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A Minstrel in France
Chapter 21


WE left our motor-cars behind us in Arras, for to-day we were to go to a front-line trench, and the climax of my whole trip, so far as I could foresee, was at hand. Johnson and the wee piano had to stay behind, too—we could not expect to carry even so tiny an instrument as that into a front-line trench. Once more we had to don steel helmets, but there was a great difference between these and the ones we had had at Vimy Ridge. Mine fitted badly, and kept sliding down over my ears, or else slipping way down to the back of my head. It must have given me a grotesque look, and it was most uncomfortable. So I decided I would take it off and carry it for awhile.

"You'd better, keep it on, Harry," Captain Godfrey advised me. "This district is none too safe, even right here, and it gets worse as we go along. A whistling Percy may come along looking for you any minute."

That is the name of a shell that is good enough to advertise its coming by a whistling, shrieking sound. I could hear Percies whistling all around, and see them spattering up the ground as they struck, not so far away, but they did not seem to be coming in our direction. So I decided I would take a chance.

"Well," I said, as I took the steel hat off, "I'll just keep this bonnet handy and slip it on if I see Percy coming."

But later I was mighty glad of even an ill-fitting steel helmet.

Several staff officers from the Highland Brigade had joined the Reverend Harry Lauder, M.P., Tour, by now. Affable, pleasant gentlemen they were, and very eager to show us all there was to be seen. And they had more sights to show their visitors than most hosts have.

We were on ground now that had been held by the Germans before the British had surged forward all along this line in the April battle. Their old trenches, abandoned now, ran like deep fissures through the soil. They had been pretty well blasted to pieces by the British bombardment, but a good many of their deep, concrete dugouts had survived. These were not being used by the British here, but were saved in good repair as show places, and the. officers who were our guides took us down into some of them.

Fine and comfortable they must have been, too ! They had been the homes of German officers, and the Hun officers did themselves very well indeed when they had the chance. They had electric light in their cave houses. To be sure they had used German wall paper, and atrociously ugly stuff it was. But it pleased their taste, no doubt. Mightily amazed some of Fritz's officers must have been, back in April, as they sat and took their ease in these luxurious quarters, to have Jock come tumbling in upon them, a grenade in each hand!

Our men might have used these dugouts, and been snug enough in them, but they preferred air and ventilation, and lived in little huts above the ground. I left our party and went around among them and, to my great satisfaction, found, as 1 had been pretty sure I would, a number of old acquaintances and old admirers who came crowding around me to shake hands. I made a great collection of souvenirs here, for they insisted on pressing trophies upon me.

"Tak them, Harry," said one after another. "We can get plenty more where they came from!"

One laddie gave me a helmet with a bullet hole through the skip; and another presented me with one of the most interesting souvenirs of all I carried home from Erance—a German sniper's outfit. It consisted of a suit of overalls, waterproofed. If a man had it on he would be completely covered, from head to foot, with just a pair of slits for his eyes to peep out of, and another for his mouth, so that he could breathe. It was cleverly painted the colour of a tree; part of it like the bark, part green, like leaves sprouting from it.

"Eh, Jock," I asked the laddie who gave it to me. "A thing like yon's hard to be getting, I'm thinking?"

"Oh, not so very hard," he answered carelessly. "You've got to be a good shot." And he wore medals that showed he was!" All you've got to do, Harry, is to kill the chap inside it before he kills you. The fellow who used to own that outfit you've got hid himself in the fork of a tree, and, as you may guess, he looked like a branch of the tree itself. He was pretty hard to spot. But I got suspicious of him, from the way bullets were coming over steadily, and I decided that that tree hid a sniper.

"After that it was just a question of being patient. It was no so long before I was sure, and then I waited, until I saw that branch move as no branch of a tree ever did move. I fired then —and got him! He was away outside of his lines, and that nicht I slipped out and brought back this outfit. I wanted to see how it was made."

An old grizzled sergeant of the Black Watch gave me a German revolver.

"How came you to get this?" I asked him. "It was jist an acceedent, Harry," he said. "We were raiding a trench, do you ken, and I was in a sap when a German officer came along, and we bumped into one another. He looked at me, and I at him. I think he was goin' to say something, but I dinna ken what it was he had on his mind. That was his revolver you've got in your hand now." And then he thrust his hand into his pocket. "Here's the watch he used to carry, too,'-' he said. It was a thick, fat-bellied affair, of solid gold. "It's a bit too big, but it's a rare good timekeeper."

