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A Minstrel in France
Chapter 25


ONE of the officers at Albert was looking at me in a curiously intent fashion. I noticed that. And soon he came over to me.

"Where do you go next, Harry?" he asked me. His voice was keenly sympathetic, and his eyes and his manner were very grave.

"To a place called Ovilliers," I said.

"So I thought," he said. He put out his hand, and I gripped it, hard. "I know, Harry. I know exactly where you are going, and I will send a man with you to act as your guide, who knows the spot you want to reach."

I couldn't answer him. I was too deeply moved. For Ovilliers is the spot where my son, Captain John Lauder, lies in his soldier's grave. That grave had been of course, from the very first, the final, the ultimate objective of my journey. And that morning, as we set out from Tramecourt, Captain Godfrey had told me, with grave sympathy, that at last we were coming to the spot that had been so constantly in my thoughts ever since we had sailed from Folkestone.

And so a private soldier joined our party as guide, and we took to the road again. The Bapaume road it was; a famous highway, bitterly contested, savagely fought for. It was one of the strategic roads of that whole region, and the Hun had made a desperate fight to keep control of it. But he had failed; as he has failed, and is failing still, in all his major efforts in France.

There was no talking in our car, which, this morning, was the second in the line. I certainly was not disposed to chat, and I suppose that sympathy for my feelings, and my glumness, stilled the tongues of my companions. And, at any rate, we had not travelled far when the car ahead of us stopped, and the soldier from Albert stepped into the road and waited for me. I got out when our car stopped, and joined him.

"I will show you the place now, Mr. Lauder," he said, quietly. So we left the cars standing in the road, and set out across a field that, like all the fields in that vicinity, had been ripped and torn by shell-fire. All about us, as we crossed that tragic field, there were little brown mounds, each with a white wooden cross upon it. June was out that day in full bloom. All over the valley—thickly sown with those white crosses—wild flowers in rare profusion, and thickly matted, luxuriant grasses, and all the little shrubs that God Himself looks after, were growing bravely in the sunlight, as though they were trying to cover up the work of the Hun.

It was a mournful journey, but, in some strange way, the peaceful beauty of the day brought comfort to me. And my own grief was altered by the vision of the grief that had come to so many others. Those crosses, stretching away as far as my eye could reach, attested to the fact that it was not I alone who had suffered and lost and laid a sacrifice upon the altar of my country. And in the presence of so many evidences of grief and desolation a private grief sank into its true proportions. It was no less keen, the agony of the thought of my boy was as sharp as ever. But I knew that he was only one, and that I was only one father. And there were so many like him—and so many like me, God help us all! Well, He did help me, as I have told, and I hope and prayed that He has helped many another. I believe He has; indeed, I know it.

Hogge and Dr. Adam, my two good friends, walked with me on that sad pilgrimage. I was acutely conscious of their sympathy; it was sweet and precious to have it. But I do not think we exchanged a word as we crossed that field. There was no need of words. I knew, without speech from them, how they felt, and they knew that I knew. So we came, when we were, perhaps, half a mile from the Bapaume road, to a slight eminence, a tiny hill that rose from the field. A little military cemetery crowned it. Here the graves were set in ordered rows, and there was a fence set around them, to keep them apart, and to mark that spot as holy ground, until the end of time. Five hundred British boys lie sleeping in that small acre of silence, and among them is my own laddie. There the fondest hopes of my life, the hopes that sustained and cheered me through many years, lie buried.

No one spoke. But the soldier pointed, silently and eloquently, to one brown mound in a row of brown mounds that looked alike, each like the other. Then he drew away. And Hogge and Adam stopped, and stood together, quiet and grave. And so I went alone to my boy's grave and flung myself down upon the warm, friendly earth. My memories of that moment are not very clear, but I think that for a few minutes I was utterly spent, that my collapse was complete.

He was such a good boy!

I hope you will not think, those of you, my friends, who may read what I am writing here, that I am exalting my lad above all the other Britons who died for King and country; or, and aye, above the brave laddies of other races who died to stop the Hun. But he was such a good boy!

