Folkestone, in time of peace, was one of the greatest
of the southern watering-places. It is a lovely spot. Great hotels line
the Leas, a glorious promenade, along the top of chalk cliffs, that
looks out over the Channel. In the distance one fancies one may see the
coast of France, beyond the blue water.
There is green grass everywhere behind the beach.
Folkestone has a miniature harbour, that in time of peace gave shelter
to the fishing fleet and to the Channel steamers that plied to and from
Boulogne, in France. The harbour is guarded by stone jetties. It has
been greatly enlarged now —so has all Folkestone, for that matter. But I
am remembering the town as it was in peace !
There was no pleasanter and kindlier resort along
that coast. The beach was wonderful, and all summer long it attracted
bathers and children at play. Bathing machines lined the beach, of
course, within the limits of the town; those queer, old, clumsy looking
wagons, with a dressing cabin on wheels, that were drawn up and down
according to the tide, so that bathers
might enter the water from them directly. There, as in
most British towns, women bathed at one part of the beach, men at the
other, and all in the most decorous and modest of costumes.
But at Folkestone, in the old days of peace, about a
mile from the town limits, there was another stretch of beach where all
the gay folk bathed, men and women together. And there the costumes were
such as might be seen at Deauville or Ostend, Etretat or Trouville.
Highly they scandalized the good folk of Folkestone, to be sure; but
little was said, and nothing was done, for, after all, those were the
folk who spent the money. They dressed in white tents that gleamed
against the sea, and a pretty splash of colour they made on a bright day
for the soberer folk to go and watch, as they sat on the low chalk
cliffs above them.
Gone—gone! Such days have passed for Folkestone! They
will no doubt come again—but when? When?
June the seventh! Folkestone should have been gay for
the beginning of the onset of summer visitors. Sea bathing should just
have been beginning to be attractive, as the sun warmed the sea and the
beach. But when we reached the town war was over all. Men in uniform
were everywhere. Warships lay outside the harbour. Khaki and guns, men
trudging along, bearing the burdens of war, motor trucks, rushing
ponderously along, carrying ammunition and food, messengers on
motor-cycles, sounding to all traffic that might be in the way the
clamorous summons to clear the path—those were the sights we saw!
How hopelessly confused it all seemed! I could not
believe that there was order in the chaos that I saw. But that was
because the key to all that bewildering activity was not in my
Every man had his appointed task. He was a cog in the
greatest machine the world has ever seen. He knew just what he was to
do, and how much time had been allowed for the performance of his task.
It was assumed he would not fail. The British Army makes that
assumption, and it is warranted.
I hear praise, even from men who hate the Hun as I
hate him, for the superb military organization of the German Army. They
say the Kaiser's people may well take pride in that. But I say that I am
prouder of what Britain and the new British Army that has come into
being since this war began have done than any German has a right to be.
They spent forty-four years in making ready for a war they knew they
meant, some day, to fight. We had not had, that day that I first saw our
machine really functioning, as many months for preparation as they had
had years. And yet we were doing our part.
We. had had to build and prepare while we helped our
ally, France, to hold off that grey horde that had swept down so
treacherously through Belgium from the north and east. It was as if we
had organized and trained and equipped a fire brigade while the fire was
burning, and while our first devoted fighters sought to keep it in check
with water buckets. And they did! They did!
The water buckets served while the hose was made, and
the mains were laid, and the hydrants set in place, and the trained
firemen were made ready to take up the task.
And, now that I had come to Folkestone, now that I
was seeing the results of all the labour 'that had been performed, the
effect of all the prodigies of organization, I began to know what Lord
Kitchener and those who had worked with him had done. System ruled
everything at Folkestone. Nothing, it seemed to me, as officers
explained as much as they properly could, had been left to chance. Here
was order indeed.
