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A Minstrel in France
Chapter 20


IT was seven o'clock in the morning of a goodly and a beautiful day when we set out from Tramecourt for Arras. Arras, that town so famous now in British history and in the annals of this war, had been one of our principal objectives from the outset, but we had not known when we were to see it. Arras had been the pivot of the great northern drive in the spring; the drive that Hindenburg had fondly supposed he had spoiled by his "strategic" retreat in the region of the Somme, begun just before the British and the French were ready to attack.

What a bonnie morning that was, to be sure! The sun was out, after some rainy days, and glad we all were to see it. The land was sprayed with silver light; the air was as sweet and as soft and as warm as a baby's breath. And the cars seemed to leap forward, as if they, too, loved the day and the air. They ate up the road. They seemed to take hold of its long, smooth surface—they are grand roads, over yon, in France—and reel it up in underneath their wheels as if it were a tape.

This time we did little stopping, no matter how good the reason looked. We went hurtling through villages and towns we had not seen before. Our horn and our siren shrieked a warning as we shot through. And it seemed wrong. They looked so peaceful and so quiet, did those French towns, on that summer's morning! Peaceful, aye, and languorous, after all the bustle and haste we had been seeing. The houses were set in pretty encasements of bright foliage and they looked as though they had been painted against the background of the landscape with water colours.

It was hard to believe that war had passed that way. It had; there were traces everywhere of its grim visitation. But here its heavy hand has been laid lightly upon town and village. It was as if a wave of poison gas of the sort the Germans brought into war had been turned aside by a friendly breeze, arising in the very nick of time. Little harm had been done along the road we travelled. But the thunder of the guns was always in our ears; we could hear the steady, throbbing rhythm of the cannon, muttering away to the north and east.

It was very warm, and so, after a time, as we passed through a village, some one—Hogge, I think—suggested that a bottle of ginger beer all round would not be amiss. The idea seemed to be regarded as an excellent one, so Godfrey spoke to the chauffeur beside him, and we stopped. We had not known, at first, that there were troops in town. But there were—Highlanders. And they came swarming out. I was recognized at once.

"Well, here's old Harry Lauder!" cried one braw laddie.

"Come on, Harry—gie us a song!" they shouted. "Let's have 'Roamin' in the Gloamin',' Harry! Gie us the Bonnie Lassie! We ha' na' heard ' The Laddies Who Fought and Won,' Harry. They tell us that's a braw song! "

We were not really supposed to give any roadside concerts that day, but how was I to resist them? So we pulled up into a tiny side street, just off the market square, and I sang several songs for them. We saved time by not unlimbering the wee piano, and I sang, without accompaniment, standing up in the car. But they seemed to be as well pleased as though I had had the orchestra of a big theatre to support me, and all the accompaniments and trappings of the stage. They were very loath to let me go, and I don't know how much time we really saved by not giving our full and regular programme. For, before I had done, they had me telling stories, too. Captain Godfrey was smiling, but he was glancing at his watch too, and he nudged me, at last, and made me realize that it was time for us to go on, no matter how interesting it might be to stay.

"I'll be good," I promised, with a grin, as we drove on. "We shall go straight on to Arras now!"

But we did not. We met a bunch of engineers on the road, after a space, and they looked so wistful when we told them we maun be getting right along, without stopping to sing for them, that I had not the heart to disappoint them. So we got out the wee piano and I sang them a few songs. It seemed to mean so much to those boys along the roads! I think they enjoyed the concerts even more than did the great gatherings that were assembled for me at the rest camps. A concert was more of a surprise for them, more of a treat. The other laddies liked them, too— aye, they liked them fine. But they would have been prepared, sometimes - they had been looking forward to the fun. And the laddies along the roads took them as a man takes a grand bit of scenery, coming before his eyes, suddenly, as he turns a bend in a road he does not ken.

As for myself, I felt that I was becoming quite a proficient open-air performer by now. My voice was standing the strain of singing under such novel and difficult conditions much better than I had thought it could. And I saw that I must be at heart and by nature a minstrel! I know I got more pleasure fro those concerts I gave as a minstrel wandering in France than did the soldiers or any. o those who heard me.

I have been before the public for many years. Applause has always been sweet to me. It is to any artist, and when one tells you it is not, you may set it down in your hearts that he or she is telling less than the truth. It is the breath of life to us to know that folks are pleased by what we do for them. Why else would we go on about our tasks? I have had much applause. I have had many honours. I have told you about that great and overwhelming reception that greeted me when I sailed into Sydney Harbour. In Britain, in America, I have had greetings that have brought tears into my eye; and such a lump into my throat, that until it had gone down I could not sing, or say a word of thanks.