As I lay there on that brown mound, under the June sun that day, all that he had been, and all that he had meant to me and to his mother came rushing back afresh to my memory, opening anew my wounds of grief. I thought of him as a baby, and as a wee laddie beginning to run around and talk to us. I thought of him in every phase and bit of his life, and of the friends that we had been, he and I. Such chums we were, always!

And as I lay there, as I look back upon it now, I can think of but the one desire that ruled and moved me. I wanted to reach my arms down into that dark grave, and clasp my boy tightly to my breast, and kiss Mm. And I wanted to thank him for what he had done for his country, and his mother, and for me.

Again there came to me as I lay there, the same gracious solace that God had given me after I heard of his glorious death. And I knew that this dark grave, so sad and lonely and forlorn, was but the temporary bivouac of my boy. I knew that it was no more than a trench of refuge against the storm of battle, in which he was resting until that hour shall sound when we shall all be reunited beyond the shadowy borderland of Death.

How long did I lie there? I do not know. And how I found the strength at last to drag myself to my feet and away from that spot, the dearest and the saddest spot on earth to me, God only knows. It was an hour of very great anguish for me; an hour of an anguish different, but only less keen, than that which I had known when they had told me first that I should never see my laddie in the flesh again. But as I took up the melancholy return journey across that field, with its brown mounds and its white crosses stretching so far away, they seemed to bring me a sort of tragic consolation.

I thought of all the broken-hearted ones at home in Britain. How many were waiting, as I had waited, until they, too,—they, too,—might come to France, and cast themselves down, as I had done, upon some brown mound, sacred in their thoughts? How many were praying for the day to come when they might gaze upon a white cross, as 1 had done, and from the brown mound out of which it rose gather a few crumbs of that brown earth, to be deposited in a sacred corner of a sacred place yonder in Britain?

While I was in America, on my last tour, a woman wrote to me from a town in the State of Maine. She was a stranger to me when she sat down to write that letter, but I count her now, although I have never seen her, among my very dearest friends.

"I have a friend in France," she wrote. "He is there with our American Army, and we had a letter from him the other day. I think you would like to hear what he wrote to us.

"'I was walking in the gloaming here in France the other evening,' he wrote. 'You know, I have always been very fond of that old song of Harry Lauder's, 'Roamin' in the Gloamin'.

"'Well, I was roamin' in the gloamin' myself, and as I went I hummed that very song, under my breath. And I came, in my walk to a little cemetery, on a tiny hill. There were many mounds there and many small white crosses. About one of them a Union Jack was wrapped so tightly that I could not read the inscription upon it. And something led me to unfurl that weather-worn flag, so that I could read. And what do you think? It was the grave of Harry Lauder's son, Captain John Lauder, of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, and his little family crest was upon the cross.

"'I stood there, looking down at that grave, and I said a little prayer, all by myself. And then I rewound the Union Jack about the cross. I went over to some ruins nearby, and there I found a red rose growing. I do believe it was the last rose of summer. And I took it up, very carefully, roots and all, and carried it over to Captain Lauder's grave, and planted it there.' "

What a world of comfort those words brought me!

It was about eight o'clock one morning that my boy John was killed, between Courcellete and Poizieres, on the Ancre, in the region that is known as the Somme battlefield. It was soon after breakfast, and John was going about, seeing to his men. His company was to be relieved that day, and to go back from the trenches to rest billets, behind the lines. We had sent our laddie a braw lot of Christmas packages not long before, but he had had them kept at the rest billet, so that he might have the pleasure of opening them when he was out of the trenches, and had a little leisure, even though it made his Christmas presents a wee bit late.

There had been a little mist upon the ground, as, at that damp and chilly season of the year, there nearly always was along the river Ancre. At that time, on that morning, it was just beginning to rise as the sun grew strong enough to banish it. I think John trusted too much to the mist, perhaps. He stepped for just a moment into the open; for just a moment he exposed himself, as he had to do, no doubt, to do his duty. And a German sniper, watching for just such chances, caught a glimpse of him. His rifle spoke ; its bullet pierced John's brave and gentle heart.

Tate, John's body-servant, a man from our own town, was the first to reach him. Tate was never far from John's side, and he was heart-broken when he reached him that morning and found that there was nothing he could do for him.