In the air above us aeroplanes flew to and fro. They
circled about like great, watchful hawks. They looped and whirled
around, cutting this way and that, circling always. And I knew that, as
they flew about outside the harbour, the men in them were never off
their guard; that they were peering down, watching every moment for the
first trace of a submarine that might have crept through the more remote
defences of the Channel. Let a submarine appear—its shrift would be
There, above, waited the aeroplanes. And on the
surface of the sea sinister destroyers darted about as watchful as the
flyers above, ready for any emergency that might arise. I have no doubt
that submarines of our own lurked below, waiting, too, to do their part.
But those, if any there were, I did not see. And one asks no questions
at a place like Folkestone. I was glad of any information an officer
might voluntarily give me. But it was not for me or any other loyal
Briton to put him in the position of having to refuse to answer.
Soon a great transport was pointed out to me, lying
beside the jetty. Gang-planks were down, and up them streams of men in
khaki moved endlessly. Up they went, in an endless brown river, to
disappear into the ship. The whole ship was a very hive of activity. Not
only men were going aboard, but supplies of every sort; boxes of
ammunition, stores, food. And I understood, and was presently to see,
that beyond her sides there was the same ordered scene as prevailed on
shore. Every man knew his task; the stowing away of everything that was
being carried aboard was being carried out systematically and with the
utmost possible economy of time and effort.
"That's the ship you will cross the Channel on," I
was told. And I regarded her with a new interest. I do not know what
part she had been wont to play in time of peace; what useful, pleasant
journeys it had been her part to complete. I only knew that she was to
carry me to France, and to the place where my heart was and for a long
time had been. Me—and two thousand men who were to be of real use over
We were nearly the last to go on board. We found the
decks swarming with men. Ah, the braw laddies! They smoked and they
laughed as they settled themselves for the trip. Never a one looked as
though he might be sorry to be there. They were leaving behind them all
the good things, all the pleasant things, of life as, in time of peace,
every one of them had learned to live it and to know it. Long, long
since had the last illusion faded of the old days when war had seemed a
thing of pomp and circumstance and glory.
They knew well, those boys, what it was they faced.
Hard, grinding work they could look forward to doing ; such work as few
of them had ever known in the old days. Death and wounds they could
reckon upon as the portion of just about so many of them. There would be
bitter cold, later in the trenches, and mud, and standing for hours in
icy mud and water. There would be hard fare and scanty, sometimes, when
things went wrong. There would be gas attacks, and the bursting of
shells about them with all sorts of poisons in them. Always there would
be the deadliest perils of these perilous days.
But they sang as they set out upon the great
adventure of their lives. They smiled and laughed. They cheered me, so
that the tears started from my eyes, when they saw me, and they called
the gayest of gay greetings, though they knew that I was going only for
a little while, and that many of them had set foot on British soil for
the last time. The steady babble of their voices came to our ears, and
they swarmed below us like ants as they disposed themselves about the
decks, and made the most of the scanty space that was allowed for them.
The trip was to be short, of course; there were too few ships, and the
problems of convoy were too great, to make it possible to make the
voyage a comfortable one. It was a case of getting them over as might
best be arranged.
A word of command rang out and was passed around by
officers and non-coms.
"Life-belts must be put on before the ship sails!"
That simple order brought home the grim facts of war
at that moment as scarcely anything else could have done. Here was a
grim warning of the peril that lurked outside. Everywhere men were
scurrying to obey—I among the rest. The order applied as much to us
civilians as it did to any of the soldiers. And my belt did not fit, and
was hard, extremely hard, for" me to don. I could no manage it at all by
myself, but Adam and Hogge had had an easier time with theirs, and they
came to my help. Among us we got mine on, and Hogge stood off, and
looked at me, and smiled.
"An extraordinary effect, Harry!" he said with a
smile. "I declare, it gives you the most charming embonpoint!"
I had my doubts about his use of the word charming. I
know that I should not have cared to have any one judge of my looks from
a picture taken as I looked then, had one been taken,
But it was not a time for such thoughts. For a
civilian, especially, and one not used to journeys in such times as
these, there is a thrill and a solemnity about the donning of a life
preserver. I felt that I was indeed, it might be, taking a risk in
making this journey, and it was an awesome thought that I, too, might
have seen my native land for the last time, and said a real good-bye to
those whom I had left behind me.
