IT had turned very hot, now, at the full of the day.
Indeed, it was grilling weather, and there in the battery, in a hollow,
close down beside a little run or stream, it was even hotter than on the
shell-swept bare top of the ridge. So the Canadian gunners had stripped
down for comfort. Not a man had more than his undershirt on above his
trousers, and many of them were naked to the waist, with their hide
tanned to the colour of old saddles.
These laddies reminded me of those in the first
battery I had seen. They were just as calm, and just as dispassionate as
they worked in their mill
it might well have been a mill in which I saw them
working. Only they were no grinding corn, but death; death for the Huns,
who had brought death to so many of their mates. But there was no
excitement, there were no cries of hatred and anger.
They were hard at work. Their work, it seemed, never
came to an end or even to a pause. The orders rang out, in a sort of
sing-song voice. After each shot a man who sat with a telephone strapped
about his head called out corrections of the range, in figures that were
just a meaningless jumble to me, although they made sense to the men who
listened and changed the pointing of the guns at each order.
Their faces, that, like their bare backs and chests,
looked like tanned leather, were all grimy from their work among the
smoke and the gases. And through the grime the sweat had run down like
little rivers making courses for themselves in the soft dirt of a
hillside. They looked grotesque enough, but there was nothing about them
to make me feel like laughing, I can tell you. And they all grinned
amiably when the amazed and disconcerted Reverend Harry Lauder, M.P.,
Tour came tumbling in among them. We all felt right at hame at once; and
I the more so when a chap I had met and come to know well in Toronto
during one of my American tours came over and gripped my hand.
"Aye, but it's good to see your face, Harry! " he
said, as he made me welcome.
This battery had done great work ever since it had
come out. No battery in the whole army had a finer record, I was told.
And no one needed to tell me the tale of its losses. Not far away there
was a little cemetery, filled with doleful little crosses, set up over
mounds that told their grim story all too plainly and too eloquently.
The battery had gone through the Battle of Vimy Ridge
and made a great name for itself. And now it was set down upon a spot
that had seen some of the very bloodiest of the fighting on that day. I
saw here, for the first time, some of the most horrible things that the
war holds. There was a little stream, as I said, that ran through the
hollow in which the battery was placed, and that stream had run with
blood, not water, on the day of the battle.
Everywhere, here, were whitened bones of men. In the
wild swirling of the battle, and the confusion of digging in and meeting
German counter attacks that had followed it, it had not been possible to
bury all the dead. And so the whitened bones remained, though the
elements had long since stripped them bare. The elements—and the hungry
rats. These are not pretty things to tell, but they are true, and the
world should know what war is to-day.
I almost trod upon one skeleton that remained
complete. It was that of a huge German soldier, a veritable giant of a
man, he must have been. The bones of his feet were still encased in his
great boots, their soles heavily studded with nails. Even a few shreds
of his uniform remained. But the flesh was all gone. The sun and the
rats and the birds had accounted for the last morsel of it.
Hundreds of years from now, I suppose, the bones that
were strewn along that ground will still be being turned up by ploughs.
The generations to come who live there will never lack relics of the
battle, and of the fighting that preceded and followed it. They will
find bones, and shell cases, and bits of metal of all sorts. Rusty
bayonets will be turned up by their ploughshares; strange coins, as
puzzling as some of those of Roman times that we in Britain have found,
will puzzle them. Who can tell how long it will be before the soil about
Vimy Ridge will cease to give up its relics?
That ground had been searched carefully for
everything that might conceivably be put to use again, or be made fit
for further service. And yet, when I was there, many weeks after the
storm of fighting had passed on, and when the scavengers had done their
work, the ground was still rather thickly strewn with odds and ends that
interested me vastly. I might have picked up much more than I did. But I
could not carry so very much, and so many of the things, too, brought
grisly thoughts to my mind. God knows I needed no reminders of the war.
I had a reminder in my heart, that never left me. Still, I took some few
things, more for the sake of the hame folks, who might not see, and
would, surely, be interested. I gathered some bayonets for my
collection; somehow they seemed the things I was most willing to take
along. One was British, one German, two were French.
But the best souvenir of all I got at Vimy Ridge I
did not pick up. It was given to me by my friend, the grave major; him
of whom I would like some famous sculptor to make a statue as he sat at
his work of observation. That was a club, a wicked looking instrument.
