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A Minstrel in France
Chapter 18


"You'll see another phase of the front now, Harry," said Captain Godfrey, as I turned my eyes to the front once more.

"What's the next stop?" I asked.

"We're heading for a rest billet behind the lines. There'll be lots of men there who are just out of the trenches. It's a ghastly strain for even the best and most seasoned troops—this work in the trenches. So, after a battalion has been in for a certain length of time, it's pulled out and sent back to a rest billet."

"What do they do there?" I asked.

"Well, they don't loaf—there's none of that in the British Army, these days. But it's paradise, after the trenches. For one thing, there isn't the constant danger there is up front. The men aren't under steady fire. Of course, there's always the chance of a bomb-dropping raid by a Taube or a Fokker. The men get a chance to clean up. They get baths, and their clothes are cleaned and disinfected. They get rid of the cooties—you know what they are?"

I could guess. The plague of vermin in the trenches is one of the minor horrors of war.

"They do a lot of drilling," Godfrey went on. "Except for those times in the rest billets, regiments might get a bit slack. In the trenches, you see, the routine is strict, but it's different. Men are much more on their own. There aren't any inspections of kit and all that sort of thing—not for neatness, anyway.

"And it's a good thing for soldiers to be neat. It helps discipline. And discipline, in time of war, isn't just a parade-ground matter. It means lives, every time. Your disciplined man, who's trained to do certain things automatically, is the man you can depend on in any sort of emergency.

"That's the thing that the Canadians and the Australians have had to learn since they came out. There were never any braver troops than those in the world, but at first they didn't have the automatic discipline they needed. That'll be the first problem in training the new American armies, too. It's a highly practical matter. And so, in the rest billets, they drill the men a goodish bit. It keeps up the morale, and makes them fitter and keener for the work when they go back to the trenches."

"You don't make it sound much like a real rest for them," I said.

"Oh, but it is, all right! They have a comfortable place to sleep. They get better food. The men in the trenches get the best food it's possible to give them, but it can't be cooked much, for there aren't facilities. The diet gets pretty monotonous. In the rest billets they get more variety. And they have plenty of free time, and there are hours when they can go to the estaminet —there's always one handy, a sort of pub, you know—and buy things for themselves. Oh, they have a pretty good time, as you'll see, in a rest billet."

I had to take his word for it. We went bowling along at a good speed, but pretty soon we encountered a detachment of Somerset men. They halted when they spied our caravan, and so did we. As usual they recognized us.

"You'm Harry Lauder!" said one of them, in the broad accent of his county. "Us has seen 'ee often!"

Johnson was out already, and he and the drivers were unlimbering the wee piano. It didn't take so long, now that we were getting used to the task, to make ready for a roadside concert. While I waited I talked to the men. They were on their way to Ypres. Tommy can't get the name right, and long ago ceased trying to do so. The French and Belgians call it "Eepre"—that's as near as I can give it to you in print, at least. But Tommy, as all the world must know by now, calls it Wipers, and that is another name that will live as long as British history is told.

The Somerset men squatted in the road while I sang my songs for them, and gave me their most rapt attention. It was hugely gratifying and flattering, the silence that always descended upon an audience of soldiers when I sang. There were never any interruptions. But at the end of a song, and during the chorus, which they always wanted to sing with me, as I wanted them to do, too, they made up for their silence.

Soon the Reverend Harry Lauder, M.P., Tour, was on its way again. The cheers of the Somerset men sounded gaily in our ears, and the cars quickly picked up speed and began to mop up the miles at a great rate. And then, suddenly—whoa! We were in the midst of soldiers again. This time it was a bunch of motor repair men.

They wandered along the roads, working on the trucks and cars that were abandoned when they got into trouble, and left along the side of the road. We had seen scores of such wrecks that day, and I had wondered if they were left there indefinitely. Far from it, as I learned now. Squads like this —there were two hundred men in this particular party—were always at work. Many of the cars they salvaged without difficulty, those that had been abandoned because of comparatively minor engine troubles or defects. Other had to be towed to a repair shop, or loaded upon other trucks for the journey, if their wheels were out of commission.

