IT was seven o'clock in the morning of a goodly and a
beautiful day when we set out from Tramecourt for Arras. Arras, that
town so famous now in British history and in the annals of this war, had
been one of our principal objectives from the outset, but we had not
known when we were to see it. Arras had been the pivot of the great
northern drive in the spring; the drive that Hindenburg had fondly
supposed he had spoiled by his "strategic" retreat in the region of the
Somme, begun just before the British and the French were ready to
What a bonnie morning that was, to be sure! The sun
was out, after some rainy days, and glad we all were to see it. The land
was sprayed with silver light; the air was as sweet and as soft and as
warm as a baby's breath. And the cars seemed to leap forward, as if
they, too, loved the day and the air. They ate up the road. They seemed
to take hold of its long, smooth surface—they are grand roads, over yon,
in France—and reel it up in underneath their wheels as if it were a
This time we did little stopping, no matter how good
the reason looked. We went hurtling through villages and towns we had
not seen before. Our horn and our siren shrieked a warning as we shot
through. And it seemed wrong. They looked so peaceful and so quiet, did
those French towns, on that summer's morning! Peaceful, aye, and
languorous, after all the bustle and haste we had been seeing. The
houses were set in pretty encasements of bright foliage and they looked
as though they had been painted against the background of the landscape
with water colours.
It was hard to believe that war had passed that way.
It had; there were traces everywhere of its grim visitation. But here
its heavy hand has been laid lightly upon town and village. It was as if
a wave of poison gas of the sort the Germans brought into war had been
turned aside by a friendly breeze, arising in the very nick of time.
Little harm had been done along the road we travelled. But the thunder
of the guns was always in our ears; we could hear the steady, throbbing
rhythm of the cannon, muttering away to the north and east.
It was very warm, and so, after a time, as we passed
through a village, some one—Hogge, I think—suggested that a bottle of
ginger beer all round would not be amiss. The idea seemed to be regarded
as an excellent one, so Godfrey spoke to the chauffeur beside him, and
we stopped. We had not known, at first, that there were troops in town.
But there were—Highlanders. And they came swarming out. I was recognized
"Well, here's old Harry Lauder!" cried one braw
"Come on, Harry—gie us a song!" they shouted. "Let's
have 'Roamin' in the Gloamin',' Harry! Gie us the Bonnie Lassie! We ha'
na' heard ' The Laddies Who Fought and Won,' Harry. They tell us that's
a braw song! "
We were not really supposed to give any roadside
concerts that day, but how was I to resist them? So we pulled up into a
tiny side street, just off the market square, and I sang several songs
for them. We saved time by not unlimbering the wee piano, and I sang,
without accompaniment, standing up in the car. But they seemed to be as
well pleased as though I had had the orchestra of a big theatre to
support me, and all the accompaniments and trappings of the stage. They
were very loath to let me go, and I don't know how much time we really
saved by not giving our full and regular programme. For, before I had
done, they had me telling stories, too. Captain Godfrey was smiling, but
he was glancing at his watch too, and he nudged me, at last, and made me
realize that it was time for us to go on, no matter how interesting it
might be to stay.
"I'll be good," I promised, with a grin, as we drove
on. "We shall go straight on to Arras now!"
But we did not. We met a bunch of engineers on the
road, after a space, and they looked so wistful when we told them we
maun be getting right along, without stopping to sing for them, that I
had not the heart to disappoint them. So we got out the wee piano and I
sang them a few songs. It seemed to mean so much to those boys along the
roads! I think they enjoyed the concerts even more than did the great
gatherings that were assembled for me at the rest camps. A concert was
more of a surprise for them, more of a treat. The other laddies liked
them, too— aye, they liked them fine. But they would have been prepared,
sometimes - they had been looking forward to the fun. And the laddies
along the roads took them as a man takes a grand bit of scenery, coming
before his eyes, suddenly, as he turns a bend in a road he does not ken.
As for myself, I felt that I was becoming quite a
proficient open-air performer by now. My voice was standing the strain
of singing under such novel and difficult conditions much better than I
had thought it could. And I saw that I must be at heart and by nature a
minstrel! I know I got more pleasure fro those concerts I gave as a
minstrel wandering in France than did the soldiers or any. o those who
I have been before the public for many years.
Applause has always been sweet to me. It is to any artist, and when one
tells you it is not, you may set it down in your hearts that he or she
is telling less than the truth. It is the breath of life to us to know
that folks are pleased by what we do for them. Why else would we go on
about our tasks? I have had much applause. I have had many honours. I
have told you about that great and overwhelming reception that greeted
me when I sailed into Sydney Harbour. In Britain, in America, I have had
greetings that have brought tears into my eye; and such a lump into my
throat, that until it had gone down I could not sing, or say a word of
But never has applause sounded so sweet to me as it
did along those dusty roads in France, with the poppies gleaming red and
the corn-flowers blue through the yellow fields of grain beside the
roads ! They cheered me, d'ye ken—those tired and dusty heroes of
Britain along the French roads! They cheered as they squatted down in a
circle about us, me in my kilt, and Johnson
tinkling away as if his very life depended upon it, at his wee piano!
