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A Minstrel in France
Chapter 17


IT was getting late; for men who had had so early a breakfast as we had had to make to get started in good time And just as I was beginning to feel hungry—odd, it seemed to me, that such a thing as lunch should stay in my mind in such surroundings and when so many vastly more important things were afoot!—the major looked at his wrist watch.

"By Jove!" he said, "Lunch time! Gentle-men, you'll accept such hospitality as we can offer you at our officers' mess?"

There wasn't any question about acceptance! We all said we were delighted, and we meant it. I looked around for a hut or some such place, or even for a tent, and, seeing nothing of the sort, wondered where we might be going to eat. I soon found out. The major led the way under ground, into a dugout. This was the mess. It was hard by the guns, and in a hole that had been dug out, quite literally. Here there was a certain degree of safety. In these dugouts every phase of the battery's life except the actual serving of the guns went on. Officers and men alike ate and slept in them,

They were much snugger within than you might fancy. A lot of the men had given homelike touches to their habitations. Pictures cut from the illustrated papers at home, which are such prime favourites with all the Tommies, made up a large part of the decorative scheme. Pictures of actresses predominated ; the Tommies didn't go in for war pictures. Indeed, there is little disposition to hammer the war home at you in a dugout. The men don't talk about it or think about it, save as they must; you hear less talk about the war along the front than you do at home. I heard a story at Vimy Ridge of a Tommy who had come back to the trenches after seeing Blighty for the first time in months.

"Hello, Bill," said one of his mates. "Back again, are you? How's things in Blighty?" "Oh, all right," said Bill.

Then he looked around. He pricked his ears as a shell whined above him. And he took out his pipe and stuffed it full of tobacco, and lighted it, and sat back. He sighed in the deepest content as the smoke began to curl upward.

"Bli'me, Bill, I'd say, to look at you, you was glad to be back here!" said his mate, astonished. "Well, I ain't so sorry, and that's a fact," said Bill. "I tell you how it is, Alf. Back there in Blighty they don't talk about nothing but this bloody war. I'm fair fed up with it, that I am. I'm glad to be back here, where I don't have to 'ear about the war every bleedin' minute!"

That story sounds far-fetched to you, perhaps, but it isn't. War talk is shop talk to the men who are fighting it and winning it, and it is perfectly true and perfectly reasonable, too, that they like to get away from it when they can, just as any man likes to get away from the thought of his business or his work when he isn't at the office or the factory or the shop.

Captain Godfrey explained to me, as we went into the mess hall for lunch, that the dugouts were realty pretty safe. Of course there were dangers; where are there not along that strip of land that runs from the North Sea to Switzerland, in France and Belgium?

"A direct hit from a big enough shell would bury us all," he said. "But that's not likely; the chances are all against it. And, even then, we'd have a chance. I've seen men dug out alive from a hole like this after a shell from one of their biggest howitzers had landed square upon it."

But I had no anxiety to form part of an experiment to prove the truth or the falsity of that suggestion. I was glad to know that the chances of a shell's coming were pretty slim.

Conditions were primitive at that mess. The refinements of life were lacking, to be sure, but who cared ? Certainly the hungry members of the Reverend Harry Lauder, M.P., Tour did not. We ate from a rough deal table, sitting on rude benches that had a decidedly home-made look. But, we had music with our meals, just like the folks in London at the Savoy or in New York at Sherry's. It was the incessant thunder of the guns that served as the musical accompaniment of our lunch, and I was already growing to love that music. I could begin, now, to distinguish degrees of sound and modulations of all sorts in the mighty-diapason of the cannon. It was as if a conductor were leading an orchestra, and as if it responded instantly to every suggestion of his baton.

There was not much variety to the food, but there was plenty of it, and it was good. There was bully beef, of course; that is the real staff of life for the British army. And there were potatoes, in plentiful supply, and bread and butter, and tea; there is always tea where Tommy or his officers are about. There was a' lack of table ware; a dainty soul might not have liked the thought of spreading his butter on his bread with his thumb, as we had to do. But I was too hungry to be fastidious, myself.

Because the mess had guests there was a special dish in our honour. One of the men had gone over —at considerable risk of his life, as I learned later —to the heap of stones and dust that had once been the village of Givenchy. There he had found a lot of gooseberries. The French call them grossets, as we in Scotland do, too, although the pronunciation of the word is different in the two languages, of course. There had been gardens around the houses of Givenchy once, before the place had been made into a desert of rubble and brickdust. And, somehow, life had survived in those bruised and battered gardens, and the delicious mess of gooseberries that we had for dessert stood as proof thereof.

