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A Minstrel in France
Chapter 27


THERE had been, originally, a perfectly definite route for the Reverend Harry Lauder, M.P., Tour—as definite a route as is mapped out for me when I am touring the United States. Our route had called for a fairly steady progress from Vimy Ridge to Peronne—like Bapaume, one of the great unreached objectives of the Somme offensive, and, again like Bapaume, ruined and abandoned by the Germans in the retreat of the spring of 1917. But we made many side trips and gave many and /many an unplanned, extemporaneous roadside concert, as I have told.

For all of us it had been a labour of love. I will always believe that I sang a little better on that tour than I have ever sung before or ever shall again, and I am sure, too, that Hogge and Dr. Adam spoke more eloquently to their soldier hearers than they ever did in parliament or church. My wee piano, Tinkle Tom, held out staunchly. He never wavered in tune, though he got some sad jouncings as he clung to the grid of a swift-moving car. As for Johnson, my Yorkshireman, he was as good an accompanist before the tour ended as I could ever want, and he took the keenest interest and delight in his work, from start to finish.

Captain Godfrey, our manager, must have been proud indeed of the "business" his troupe did. The weather was splendid; the "houses" everywhere were so big that if there had been Standing Room Only signs they would have been called into use every day. And his company got a wonderful reception wherever it showed. He had everything a manager could have to make his heart rejoice. And he did not, like many managers, have to be continually trying to patch up quarrels in the company! He had no petty professional jealousies with which to contend; such things were unknown in our troupe!

All the time while I was singing in France I was elaborating an idea that had for some time possessed me, and that was coming now to dominate me utterly. I was thinking of the maimed soldiers, the boys who had not died, but had given a leg, or an arm, or their sight to the cause, and who were doomed to go through the rest of their lives broken and shattered and incomplete. They were never out of my thoughts. I had seen them before I ever came to France, as I travelled the length and breadth of the United Kingdom, singing for the men in the camps and the hospitals, and doing what I could to help in the recruiting. And I used to lie awake of nights, wondering what would become of those poor broken laddies when the war was over and we were all setting to work again to rebuild our lives.

And especially I thought of the brave laddies of my ain Scotland. They must have thought often of their future. They must have wondered what was to become of them, when they had to take up the struggle with the world anew—no longer on even terms with their mates, but handicapped by grievous injuries that had come to them in the noblest of ways. I remembered crippled soldiers, victims of other wars, whom I had seen selling papers and matches on street corners, objects of charity, almost, to a generation that had forgotten the service to the country that had put them in the way of having to make their living so. And I had made a great resolution that, if I could do aught to prevent it, no man of Scotland who had served in this war should ever have to seek a livelihood in such a manner.

So I conceived the idea of raising a great fund to be used for giving the maimed Scots soldiers a fresh start in life. They would be pensioned by the Government. I knew that. But I knew, too, that a pension is rarely more than enough to keep body and soul together. What these crippled men would need, I felt, was enough money to set them up in some little business of their own, that they could see to despite their wounds, or to enable them to make a new start in some old business or trade, if they could do so.

A man might need a hundred pounds, I thought, or two hundred pounds, to get him started properly again. And I wanted to be able to hand a man what money he might require. I did not want to lend it to him, taking his note or his promise to pay. Nor did I want to give it to him as charity. I wanted to hand it to him as a freewill-offering, as a partial payment of the debt Scotland owed him for what he had done for her.

And I thought, too, of men stricken by shell-shock, or paralysed in the war—there are pitifully many of both sorts! I did not want them to stay in bare and cold and lonely institutions. I wanted to take them out of such places, and back to their homes; home to the village and the glen. I wanted to get them a wheel-chair, with an old, neighbourly man or an old neighbourly woman, maybe, to take them for an airing in the forenoon, and the afternoon, that they might breathe the good Scots air, and see the wild flowers growing and hear the song of the birds.

That was the plan that had for a long time been taking form in my mind. I had talked it over with some of my friends, and the newspapers had heard of it, somehow, and printed a few paragraphs about it. It was still very much in embryo when I went to France, but, to my surprise, the Scots soldiers nearly always spoke of it when I was talking with them. They had seen the paragraphs in the papers, and I soon realized that it loomed up as a great thing for them.

"Aye, it's a grand thing you're thinking of Harry," they said, again and again. "Now we know we'll be no beggars in the street, now that we've got a champion like you, Harry."

I heard such words as that first from a Highlander at Arras, and from that moment I have thought of little else. Many of the laddies told me that the thought of being killed did not bother them, but that they did worry a bit about their future in case they went home maimed and helpless.

"We're here to stay until there's no more work to do, if it takes twenty years, Harry," they said. "But it'll be a big relief to know we will be eared for if we must go back crippled."

I set the sum I would have to raise to accomplish the work I had in mind at a million pounds sterling. It may seem a great sum to some, but to me, knowing the purpose for which it is to be used, it seems small enough. And my friends agree with me. When I returned from France I talked to some Scots friends, and a meeting was called, in Glasgow, of the St. Andrews Society. I addressed it, and it declared itself in cordial sympathy with the idea. Then I went to Edinburgh, and down to London, and back north to Manchester. Everywhere my plan was greeted with the greatest enthusiasm, and the real organization of the fund was begun on September 17 and 18, 1917.

This fund of mine is known officially as "The Harry Lauder Million Pound Fund for Maimed Men, Scottish Soldiers and Sailors." It does not in any way conflict with nor overlap, any other work already being done. I made sure of that, because I talked to the Pension Minister, and his colleagues, in London, before I went ahead with my plans, and they fully and warmly approved everything that I planned to do.

The Earl of Rosebery, former Prime Minister of Britain, is Honorary President of the Fund, and Lord Balfour of Burleigh is its treasurer. And as I write we have raised an amount well into six figures in pounds sterling. One of the things that made me most willing to undertake my last tour of America was my feeling that I could secure the support and co-operation of the Scottish people in America for my fund better by personal appeals than in any other way. At the end of every performance I gave during the tour, I told my audience what I was doing and the object of the fund, and, although I addressed myself chiefly to the Scots, there has been a most generous and touching response from Americans as well.

We distributed little plaid-bordered envelopes, in which folk were invited to send contributions to the bank in New York that was the American depository. And after each performance Mrs. Lauder stood in the lobby and sold little envelopes full of stamps, "stickybacks," as she called them, like the Red Cross seals that have been sold so long in America at Christmas time. She sold them for a quarter, or for whatever they would bring, and all the money went to the fund.

I had a novel experience sometimes. Often I would no sooner have explained what I was doing than I would feel myself the target of a sort of bombardment. At first I thought Germans were shooting at me, but I soon learned that it was money that was being thrown I And every day my dressing-table would be piled high with cheques and money orders and paper money sent direct to me instead of to the bank. But I had to ask the guid folk to cease firing—the money was too apt to be lost!

Folk of all races gave liberally. I was deeply touched at Hot Springs, Arkansas, where the stage hands gave me the money they had received for their work during my engagement.


 


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