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
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
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
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
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
"How is the spirit of your men?" I asked him.
I am going to tell you his answer, just as he made
"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
"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
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.