The meal was seasoned by good talk. I love to hear the young British officers talk. It is a liberal education. They have grown so wise, those boys ! Those of them who come back when the war is over will have the world at their feet, indeed. Nothing will be able to stop them or to check them in their rise. They have learned every great lesson that a man must learn if he is to succeed in the affairs of life. Self-control is theirs, and an infinite patience, and a dogged determination that refuses to admit that there are any things that a man cannot do if he only makes up his mind that he must and will do them. For the British army has accomplished the impossible, time after time; it has done things that men knew could not be done.

And so we sat and talked, as we smoked, after the meal, until the major rose, at last, and invited me to walk around the battery again with him. I could ask questions now, having seen the men at work, and he explained many things I wanted to know—and which Fritz would like to know, too, to this day! But above all I was fascinated by the work of the gunners. I kept trying, in my mind's eye, to follow the course of the shells that were dispatched so calmly upon their errands of destruction. My imagination played with the thought of what they were doing at the other end of their swift voyage through the air. I pictured the havoc that must be wrought when one made a clean hit.

And, suddenly, I was swept by that same almost irresistible desire to be fighting myself that had come over me when I had seen the other battery. If I could only play my part! If I could fire even a single shot; if I, with my own hands, could do that much against those who had killed my boy! And then, incredulously, I heard the words in my ear. It was the major.

"Would you like to try a shot, Harry?" he asked me.

Would I? I stared at him. I couldn't believe my ears. It was as if he had read my thoughts. I gasped out some sort of an affirmative. My blood was boiling at the very thought, and the sweat started from my pores.

"All right; nothing easier," said the major, smiling. "I had an idea you were wanting to take a hand, Harry."

He led me toward one of the guns, where the sweating crew was especially active, as it seemed to me. They grinned at me as they saw me coming.

"Here's old Harry Lauder come to take a crack at them himself," I heard one man say to another.

"Good for him! The more the merrier," answered his mate. He was an American; would ye no know it from his speech ?

I was trembling with eagerness. I wondered if my shot would tell. I tried to visualize its consequences. It might strike some vital spot. It might kill some man whose life was of the utmost value to the enemy. It might—it might do anything! And I knew that my shot would be watched. Normabell, sitting up there on the Pimple in his little observatory, would watch it, as he did all of that battery's shots. Would he make a report?

Everything was made ready. The gun recoiled from the previous shot; swiftly it was swabbed out. A new shell was handed up; I looked it over tenderly. That was my shell! I watched the men as they placed it and saw it disappear with a jerk. Then came the swift sighting of the gun, the almost imperceptible corrections of elevation and position.

They showed me my place. After all, it was the simplest of matters to fire even the biggest of guns. I had but to pull a lever. All morning I had been watching men do that. I knew it was but a perfunctory act. But I could not feel like that. I was thrilled and excited as I had never been in all my life before.

"All ready! Fire!"

The order rang in my ears. And I pulled the lever, as hard as I could. The great gun sprang into life as I moved the lever. I heard the roar of the explosion, and it seemed to me that it was a louder bark than any gun I had heard had given. It was not, of course, and so, down in my heart, I knew. There was no shade of variation between that shot and all the others that had been fired. But it pleased me to think so; it pleases me, sometimes, to think so even now. Just as it pleases me to think that that long-snouted engine of war propelled that shell, under my guiding hand, with unwonted accuracy and effectiveness! Perhaps I was childish, to feel as I did; indeed, I have no doubt that that was so. But I dinna care!

There was no report by telephone from Norma-bell about that particular shot. I hung about a while, by the telephone listeners, hoping one would come. And it disappointed me that no attention was paid to that shot.'

"Probably simply means it went home," said Godfrey. "A shot that acts just as it should doesn't get reported."

But I was disappointed, all the same. And yet the sensation is one I shall never forget, and I shall never cease to be glad that the major gave me my chance. The most thrilling moment was that of the recoil of the great gun. I felt exactly as one does when one dives into deep water from a considerable height.

"Good work, Harry!" said the major, warmly, when I had stepped down. "I'll wager you wiped out a bit of the German trenches with that shot. I think I'll draft you and keep you here as a gunner!"

And the officers and men all spoke in the same way, smiling as they did so. But I hae ma doots! I'd like to think I did real damage with my one shot, but I'm afraid my shell was just one of those that turned up a, bit of dirt and made one of those small brown eruptions I had seen rising on all sides along the German lines as I had sat and smoked my pipe with Normabell earlier in the day.