Ah, those wonderful, wonderful soldiers I The tears come into my eyes,
and my heart is sore and heavy within me when I think that mine was the
last voice many of them ever heard lifted in song. They were on their
way to the trenches, so many of those laddies who stopped for a song
along the road. And when men are going into the trenches they know, and
all who see them passing know, that there are some who will never come
Despite all the interruptions, though, it was not
much after noon when we reached Blangy. Here, in that suburb of Arras,
were the head-quarters of the------th Division, and as I stepped out of
the car I thrilled to the knowledge that I was treading ground for ever
to be famous as the starting-point of the Highland Brigade in the attack
of April 9, 1917.
And now I saw Arras, and, for the first time, a town
that had been systematically and ruthlessly shelled. There are no words
in any tongue I know to give you a fitting
picture of the devastation of Arras. "Awful" is a puny word, a thin one,
a feeble one. I pick impotently at the cover-,let of my imagination when
I try to frame language to make you understand
what it was I saw when I came to Arras on that bright June day.
I think the old city of Arras should never be
rebuilt. I doubt if it can be rebuilt, indeed. But I think that, whether
or not, a golden fence should be built around it, and it should for ever
and for all time be preserved as a monument to the wanton wickedness of
the Hun. It should serve and stand, in its stark desolation, as a
tribute, dedicated to the Kultur of Germany. No painter could depict the
frightfulness of that city of the dead. No camera could make you see it
as it is. Only your eyes can do that for you. And even then you cannot
realize it all at once. Your eyes are more merciful than the truth and
The Germans shelled Arras long after there was any
military reason for doing so. The sheer, wanton love of destruction must
have moved them. They had destroyed its military usefulness, but still
they poured shot and shell into the town. I went through its streets,
for the Germans had been pushed back so far by then that the city was no
longer under steady fire. But they had done their work.
Nobody was living in Arras. No one could have lived
there. The houses had been smashed to pieces. The pavements were dust
and rubble. But there was life in the city. Through the ruins our men
moved as ceaselessly and as restlessly as the tenants of an ant-hill
suddenly upturned by a ploughshare. Soldiers were everywhere, and guns
—guns, guns! For Arras had a new importance now. It was a centre for
many roads. Some of the most important supply roads of this sector of
the front converged in Arras.
Trains of ammunition trucks, supply carts and wagons
of all sorts, great trucks laden with jam and meat and flour, all were
passing every moment. There was an incessant din of horses' feet and the
steady crunch, crunch of heavy boots as the soldiers marched through the
rubble and the brick-dust. And I knew that all this had gone on while
the town was still under fire. Indeed, even now, an occasional shell
from some huge gun came crashing into the town, and there would be a new
cloud of dust arising to mark its landing, a new collapse of some
weakened wall. Warning signs were everywhere about, bidding all who saw
them beware of the imminent collapse of some shattered masonry.
I saw what the Germans had left of the stately old
Cathedral, and of the famous Cloth Hall, one of the very finest examples
of the guild halls of mediaeval times. Goths—Vandals—no, it is unfair to
seek such names for the Germans. They have established themselves as the
masters of all time in brutality and in destruction. There is no need to
call them anything but Germans. The doth Hall was almost human in its
pitiful appeal to the senses and the imagination. The German fire had
picked it to pieces, so that it stood in a stark outline, like some
carcase picked bare by a vulture.
Our soldiers who were quartered near-by lived outside
the town in huts. They were the men of the Highland Brigade, and the
ones I had hoped and wished, above all others, to meet when I came to
France. They received our party with the greatest enthusiasm, and they
were especially flattering when they greeted me. One of the Highland
officers took me in hand immediately, to show me the battlefield.
The ground over which we moved had literally been
churned by shell-fire. It was neither dirt nor mud that we walked upon;
it was a sort of powder. The very soil had been resolved into a fine
dust by the terrific pounding it had received. The dust rose and got
into our eyes and mouths and nostrils. There was a lot of sneezing among
the members of the Reverend Harry Lauder, M.P., Tour, that day at Arras!
And the wire! It was strewn in every direction, with seeming
aimlessness. Heavily barbed it was, and bad stuff to get caught in. One
of the great reasons for the preliminary bombardment that usually
precedes an attack is to cut this wire. If charging men are caught in a
bad tangle of wire they can be wiped out by machine gun-fire before they
can get clear.
