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A Minstrel in France
Chapter 19


THOUGH we were out of the zone of fire— except for stray activities in which Boche aeroplanes might indulge themselves, as our hosts were frequently likely to remind us, lest we fancy ourselves too secure, I suppose—we were by no means out of hearing of the grim work that was going on a few miles away. The big guns, of course, are placed well behind the front line trenches, and we could hear their sullen, constant quarrelling with Fritz and his artillery. The rumble of the Hun guns came to us, too. But that is a sound to which you soon get used, out there in France. You pay no more heed to it than you do to the noise the buses make in London or the trams in Glasgow.

In the morning I got my first chance really to see Tramecourt. The chateau is a lovely one, a fine example of such places. It had not been knocked about at all, and it looked much as it must have done in times of peace. Practically all the old furniture was still in the rooms, and there were some fine old pictures on the walls that it gave me great delight to see. Indeed, the rare old atmosphere of the chateau was restful and delightful in a way that surprised me.

I had been in the presence of real war for just one day. And yet I took pleasure in seeing again the comforts and some of the luxuries of peace. That gave me an idea of what this sort of place must mean to men from the trenches. It must seem like a bit of heaven to them to come back to Aubigny or Tramecourt. Think of the contrast!

The chateau, which had been taken over by the British Army, belonged to the Comte de Chabot, or, rather, to his wife, who had been Marquise de Tramecourt, one of the French families of the old regime. Although the old nobility of France has ceased to have any legal existence under the Republic, the old titles are still used as a matter of courtesy, and they have a real meaning and value. This was a pleasant place, this chateau of Tramecourt; I should like to see it again in days of peace, for then it must be even more delightful than it was when I came to know it so well.

Tramecourt was to be our home, the head-quarters of the Reverend Harry Lauder, M.P., Tour, during the rest of our stay at the front. We were to start out each morning, in the cars, to cover the ground appointed for that day, and to return at night. But it was understood that there would be days when we would get too far away to return at night, and other sleeping quarters would be provided on such occasions.

I grew very fond of the place while I was there. The steady pounding of the guns did not disturb my peace of nights, as a rule. But there was one night when I did he awake for hours, listening. Even to my unpractised ear there was a different quality in the sound of the cannon that night. It had a fury, an intensity, that went beyond anything I had heard. And later I learned that I had made no mistake in thinking that there was something unusual and portentous about the fire that night. What I had listened to was the preliminary drum fire and bombardment that prepared the way for the great attack at Messines, near Ypres; the most terrific bombardment recorded in all history, up to that time.

The fire that night was like a guttural chant. It had a real rhythm; the beat of the guns could almost be counted. And at dawn there came the terrific explosion of the great mine that had been prepared, which was the signal for the charge. Mr. Lloyd George, I am told, knowing the exact moment at which the mine was to be exploded, was awake, at home in England, and heard it, across the Channel, and so did many folk who had not his exceptional sources of information. I was one of them ! And I wondered greatly until I was told what had been done. That was one of the most brilliantly and successfully executed attacks of the whole war, and vastly important in its results, although it was, compared to the great battles on the Somme and up north, near Arras, only a small and minor operation.

We settled down, very quickly indeed, into a regular routine. Captain Godfrey was, for all the world, like the manager of a travelling company in America. He mapped out our routes, and he took care of all the details. No troupe, covering a long route of one night stands in the Western or Southern United States, ever worked harder than did Hogge, Adam and I, to say nothing of Godfrey and our soldier chauffeurs. We did not he abed late in the mornings, but were up soon after daylight. Breakfast disposed of, we would find the cars waiting and be off.

We had, always, a definite route mapped out for the day, but we never adhered to it exactly. I was still particularly pleased with the idea of giving a roadside concert whenever an audience appeared, and there was no lack of willing listeners. Soon after we had set out from Tramecourt, no matter in which direction we happened to be going, we were sure to run into some body of soldiers.

There was no longer any need of orders. As soon as the chauffeur of the leading car spied a blotch of khaki against the road, on went his brakes, and we would come sliding into the midst of the troops and stop. Johnson would be out before his car had fairly stopped, and at work upon the lashings of the little piano, with me to help him. And Hogge would already be clearing his throat to begin his speech.

The Reverend Harry Lauder, M.P., Tour, employed no press agent, and it could not boast of a bill poster. No boardings were covered with great coloured sheets advertising its coming. And yet the whole front seemed to know that we were about. The soldiers we met along the roads welcomed us gladly, but they were no longer, after the first day or two, surprised to see us. They acted, rather, as if they had been expecting us. Our advent was like that of a circus, coming to a country town for a long heralded and advertised engagement. Yet all the puffing that we got was by word of mouth.

There were some wonderful choruses along those war-worn roads we travelled. "Roamin' in the Gloamin'" was still my featured song, and all the soldiers seemed to know the tune and the words, and to take a particular delight in coming in with me as I swung into the chorus. We never passed a detachment of soldiers without stopping to give them a concert, no matter how it disarranged Captain Godfrey's plans. But he was entirely willing. It was these men, on their way to the trenches, or on the way out of them, bound for rest billets, whom, of course, I was most anxious to reach, since I felt that they were the ones I was most likely to be able to help and cheer up.

The scheduled concerts were practically all at the various rest billets we visited. These were, in the main, at chateaux. Always, at such a place, I had a double audience. The soldiers would make a great ring, as close to me as they could get, and around them, again, in a sort of outer circle, were French villagers and peasants, vastly puzzled and mystified, but eager to be pleased, and very ready with their applause.

