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A Minstrel in France
Chapter 14


WE were up nest morning before daybreak. But I did not feel as if I were getting up early. Indeed, it was quite the reverse. All about us was a scene of such activity that I felt as if I had been lying in bed unconscionably long —as if I were the laziest man in all that busy town. Troops were setting out, boarding military trains. Cheery, jovial fellows they were; the same lads, some of them, who had crossed the Channel with me, and many others who had come in later. Oh, it is a steady stream of men and supplies, indeed, that goes across the narrow sea to France! Motor trucks—they were calling them camions, after the French fashion, because it was a shorter and a simpler word—fairly swarmed in the streets. Guns rolled ponderously along. It was not military pomp we saw. Indeed, I saw little of that in France. It was only the uniforms and the guns that made me realize that this was war. The activity was more that of a busy, bustling factory town. It was not English, and it was not French. I think it made me think more of an American city. War, I cannot tell you often enough, is a great business, a vast industry, in these days. Some one said, and he was right, that they did not win victories any more; that they manufactured them, as all sorts of goods are manufactured. Digging and building—that is the great work of modern war.

Our preparations, being in the hands of Captain Godfrey and the British Army, were few and easily made. Two great, fast army motor-cars had been put at the disposal of the Reverend Harry Lauder, M.P., Tour, and when we went out to get into them and make our start, it was just a problem of stowing away all we had to carry with us.

The first car was a passenger ear. Each motor had a soldier as chauffeur. I and the Reverend George Adam rode in the tonneau of the leading car, and Captain Godfrey, our manager and guide, sat with the driver, in front. That was where he belonged, and where, being a British officer, he naturally wanted to be. They have called our officers reckless, and said that they risked their lives too freely. Weel, I dinna ken! I am no soldier. But I know what a glorious tradition the British officer has, and I know, too, how his men follow him. They know, the laddies in the ranks, that their officers will never ask them to go anywhere or do anything they would shirk themselves, and that makes for a spirit that you could not esteem too highly.

It was the second car that was our problem. We put Johnson, my accompanist, in the tonneau first, and then we covered him with cigarettes. It was a problem to get them stowed away, and when we had accomplished the task, finally, there was not much of Johnson to he seen! He was 'covered and surrounded with cigarettes, but he was snug, and he looked happy and comfortable, as he grinned at us, his face was about all of him that we could see. Hogge rode in front with the driver of that car, and had more room, so, than he would have had in the tonneau, where, as a passenger and a guest, he really belonged. The wee bit piano was lashed to the grid of the second car. And I give you my word it looked like a gipsy's wagon more than one of the neat cars of the British Army!

Well, all was ready in due time, and it was just six o'clock when we set off. There was a thing I noted again and again. The army did things "on time" in France. If we were to start at a certain time we always did. Nothing ever happened to make us unpunctual.

It was a glorious morning. We went humming out of Boulogne on a road that was as hard and smooth as a paved street in London despite all the terrific traffic it had borne since the war made Boulogne a British base. And there were no speed limits here. So soon as the cars were tuned up we went along at the highest speed of which they were capable. Our soldier drivers knew their business; only the picked men were assigned to the driving of these cars, and speed was one of the things that was wanted of them. Much may hang on the speed of a motor-car in France.

But, fast as we travelled, we did not go too fast for me to enjoy the drive, and the sights and sounds that were all about us. They were oddly mixed. Some were homely and familiar, and some were so strange that I could not give over wondering at them. The motors made a great noise, but it was not too loud for me to hear larks singing in the early morning. All the world was green with the early sun upon it, lighting up every detail of a strange countryside. There was a soft wind, a gentle, caressing wind, that stirred the leaves of the trees along the road.

But not for long could we escape the touch of war. That grim etcher was at work upon the road and the whole countryside. As we went on we were bound to move more slowly, because of the congestion of the traffic. Never was Piccadilly or Fifth Avenue, New York, more crowded with motors at the busiest hour of the day than was that road. As we passed through villages or came to cross-roads we saw military police, directing traffic, precisely as they do at busy intersections of crowded streets in London or New York.

But the traffic along that road was not the traffic of the cities. Here were no ladies, gorgeously clad, reclining in their luxurious, deeply upholstered cars. Here were no footmen and chauffeurs in livery. Ah, they wore a livery— aye ! But it was the livery of glory, the khaki of the King ! Generals and high officers passed us, bowling along, lolling in their cars, taking their few brief minutes or half-hours of ease, smoking and talking. And there were wagons from the shops—great trucks, carrying supplies, going along at a pace that racked their engines and their bodies, and that boded disaster to whoever got in their way. But no one did, there was no real confusion here, despite the seeming mad welter of traffic that we saw.

