Check all the Clans that have DNA Projects. If your Clan is not in the list there's a way for it to be listed. Electric Scotland's Classified Directory An amazing collection of unique holiday cottages, castles and apartments, all over Scotland in truly amazing locations.

A Minstrel in France
Chapter 13


BOULOGNE! Like Folkestone, Boulogne, in happier times, had been a watering-place, less fashionable than some on the French coast, but the pleasant resort of many in search of health and pleasure. And like Folkestone it had suffered the blight of war. The war had laid its heavy hand upon the port. It ruled everything; it was omnipresent. From the moment when we came into full view of the harbour it was impossible to think of anything else.

Folkestone had made me think of the mouth of a great funnel, into which all broad Britain had been pouring men and guns and all the manifold supplies and stores of modern war. And the trip across the narrow, well-guarded lane in the Channel, had been like the pouring of water through the neck of that same funnel. Here in Boulogne was the opening. Here the stream of men and supplies spread out to begin its orderly, irresistible flow to the front. All of Northern France and Belgium lay before that stream; it had to cover all the great length of the British front. Not from Boulogne alone, of course; I knew of Dunkirk and Calais, and guessed at other ports. There were other funnels, and into all of them, day after day, Britain was pouring her tribute; through all of them she was offering her sacrifice, to be laid upon the altar of strife.

Here, much more than at Folkestone, as it chanced, I saw at once another thing. There was a double funnel. The stream ran both ways. For, as we steamed into Boulogne, a ship was coming out—a ship with a grim and tragic burden. She was one of our hospital ships. But she was guarded as carefully by destroyers and aircraft as our transport had been. The Red Cross meant nothing to the Hun, except, perhaps, a shining target. Ship after ship that bore that symbol of mercy and of pain had been sunk. No longer did our navy dare to trust the Red Cross. It took every precaution it could take to protect the poor fellows who were going home to Blighty.

As we made our way slowly in, through the crowded harbour, full of transports, of ammunition ships, of food carriers, of destroyers and small naval craft of all sorts, I began to be able to see more and more of what was afoot ashore. It was near noon; the day that had been chosen for my arrival in France was one of brilliant sunshine and a cloudless sky. And my eyes were drawn to other hospital ships that were waiting at the docks. Motor ambulances came dashing up, one after the other, in what seemed to me to be an endless stream. The pity of that sight! It was as if I could peer through the intervening space and see the bandaged heads, the places where limbs had were other funnels, and into all of them, day after day, Britain was pouring her tribute; through all of them she was offering her sacrifice, to be laid upon the altar of strife.

Here, much more than at Folkestone, as it chanced, I saw at once another thing. There was a double funnel. The stream ran both ways. For, as we steamed into Boulogne, a ship was coming out—a ship with a grim and tragic burden. She was one of our hospital ships. But she was guarded as carefully by destroyers and aircraft as our transport had been. The Red Cross meant nothing to the Hun, except, perhaps, a shining target. Ship after ship that bore that symbol of mercy and of pain had been sunk. No longer did our navy dare to trust the Red Cross. It took every precaution it could take to protect the poor fellows who were going home to Blighty.

As we made our way slowly in, through the crowded harbour, full of transports, of ammunition ships, of food carriers, of destroyers and small naval craft of all sorts, I began to be able to see more and more of what was afoot ashore. It was near noon; the day that had been chosen for my arrival in France was one of brilliant sunshine and a cloudless sky. And my eyes were drawn to other hospital ships that were waiting at the docks. Motor ambulances came dashing up, one after the other, in what seemed to me to be an endless stream. The pity of that sight! It was as if I could peer through the intervening space and see the bandaged heads, the places where limbs had been, the steadfast gaze of the boys who were being carried up in stretchers. They had done their task, a great number of them ; they had given all that God would let them give to King and country. Life was left to them, to be sure; most of these boys were sure to live.

But to what maimed and incomplete lives were they doomed! The thousands who would be cripples always, blind, some of them, and helpless, dependent upon what others might choose or be able to do for them. It was then, in that moment, that an idea was born, vaguely, in my mind, of which I shall have much more to say later.

