France. And aboot as soon as I got there I was in a lot of shooting and running this way and that that they ha' told me since was the Battle of the Marne.

"And in twenty-four hours more I was on my way back to Glasgow! In forty-eight hours I woke up in Stobe Hill Infirmary and the nurse was saying in my ear: 'Ye're all richt the noo, Tamson. We ha' only just amputated your leg!

"So I think I ha' been to the war, but I can only say I think so. I only know what I was told— that ha' never seen a damn German yet! '

That is a true story of Tamson the baker. And his experience has actually been shared by many a poor fellow—and by many another who might have counted himself lucky if he had lost no more than a leg, as Tamson did.

But the laddies of my battery, though they were shooting now at Germans they could not see, had

had many a close up view of Fritz in the past, and expected many another in the future. Maybe they will get one, some time, after the fashion of the company of which my boy John once told me.

The captain of this company—a Hieland company, it was, though not of John's regiment—had spent most of his time in London before the war, and belonged to several clubs, which, in those days, employed many Germans as servants and waiters. He was a big man, and he had a deep, bass voice, so that he roared like the bull of Bashan when he had a mind to raise it for all to hear.

One day things were dull in his sector. The front line trench was not far from that of the Germans, but there was no activity beyond that of the snipers, and the Germans were being so cautious that ours were getting mighty few shots. The captain was bored, and so were the men.

"How would you like a pot shot, lads?'' he asked.

"Fine!" came the answer. "Fine, sir!"

"Very well," said the captain. "Get ready with your rifles, and keep your eyes on yon trench."

It was not more than thirty yards away—point-blank range. The captain waited until they were ready. And then his voice rang out in its loudest, most commanding roar.

"Waiter!" he shouted.

Forty helmets popped up over the German parapet, and a storm of bullets swept them away!


 


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