What a traffic that was ! And it was all the traffic of the carnage we were nearing. It was a marvellous and an impressive panorama of force and of destruction that was being constantly unrolled before my wondering eyes as we travelled along the road out of old Boulogne.

At first all the traffic was going our way. Sometimes there came a warning shriek from behind, and everything drew to one side to make room for a dispatch rider on a motor-cycle. These had the right of way. Sir Douglas Haig himself, were he driving along, would see his driver turn out to make way for one of those shrieking motor bikes ! The rule is absolute ; everything makes way for them.

But it was not long before a tide of traffic began to meet us, flowing back toward Boulogne. There was a double stream then, and I wondered how collisions and traffic jams of all sorts could be avoided. I do not know yet; I only know that there is no trouble. Here were empty trucks, speeding back for new loads. And some there were that carried all sorts of wreckage; the flotsam and jetsam cast up on the safe shores behind the front by the red tide of war. Nothing is thrown away out here; nothing is wasted. Great piles of discarded shoes are brought back to be made over. They are as good as new when they come back from the factories where they are worked over. Indeed, the men told me they were better than new, because they were less trying to their feet, and did not need so much breaking in.

Men go about, behind the front, and after a battle, picking up everything that has been thrown away. Everything is sorted and gone over with the utmost care. Rifles that have been thrown away or dropped when men were wounded or killed, bits of uniforms, bayonets—everything is saved. Reclamation is the order of the day. There is waste enough in war that cannot be avoided; the British Army sees to it that there is none that is avoidable.

But it was not only that sort of wreckage, that sort of driftwood that was being carried back to be made over. Presently we began to see great motor ambulances coming along, each with a Red Cross painted glaringly on its side—though that paint was wasted or worse, for it would seem there is no target the Hun loves better, than the great red cross of mercy. And in them, as we knew, there was the most pitiful wreckage of all—the human wreckage of the war.

In the wee sma' hours of the morn they bear the men back who have been hit the day before, and during the night. They go back to the field dressing stations and the hospitals just behind the front, to be sorted like the other wreckage. Some there are who cannot be moved farther, at first,

but must be cared for under fire, Jest they die on the way. But all whose wounds are such that they can safely be moved go back in the ambulances, first to the great base hospitals, and then, when possible, on the hospital ships to England.

Sometimes, but not often, we passed troops marching along the road. They marched easily, with the stride that could carry them farthest with the least effort. They did not look much like the troops I used to see in London. They did not have the snap of the Coldstream Guards, marching through Green Park in the old days. But they looked like business and like war. They looked like men who had a job of work to do and meant to see it through.

They had discipline, those laddies, but it was not the old, stiff discipline of the old army. That was the thing of a day that is dead and gone. Now, as we passed along the side of the road that marching troops always leave clear, there was always a series of hails for me.

"Hello, Harry!" I would hear.

And I would look back, and see grinning Tommies waving their hands to me. It was a flattering experience, I can tell you, to be recognized like that along that road. It was like running into old friends in a strange town where you have come thinking you know no one at all.

We were about thirty miles out of Boulogne when there was a sudden explosion underneath the car, followed by a sibilant sound that I knew only too well.

"Hello—a puncture!" said Godfrey, and smiled as he turned around. We drew up to the side of the road, and both chauffeurs jumped out and went to work on the wounded tire. The rest of us sat still, and gazed around us at the fields. I was glad to have a chance to look quietly about. The fields, all emerald green, stretched out in all directions to the distant horizon, sapphire blue that glorious morning. And in the fields, here and there, were the bent stooped figures of old men and women. They were carrying on, quietly. Husbands and sons and brothers had gone to war; all the young men of France had gone. These were left, and they were seeing to the performance of the endless cycle of duty. France would survive ; the Hun could not crush her. Here was a spirit made manifest; a spirit different in degree but not in kind from the spirit of my ain Britain. It brought a lump into my throat to see them, the old men and the women, going so patiently and quietly about their tasks.

It was very quiet. Faint sounds came to us ; there was a distant rumbling, like the muttering of thunder on a summer's night, when the day has been hot and there are low, black clouds lying against the horizon, with the flashes of the lightning playing through them. But that I had come already not to heed, though I knew full well, by now, what it was and what it meant. For a little space the busy road had become clear ; there was a long break in the traffic.

I turned to Adam and to Captain Godfrey.

"I'm thinking here's a fine chance for a bit of a rehearsal in the open air," I said. "I'm not used to singing so; mayhap it would be well to try my voice and see will it carry as it should."

"Right oh!" said Godfrey.

And so we dug Johnson out from his snug barricade of cigarettes, that hid him as an emplacement hides a gun, and we unstrapped my wee piano, and set it up in the road. Johnson tried the piano, and then we began.