There was beauty in that harbour of Boulogne. The sun gleamed against the chalk cliffs. It caught the wings of aeroplanes, flying high above us. But there was little of beauty in my mind's eye. That could see through the surface beauty of the scene and of the day, to the grim, stark ugliness of war that lay beneath.

I saw the ordered piles of boxes and supplies, the bright guns, with the sun reflected from their barrels, dulled though these were to prevent that very thing. And I thought of the waste that was involved; of how all this vast product of industry was destined to be destroyed, as swiftly as might be, bringing no useful accomplishment with its destruction; save, of course, that accomplishment which must be completed before any useful thing may be done again in this world.

Then we went ashore, and I could scarcely believe that we were indeed in France, that land which, friends though our nations are, is at heart and in spirit so different from my own country. Boulogne had ceased to be French, indeed. The port was like a bit of Britain picked up, carried across the Channel and transplanted successfully to a new resting-place.

English was spoken everywhere—and much of it was the English of the Cockney, innocent of the aitch, and redolent of that strange tongue. But it is no for me, a Scot, to speak of how any other man uses the King's English! Weel I ken it! It was good to hear that tongue—had there been a thought in my mind of being homesick, it would quickly have been dispelled. The streets rang to the tread of British soldiers; our uniform was everywhere. There were Frenchmen, too; they were attached, many of them, for one reason and another, to the British forces. But most of them spoke English too.

I had most care about the unloading of my cigarettes. It was a point of honour with me by now, after the way my friends had joked me about them, to see that the very last one of the "fags" I had brought with me reached a British Tommy. So to them I gave my first care. Then I saw to the unloading of my wee piano, and, having done so, was free to go with the other members of the Reverend Harry Lauder, M.P., Tour to the small hotel that was to be headquarters for us all in Boulogne.

Arrangements had to be made for my debut in France, and I can tell you that no professional engagement I have ever filled ever gave me half so much concern as this one. I have sung before many strange audiences, all parts of the world, or nearly all. I have sung for folk who had no idea of what to expect from me, and have known that I must be at work from the moment of my first appearance on the stage to win them. But these audiences that I was to face here in France gave me more thought than any of' them. I had so great a reason for wanting to succeed with them!

And here, ye ken, I faced conditions that were harder than had ever fallen to my lot. I was not to have, most of the time, even the military theatres that had, in some cases, been built for the men behind the lines, where many actors and, indeed, whole companies, from home had been appearing. I could make no changes of costume. I would have no orchestra. Part of the time I would have my wee piano, but I reckoned on going to places where even that sma' thing could not follow me.

But I had a good manager—the British Army, no less. It was the army that had arranged my booking. We were not left alone, no, not for a minute. I would not have you think that we were left to go around on our own, and as we pleased. Far from it! No sooner had we landed than Captain Roberts, D.S.O., told me, in a brief, soldierly way, that was also extremely businesslike, what sort of plans had been made for us.

"We have a number of big hospitals here," he said. "This is one of the important British bases, as you know, and it is one of those where many of our men are treated before they are sent home. So, since you are here, we thought you would want to give your first concerts to the wounded men here."

So I learned that the opening of what you might call my engagement in the trenches was to be in hospitals. That was not new to me, and yet I was to find that there was a difference between a base hospital in France and the sort of hospitals I had seen so often at home.

Nothing, indeed, was left to us. After Captain Roberts had explained matters, we met Captain Godfrey, who was to travel with us, and be our guide, our military mentor and our ruler. We understood that we must place ourselves under him, and under military discipline. No Tommy, indeed, was more under discipline than we had to be. But we did not chafe, civilians though we were. When you see the British Army at work nothing is further from your thoughts than to criticize or to offer any suggestions. It knows its business, and does it, quietly and without fuss. Even Fritz has learned to be chary of getting in the way when the British Army has made up its mind ; and that is what he is there for, though I've no doubt that Fritz himself would give a pretty penny to be at home again, with peace declared.