This club had a great thick head, huge in proportion to its length and
size, and the head was studded with great sharp nails. A single blow
from it would finish
the strongest man that ever lived. It was a fit
weapon for a murderer, and a murderer had wielded it. The major had
taken it from a Hun, who had meant to use it—had, doubtless, used it —to
beat out the brains of wounded men, lying on the ground. Many of those
clubs were taken from the Germans, all along the front, both by the
British and the French, and the Germans had never made any secret of the
purpose for which they were intended. Well, they picked excellent men to
try such tactics on when they went against the Canadians!
The Canadians started no such work, but they were
quick to adopt a policy of give and take. It was the Canadians who began
the trench raids for which the Germans have such a fierce distaste; and,
after they had learned something of how Fritz fought, the Canadians took
to paying him back in some of his own coin. Not that they matched the
deeds of the Huns; only a Hun could do that. But the Canadians were not
eager to take prisoners. They would bomb a dug-out rather than take its
occupants back. And a dug-out that has been bombed yields few living
Who shall blame them? Not I, nor any other man who
knows what lessons in brutality and treachery the Canadians have had
from the Hun. It was the Canadians, near Ypres, who went through the
first gas attack; that fearful day when the Germans were closer to
breaking through than they ever were before or since. I shall not set
down here all the tales I heard of the atrocities of the Huns. Others
have done that. Men have written of that who have first-hand knowledge,
as mine cannot be. I know only what has been told to me, and there is
little need of hearsay-evidence. There is evidence enough that any court
would accept as hanging proof. But this much it is right to say; no
troops along the Western front have more to revenge than have the
It is not the loss of comrades, dearly loved though
they foe, that breeds hatred among the soldiers. That is a part of war,
and always was. The loss of friends and comrades may fire the blood. It
may lead men to risk their own lives in a desperate charge to get even.
But it is a pain that does not rankle and does not fester like a sore
that will not heal. It is the tales the Canadians have to tell of sheer,
depraved torture and brutality that has inflamed them to the pitch of
hatred that they cherish. It has seemed as if the Germans had a
particular grudge against the Canadians. And that, indeed, is known to
be the case.
The Germans harboured many a fond illusion before the
war. They thought that Britain would not fight, first of all. And, then,
when Britain did declare war, they thought they could speedily destroy
her "contemptible little army." Ah, weel, they did come near to
destroying it! But not until it had helped to balk them of their desire;
not until it had played its great and decisive part in ruining the plans
the Hun had been making and perfecting for forty-four long years. And
not until it had served as a dyke behind which floods of men in the
khaki of King George had had time to arm and drill to rush out to oppose
the gray-green floods that had swept through helpless Belgium.
They had other illusions, beside that major one that
helped to wreck them. They thought there would be a rebellion and civil
war in Ireland. They took too seriously the troubles of the early summer
of 1914, when Ulster and the South of Ireland were snapping and snarling
at each other's throats. They looked for a new mutiny in India, which
should keep Britain's hands full. They expected strikes at home. But,
above all, they were sure that the great, self-governing dependencies of
Britain, that made up the mighty British Empire, would take no part in
Canada, Australasia, South Africa—they never reckoned
upon having to cope with them. These were separate nations, they
thought, independent in fact if not in name, which would seize the
occasion to separate themselves entirely from the mother country. In
South Africa they were sure that there would be smouldering discontent
enough left from the days of the Boer War to break out into a new flame
of war and rebellion at this great chance.
And so it drove them mad with fury when they learned
that Canada and all the rest had gone in, heart and soul. And when even
their poison gas could not make the Canadians yield; when, later still,
they learned that the Canadians were their match, and more than their
match, in every phase of the great game of war, their rage led them to
excesses against the men from overseas, even more damnable than those
that were their general practice.
These Canadians who were now my hosts, had located
their guns in a pit triangular in shape. The guns were mounted at the
corners of the triangle, and along its sides. And constantly, while I
was there they coughed their short, sharp coughs and sent a spume of
metal flying toward the German lines. Never have I seen a busier spot.
And, remember; until I had almost fallen into that pit, with its
spluttering, busy guns, I had not been able to make even a good guess as
to where they were I The very presence of this workshop of death was
hidden from all save those who had a right to know of it.