Others still, were beyond repair. They had been utterly smashed in a collision, maybe, or as a result of skidding. Or they had burned. Sometimes they had been knocked off the road and generally demoralized by a shell. And in such cases, often, all that men such as these we had met now could do was to retrieve some parts to be used in repairing other cars in a less hopeless state.

By this time Johnson and the two soldier chauffeurs had reduced the business of setting our stage to a fine point. It took us but a very few minutes indeed to be ready for a concert, and from the time when we sighted a potential audience to the moment for the opening number was an almost incredibly brief period. This time that was a good thing, for it was growing late. And so, although the repair men were loath to let me go, it was but an abbreviated programme that I was able to offer them. This was one of the most enthusiastic audiences I had had yet, for nearly every man there, it turned out, had been what Americans would call a Harry Lauder fan in the old days. They had been wont to go again and again to hear me. I wanted to stay and sing more songs for them, but Captain Godfrey was in charge, and I had to obey his orders, reluctant though I was to go on.

Our destination was a town called Aubigny— rather an old chateau just outside the town.

Aubigny was the billet of the --------- Division, then in rest. Many officers were quartered in the chateau, as the guests of its French owners, who remained in possession, having refused to clear out, despite the nearness of the actual fighting front.

This was a Scots division, I was glad to find. I heard good Scots talk all around me when I arrived, and it was Scottish hospitality, mingled with French, that awaited us. I know no finer combination, nor one more warming to the cockles of a man's heart.

Here there was luxury, compared to what I had seen that day. As Godfrey had warned me, the idea of resting that the troops had, was a bit more strenuous than mine would be. There was no lying and lolling about. Hot though the weather was, a deal of football was played, and there were games of one sort and another going on nearly all the time when the men were off duty.

This division, I learned, had seen some of the hardest and bloodiest fighting of the whole war. They had been through the great offensive that had pivoted on Arras, and had been sorely knocked about. They had well earned such rest as was coming to them now, and they were getting ready, in the most cheerful way you can imagine, for their next turn of duty in the trenches. They knew about how much time they would have, and they made the best use they could of it.

New drafts were coming out daily from home to fill up their sadly depleted ranks. The new men were quickly drawn in and assimilated into organizations that had been reduced to mere skeletons. New officers were getting acquainted with their men; that wonderful thing that is called esprit de corps was being made all around me. It is a great sight to watch it in the making; it helps you to understand the victories our laddies have won.

I was glad to see the kilted men of the Scots regiments all about me. It was them, after all, that I had come to see. I wanted to talk to them, and see them here, in France. I had seen them at hame, flocking to the recruiting offices. I had seen them in their training camps. But this was different. I love all the soldiers of the Empire, but it is natural, is it no? that my warmest feeling should be for the laddies who wear the kilt.

They were the most cheerful souls, as I saw them when we reached their rest camp, that you could imagine. They were laughing and joking all about us, and when they heard that the Reverend Harry Lauder, M.P., Tour, had arrived they crowded about us to see. They wanted to make sure that I was there, and I was greeted in all sorts of dialect that sounded queer enough, I'll be bound, to Godfrey and some of the rest of our party. There were even men who spoke to me in the Gaelic.

I saw a good deal, afterward, of these Scots troops. My, how hard they did work while they rested! And what chances they took of broken bones and bruises in their play! Ye would think, would ye no, that they had enough of that in the trenches, where they got lumps and bruises and sorer hurts in the run of duty? But no. So soon as they came back to their rest billets they must begin to play by knocking the skin and the hair off one another at sports of various sorts, of which football was among the mildest, that are not by any means to be recommended to men of a delicate fibre.

Some of the men I met at Aubigny had been out since Mons, some of the old kilted regiments of the old regular army, they were. Away back in those desperate days the Germans had dubbed them the ladies from Hell, on account of their kilts. Some of the Germans really thought they were women! That was learned from prisoners. Since Mons they had been out, and auld Scotland has poured out men by the scores of thousands, as fast as they were needed, to fill the gaps the German shells and bullets have torn in the Scots ranks. Aye—since Mons, and they will be there at the finish, when it comes, please God!

