ONE of the officers at Albert was looking at me in a
curiously intent fashion. I noticed that. And soon he came over to me.
"Where do you go next, Harry?" he asked me. His voice
was keenly sympathetic, and his eyes and his manner were very grave.
"To a place called Ovilliers," I said.
"So I thought," he said. He put out his hand, and I
gripped it, hard. "I know, Harry. I know exactly where you are going,
and I will send a man with you to act as your guide,
who knows the spot you want to reach."
I couldn't answer him. I was too deeply moved. For
Ovilliers is the spot where my son, Captain John Lauder, lies in his
soldier's grave. That grave had been of course, from the very first, the
final, the ultimate objective of my journey. And that morning, as we set
out from Tramecourt, Captain Godfrey had told me, with grave sympathy,
that at last we were coming to the spot that had been so constantly in
my thoughts ever since we had sailed from Folkestone.
And so a private soldier joined our party as guide,
and we took to the road again. The Bapaume road it was; a famous
highway, bitterly contested, savagely fought for. It was one of the
strategic roads of that whole region, and the Hun had made a desperate
fight to keep control of it. But he had failed; as he has failed, and is
failing still, in all his major efforts in France.
There was no talking in our car, which, this morning,
was the second in the line. I certainly was not disposed to chat, and I
suppose that sympathy for my feelings, and my glumness, stilled the
tongues of my companions. And, at any rate, we had not travelled far
when the car ahead of us stopped, and the soldier from Albert stepped
into the road and waited for me. I got out when our car stopped, and
"I will show you the place now, Mr. Lauder," he said,
quietly. So we left the cars standing in the road, and set out across a
field that, like all the fields in that vicinity, had been ripped and
torn by shell-fire. All about us, as we crossed that tragic field, there
were little brown mounds, each with a white wooden cross upon it. June
was out that day in full bloom. All over the valley—thickly sown with
those white crosses—wild flowers in rare profusion, and thickly matted,
luxuriant grasses, and all the little shrubs that God Himself looks
after, were growing bravely in the sunlight, as though they were trying
to cover up the work of the Hun.
It was a mournful journey, but, in some strange way,
the peaceful beauty of the day brought comfort to me. And my own grief
was altered by the vision of the grief that had come to so many others.
Those crosses, stretching away as far as my eye could reach, attested to
the fact that it was not I alone who had suffered and lost and laid a
sacrifice upon the altar of my country. And in the presence of so many
evidences of grief and desolation a private grief sank into its true
proportions. It was no less keen, the agony of the thought of my boy was
as sharp as ever. But I knew that he was only one, and that I was only
one father. And there were so many like him—and so many like me, God
help us all! Well, He did help me, as I have told, and I hope and prayed
that He has helped many another. I believe He has; indeed, I know it.
Hogge and Dr. Adam, my two good friends, walked with
me on that sad pilgrimage. I was acutely conscious of their sympathy; it
was sweet and precious to have it. But I do not think we exchanged a
word as we crossed that field. There was no need of words. I knew,
without speech from them, how they felt, and they knew that I knew. So
we came, when we were, perhaps, half a mile from the Bapaume road, to a
slight eminence, a tiny hill that rose from the field. A little military
cemetery crowned it. Here the graves were set in ordered rows, and there
was a fence set around them, to keep them apart, and to mark that spot
as holy ground, until the end of time. Five hundred British boys lie
sleeping in that small acre of silence, and among them is my own laddie.
There the fondest hopes of my life, the hopes that sustained and cheered
me through many years, lie buried.
No one spoke. But the soldier pointed, silently and
eloquently, to one brown mound in a row of brown mounds that looked
alike, each like the other. Then he drew away. And Hogge and Adam
stopped, and stood together, quiet and grave. And so I went alone to my
boy's grave and flung myself down upon the warm, friendly earth. My
memories of that moment are not very clear, but I think that for a few
minutes I was utterly spent, that my collapse was complete.
He was such a good boy!
I hope you will not think, those of you, my friends,
who may read what I am writing here, that I am exalting my lad above all
the other Britons who died for King and country; or, and aye, above the
brave laddies of other races who died to stop the Hun. But he was such a
As I lay there on that brown mound, under the June
sun that day, all that he had been, and all that he had meant to me and
to his mother came rushing back afresh to my memory, opening anew my
wounds of grief. I thought of him as a baby, and as a wee laddie
beginning to run around and talk to us. I thought of him in every phase
and bit of his life, and of the friends that we had been, he and I. Such
chums we were, always!