It was a masterly piece of camouflage. I wish I could
explain to you how the effect was achieved. It was all made plain to me;
every step of the process was explained, and I cried out in wonder and
in admiration at the clever simplicity of it. But that is one of the
things I may not tell. I saw many things, during my time at the front,
that the Germans would give a pretty penny to know. But none of the
secrets that I learned would be more valuable, even to-day, than that of
that hidden battery. And so, I must leave you in ignorance as to that.
The commanding officer was most kindly and patient in
explaining matters to me.
"We can't see hide nor hair of our targets here, of
course," he said, "any more than Fritz can see us. We get all our ranges
and the records of all our hits, from Normabell."
I looked a question, I suppose.
"You called on him, I think—up on the Pimple. Major
That was how I learned the name of the imperturbable
major with whom I had smoked a pipe on the crest of Vimy Ridge. I shall
always remember his name and him. I saw no man in France who made a
livelier impression upon my mind and my imagination.
"Aye," I said. "I remember. So that's his name—Normabell,
D.S.O. I'll make a note of that.*"
My informant smiled.
"Normabell's one of our characters," he said. "Well,
you see he commands a goodish bit of country there where he sits. And
when he needs them he has aircraft observations to help him too. He's
our pair of eyes. We're like moles down here, we gunners; but he does
all our seeing for us. And he's in constant communication; he or one of
I wondered where all the shells the battery was
firing were headed for. And I learned that just then it was paying its
respects particularly to a big factory building just west of Lens. For
some reason that factory had been marked for destruction; but it had
been reinforced and strengthened so that it was taking a lot of smashing
and standing a good deal more punishment than any one had thought it
could. Which was reason enough, in itself, to stick to the job until
that factory was nothing more than a heap of dust and ruins.
The way the guns kept pounding away at it, made me
think of firemen in a small town drenching a local blaze with their
hose. The gunners were just as eager as that. And I could almost see
that factory crumbling away. Major Normabell had pointed it out to me,
up on the ridge, and now I knew why. I'll venture to say that before
night the eight-inch howitzers of that battery had utterly demolished
it, and had so ended whatever usefulness it had
had for the Germans.
It was cruel business to be knocking the towns and
factories of our ally, France, to bits in the fashion that we were doing
that day, there and at many another point along the front. The Huns are
fond of saying that much of the destruction in Northern France has been
the work of allied artillery. True enough; but who made that inevitable
% And it was not our guns that laid waste a whole countryside
before the German retreat in the spring of 1917, when the Huns ran wild,
rooting up fruit trees, cutting down every other tree that could be
found, and doing every other sort of wanton damage and mischief their
hands could find to do.
"Hard lines," said the battery commander. He shrugged
his shoulders. "No use trying to spare shells here, though, even on
French towns. The harder we smash them the sooner it'll be over. Look
He pointed out the men who sat, their telephone
receivers strapped over their ears. Each served a gun. In all that
hideous din it was of the utmost importance that they should hear
correctly every word and figure that came to them over the wire —a part
of that marvellously complete telephone and telegraph system that has
been built for and by the British Army in France.
"They get corrections on every shot," he told me.
"The guns are altered in elevation according to what they hear. The
range is changed, and the pointing, too. We never see old Fritz, but we
know he's getting the visiting cards we send him.'
They were amazingly calm, those laddies at the
telephones. In all that hideous, never-ending din they never grew
excited. Their voices were calm and steady as they repeated the orders
that came to them. I have seen girls at hotel switchboards, expert
operators working with conditions made to their order, who grew
infinitely more excited at a busy time, when many calls were coming in
and going out. Those men might have been at home, talking to a friend of
their plans for an evening's diversion, for all the nervousness or
fussiness, they showed.
Up there, on the Pimple, I had seen Normabell, the
eyes of the battery. Here I was watching its ears. And, to finish the
metaphor, to work it out, I was listening to its voice. Its brazen
tongues were giving voice continually. The guns—after-all, everything
else led up to them. They were the reason for all the rest of the
machinery of the battery, and it was they who said the last short word.
