SO, at last, I turned back toward the road, and very
slowly, with bowed head and shoulders, feelings all at once very old, I
walked back toward the Bapaume highway. I was still silent, and when we
reached the road again, and the waiting cars, I turned, and looked back,
long and sorrowfully, at that tiny hill, and the grave it sheltered.
Godfrey and Hogge and Adam, Johnson and the soldiers of our party,
followed my gaze. But we looked in silence ; not one of us had a word to
say. There are moments, as I suppose we have all had to learn, that are
beyond words and speech.
And then at last we stepped back into the cars and
resumed our journey on the Bapaume road. We started slowly, and I looked
back until a turn in the road hid that field with its mounds and its
crosses, and that tiny cemetery on the wee hill. So I said good-bye to
my boy again, for a little while.
Our road was by way of Poizieres, and this part of
our journey took us through an area of fearful desolation. It was the
country that was most bitterly fought over in the summer-long battle of
the Somme in 1916, when the new armies of Britain had their baptism of
fire and sounded the knell of doom for the Hun. It was then he learned
that Britain had had time, after all, to train troops who man for man,
outmatched his best.
Here war had passed like a consuming flame, leaving
no living thing in its path. The trees were mown down, clean to the
ground. The very earth was blasted out of all semblance to its normal
kindly look. The scene was like a picture of Hell from Dante's
Inferno ; there is nothing upon this earth that may be compared with
it. Death and pain and agony had ruined this whole countryside, once so
smiling and fair to see.
After we had driven for a space we came to something
that lay by the roadside that was a fitting occupant of such a spot. It
was like the skeleton of some giant creature of a prehistoric age,
incredibly savage even in its stark, unlovely death. It might have been
the frame of some vast, metallic tumble bug, that, crawling ominously
along this road of death, had come into the path of a Colossus, and been
stepped upon, and then kicked aside from the road to die.
"That's what's left of one of our first tanks," said
Godfrey. "We used them first in this battle of the Somme, you remember.
And that must have been one of the' very earliest ones. They've been
improved and perfected since that time."
"How came it to belike this?" I asked, gazing at it
"A direct hit from a big German shell—a lucky hit, of
course. That's about the only thing that could put even one of the first
tanks out of action that way. Ordinary shells from field pieces,
machine-gun fire, that sort of thing, made no impression on the tanks.
But, of course------"
I could see for myself. The in'ards of the monster
had been pretty thoroughly knocked out. Well, that tank had done its
bit, I have no doubt. And, since its heyday, the brain of Mars has
spawned so many new ideas that this vast creature would have been
obsolete, and ready for the scrap heap, even had the Hun not put it
there before its time.
At the Butte de Marlincourt, one of the most bitterly
contested bits of the battlefield, we passed a huge mine crater, and I
made an inspection of it. It was like the crater of an old volcano, a
huge old mountain with a hole in its centre. Here were elaborate
dugouts, too, and many graves.
Soon we came to Bapaume. Bapaume was one of the
objectives the British failed to reach in the action of 1916. But early
in 1917 the Germans, seeing they had come to the end of their tether
there, retreated, and gave the town up. But what a town they left!
Bapaume was nearly as complete a ruin as Arras and Albert. And it had
not been wrecked by shell-fire. The Hun had done the work in cold blood.
The houses had been wrecked by human hands. Pictures still hung crazily
upon the walls. Grates were falling out of fireplaces. Beds stood on
end. Tables and chairs were wantonly smashed and there was black rum
We drove on then to a small town where the s
of pipes heralded our coming. It was the headquarters of General------—
and the------th Division. Highlanders came flocking around to greet us
warmly, and they all begged me to sing to them. But the officer in
command called them to attention.
"Men," he said. "Harry Lauder comes to us fresh from
the saddest mission of his life. We have no right to expect him to sing
for us to-day, but if it is God's will that he should, nothing could
give us greater pleasure."
My heart was very heavy within me, and never, even on
the night when I went back to the Shaftesbury Theatre, have I felt less
like singing. But I saw the warm sympathy on the face of the boys. "If
you'll take me as I am," I told them, "I will try to sing for you. I
will do my best, anyway. When a man is killed, or a battalion is killed,
or a regiment is killed, the war goes on just the same. And if it is
possible for you to fight with broken ranks, I'll try to sing for you
with a broken heart."
And so I did, and, although God knows it must have
been a feeble effort, the lads gave me a beautiful reception. I sang my
older songs for them— the songs my own laddie had loved.
They gave us tea after I had sung for them, with
chocolate eclairs as a rare treat! We were surprised to get such fare
upon the battlefield, but it was a welcome surprise.
We turned back from Bapaume, travelling along another
road on the return journey. And on the way we
met about two hundred German prisoners, the first we had seen in any
numbers. They were working on the road, under guard of British soldiers.
They looked sleek and well-fed, and they were not working very hard,
certainly. Yet I thought there was something about their expression like
that of neglected animals. I got out of the car and spoke to an
intelligent-looking little chap, perhaps about twenty-five years old—a
sergeant. He looked rather suspicious when I spoke to him, but he
saluted smartly, and stood at attention while we talked, and he gave me
ready and civil answers.
"You speak English?" I asked. "Fluently?"
"Your companions look pretty happy. Any complaints?"
"No, sir! None!"
"What are the Germans fighting for? What do you hope
"The freedom of the seas!"
"But you had that before the war broke out! "
"We haven't got it now."
I laughed at that.
"Certainly not," I said. "Give us credit for doing
something! But how are you going to get it again?"
"Our submarines will get it for us."
"Still," I said, "you must be fighting for something
"No," he said, doggedly. "Just for the freedom of the
I couldn't resist telling him a bit of news that the
censor was keeping very carefully from his fellow-Germans at home.
"We sank seven of your submarines last week," I said.
He probably didn't believe that. But his face paled a
bit, and his lips puckered, and he scowled. Then, as I turned away, he
whipped his hand to his forehead in a stiff salute, but I felt that it
was not the most gracious salute I had ever seen. Still, I didn't blame
Captain Godfrey meant to show us another village that
"Rather an interesting spot," he said. "They differ,
these French villages. They're not all alike, by any means."
Then, before long, he began to look puzzled. And
finally he called a halt.
"It ought to be right here," he said. "It was, not so
But there was no village. The Hun had passed that
way. And the village for which Godfrey was seeking had been utterly
wiped off the face of the earth! Not a trace of it remained. Where men
and women and little children had lived and worked and played in quiet
happiness the abominable desolation that is the work of the Hun had
come. There was nothing to show that they or their village had ever