But never has applause sounded so sweet to me as it did along those dusty roads in France, with the poppies gleaming red and the corn-flowers blue through the yellow fields of grain beside the roads ! They cheered me, d'ye ken—those tired and dusty heroes of Britain along the French roads! They cheered as they squatted down in a circle about us, me in my kilt, and Johnson tinkling away as if his very life depended upon it, at his wee piano! Ah, those wonderful, wonderful soldiers I The tears come into my eyes, and my heart is sore and heavy within me when I think that mine was the last voice many of them ever heard lifted in song. They were on their way to the trenches, so many of those laddies who stopped for a song along the road. And when men are going into the trenches they know, and all who see them passing know, that there are some who will never come out.

Despite all the interruptions, though, it was not much after noon when we reached Blangy. Here, in that suburb of Arras, were the head-quarters of the------th Division, and as I stepped out of the car I thrilled to the knowledge that I was treading ground for ever to be famous as the starting-point of the Highland Brigade in the attack of April 9, 1917.

And now I saw Arras, and, for the first time, a town that had been systematically and ruthlessly shelled. There are no words in any tongue I know to give you a fitting picture of the devastation of Arras. "Awful" is a puny word, a thin one, a feeble one. I pick impotently at the cover-,let of my imagination when I try to frame language to make you understand what it was I saw when I came to Arras on that bright June day.

I think the old city of Arras should never be rebuilt. I doubt if it can be rebuilt, indeed. But I think that, whether or not, a golden fence should be built around it, and it should for ever and for all time be preserved as a monument to the wanton wickedness of the Hun. It should serve and stand, in its stark desolation, as a tribute, dedicated to the Kultur of Germany. No painter could depict the frightfulness of that city of the dead. No camera could make you see it as it is. Only your eyes can do that for you. And even then you cannot realize it all at once. Your eyes are more merciful than the truth and the Hun.

The Germans shelled Arras long after there was any military reason for doing so. The sheer, wanton love of destruction must have moved them. They had destroyed its military usefulness, but still they poured shot and shell into the town. I went through its streets, for the Germans had been pushed back so far by then that the city was no longer under steady fire. But they had done their work.

Nobody was living in Arras. No one could have lived there. The houses had been smashed to pieces. The pavements were dust and rubble. But there was life in the city. Through the ruins our men moved as ceaselessly and as restlessly as the tenants of an ant-hill suddenly upturned by a ploughshare. Soldiers were everywhere, and guns —guns, guns! For Arras had a new importance now. It was a centre for many roads. Some of the most important supply roads of this sector of the front converged in Arras.

Trains of ammunition trucks, supply carts and wagons of all sorts, great trucks laden with jam and meat and flour, all were passing every moment. There was an incessant din of horses' feet and the steady crunch, crunch of heavy boots as the soldiers marched through the rubble and the brick-dust. And I knew that all this had gone on while the town was still under fire. Indeed, even now, an occasional shell from some huge gun came crashing into the town, and there would be a new cloud of dust arising to mark its landing, a new collapse of some weakened wall. Warning signs were everywhere about, bidding all who saw them beware of the imminent collapse of some shattered masonry.

I saw what the Germans had left of the stately old Cathedral, and of the famous Cloth Hall, one of the very finest examples of the guild halls of mediaeval times. Goths—Vandals—no, it is unfair to seek such names for the Germans. They have established themselves as the masters of all time in brutality and in destruction. There is no need to call them anything but Germans. The doth Hall was almost human in its pitiful appeal to the senses and the imagination. The German fire had picked it to pieces, so that it stood in a stark outline, like some carcase picked bare by a vulture.

Our soldiers who were quartered near-by lived outside the town in huts. They were the men of the Highland Brigade, and the ones I had hoped and wished, above all others, to meet when I came to France. They received our party with the greatest enthusiasm, and they were especially flattering when they greeted me. One of the Highland officers took me in hand immediately, to show me the battlefield.

The ground over which we moved had literally been churned by shell-fire. It was neither dirt nor mud that we walked upon; it was a sort of powder. The very soil had been resolved into a fine dust by the terrific pounding it had received. The dust rose and got into our eyes and mouths and nostrils. There was a lot of sneezing among the members of the Reverend Harry Lauder, M.P., Tour, that day at Arras! And the wire! It was strewn in every direction, with seeming aimlessness. Heavily barbed it was, and bad stuff to get caught in. One of the great reasons for the preliminary bombardment that usually precedes an attack is to cut this wire. If charging men are caught in a bad tangle of wire they can be wiped out by machine gun-fire before they can get clear.

I asked a Highlander, one day, how long he thought the war would last.

"Forty years," he said, never batting an eye-lid. "We'll be fighting another year, and then it'll tak us thirty-nine years more to wind up all the wire!"