"Well, anyway," I said, exultingly, "that's that! I hope I got two for my one, at least! "

But my exultation did not last long. I reflected upon the inscrutability of war and of this deadly fighting that was going on all about me. How casual a matter was this sending out of a shell that could, in a flash of time, obliterate all that lived in a wide circle about where it chanced to strike ! The pulling of a lever—that was all that I had done. And at any moment a shell some German gunner had sent winging its way through the air in precisely that same casual fashion might come tearing into this quiet nook, guided by some chance, lucky for him, and wipe out the major, and all the pleasant boys with whom I had broken bread just now, and the sweating gunners who had cheered me on as I fired my shot.

I was to give a concert for this battery, and I felt that it was time, now, for it to begin. I could see, too, that the men were growing a bit impatient. And so I said that I was ready.

"Then come along to our theatre," said the major, and grinned at my look of astonishment.

"Oh, we've got a real amphitheatre for you, such as the Greeks used for the tragedies of Sophocles!" he said. "There it is."

He had not stretched the truth. It was a superb theatre—a great, crater-like hole in the ground. Certainly it was as well ventilated a show house as you could hope for, and I found, when the time came, that the acoustics were splendid. I went down into the middle of the hole with Hogge and Adam, who had become part of my company, and the soldiers grouped themselves about its rim.

Before we left Boulogne a definite programme had been laid out for the Reverend Harry Lauder, M.P., Tour. We had decided that we would get better results by adopting a programme and sticking to it at all our meetings or concerts. So, at all the assemblies that we gathered, Hogge opened proceedings by talking to the men about pensions, the subject in which he was so vitally interested, and in which he had done and was doing such magnificent work. Adam would follow him with a talk about the war and its progress.

He was a splendid speaker, was Adam. He had all the eloquence of the fine preacher that he was, but he did not preach to the lads in the trenches— not he! He told them about the war, and about the way the folks at hame in Britain were backing them up. He talked about war loans and food conservation, and made them understand that it was not they alone who were doing the fighting. It was a cheering and an inspiring talk he gave them, and he got good round applause wherever he spoke.

They saved me up for the last, and when Adam had finished speaking either he or Hogge would introduce me, and my singing would begin. That was the programme we had arranged for the Hole-in-the-Ground Theatre, as the Canadians called their amphitheatre. For this performance, of course, I had no piano. Johnson and the wee instrument were back where we had left the motorcars, and so I just had to sing without an accompaniment—except that which the great booming of the guns was to furnish me.

I was afraid at first that the guns would bother me. But as I listened to Hogge and Adam I ceased, gradually, to notice them at all, and I soon felt that they would annoy me no more, when it was my turn to go on, than the chatter of a bunch of stage hands in the wings of a theatre had so often done.

When it was my turn I began with "Roamin' in the Gloamin'." The verse went well, and I swung into the chorus. I had picked the song to open with because I knew the soldiers were pretty sure to know it, and so would join me in the chorus— which is something I always want them to do. And these were no exceptions to the general rule. But, just as I got into the chorus, the tune of the guns changed. They had been coughing and spitting intermittently, but now, suddenly, it seemed to me that it was as if someone had kicked the lid off the fireworks factory and dropped a lighted torch inside.

Every gun in the battery around the hole began whanging away at once. I was jumpy and nervous, I'll admit, and it was all I could do to hold to the pitch and not break the time. I thought all of Von Hindenburg's army must be attacking us, and, from the row and din, I judged he must have brought up some of the German Navy to help, instead of letting it He in the Kiel Canal where the British fleet could not get at it. I never heard such a terrific racket in all my days.

I took the opportunity to look around at my audience. They didn't seem to be a bit excited.

They all had their eyes fixed on me, and they weren't listening to the guns, only to me and my singing. And so, as they probably knew what was afoot, and took it so quietly, I managed to keep on singing as if I, too, were used to such a row, and thought no more of it than of the ordinary traffic noise of a London or a Glasgow street. But if I really managed to look that way my appearances were most deceptive, because I was nearer to being scared than I had been at any time yet. But presently I began to get interested in the noise of the guns. They developed a certain regular rhythm. I had to allow for it, and make it fit the time of what I was singing. And as I realized that probably this was just a part of the regular day's work, a bit of ordinary strafing, and not a feature of a grand attack, I took note of the rhythm. It went something like this, as near as I can gie it to you in print:

"Roamin' in the—PUH—LAH—gloamin'—BAM! "On the — WHUFF!—BOOM!—bonny — BR-R-R!— banks 'o—BIFF—Clyde—ZOW!"