Now we cast off, and began to move, and a thrill ran
through me such as I had never known before in all my life. I went to
the rail as we turned our nose toward the open sea. A destroyer was
ahead, another was beside us, others rode steadily along on either side.
It was the most reassuring of sights to see them. They looked so
business-like, so capable. I could not imagine a Hun submarine as able
to evade their watchfulness. And moreover, there were the watchful man
birds above us, the circling aeroplanes, that could make out so much
better than could any lookout on a ship, the first trace of the presence
of a tin fish. No —I was not afraid! I trusted in the British Navy,
which had guarded the sea lane so well that not a man had lost his life
as the result of a Hun attack, although many millions had gone back and
forth to France since the beginning of the war.
I did not stay with my own party. I preferred to move
about among the soldiers. I was deeply interested in them, as I have
always been. And I wanted to make friends among them, and see how they
"Lor' lumme—it's old 'Arry Lauder!" said one Cockney.
"God bless you, 'Arry—many's the time I've sung with you in the 'alls.
It's good to see you with us!"
And so I was greeted everywhere. Man after man
crowded around me to shake hands. It brought a lump into my throat to be
greeted so, and it made me more than ever glad that the military
authorities had been able to see their way to grant my request. It
confirmed my belief that I was going where I might be really useful to
the men who were ready and willing to make the greatest of all
sacrifices in the cause so close to all our hearts.
When I first went aboard the transport I picked up a
little gold stripe. It was one of those which men wear who have been
wounded, as a badge of honour. I hoped I might be able to find the man
who had lost it, and return it to him. But none of them claimed it, and
I have kept it, to this day, as a souvenir of that voyage.
It was easy for them to know me. I wore my kilt and
my cap, and my knife in my stocking, as I have always done, on the
stage, and nearly always off it as well. And so they recognized me
without difficulty. And never a one called me anything but Harry—except
when it was Arry! I think I would be much affronted if ever a British
soldier called me "Mr. Lauder." I don't know— because not one of them
ever did, and I hope none ever will!
They told me that there were men from the Highlands
on board, and I went looking for them, and found them after a time,
though going about that ship, so crowded she was, was no easy matter.
They were mostly Gordon Highlanders, I found, and they were glad to see
me, and made me welcome, and, I had a pipe with them, and a good talk.
Many of them were going back, after having been at
home, recuperating from wounds. And they, and the new men too, were all
eager and anxious to be put there and at work.
"Gie us a chance at the Huns; it's all we're
asking," said one of a new draft. "They're telling us they don't like
the sight of our kilts, Harry, and that a Hun's got less stomach for the
cold steel of a bayonet than for anything else on earth. Weel, we're
carrying a dose of it for them!
And the men who had been out before, and were taking
back with them the scars they had earned, were just as anxious as the
rest. That was the spirit of every man on board. They did not like war
as war, but they knew that this was a war that must be fought to the
finish, and never a man of them wanted peace to come until Fritz had
learned his lesson to the bottom of the last grim page.
I never heard a word of the danger of meeting a
submarine. The idea that one might send a torpedo after us popped into
my mind once or twice, but when it did I looked out at the destroyers,
guarding us, and the aeroplanes above, and I felt as safe as if I had
been in bed in my wee hoose at Dunoon. It was a true highway of war that
those whippets of the sea had made the Channel crossing.
Imphm, but I was proud that day of the British Navy!
It is a great task that it has to perform, and nobly it has done it. And
proud and glad I was again when we sighted land, as we soon did, and I
knew that I was gazing, for the first time since war had been declared,
upon the shores of our great ally, France. It was the great day and the
proud day and the happy day for me!
I was near the realizing of an old dream I had often
had. I was with the soldiers who had my love and my devotion, and I was
coming to France —the France that every Scotchman learns to love at his