Off to my right there was a network of steel strands, and as I gazed at it I saw a small dark object hanging from it and fluttering in the breeze. I was curious enough to go over, and I picked my way carefully through the maze-like network of wire to see what it might be. When I came close I saw it was a bit of cloth, and immediately I recognized the tartan of the Black Watch—the famous Forty-second. Mud and blood held that bit of cloth fastened to the wire, as if by a cement. Plainly, it had been torn from a kilt.

I stood for a moment, looking down at that bit of tartan, flapping in the soft summer breeze. And as I stood I could look out and over the landscape, dotted with a very forest of little wooden crosses, that marked the last resting-places of the men who had charged across this maze of wire and died within it. They rose, those rough crosses, like sheathed swords out of the wild, luxuriant jungle of grass that had grown up in that blood-drenched soil. I wondered if the owner of the bit of tartan were still safe or if he lay under one of the crosses that I saw.

There was room for sad speculation here! Who had he been? Had he swept on, leaving that bit of his kilt as evidence of his passing? Had he been one of those who had come through the attack, gloriously, to victory, so that he could look back upon that day as long as he lived? Or was he dead, perhaps within a hundred yards of where I stood and gazed down at that relic of him? Had he folks at hame in Scotland who had gone through days of anguish on his account— such days of anguish as I had known?

I asked a soldier for some wire clippers, and I cut the wire on either side of that bit of tartan, and took it, just as it was. And as I put the wee bit of a brave man's kilt away I kissed the bloodstained tartan, for Auld Lang Syne, and thought of what a tale it could tell if it could only speak!

"Ha' ye seen a' the men frae the braes and the glen.
Ha' ye seen them a' marchin' awa!?
Ha' ye seen a' the men frae the wee but-an'-ben,
And the gallants frae mansion and ha'?"

I have said before that I do not want to tell you of the tales of atrocities that I heard in France. I heard plenty—aye, and terrible they were. But I dinna wish to harrow the feelings of those who read more than need be, and I will leave that task to those who saw for themselves with their eyes, when I had but my ears to serve me. Yet there was one blood-chilling story that my boy John told to me, and that the finding of that bit of Black Watch tartan brought to my mind. He told it to me as we sat before the fire in my wee hoose at Dunoon, just a few nights before he went back to the front for the last time. We were talking of the war—what else was there to talk aboot?

It was seldom that John touched on the harsher things he knew about the war. He preferred, as a rule, to tell me stories of the courage and the devotion of his men, and of the light way that they turned things when there was so much chance for grief and care.

"One night, Dad," he said, "we had a battalion of the Black Watch on our right, and they made a pretty big raid on the German trenches. It developed into a sizable action for any other war, but one trifling enough and unimportant in this one. The Germans had been readier than the Black Watch had supposed, and had reinforcements ready, and sixty of the Highlanders were captured. The Germans took them back into their trenches, and stripped them to the skin. Not a stitch or a rag of clothing did they leave them, and, though it was April, it was a bitter night, with a wind to cut even a man warmly clad to the bone.

"All night they kept them there, standing at attention, stark naked, so that they were half-frozen when the grey, cold light of the dawn began to show behind them in the east. And then the Germans laughed, and told their prisoners to go. Go on; go back to your own trenches, as you are!' they said.

"The laddies of the Black Watch could scarcely believe their ears. There was about seventy-five yards between the two trench lines at that point, and the No Man's Land was rough going, all shell-pitted as it was. By that time, too, of course, German repair parties had mended all the wire before their trenches. So they faced a rough journey, all naked as they were. But they started.

"They got through the wire, with the Germans laughing fit to kill themselves at the sight of the streaks of blood showing on their white skins as the wire got in its work. They laughed at them, Dad! And then, when they were half-way across the No Man's Land they understood, at last, why the Germans had let them go. For fire was opened on them with machine guns. Every one was mowed down. Every one of those poor, naked, bleeding lads was killed, murdered by that treacherous fire from behind!

"We heard all the details of that dirty bit of treachery later. We captured some German prisoners from that very trench. Fritz is a decent enough sort, sometimes, and there were men there whose stomachs were turned by that sight, so that they were glad to creep over, later, and surrender. They told us, with tears in their eyes. But we had known, before that. We had needed no witnesses except the bodies of the boys. It had been too dark for the men in our trenches to see what was going on, and a burst of machine gun-fire, along the trenches, is nothing to get curious or excited about. But those naked bodies, lying there in No Man's Land, had told us a good deal.

"Dad—that was an awful sight! I was in command of one of the burying parties we had to send out."

That was the tale I thought of when I found that bit of the Black Watch tartan. And I remembered, too, that it was with the Black Watch that John Poe, the famous American football player from Princeton, met his death in a charge. He had been offered a commission, but he preferred to stay with the boys in the ranks.


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