Soon after that an officer gave me another trophy that is, perhaps, even more interesting than the sniper's suit. It is rarer, at least. It is a small, sweet-toned bell that used to hang in a wee church in the small village of Athies, on the Scarpe, about a mile and a half from Arras. The Germans wiped out church and village, but in some odd way they found the bell and saved it. They hung it in their trenches, and it was used to sound a gas alarm. On both sides a signal is given when the sentry sees that there is to be a gas attack, in order that the men may have time to don the clumsy gas masks that are the only protection against the deadly fumes. The wee bell is eight inches high, maybe, and I have never heard a lovelier tone.

"That bell has rung men to worship, and it has rung them to death," said the officer who gave it to me.

Presently I was called back to my party, after I had spent some time with the lads in their huts. A general had joined the party now, and he told me, with a smile, that I was to go up to the trenches, if I cared to do so. I will not say I was not a bit nervous, but I was glad to go, for a' that. It was the thing that had brought me to France, after a'.

So we started, and by now I was glad to wear my steel hat, fit or no fit. I was to give an entertainment in the trenches, and so we set out. Pretty soon I was climbing a steep railroad embankment, and when we slid down on the other side we found the trenches; wide, deep gaps in the earth, and all alive with men. We got into the trenches themselves by means of ladders, and the soldiers came swarming about me with yells of "Hello, Harry! Welcome, Harry!"

They were told that I had come to sing for them, and so, with no further preliminaries, I began my concert. I started with my favourite opening song, as usual—"Roamin' in the Gloamin'," and then went on with the other old favourites. I told a lot of stories, too, and then I came to "The Laddies Who Fought and Won." None of the men had heard it, but there were officers there who had seen "Three Cheers" during the winter when they had had a short leave to run over to London.

I got through the first verse all right, and was just swinging into the first chorus when, without the least warning, hell popped open in that trench. A missile came in that some officer at once hailed as a whizz bang. It is called that, for that is just exactly the sound it makes. It is like a giant firecracker, and it would be amusing if one did not know it was deadly. Those missiles are not fired by the big guns behind the lines, but by the small trench cannon, worked, as a rule, by compressed air. The range is very short, but they are capable of great execution at that range.

Was I frightened? I must have been. I know I felt a good deal as I have done when I have been seasick. And I began to think at once of all sorts of places where I would rather have been than in that trench. I was standing on a slight elevation at the back, or parados, of the trench, so that I was raised a bit above my audience, and I had a fine view of that deadly thing, wandering about, spitting fire and metal parts. It travelled so that the men could dodge it, but it was throwing off slugs that you could neither see nor dodge, and it was a poor place to be.

And the one whizz bang was not enough to suit Fritz. It was followed immediately by a lot more, that came popping in and making themselves as unpleasant as you could imagine. I watched the men about me, and they seemed to be unconcerned, and to be thinking much more of me and my singing than of the whizz bangs. So, no matter how I felt, there was nothing for me to do but to keep on with my song. I decided that I must really be safe enough, no matter how I felt. But I had certain misgivings on the subject. Still, I managed to go on with my song, and I think I was calm enough to look at; though, if I was, my appearance wholly belied my true inward feelings.

I struggled through to the end of the chorus— and I think I sang pretty badly, although I don't know. But I was pretty sure the end of the world had come for me, and that these laddies were taking things as calmly as they were, simply because they were used to it, and it was all in the day's work for them. The Germans were fairly sluicing , that trench by now. The whizz bangs were popping over us like giant fire-crackers, going off one and two and three at a time. And the trench was full of flying slugs and chunks of dirt, striking against our faces and hurtling all about us.

There I was. I had a good "house." I wanted to please my audience. Was it no a trying situation ? I thought Fritz might have had manners enough to wait until I had finished my concert, at least! But the Hun has no manners, as all the world knows.

Along that embankment we had climbed to reach the trenches, and not very far from the bit of trench in which I was singing, there was a rail-road bridge of some strategic importance. And now a shell hit that bridge, not a whizz bang, but a real, big shell. It exploded with a hideous screech, as if the bridge were some human thing being struck, and screaming out its agony. The soldiers looked at me, and I saw some of them winking. They seemed to be mightily interested in the way I was taking all this. I looked back at them, and then at a Highland colonel who was listening to my singing as quietly and as carefully as if he had been at a stall in Covent Garden during the opera season. He caught my glance.

"I think they're coming it a bit thick, Lauder, old chap," he remarked quietly:

"I quite agree with you, colonel," I said. I tried to ape his voice and manner, but I wasn't so quiet as he.