And as I lay there, as I look back upon it now, I can
think of but the one desire that ruled and moved me. I wanted to reach
my arms down into that dark grave, and clasp my boy tightly to
my breast, and kiss Mm. And I wanted to thank him for what he had
done for his country, and his mother, and for me.
Again there came to me as I lay there, the same
gracious solace that God had given me after I heard of his glorious
death. And I knew that this dark grave, so sad and lonely and forlorn,
was but the temporary bivouac of my boy. I knew that it was no more than
a trench of refuge against the storm of battle, in which he was resting
until that hour shall sound when we shall all be reunited beyond the
shadowy borderland of Death.
How long did I lie there? I do not know. And
how I found the strength at last to drag myself to my feet and away from
that spot, the dearest and the saddest spot on earth to me, God only
knows. It was an hour of very great anguish for me; an hour of an
anguish different, but only less keen, than that which I had known when
they had told me first that I should never see my laddie in the flesh
again. But as I took up the melancholy return journey across that field,
with its brown mounds and its white crosses stretching so far away, they
seemed to bring me a sort of tragic consolation.
I thought of all the broken-hearted ones at home in
Britain. How many were waiting, as I had waited, until they, too,—they,
too,—might come to France, and cast themselves down, as I had done, upon
some brown mound, sacred in their thoughts? How many were praying for
the day to come when they might gaze upon a white cross, as 1 had done,
and from the brown mound out of which it rose gather a few crumbs of
that brown earth, to be deposited in a sacred corner of a sacred place
yonder in Britain?
While I was in America, on my last tour, a woman
wrote to me from a town in the State of Maine. She was a stranger to me
when she sat down to write that letter, but I count her now, although I
have never seen her, among my very dearest friends.
"I have a friend in France," she wrote. "He is there
with our American Army, and we had a letter from him the other day. I
think you would like to hear what he wrote to us.
"'I was walking in the gloaming here in France the
other evening,' he wrote. 'You know, I have always been very fond of
that old song of Harry Lauder's, 'Roamin' in the Gloamin'.
"'Well, I was roamin' in the gloamin' myself, and as
I went I hummed that very song, under my breath. And I came, in my walk
to a little cemetery, on a tiny hill. There were many mounds there and
many small white crosses. About one of them a Union Jack was wrapped so
tightly that I could not read the inscription upon it. And something led
me to unfurl that weather-worn flag, so that I could read. And what do
you think? It was the grave of Harry Lauder's son, Captain John
Lauder, of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, and his little family
crest was upon the cross.
"'I stood there, looking down at that grave, and I
said a little prayer, all by myself. And then I rewound the Union Jack
about the cross. I went over to some ruins nearby, and there I found a
red rose growing. I do believe it was the last rose of summer. And I
took it up, very carefully, roots and all, and carried it over to
Captain Lauder's grave, and planted it there.' "
What a world of comfort those words brought me!
It was about eight o'clock one morning that my boy
John was killed, between Courcellete and Poizieres, on the Ancre, in the
region that is known as the Somme battlefield. It was soon after
breakfast, and John was going about, seeing to his men. His company was
to be relieved that day, and to go back from the trenches to rest
billets, behind the lines. We had sent our laddie a braw lot of
Christmas packages not long before, but he had had them kept at the rest
billet, so that he might have the pleasure of opening them when he was
out of the trenches, and had a little leisure, even though it made his
Christmas presents a wee bit late.
There had been a little mist upon the ground, as, at
that damp and chilly season of the year, there nearly always was along
the river Ancre. At that time, on that morning, it was just beginning to
rise as the sun grew strong enough to banish it. I think John trusted
too much to the mist, perhaps. He stepped for just a moment into the
open; for just a moment he exposed himself, as he had to do, no doubt,
to do his duty. And a German sniper, watching for just such chances,
caught a glimpse of him. His rifle spoke ; its bullet pierced John's
brave and gentle heart.
Tate, John's body-servant, a man from our own town,
was the first to reach him. Tate was never far from John's side, and he
was heart-broken when he reached him that morning and found that there
was nothing he could do for him.