It must have been hard for them to make up their minds about me, if they gave me much thought. My kilt confused them; most of them thought I was a soldier from some regiment they had not yet seen, wearing a new and strange uniform. For my kilt, I need not say, was not military, nor was the rest of my garb warlike.

I gave, during that time, as many as seven concerts in a day. I have sung as often as thirty-five times in one day, and on such occasions I was thankful that I had a strong and durable voice, not easily worn out, as well as a stout physique. Hogge and Dr. Adam appeared as often as I did, but they didn't have to sing.

Nearly all the songs I gave them were ditties they had known for a long time. The one exception was the tune that had been so popular in "Three Cheers "—the one called "The Laddies Who Fought and Won." Few of the boys had been home since I had been singing that song, but it has a catching lilt, and they were soon able to join in the chorus and sent it thundering along. They took to it, too, and well they might! It was of such as they that it was written.

We covered perhaps a hundred miles a day during this period. That does not sound like a great distance for high-powered motor-cars, but we did a good deal of stopping, you see, here and there and everywhere. We were roaming around in the backwater of war, you might say. We were out of the main stream of carnage, but it was not out of our minds and our hearts. Evidences of it in plenty came to us each day. And each day we were a little nearer to the front line trenches than we had come the day before. We were working gradually toward that climax that I had been promised.

I was always eager to talk to officers and men, and I found many chances to do so. It seemed to me that I could never learn enough about the soldiers. I listened avidly to every story that was told to me, and was always asking for more. The younger officers, especially, it interested me to talk with. One day I was talking to such a lieutenant.

"How is the spirit of your men?" I asked him.

I am going to tell you his answer, just as he made it.

"Their spirit?" he said musingly. "Well, just before we came to this billet to rest we were in a tightish corner on the Somme. One of my youngest men was hit; a shell came near to taking his arm clean off, so that it was left just hanging to his shoulders. He was only about eighteen years old, poor chap. It was a bad wound, but, as sometimes happens, it didn't make him unconscious—then. And when he realized what had happened to him, and saw his arm hanging limp, so that he could know he was bound to lose it, he began to cry.

"'What's the trouble?' I asked him, hurrying over to him. I was sorry enough for him, but you've got to keep up the morale of your men. 'Soldiers don't cry when they're wounded, my lad.'

"'I'm not crying because I'm wounded, sir!' he fired back at me. And I won't say he was quite as respectful as a private is supposed to be when he's talking to an officer! 'Just take a look at that, sir!' And he pointed to his wound. And then he cried out:

"'And I haven't killed a German yet!' he said bitterly. 'Isn't that hard lines, sir?'

"That," said the officer, "is the spirit of my men!"

I made many good friends while I was roaming around the country just behind the front. I wonder how many of them I shall keep ; how many of them death will spare to shake my hand again when peace is restored! There was a Gordon Highlander, a fine young officer, of whom I became particularly fond while I was at Tramecourt. I had a very long talk with him, and I thought of him often, afterward, because he made me think of John. He was just such a fine young type of Briton as my boy had been.

Months later, when I was back in Britain, and giving a performance at Manchester, there was a knock at the door of my dressing-room.

"Come in!" I called.

The door was pushed open and a man came in with great blue glasses covering his eyes. He had a stick, and he groped his way toward me. I did not know him at all at first—and then, suddenly, with a shock I recognized him as my fine young Gordon Highlander of the rest billet near Tramecourt.

"My God! it's you, Mac!" I said, deeply shocked.

"Yes," he said quietly. His voice had changed greatly. "Yes, it's me, Harry."

He was almost totally blind, and he did not know whether his eyes would get better or worse.

"Do you remember all the lads you met at the billet where you came to sing for us the first time I met you, Harry?" he asked. "Well, they're all gone; I'm the only one left—the only one!"

There was grief in his voice. But there was nothing like complaint; nor was there self-pity, either, when he told me about his eyes and his doubts as to whether he would ever really see again. He passed his own troubles off lightly, as if they did not matter at all. He preferred to tell me about those of his friends whom I had met, and to give me the story of how this one and that one had gone. And he is like many another. I know a great many men who have been maimed in the war, but I have still to hear one of them complain. They were brave enough, God knows, in battle, but I think they are far braver when they come home, shattered and smashed, and do naught but smile at their troubles.

The only sort of complaining you hear from British soldiers is over minor discomforts in the field. Tommy and Jock will grouse when they are so disposed. They will growl about the food and about this trivial trouble and that. But it is never about a really serious matter that you hear them grumbling!

I have never yet met a man who had been permanently disabled who was not grieving because he could not go back. And it is strange but true, that men on leave get homesick for the trenches sometimes. They miss the companionships they have had in the trenches. I think it must be because all the best men in the world are in France that they feel so. But it is true, I know, because I have heard it not once, but a dozen times.

Men will dream of home and Blighty for weeks and months. They will grouse because they cannot get leave; though, half the time, they have not even asked for it, because they feel that their place is where the fighting is ! And then, when they do get that longed-for leave they come back like boys coming to home from school!

A great reward awaits the men who fight through this war and emerge alive and triumphant at its end. They will dictate the conduct of the world for many a year. The men who stayed at home when they should have gone may as well prepare to drop their voices to a very low whisper in the affairs of mankind. For the men who will be heard, who will make themselves heard, are out there in France.


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