Now there came a ripping, tearing sound in the air, and a veritable cloud-burst of the damnable whizz bangs broke over us. That settled matters. There were no orders, but every one turned, just as if it were a meeting, and a motion to adjourn had been put and carried unanimously. We all ran for the safety holes or dugouts in the side of the embankment. And I can tell ye that the Reverend Harry Lauder, M.P., Tour, were no the last ones to reach those shelters ! No, we were by no means the last.

I ha' nae doot thatl might have improved upon the shelter that I found, had I had time to pick and choose. But any shelter was good just then, and I was glad of mine, and of a chance to catch my breath. Afterward, I saw a picture by Captain Bairnsfather that made me laugh a good deal, because it represented so exactly the position I had felt myself in. He had made a drawing of two Tommies in a wee bit of a hole in a field that was being swept by shells and missiles of every sort. One was grousing to his mate, and the other said to him:

"If you know a better 'ole go 'ide in it!"

I have said we all turned and ran for cover. But there was one braw laddie who did nothing of the sort. He would not run, such tricks were not for him.

He was a big Hie'land laddie, and he wore naught but bis kilt and his semmet—his undervest. He had on his steel helmet, and it shaded a face that had not been shaved or washed for days. His great, brawny arms were folded across his chest, and he was smoking his pipe. And he stood there as quiet and unconcerned as if he had been a village smith gazing down a quiet country road. I watched him, and he saw me, and grinned at me. And now and then he glanced at me, quizzically.

"It's all right, Harry," he said, several times. "Dinna fash yoursel', man. I'll tell ye in time for ye to duck if I see one coming your way!"

We crouched in our holes until there came a brief lull in the bombardment. Probably the Germans thought they had killed us all and cleared the trench; or maybe it had been only that they hadn't liked my singing, and had been satisfied when they had stopped it. So we came out, but the firing was not over at all, as we found out at once. So we went down a bit deeper, into concrete dugouts.

This trench had been a part of the intricate German defensive system far back of their old front line, and they had had the pains of building and hollowing out the fine dugout into which I now went for shelter. Here they had lived, deep under the earth, like animals; and with animals, too. For when I reached the bottom a dog came to meet me, sticking out his red tongue to lick my hand, and wagging his tail as friendly as you please.

He was a German dog; one of the prisoners of war taken in the great attack. His old masters hadn't bothered to call him and take him with them when the Highlanders came along, and so he had stayed behind as part of the spoils of the attack.

That wasn't much of a dog, as dogs go. He was a mongrel-looking creature, but he couldn't have been friendlier. The Highlanders had adopted him and called him Fritz, and they were very fond of him, and he of them. He had no thought of war. He behaved just as dogs do at hame.

But above us the horrid din was still going on, and bits of shells were flying everywhere; any one of them enough to kill you, if it struck you in the right spot. I was glad, I can tell ye, that I was so snug and safe beneath the ground, and I had no mind at all to go out until the bombardment was well over. I knew now what it was to be really under fire. The casual sort of shelling I had bad to fear at Vimy Ridge was nothing to this. This was the real thing.

And then I thought that what I was experiencing for a few minutes was the daily portion of these laddies who were all aboot me—not for a few minutes, but for days and weeks and months at a time. And it came home to me again, and stronger than ever, what they were doing for us folks at hame, and how we ought to be feeling for them.

The heavy firing went on for three-quarters of an hour, at least. We could hear the chugging of the big guns, and the sorrowful swishing of the shells, as if they were mournful because they were not wreaking more destruction than they were. It all moved me greatly, but I could see that the soldiers thought nothing of it, and were quite unperturbed by the fearful demonstration that was going on above. They smoked and chatted, and my own nerves grew calmer.

Finally there seemed to come a real lull in the row above, and I turned to the colonel.

"Isn't it near time for me to be finishing my concert, sir?" I asked him.

"Very good," he said, jumping up. "Just as you say, Lauder."

So back we went to where I had begun to sing. My audience reassembled, and I struck up "The Laddies Who Fought and Won" again. It seemed, somehow, the most appropriate song I could have picked to sing in that spot. I finished, this time, but there was some discord in the closing bars, for the Germans were still at their shelling, sporadically.

So I finished, and I said good-bye to the men who were to stay in the trench, guarding that bit of Britain's far-flung battle-line. And then the Reverend Harry Lauder, M.P., Tour, was ready to go back; not to safety, at once, but to a region far less infested by the Hun than this one where we had been such warmly received visitors.


 


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