There was a good deal of rough joking and laughter in
the battery. The Canadian gunners took their task lightly enough, though
their work was of the hardest—and of the most dangerous, too. But jokes
ran from group to group, from gun to gun. They were constantly kidding
one another, as an American would say, I think. If a correction came for
one gun that showed there had been a mistake in sighting after the last
order—if, that is, the gunners, and not the distant observers, were
plainly at fault—there would be a good-natured outburst of chaffing from
all the others.
But, though such a spirit of lightness prevailed,
there was not a moment of loafing. These men were engaged in a grim,
deadly task, and every once in a while I would catch a black, purposeful
look in a man's eyes that made me realize that, under all the light talk
and laughter there was a perfect realization of the truth. They might
not show, on the surface, that they took life and their work seriously.
Ah, no ! They preferred, after the custom of their race, to joke with
And so they were doing quite literally. The Germans
knew perfectly well that there was a battery somewhere near the spot
where I had found my gunners. Only the exact location was hidden from
them, and they never ceased their efforts to determine that. Fritz's
aeroplanes were always trying to sneak over to get a look. An aeroplane
was the only means of detection the Canadians feared. No, I will not say
they feared it! The word fear did not exist for that battery. But it was
the only way in which there was a tolerable chance, even, for Fritz to
locate them, and, for the sake of the whole operation at that point, as
well as for their own interest, they were eager to avoid that.
German aeroplanes were always trying to sneak over,
as I say, but nearly always our men of the Royal Flying Corps drove them
back. We came as close, just then, to having command of the air in that
sector as any army does these days. You cannot quite command or control
the air. A few hostile flyers can get through the heaviest barrage and
the staunchest air patrol. And so, every once in a while, an alarm would
sound, and all hands would crane their necks upward to watch an
aeroplane flying above with an iron cross painted upon its wings.
Then, and, as a rule, then only, fire would cease for
a few minutes. There was far less chance of detection when the guns were
still. At the height at which our Archies—so the anti-aircraft guns are
called by Tommy Atkins—forced the Boche to fly there was little chance
of his observers picking out this battery, at least, against the ground.
If the guns were giving voice that chance was tripled. And so they
stopped, at such times, until a British flyer had had time to engage the
Hun and either bring him down or send him scurrying for safe shelter
behind his own lines.
Fritz, in the air, liked to have the odds with him,
as a rule. It was exceptional to find a German flyer like Boelke who
really went in for single-handed duels in the air. As a rule they
preferred to attack a single plane with half a dozen, and so make as
sure as they could of victory at a minimum of risk. But that policy did
not always work—sometimes the lone British flyer came out ahead, despite
the odds against him.
There was a good deal of firing on general principles
from Fritz. His shells came wandering querulously about, striking on
every side of the battery. Occasionally, of course, there was a hit that
was direct, or nearly so. And then, as a rule, a new mound or two would
appear in the little cemetery, and a new set of crosses that, for a few
days, you might easily enough have marked for new because they would not
be weathered yet. But such hits were few and far between, and they were
lucky, casual shots, of which the Germans themselves did not have the
satisfaction of knowing.
"Of course, if they get our range, really, and find
out all about us, we'll have to move," said the officer in command. "That
would be a bore, but it couldn't be helped. We're a fixed target, you
see, as soon as they know just where we are, and they can turn loose a
battery of heavy howitzers against us and clear us out of here in no
time. But we're pretty quick movers when we have to move. It's great
sport, in a way too, sometimes. We leave all the camouflage behind, and
sometimes Fritz will spend a week shelling a position that was moved
away at the first shell that came as if it meant they really were on to
I wondered how a battery commander would determine
the difference between a casual hit and the first shell of a bombardment
definitely planned and accurately placed.
"You can tell, as a rule, if you know the game," he
said. "There'll be searching shells, you see. There'll be one too far,
perhaps. And then, after a pretty exact interval, there'll be another,
maybe a bit short. Then one to the left, and then one to the right. By
that time we're off as a rule, we don't wait for the one that will be
scored a hit! If you're quick, you see, you can beat Fritz to it by
keeping your eyes open, and being ready to move in a hurry when he's got
a really good argument to make you do it."
But while I was there, while Fritz was inquisitive
enough, his curiosity got him nowhere. There were no casual hits, even,
and there was nothing to make the battery feel that it must be
making ready for a quick trek.