Many of the soldiers who served with John and under
him have written to me, and come to me. And all of them have told me the
same thing: that there was not a man in his company who did not feel his
death as a personal loss and bereavement. And his superior officers have
told me the same thing. In so far as such reports could comfort us, his
mother and I have taken solace in them. All that we have heard of John's
life in the trenches and of his death, was such a report as we or any
parents would want to have of their boy.
John never lost his rare good nature. There were
times when things were going very badly indeed, but at such times he
could always be counted upon to raise a laugh and uplift the spirits of
his men. He knew them all; he knew them well. Nearly all of them came
from his home region near the Clyde, and so they were his neighbours and
I have told you earlier that John was a good
musician. He played the piano rarely well, for an amateur, and he had a
grand singing voice. And one of his fellow-officers told me that, after
the fight at Beaumont-Hamel, one of the phases of the great Battle of
the Somme, John's company found itself, toward evening, near the ruins
of an old chateau. After that fight, by the way, dire news, sad news,
came to our village of the men of the Argyll and Sutherland regiment,
and there were many stricken homes that mourned brave lads who would
never come home again.
John's men were near to exhaustion that night. They
had done terrible work that day, and their losses had been heavy. Now
that there was an interlude, they lay about, tired and bruised and
battered. Many had been killed; many had been so badly wounded that they
lay somewhere behind, or had been picked up already by the Red Cross men
who followed them across the field of the attack. But there were many
more who had been slightly hurt, and whose wounds began to pain them
grievously now. The spirit of the men was dashed.
John's friend and fellow-officer told me of the
"There we were, sir," he said. 'We were pretty well
done in, I can tell you. And then Lauder came along. I suppose he was
just as tired and worn out as the rest of us—God knows he had as much
reason to be, and more ! But he was as cocky as a little bantam. And he
was smiling. He looked about.
"'Here, this won't do!' he said. 'We've got to
get these lads feeling better!' He was talking more to himself than to
anyone else, I think. And he went exploring around. He got into what was
left of that chateau—and I can tell you it wasn't much! The Germans had
been using it as a point d'appui—a sort of rallying-place,
sir—and our guns had smashed it up pretty thoroughly. I've no doubt the
Fritzes had taken a hack at it, too, when they found they couldn't hold
it any longer; they usually did.
"But, by a sort of miracle, there was a piano inside
that had come through all the trouble. The building and all the rest of
the furniture had been knocked to bits, but the piano was all right,
although, as I say, I don't know how that had happened. Lauder spied it,
and went clambering over all the debris and wreckage to reach it. He
tried the keys, and found that the action was all right. So he began
picking out a tune, and the rest of us began to sit up a bit. And pretty
soon he lifted his voice in a rollicking tune—one of your own songs it
was, sir—and in no time the men were all sitting up to listen to him.
Then they joined in the chorus; and pretty soon you'd never have known
they'd been tired or worn out! If there'd been a chance they'd have gone
at Fritz and done the day's work all over again."
After John was killed, his brother officers sent us
all his personal belongings. We have his field-glasses, with the mud of
the trenches dried upon them. We have a little gold locket that he
always wore around his neck. His mother's picture is in it, and that of
the lassie he was to have married had he come home, after New Year. And
we have his rings, and his boots, and his watch, and all the other small
possessions that were a part of his daily life out there in France.
Many soldiers and officers of the Argyll and
Sutherlanders pass the hoose at Dunoon on the Clyde. None ever passes
the hoose, though, without dropping in, for a bite and sup if he has
time to stop, and to tell us stories of our beloved boy.
No, I would no have you think that I would exalt my
boy above all the others who have lived and died in France in the way of
duty. But he was such a good boy. We have heard so many tales like those
I have told you, to make us proud of him, and glad that he bore his part
as a man should.
He will stay there, in that small grave on that tiny
hill. I shall not bring his body back to rest in Scotland, even if the
time comes when I might do so. It is a soldier's grave, and an
honourable place for him to be, and I feel it is there that he would
wish to lie, with his men lying close about him, until the time comes
for the great reunion.
But I am going back to France to visit again and
again that grave where he lies buried. So long as I live that hill will
be the shrine to which many pilgrimages will be directed. The time will
come again when I may take his mother with me, and when we may kneel
together at that spot.
And meanwhile the wild flowers and the long grasses
and all the little shrubs will keep watch and ward over him there, and
over all the other brave soldiers who he hard by, who died for God, for
their flag, and for the freedom of the world.