I think I never sang with less restraint in all my life than I did that quiet morning on the Boulogne road. I raised my voice and let it have its will. And I felt my spirits rising with the lilt of the melody. My voice rang out, full and free, and it must have carried far and wide across the fields.

My audience was small at first; Captain Godfrey, Hogge, Adam, and the two chauffeurs, working away, and having more trouble with the tire than they had thought at first they would, which is the way of tires, as every man knows who owns a car. But as they heard my songs the old men and women in the fields straightened up to listen. They stood wondering, at first, and then, slowly, they gave over their work for a space, and came to gather round me and to listen.

It must have seemed strange to them ! Indeed, it must have seemed strange to any one who saw and heard me ! There I was, with Johnson at my piano, like some wayside tinker setting up his cart and working at his trade ! But I did not care for appearances, not a whit. For the moment I was care free, a wandering minstrel, like some troubadour of old, care free and happy in my song. I forgot the black shadow under which we all lay in that smiling land, the black shadow of war in which I sang.

It delighted me to see those old peasants, and to study their faces, and to try to win them with my song. They could not understand a word I sang, and yet I saw the smiles breaking out over their wrinkled faces, and it made me proud and happy. For it was plain that I was reaching them, that I was able to throw a bridge over the gap of a strange tongue and an alien race. When I had done and it was plain I meant to sing no more they clapped me.

"There's a hand for you, Harry," said Adam. "Aye, and I'm proud of it!" I told him for reply.

I was almost sorry when I saw that the two chauffeurs had finished their repairs and were ready to go on. But I told them to lash the piano back in its place, and Johnson prepared to climb gingerly back among his cigarettes. But just then something happened that I had not expected.

There was a turn in the road just beyond that hid its continuation from us. And around the bend now there came a company of soldiers. Not neat and well-appointed soldiers these. Ah, no ! They were fresh from the trenches, on their way back to rest. The mud and grime of the trenches were upon them. They were tired and weary, and they carried all their accoutrements and packs with them. Their boots were heavy with mud. And they looked bad, and many of them shaky. Most of these men, Godfrey told me after a glance at them, had been ordered back to hospital for minor ailments. They were able to march, but not much more.

They were the first men I had seen in such a case. They looked bad enough, but Godfrey said they were happy enough. Some of them would get leave for Blighty, and be home, in a few days, to see their families and their girls. And the thought of where they were going cheered them and helped to keep them going.

A British soldier, equipped for the trenches, on his way in or out, has quite a load to carry. He has his pack, and his emergency ration, and his entrenching tools, and extra clothing that he needs in bad weather in the trenches, to say nothing of his ever-present rifle. And the sight of them made me realize for the first time the truth that lay behind the jest in a story that is one of Tommy's favourites.

A child saw a soldier in heavy marching order. She gazed at him in wide-eyed wonder. He was not her idea of what a soldier should look like.

"Mother," she asked, "what is a soldier for?"

The mother gazed at the man. And then she smiled.

"A soldier," she answered, "is to hang things on."

They eyed me very curiously as they came along, those sick, weary laddies. They didn't seem to understand what I was doing there, but their discipline held them. They were in charge of a young lieutenant with one star—a second lieutenant. I learned later that he was a long way from being a well man himself. So I stopped him.

"Would your men like to hear a few songs, lieutenant?" I asked him.

He hesitated. He didn't quite understand, and he wasn't a bit sure what his duty was in the circumstances. He glanced at Godfrey, and Godfrey smiled at him as if in encouragement.

"It's very good of you, I'm 'sure," he said slowly. "Fallout!"

So the men fell out, and squatted there, along, the wayside. At once discipline was relaxed. Their faces were a study as the wee piano was. set up again, and Johnson, in uniform, of course, sat down and tried a chord or two. And then suddenly something happened that broke the ice. Just as I stood up to sing a loud voice broke the silence.

"Lor' love us!" one of the men cried, " if it ain't old 'Arry Lauder!"

There was a stir of interest at once. I spotted the owner of the voice. It was a shrivelled-up little chap, with a wizened face that looked like a sun-dried apple. He was showing all his teeth in a, grin at me and he was a typical little Cockney of the sort all Londoners know well.

"Go it, 'Arry!" he shouted shrilly. "Many'a the time h'I've 'eard you at the old Shoreditch!"

So I went it as well as I could, and I never did have a more appreciative audience. My little Cockney friend seemed to take a particular personal pride in me. I think he thought he had found me, and that he was, in an odd way, responsible for my success with his mates. And so he was especially glad when they cheered me and thanked me as they did.