Captain Godfrey, absolute though his power over us was—be could have ordered us all home at a moment's notice—turned out to be a delightful young officer, who did everything in his power to make our way smooth and pleasant, and was certainly as good a manager as I ever had or ever expect to have. He entered into the spirit of our tour, and it was plain to see that it would be a success from start to finish if it were within his power to make it so. He liked to call himself my manager, and took a great delight, indeed, in the whole experience. Well, it was a change for him, no doubt.

I had brought a piano with me, but no accompanist. That was not an oversight; it was a matter of deliberate choice. I had been told, before I left home, that I would have no difficulty in finding some one among the soldiers to accompany me. And that was true, as I soon found. In fact, as I was to learn later, I could have recruited a full orchestra among the Tommies, and I would have had in my band, too, musicians of fame and great ability, far above the average theatre orchestra. Oh, you must go to France to learn how every art and craft in Britain has done its part!

Aye, every sort of artist and artisan, men of every profession and trade, can be found in the British Army. It has taken them all, as into a great melting pot, and made them soldiers. I think, indeed, there is no calling that you could name that would not yield you a master hand from the ranks of the British Army. And I am not talking of the officers alone, but of the great mass of Tommies. And so when I told Captain Godfrey I would be needing a good pianist to play my accompaniments, he just smiled.

"Right you are!" he said. "We'll turn one up for you in no time!"

He had no doubts at all, and he was right. They found a lad called Johnson, a Yorkshireman, in a convalescent ward of one of the big hospitals. He was recovering from an illness he had contracted in the trenches, and was not quite ready to go back to active duty. But he was well enough to play for me, and delighted when he heard he might get the assignment. He was nervous lest he should not please me, and feared I might ask for another man. But when I ran over with him the songs I meant to sing, I found he played the piano very well indeed, and had a knack for accompanying, too. There are good pianists, soloists, who are not good accompanists; it takes more than just the ability to play the piano, to work with a singer, and especially with a singer like me. It is no straight ahead singing I do always, as you ken perhaps.

But I saw at once that Johnson and I would get along fine together, so every one was pleased, and I went on and made my preparations with him for my first concert. That was to be in the Boulogne Casino; centre of the gaiety of the resort in the old days, but now, for a long time, turned into a base hospital.

They had played for high stakes there in the old days before the war. Hundreds of pounds had changed hands in an hour there. But they were playing for higher stakes now! They were playing for the lives and the health of men, and the hearts of the women at home in Britain who were bound up with them. In the old days men had staked their money against the turn of a card or the roll of the wheel. But now it was against Death they staked—and it was a mightier game than those old walls had ever seen before.

The largest ward of the hospital was in what had been the Baccarat room, and it was there I held my first concert of the trench engagement. When I appeared it was packed full. There were men on cots, lying still and helpless, bandaged to their very eyes. Some came limping in on their crutches; some were rolled in in chairs. It was a sad scene and an impressive one; and it went to my heart when I thought that my own poor laddie must have lain in just such a room, perhaps in this very one. He had suffered as these men were suffering, and he had died; as some of these men for whom I was to sing would die. For there were men here who would be patched up, presently, and would go back. And for them there might be a next time; a next time when they would need no hospital.

There was one thing about the place I liked. It was so clean and white and spotless. All the garish display, the paint and tawdry finery, of the old gambling days, had gone. It was restful, now, and though there was the hospital smell, it was a clean smell. And the men looked as though they had wonderful care. Indeed, I knew they had that; I knew that everything that could be done to ease their state was being done. And every face I saw was brave and cheerful, though the skin of many and many a lad was stretched tight over his bones with the pain he had known, and there was a look in their eyes, a look with no repining in it, or complaint, but with the evidences of a terrible pain, bravely suffered, that sent the tears starting to my eyes more than once.

It was much as it had been in the many hospitals I had visited in Britain, and yet it was different, too. I felt that I was really at the front. Later I came to realize how far from the real front I actually was at Boulogne, but then I knew no better.

I had chosen my programme carefully. It was made up of songs altogether. I had had enough experience in hospitals and camps by now to have learned what soldiers liked best, and I had no doubt at all that it was just songs. And best of all they liked the old love songs, and the old songs of Scotland; tender, crooning melodies, that would help to carry them back, in memory to their hames and, if they had them, to the lassies of their dreams. It was no sad, lugubrious songs they wanted. But a note of wistful tenderness they liked. That was true of sick and wounded, and of the hale and hearty too; and it showed that, though they were soldiers, they were just humans, like the rest of us, for all the great and superhuman things they had done out there in France.