Many of the soldiers who served with John and under him have written to me, and come to me. And all of them have told me the same thing: that there was not a man in his company who did not feel his death as a personal loss and bereavement. And his superior officers have told me the same thing. In so far as such reports could comfort us, his mother and I have taken solace in them. All that we have heard of John's life in the trenches and of his death, was such a report as we or any parents would want to have of their boy.

John never lost his rare good nature. There were times when things were going very badly indeed, but at such times he could always be counted upon to raise a laugh and uplift the spirits of his men. He knew them all; he knew them well. Nearly all of them came from his home region near the Clyde, and so they were his neighbours and his friends.

I have told you earlier that John was a good musician. He played the piano rarely well, for an amateur, and he had a grand singing voice. And one of his fellow-officers told me that, after the fight at Beaumont-Hamel, one of the phases of the great Battle of the Somme, John's company found itself, toward evening, near the ruins of an old chateau. After that fight, by the way, dire news, sad news, came to our village of the men of the Argyll and Sutherland regiment, and there were many stricken homes that mourned brave lads who would never come home again.

John's men were near to exhaustion that night. They had done terrible work that day, and their losses had been heavy. Now that there was an interlude, they lay about, tired and bruised and battered. Many had been killed; many had been so badly wounded that they lay somewhere behind, or had been picked up already by the Red Cross men who followed them across the field of the attack. But there were many more who had been slightly hurt, and whose wounds began to pain them grievously now. The spirit of the men was dashed.

John's friend and fellow-officer told me of the scene.

"There we were, sir," he said. 'We were pretty well done in, I can tell you. And then Lauder came along. I suppose he was just as tired and worn out as the rest of us—God knows he had as much reason to be, and more ! But he was as cocky as a little bantam. And he was smiling. He looked about.

"'Here, this won't do!' he said. 'We've got to get these lads feeling better!' He was talking more to himself than to anyone else, I think. And he went exploring around. He got into what was left of that chateau—and I can tell you it wasn't much! The Germans had been using it as a point d'appui—a sort of rallying-place, sir—and our guns had smashed it up pretty thoroughly. I've no doubt the Fritzes had taken a hack at it, too, when they found they couldn't hold it any longer; they usually did.

"But, by a sort of miracle, there was a piano inside that had come through all the trouble. The building and all the rest of the furniture had been knocked to bits, but the piano was all right, although, as I say, I don't know how that had happened. Lauder spied it, and went clambering over all the debris and wreckage to reach it. He tried the keys, and found that the action was all right. So he began picking out a tune, and the rest of us began to sit up a bit. And pretty soon he lifted his voice in a rollicking tune—one of your own songs it was, sir—and in no time the men were all sitting up to listen to him. Then they joined in the chorus; and pretty soon you'd never have known they'd been tired or worn out! If there'd been a chance they'd have gone at Fritz and done the day's work all over again."

After John was killed, his brother officers sent us all his personal belongings. We have his field-glasses, with the mud of the trenches dried upon them. We have a little gold locket that he always wore around his neck. His mother's picture is in it, and that of the lassie he was to have married had he come home, after New Year. And we have his rings, and his boots, and his watch, and all the other small possessions that were a part of his daily life out there in France.

Many soldiers and officers of the Argyll and Sutherlanders pass the hoose at Dunoon on the Clyde. None ever passes the hoose, though, without dropping in, for a bite and sup if he has time to stop, and to tell us stories of our beloved boy.

No, I would no have you think that I would exalt my boy above all the others who have lived and died in France in the way of duty. But he was such a good boy. We have heard so many tales like those I have told you, to make us proud of him, and glad that he bore his part as a man should.

He will stay there, in that small grave on that tiny hill. I shall not bring his body back to rest in Scotland, even if the time comes when I might do so. It is a soldier's grave, and an honourable place for him to be, and I feel it is there that he would wish to lie, with his men lying close about him, until the time comes for the great reunion.

But I am going back to France to visit again and again that grave where he lies buried. So long as I live that hill will be the shrine to which many pilgrimages will be directed. The time will come again when I may take his mother with me, and when we may kneel together at that spot.

And meanwhile the wild flowers and the long grasses and all the little shrubs will keep watch and ward over him there, and over all the other brave soldiers who he hard by, who died for God, for their flag, and for the freedom of the world.


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