There have always been Scots regiments in the British Army, ever since the day when King Jamie the Sixth, of Scotland, of the famous and unhappy house of Stuart, became King James the First of England. The kilted regiments, the Highlanders, belonging to the immortal Highland Brigade, include the Gordon Highlanders, the Forty-second, the world-famous Black Watch, as it is better known than by its numbered designation, the Seaforth Highlanders, and the Argyll and Sutherland regiment, or the Princess Louise's Own. That was the regiment, a Territorial battalion, to which my boy John belonged at the outbreak of the war, and with which he served until he was killed.

Some of those old, famous regiments have been wiped out half a dozen times, almost literally annihilated, since Mons. New drafts, and the addition of territorial battalions, have replenished them and kept up their strength, and the continuity of their tradition has never been broken. The men who compose a regiment may be wiped out, but the regiment survives. It is an organization, an entity, a creature with a soul as well as a body. And the Germans have no yet discovered a way of killing the soul! They can do dreadful things to the bodies of men and women, but their souls are safe from them.

Of course there are Scots regiments that are not kilted and that have naught to do with the Hielanders, who have given as fine and brave an account of themselves as any. There are the Scots Guards, one of the regiments of the Guards Brigade, the very pick and flower of the British Army. There are the King's Own Scottish Borderers, with as fine a history and tradition as any regiment in the Army, and a record of service of which any regiment might well be proud; the Scots Fusiliers, the Royal Scots, the Scottish Rifles, and the Scots Greys of Crimean fame—the only cavalry regiment from Scotland.

Since this war began other Highland regiments have been raised beside those originally included in the Highland Brigade. There are Scots from Canada who wear the kilt and their own tartan and bonnet. Every Highland regiment, of course, has its own distinguishing tartan and bonnet. One of the proudest moments of my life came when I heard that the ninth battalion of the Highland Light Infantry, which was raised in Glasgow, but has its depot, where its recruits and new drafts are trained, at Hamilton, was known as the Harry Lauders. That was because they had adopted the Balmoral cap, with dice, that had become associated with me because I had worn it so often and so long on the stage, in singing one of my most famous and successful songs, "I love a Lassie."

But in the trenches, of course, the Hieland troops all look alike. They cling to their kilts— or, rather, their kilts cling to them—but kilts and jackets are all of khaki. If they wore the bright plaids of the tartans they would be much too conspicuous a mark for the Germans, and so they have to forswear their much loved colours when they are actually at grips with Fritz.

I wear the kilt nearly always, myself, as I have said. Partly I do so because it is my native costume, and I am proud of my Highland birth; partly because I revel in the comfort of the costume. But it brings me some amusing experiences. Very often I am asked a question that is, I presume, fired at many a Hieland soldier, intimate though it is.

"I say, Harry," some one will ask me, "you wear the kilt. Do you not wear anything underneath it?"

I do, myself. I wear a very short pair of trunks, chiefly for reasons of modesty. So do some of the soldiers. But if they do they must provide it for themselves; no such garment is served out to them with their uniform. And so the vast majority of the men wear nothing but their skins under the kilt. He is bare, that is, from the waist to the hose, except for the kilt. But that is garment enough ! I'll tell ye so, and I'm thinkin' I know!

So clad, the Highland soldier is a great deal more comfortable and a great deal more sanely dressed, I believe, than the city dweller who is trousered and underweared within an inch of his life. I think it is a matter of medical record, that can be verified from the reports of the army surgeons, that the kilted troops are among the healthiest in the whole army. I know that the Highland troops are much less subject to abdominal troubles of all sorts—colic and the like. The kilt lies snug and warm around the stomach, in several thick layers, and a more perfect protection from the cold has never been devised for that highly delicate and susceptible region of the human anatomy.

Women, particularly, are always asking me another question. I have seen them eyeing me, in cold weather, when I was walkin' around, comfortably, in my kilt. And their eyes would wander to my knees, and I would know before they opened their mouths what it was that they were going to say.

"Oh, Mr. Lauder," they would ask me. "Don't your poor knees get cold—with no coverings, exposed to this bitter cold?"