My concert didn't last long, for we had to be getting on, and the company of sick men had just so much time, too, to reach their destination— Boulogne, whence we had set out. When it was over I said good-bye to the men, and shook hands with particular warmth with the little Cockney. It wasn't every day I was likely to meet a man who had often heard me at the old Shoreditch! After we had stowed Johnson and the piano away again, with a few less cigarettes, now, to get in Johnson's way, we started, and as long as we were in sight the little Cockney and I were waving to one another.

I took some of the cigarettes into the car I was in now. And as we sped along we were again in the thick of the great British war machine. Motor trucks and ambulances were more frequent than ever, and it was a common occurrence now to pass soldiers, marching in both directions; to the front and away from it. There was always some one to recognize me, and start a volley of "Hello, Harrys" my way, and I answered every greeting, you may be sure, and threw cigarettes to go with my "Helios."

Aye, I was glad I had brought the cigarettes ! They seemed to be even more welcome than I had hoped they would be, and I only wondered how long the supply would hold out, and if I would be able to get more if it did not. So Johnson, little by little, was getting more room, as I called for more and more of the cigarettes that walled him in, in his tonneau.

About noon, as we drove through a little town, I saw, for the first time, a whole flock of aeroplanes riding the sky. They were swooping about like lazy hawks, and a bonnie sight they were. I drew a long breath when I saw them, and turned to my friend Adam.

"Well," I said, "I think we're coming to it, now!"

I meant the front; the real, British front.

Suddenly, at a sharp order from Captain Godfrey, our cars stopped. He turned around to us, and grinned, very cheerfully.

"Gentlemen," he said, very calmly, "we'll stop here long enough to put on our steel helmets."

He said it just as he might have said: "Well, here's where we will stop for tea."

It meant no more than that to him. But for me it meant many things. It meant that at last I was really to be under fire; that I was going into danger. I was not really frightened yet; you have to see danger, and know just what it is, and appreciate exactly its character, before you can be frightened. But I had imagination enough to know what that order meant, and to have a queer feeling as I donned the steel helmet. It was less uncomfortable than I had expected it to he; lighter, and easier to wear. The British trench helmets are beautifully made, now; as in every other phase of the war and its work they represent a constant study making for improvement, lightening.

But, even had it not been for the warning that was implied in Captain Godfrey's order, I should soon have understood that we had come into a new region. For a long time now the noise of the guns had been different. Instead of being like distant thunder it was a much nearer and louder sound. It was a steady, throbbing roar now.

And, at intervals, there came a different sound; a sound more individual, that could be distinguished from the steady roar. It was as if the air were being cracked apart by the blow of some giant hammer. I knew what it was. Aye, I knew. You need no man to tell you what it is; the explosion of a great shell not so far from you!

Nor was it our ears alone that told us what was going on. Ever and anon, now, ahead of us, as we looked at the fields, we saw a cloud of dirt rise up. That was where a shell struck. And in the fields about us, now, we could see holes, full of water, as a rule, and mounds of dirt that did not look as if shovels and picks had raised them.

It surprised me to see that the peasants were still at work. I spoke to Godfrey about that.

"The French peasants don't seem to know what it is to be afraid of shell-fire," he said. "They go only when we make them. It is the same on the French front. They will cling to a farmhouse in the zone of fire until they are ordered out, no matter how heavily it may be shelled. They are splendid folk. The Germans can never beat a race that has such folk as that behind its battle line."

I could well believe him. I have seen no sight along the whole front more quietly impressive than the calm, impassive courage of those French peasants. They know they are right. It is no Kaiser, no war lord, who gives them courage. It is the knowledge and the consciousness that they are suffering in a holy cause, and that, in the end, the right and the truth must prevail. Their own fate, whatever may befall them, does not matter. France must go on and will, and they do their humble part to see that she does and shall.

Solemn thoughts moved me as we drove on. Here there had been real war and fighting. Now I saw a country blasted by shell-fire and wrecked by the contention of great armies. And I knew that I was coming to soil watered by British blood ; to rows of British graves ; to soil that shall be for ever sacred to the memory of the Britons, from Britain and from over the seas, who died and fought upon it to redeem it from the Hun.

I had no mind to talk, to ask questions. For the time I was content to be with my own thoughts, that were evoked by the historic ground through which we passed. My heart was heavy with grief and with the memories of my boy that came flooding it, but it was lightened, too, by other thoughts.

And always, as we sped on, there was the thunder of the guns. Always there were the bursting shells, and the old bent peasants paying no heed to them. Always there were the circling aeroplanes, far above us, like hawks against the deep blue of the sky. And always we came nearer and nearer to Vimy Ridge—that deathless name in the history of Britain.


 


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