Was that no weird, strange game of hide and seek that
I watched being played at Vimy Ridge? It gave me the creeps, that idea
of battling with an enemy you could not see ! It must be hard, at times,
I think, for the gunners to realize that they are actually at war. But,
no; there is always the drone and the squawking of the German shells,
and the plop-plop, from time to time, as one finds its mark in the mud
near by. But to think of shooting always at an enemy you cannot see !
It brought to my mind a tale I had heard at hame in
Scotland. There was a hospital in Glasgow, and there a man who had gone
to see a friend stopped, suddenly, in amazement, at the side of a cot.
He looked down at features that were familiar to him. The man in the cot
was not looking at him, and the visitor stood gaping, staring at him in
the utmost astonishment and doubt.
"I say, man," he asked, at last, "are ye not Tamson,
The wounded man opened his eyes, and looked up,
"Aye," he said. "I'm Tamson, the baker."
His voice was weak, and he looked tired. But he
looked puzzled, too.
"Weel, Tamson, man, what's the matter wi' ye?" asked
the other. "I didna hear that ye were sick or hurt. How comes it ye are
here? Can it be that ye ha' been to the war, man, and we not hearing of
it, at all?"
"Aye, I think so," said Tamson, still weakly, but as
if he were rather glad of a chance to talk, at that.
"Ye think so?" asked his friend, in greater
astonishment than ever. "Man, if ye've been to the war do ye not know it
for sure and certain?"
"Well, I will tell ye how it is," said Tamson, very
slowly and wearily. "I was in the reserve, do ye ken. And I was standin'
in front of my hoose one day in August, thinkin' of nothin' at all. I
marked a man who was coming doon the street, wi' a blue paper in his
hand, and studyin' the numbers on the doorplates. But I paid no great
heed to him until he stoppit and spoke to me.
"He had stoppit outside my hoose and looked at the
number, and then at his blue paper. And then he turned to me.
"'Are ye Tamson, the baker?' he asked me— just as ye
asked me that same question the noo.
"And I said to him, just as I said it to ye, 'Aye,
I'm Tamson, the baker.'
"Then it's Hamilton Barracks for ye, Tamson,' he
said, and handed me the blue paper.
"Four hours from the time when he handed me the blue
paper in front of my hoose in Glasgow I was at Hamilton Barracks. In
twelve hours I was in Southampton. In twenty hours I was in France. And
aboot as soon as I got there I was in a lot of shooting and running this
way and that that they ha' told me since was the Battle of the Marne.
"And in twenty-four hours more I was on my way back
to Glasgow! In forty-eight hours I woke up in Stobe Hill Infirmary and
the nurse was saying in my ear: 'Ye're all richt the noo, Tamson. We ha'
only just amputated your leg!
"So I think I ha' been to the war, but I can only say
I think so. I only know what I was told— that ha' never seen a damn
German yet! '
That is a true story of Tamson the baker. And his
experience has actually been shared by many a poor fellow—and by many
another who might have counted himself lucky if he had lost no more than
a leg, as Tamson did.
But the laddies of my battery, though they were
shooting now at Germans they could not see, had
had many a close up view of Fritz in the past, and
expected many another in the future. Maybe they will get one, some time,
after the fashion of the company of which my boy John once told me.
The captain of this company—a Hieland company, it
was, though not of John's regiment—had spent most of his time in London
before the war, and belonged to several clubs, which, in those days,
employed many Germans as servants and waiters. He was a big man, and he
had a deep, bass voice, so that he roared like the bull of Bashan when
he had a mind to raise it for all to hear.
One day things were dull in his sector. The front
line trench was not far from that of the Germans, but there was no
activity beyond that of the snipers, and the Germans were being so
cautious that ours were getting mighty few shots. The captain was bored,
and so were the men.
"How would you like a pot shot, lads?'' he asked.
"Fine!" came the answer. "Fine, sir!"
"Very well," said the captain. "Get
ready with your rifles, and keep your eyes on yon trench."
It was not more than thirty yards away—point-blank
range. The captain waited until they were ready. And then his voice rang
out in its loudest, most commanding roar.
"Waiter!" he shouted.
Forty helmets popped up over the German parapet, and
a storm of bullets swept them away!