Well, they never have! That's all I can tell you. They have had the chance, in all sorts of bitter weather. I am not thinking only of the comparatively mild winters of Britain; although, up north, in Scotland, we get some pretty severe winter weather. But I have been in Western Canada, and in the North-Western States of the United States, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, where the thermometer drops far below zero. And my knees have never been cold yet. They do not suffer from the cold any more than does my face, which is as little covered and protected as my knees, and for the same reason, I suppose. They are used to the weather.

And when it comes to the general question of health, I am certain, from my own experience, that the kilt is best. Several times, for one reason or another, I have laid my kilt aside and put on trousers. And each time I have been seized by violent colds, and my life has been made wretched. A good many soldiers of my acquaintance have had the same experience.

Practical reasons aside, however, the Scots soldier loves his kilt, and would fight like a steer to keep from having it taken away from him, should any one be so foolish as to try such a performance. He loves it, not only because it is warm and comfortable, but because it is indissolubly associated in his mind with some of the most glorious pages of Scottish history. It is a sign and symbol of his hameland to him. There have been times, in Scotland, when all was not as peaceful in that country's relations with England as it now is, when the loyal Scot who wore the kilt did so knowing that he might be tried for his life for doing so, since death had been the penalty appointed for that "crime."

Aye, it is peace and friendship now between Scot and Englishman. But that is not to say that there is no a friendly rivalry between them still. English regiments and Scots regiments have a lot of fun with one another, and a bit rough it gets, too, at times. But it is all in fun, and there is no harm done. I have in mind a tale an officer told me, though the men of whom he told it did not know that an officer had any inkling of the story.

The English soldiers are very fond of harping on the old idea of the difficulty of making a Scotsman see a joke. That is a base slander, I'll say, but no matter. There were two regiments in rest close to one another, one English and one Scots. They met at the estaminet or pub in the nearby town. And one day the Englishman put up a great joke on some of the Scots, and did get a little proof of that pet idea of theirs, for the Scots were slow to see the joke.

Ah, weel, that was enough. For days the English rang the changes on that joke, teasing the Hielanders and making sport of them. But at last, when the worst of the tormentors were all assembled together, two of the Scots came into the room where they were havin' a wee drappie.

"Mon, Sandy," said one of them, shaking his head, "I've been thinking what a sad thing that would be! I hope it will no come to pass."

"Aye, that would be a sore business, indeed, Tam," said Sandy, and he, too, shook his head.

And so they went on. The Englishmen stood it as long as they could and then one turned to Sandy.

"What is it would be such a bad business?" he asked.

"Mon-mon," said Sandy. "We've been thinking, Tam and I, what would become of England, if Scotland should make a separate peace?"

And it was generally conceded that the last laugh was with the Scots in that affair!

My boy, John, had the same love for the kilt that I had. He was proud and glad to wear the kilt, and to lead men who did the same. While he was in training at Bedford he organized a corps of cyclists for dispatch-bearing work. He was a crack cyclist himself, and cycling was a sport of which he was passionately fond. So he took a great interest in the corps, and it soon gained wide fame for its efficiency. So famous, indeed, that the authorities took note of the corps, and of John, who was responsible for it, and he was asked to go to France to take charge of organizing a similar corps behind the front. But that would have involved a transfer to a different branch of the Army, and detachment from his regiment. And—it would have meant that he must doff his kilt. Since he had the chance to decline—it was an offer, not an order, that had come to him—he declined it, that he might keep his kilt and stay with his own men.

To my eyes there is no spectacle that begins to be so imposing as the sight of a parade of Scottish troops in full uniform. And it is the unanimous testimony of German prisoners that this war has brought them no more terrifying sight than the charge of a kilted regiment. The Highlanders come leaping forward, their bayonets gleaming, shouting old battle cries that rang through the glens years and centuries ago, and that have come down to the descendants of the warriors of an ancient time. The Highlanders love to use cold steel; the claymore was their old weapon, and the bayonet is its nearest equivalent in modern war. They are master hands with that, too, and the bayonet is the one thing the Hun has no stomach for at all.

Fritz is brave enough when he is under such cover and shelter as the trenches give. And he has shown a sort of stubborn courage when attacking in massed formations; the Germans have made terrible sacrifices, at times, in their offensive efforts. But his blood turns to water in his veins when he sees the big braw laddies from the Hielands come swooping toward him, their kilts flapping and their bayonets shining in whatever light there is. Then he is mighty quick to throw up his hands and shout: "Kamerad! Kamerad!"