And so it went all through, the rest of the concert. I had to adjust each song I sang to that odd rhythm of the guns, and I don't know but that it was just as well that Johnson wasn't there! He'd have had trouble staying with me with his wee bit piano, I'm thinkin'!

And, do you ken, I got to see, after a bit, that it was the gunners, all the time, havin' a bit of fun with me! For when I sang a verse the guns behaved themselves, but every time I came to the chorus they started up the same inferno of noise again. I think they wanted to see, at first, if they could no shake me enough to make me stop singing, and they liked me the better when they found I would no stop. The soldiers soon began to laugh, but the joke was not all on me, and I could see that they understood that, and were pleased. Indeed, it was all as amusing to me as to them.

I doubt if "Roamin' in the Gloamin'" or any other song was ever sung in such circumstances. I sang several more songs—they called, as every audience I have seems to do, for me to sing my "Wee Hoose Amang the Heather"—and then Captain Godfrey brought the concert to an end. It was getting along toward mid-afternoon, and he explained that we had another call to make before dark.

"Good-bye, Harry; good luck to you! Thanks for the singing!"

Such cries rose from all sides, and the Canadians came crowding around to shake my hand. It was touching to see how pleased they were, and it made me rejoice that I had been able to come. I had thought, sometimes, that it might be a presumptuous thing, in a way, for me to want to go so near the front, but the way I had been able to cheer up the lonely, dull routine of that battery went far to justify me in coming, I thought.

I was sorry to be leaving the Canadians. And I was glad to see that they seemed as sorry to let me go as I was to be going. I have a very great fondness for the Canadian soldier. He is certainly one of the most picturesque and interesting of all the men who are fighting under the flags of the Allies, and it is certain that the world can never forget the record he has made in this war, a record of courage and heroism unexcelled by any and equalled by few.

I stood around while we were getting ready to start back to the cars, and one of the officers was with me.

"How often do you get a shell right inside the pit here?" I asked him. "A fair hit, I mean?"

"Oh, I don't know," he said slowly. He looked around. "You know that hole you were singing in just now?"

I nodded. I had guessed that it had been made by a shell,

"Well, that's the result of a Boche shell," he said. "If you'd come yesterday we'd have had to find another place for your concert!"

"Oh, is that so?" I said.

"Aye," he said, and grinned. "We didn't tell you before, Harry, because we didn't want you to feel nervous, or anything like that, while you were singing. But it was obliging of Fritz, now wasn't it? Think of having him take all the trouble to dig out a fine theatre for us that way!"

"It was obliging of him, to be sure," I said, rather dryly.

"That's what we said," said the officer. "Why, as soon as I saw the hole that shell had made, I said to Campbell: 'By Jove, there's the very place for Harry Lander's concert to-morrow!' And he agreed with me."

Now it was time for handshaking and good-byes. I said farewell all around, and wished good luck to that brave battery, so cunningly hidden away in its pit. There was a great deal of cheery shouting and waving of hands as we went off. And in two minutes the battery was out of sight, even though we knew exactly where it was!

We made our way slowly back, through the lengthening shadows, over the shell-pitted ground. The motor-cars were waiting, and Johnson, too. Everything was ship-shape and ready for a new start, and we climbed in.

As we drove off I looked back at Vimy Ridge. And I continued to gaze at it for a long time. No longer did it disappoint me. No longer did I regard it as an insignificant hillock. All that feeling that had come to me with my first sight of it had been banished by my introduction to the famous ridge itself.

It had spoken to me eloquently, despite the muteness of the myriad tongues it had. It had graven deep into my heart the realization of its true place in history.

An excrescence in a flat country—a little hump of ground! That is all there is to Vimy Ridge. Aye ! It does not stand so high above the ground of Slanders as the books that will be written about it in the future will stand, were you to pile them all up together when the last one of them is printed! But what a monument it is to bravery and to sacrifice, to all that is best in this human race of ours!

No human hands have ever reared such a monument as that ridge is and will be. There some of the greatest deeds in history were done, some of the noblest acts that there is record of, performed. There men lived and died gloriously in their brief moment of climax, the moment for which, all unknowing, all their lives before that day of battle had been lived.

I took off my cap as I looked back, with a gesture and a thought of deep and solemn reverence. And so I said good-bye to Vimy Ridge, and to the brave men I had known there—the living and the dead. For I felt that I had come to know some of the dead as well as the living.


 


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