I asked a Highlander, one day, how long he thought
the war would last.
"Forty years," he said, never batting an eye-lid.
"We'll be fighting another year, and then it'll tak us thirty-nine years
more to wind up all the wire!"
Off to my right there was a network of steel strands,
and as I gazed at it I saw a small dark object hanging from it and
fluttering in the breeze. I was curious enough to go over, and I picked
my way carefully through the maze-like network of wire to see what it
might be. When I came close I saw it was a bit of cloth, and
I recognized the tartan of the Black Watch—the famous Forty-second. Mud
and blood held that bit of cloth fastened to the wire, as if by a
cement. Plainly, it had been torn from a kilt.
I stood for a moment, looking down at that bit of
tartan, flapping in the soft summer breeze. And as I stood I
could look out and over the landscape, dotted with a very forest of
little wooden crosses, that marked the last resting-places of the men
who had charged across this maze of wire and died within it. They rose,
those rough crosses, like sheathed swords out of the wild, luxuriant
jungle of grass that had grown up in that blood-drenched soil. I
wondered if the owner of the bit of tartan were still safe or if he lay
under one of the crosses that I saw.
There was room for sad speculation here! Who had he
been? Had he swept on, leaving that bit of his kilt as evidence
of his passing? Had he been one of those who had come through the
attack, gloriously, to victory, so that he could look back upon that day
as long as he lived? Or was he dead, perhaps within a hundred yards of
where I stood and gazed down at that relic of him? Had he folks at hame
in Scotland who had gone through days of anguish on his account— such
days of anguish as I had known?
I asked a soldier for some wire clippers, and I cut
the wire on either side of that bit of tartan, and took it, just as it
was. And as I put the wee bit of a brave man's kilt away I kissed the
bloodstained tartan, for Auld Lang Syne, and thought of what a tale it
could tell if it could only speak!
I have said before that I do not want to tell you of
the tales of atrocities that I heard in France. I heard plenty—aye, and
terrible they were. But I dinna wish to harrow the feelings of those who
read more than need be, and I will leave that task to those who saw for
themselves with their eyes, when I had but my ears to serve me. Yet
there was one blood-chilling story that my boy John told to me, and that
the finding of that bit of Black Watch tartan brought to my mind. He
told it to me as we sat before the fire in my wee hoose at Dunoon, just
a few nights before he went back to the front for the last time. We were
talking of the war—what else was there to talk aboot?
It was seldom that John touched on the harsher things
he knew about the war. He preferred, as a rule, to tell me stories of
the courage and the devotion of his men, and of the light way that they
turned things when there was so much chance for grief and care.
"One night, Dad," he said, "we had a battalion of the
Black Watch on our right, and they made a pretty big raid on the German
trenches. It developed into a sizable action for any other war, but one
trifling enough and unimportant in this one. The Germans had been
readier than the Black Watch had supposed, and had reinforcements ready,
and sixty of the Highlanders were captured. The Germans took them back
into their trenches, and stripped them to the skin. Not a stitch or a
rag of clothing did they leave them, and, though it was April, it was a
bitter night, with a wind to cut even a man warmly clad to the bone.
"All night they kept them there, standing at
attention, stark naked, so that they were half-frozen when the grey,
cold light of the dawn began to show behind them in the east. And then
the Germans laughed, and told their prisoners to go. Go on; go back to
your own trenches, as you are!' they said.
"The laddies of the Black Watch could scarcely
believe their ears. There was about seventy-five yards between the two
trench lines at that point, and the No Man's Land was rough going, all
shell-pitted as it was. By that time, too, of course, German repair
parties had mended all the wire before their trenches. So they faced a
rough journey, all naked as they were. But they started.
"They got through the wire, with the Germans laughing
fit to kill themselves at the sight of the streaks of blood showing on
their white skins as the wire got in its work. They laughed at them,
Dad! And then, when they were half-way across the No Man's Land they
understood, at last, why the Germans had let them go. For fire was
opened on them with machine guns. Every one was mowed down. Every one of
those poor, naked, bleeding lads was killed, murdered by that
treacherous fire from behind!
"We heard all the details of that dirty bit of
treachery later. We captured some German prisoners from that very
trench. Fritz is a decent enough sort, sometimes, and there were men
there whose stomachs were turned by that sight, so that they were glad
to creep over, later, and surrender. They told us, with tears in their
eyes. But we had known, before that. We had needed no witnesses except
the bodies of the boys. It had been too dark for the men in our trenches
to see what was going on, and a burst of machine gun-fire, along the
trenches, is nothing to get curious or excited about. But those naked
bodies, lying there in No Man's Land, had told us a good deal.
"Dad—that was an awful sight! I was in command of one
of the burying parties we had to send out."