I might go on all night telling you some of the stories I heard along the front about the Scottish soldier. They illustrate and explain every phase of his character. They exploit his humour, despite that base slander to which I have already referred, his courage, his stoicism. And, of course, a vast fund of stories has sprung up that deals with the proverbial thrift of the Scot. There was one tale that will bear repeating, perhaps.

Two Highlanders had captured a chicken—a live chicken, not particularly fat, it may be, even a bit scrawny, but still, a live chicken. That was a prize, since the bird seemed to have no owner who might get them into trouble with the military police. One was for killing and eating the fowl at once. But the other would have none of such a summary plan.

"No, no, Jimmy," he said pleadingly, holding the chicken protectingly. "Let's keep her until morning, and may be we will ha' an egg as well!"

The other British Soldiers call the Scots Jock, invariably. The Englishman, or a soldier from Wales or Ireland, as a rule, is called Tommy— after the well-known Mr. Thomas Atkins. Sometimes, an Irishman will be Paddy and a Welshman Taffy. But the Scot is always Jock.

Jock gave us a grand welcome at Aubigny. We were all pretty tired, but when they told me I could have an audience of seven thousand Scots soldiers I forgot my weariness, and Hogge, Adam and I, to say nothing of Johnson and the wee piano, cleared for action, as you might say. The concert was given in the picturesque grounds of the chateau, which had been less harshly treated by the war than many of these beautiful old places have been. It was a great experience to sing to so many men; it was far and away the largest house we had had since we had landed at Boulogne.

After we left Aubigny, the chateau and that great audience, we drove on as quickly as we could, since it was now late, to the headquarters of General Mac------, commanding the --------- Division—to which, of course, the men whom we had just been entertaining belonged. I was to meet the general upon my arrival.

That was a strange ride. It was pitch dark, and we had some distance to go. There were mighty few lights in evidence; you do not advertise a road to Fritz's aeroplanes when you are travelling roads anywhere near the front, for he has guns of long range, that can at times manage to strafe a road that is supposed to be beyond the zone of fire with a good deal of effect. I have seldom seen a blacker night than that. Objects along the side of the road were nothing" but shapeless lumps, and I did not see how our drivers could manage to find their way at all.

They seemed to have no difficulty, however, but got along swimmingly. Indeed, they travelled faster than they had done in daylight. Perhaps that was because we were not meeting troops to hold us up along this road; I believe that, if we had, we should have stopped and given them a concert, even though Johnson could not have seen the keys of his piano!

It was just as well, however. I was delighted at the reception that had been given to the Reverend Harry Lauder, M.P., Tour all through our first day in France. But I was also extremely tired, and the dinner and bed that loomed up ahead of us, at the end of our long ride through the dark, took on an aspect of enchantment as we neared them. My voice, used as I was to doing a great deal of singing, was fagged, and Hogge and Dr. Adam were so hoarse that they could scarcely speak at all. Even Johnson was pretty well done up ; he was still, theoretically, at least, on the sick list, of course. And I ha' nae doot that the wee piano felt it was entitled to its rest, too!

So we were all mighty glad when the cars stopped at last.

"Well, here we are!" said Captain Godfrey, who was the freshest of us all. "This is Trame-court—General Headquarters for the Reverend Harry Lauder, M.P., Tour while you are in France, gentlemen. They have special facilities for visitors here, and unless one of Fritz's aeroplanes feels disposed to drop a bomb or two, you won't be under fire, at night at least. Of course, in the daytime------"

He shrugged his shoulders. For our plans did not involve a search for safe places. Still, it was pleasant to know that we might sleep in fair comfort.

General Mac------ was waiting to welcome us, and told us that dinner was ready and waiting, which we were all glad to hear. It had been a long, hard day, although the most interesting one, by far, that I had ever spent.

We made short work of dinner, and soon afterward they took us to our rooms. I don't know what Hogge and Dr. Adam did, but I know I looked happily at the comfortable bed that was in my room. And I slept easily and without being rocked to sleep that nicht.


 


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