Not every actor and artist who has tried to help in the hospitals has fully understood the men he or she wanted to please. They meant well, everyone, but some were a wee bit unfortunate in the way they went to work. There is a story that is told of one of our really great serious actors. He is serious minded, always, on the stage and off, and very, very dignified. But some folk went to him and asked him would he no do his bit to cheer up the puir laddies in a hospital?

He never thought of refusing; and I would no have you think I am sneering at the man ! His intentions were of the best.

"Of course, I do not sing or dance," he said, drawing down his lip. And the look in his eyes showed what he thought of such of us as had descended to such low ways of pleasing the public that paid to see us and to hear us: "But I shall very gladly do something to bring a little diversion into the sad lives of the poor boys in the hospitals."

It was a stretcher audience that he had. That means a lot of boys who had to he in bed to hear him. They needed cheering. And that great actor, with all his good intentions, could think of nothing more fitting than to stand up before them and begin to recite, in a sad, elocutionary tone, Longfellow's "The Wreck of the Hesperus"!

He went on, and his voice gained power. He had come to the third stanza, or the fourth, maybe, when a command rang out through the ward. It was one that had been heard many and many a time in France, along the trenches. It came from one of the beds.

"To cover, men!" came the order.

It rang out through the ward, in a hoarse voice. And on the word every man's head popped under the bedclothes ! And the great actor, astonished beyond measure, was left there, reciting away to shaking mounds of bedclothes that entrenched his hearers from the sound of his voice!

Well, I had heard yon tale. I do not think I should ever have risked a similar fate by making the same sort of mistake, but I profited by hearing it, and I always remembered it. And there was another thing. I never thought, when I was going to sing for soldiers, that I was doing something for them that should make them glad to listen to me, no matter what I chose to sing for them.

I always thought, instead, that here was an audience that had paid to hear me in the most valuable coin in all the world—their leg; and arms, their health and happiness. Oh, they had paid ! They had not come in on free passes! Their tickets had cost them dear; dearer than tickets for the theatre had ever cost before. I owed them more than I could ever pay—my own future, and my freedom, and the right and the chance to go on living in my own country free from the threat and the menace of the Hun. It was for me to please those boys when I sang for them, and to make such an effort as no ordinary audience had ever had from me.

They had made a little platform to serve as a stage for me. There was room for me and for Johnson, and for the wee piano. And so I sang for them, and they showed me from the start that they were pleased. Those who could, clapped, and all cheered, and after each song there was a great pounding of crutches on the floor. It was an inspiring sound and a great sight, sad though it was to see and to hear.

When I had done I went aboot among the men, shaking hands with such as could gie me their hands, and saying a word or two to all of them. Directly in front of the platform there lay a wounded Scots soldier, and all through my concert he watched me most intently; he never took his eyes off me. What I had sung my last song he "beckoned to me feebly, and I went to him, and bent over to listen to him..

"Eh, Harry, man," he said, "will ye be doin' me a favour?"

"Aye, that I will, if I can," I told him.

"It's to ask the doctor will I no be gettin' better soon. Because, Harry, mon, I've but the one desire left—and that's to be in at the finish of yon fight."

I was to give one more concert in Boulogne, that night. That was more cheerful, and it was different, again, from anything I had done or known before. There was. a convalescent camp, about two miles from town, high up on the chalk cliffs. And this time my theatre was a Y.M.C.A. hut. But do not let the name "hut" deceive ye. I had an audience of two thousand men that nicht! It was all the "hut" would hold, with tight squeezing. And what a roaring, wild crowd that was, to be sure ! They sang with me, and they cheered and clapped until I thought that hut would be needing a new roof!

I had to give over at last, for I was tired, and needed sleep. We had our orders. The Reverend Harry Lauder, M.P., Tour was to start for Vimy Ridge at six o'clock next morning.


Return to Book Index Page