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A Minstrel in France
Chapter 4


IT was a fitting place to train men for war, Bedford, where John was with his regiment, and where his mother and I went to see him as soon as we could after Christmas. It is in the British midlands, but before the factory towns begin. It is a pleasant, smiling country, farming country, mostly, with good roads, and fields that gave the boys chances to learn the work of digging trenches —aye, and living in them afterward.

Bedford is one of the great school towns of England. Low, rolling hills he about it; the river Ouse, a wee, quiet stream, runs through it. Schooling must be in the air of Bedford ! Three great schools for boys are there, and two for girls. And liberty is in the air of Bedford, too. I think John Bunyan was born two miles from Bedford, and his old house still stands in Elstow, a little village of old houses and great oaks. And it was in Bedford Jail that Bunyan was imprisoned because he would fight for the freedom of his own soul.

John was waiting to greet us, and he looked great. He had two stars now where he had one before—he had been promoted to first lieutenant. There were curious changes in the laddie I remembered. He was bigger, I thought, and he looked older, and graver. But that I could not wonder at. He had a great responsibility. The lives of other men had been entrusted to him, and John was not the man to take a responsibility like that lightly.

I saw him the first day I was at Bedford, leading some of his men in a practice charge. Big, braw laddies they were—all in their kilts. He ran ahead of them, smiling as he saw me watching them, but turning back to cheer them on if he thought they were not fast enough. I could see as I watched him that he had caught the habit of command. He was going to be a good officer. It was a proud thought for me, and again I was rejoiced that it was such a son that I was able to offer to my country.

They were kept busy at that training camp. Men were sore needed in France. Recruits were going over every day. What the retreat from Mons and the Battle of the Marne had left of that first heroic expeditionary force, the first battle of Ypres had come close to wiping out. In the Ypres salient our men out there were hanging on like grim death. There was no time to spare at Bedford, where men were being made ready as quickly as might be to take their turn in the trenches.

But there was a little time when John and I could talk.

"What do you need most, son?" I asked him.

"Men!" he cried. "Men, Dad, men! They're coming in quickly. Oh, Britain has answered fine to the call. But they're not coming in fast enough. We must have more men—more men!"

I had thought, when I asked my question, of something John might be needing for himself, or for his men, mayhap. But when he answered me so, I said nothing. I only began to think. I wanted to go myself. But I knew they would not have me—not yet awhile, at any rate. And still I felt that I must do something. I could not rest idle while all around me men were giving themselves and all they had and were.

Everywhere I heard the same cry that John had raised:

"We must have more men!"

It came from Lord Kitchener. It came from the men in command in France and Belgium—that little strip of Belgium that the Hun had not been able to conquer. It came from every broken, maimed man who came back home to Britain to be patched up that he might go out again. There were scores of thousands of men in Britain who needed only the last quick shove to send them across the line of enlistment. And after I had thought a while I hit upon a plan.

"What stirs a man's fighting spirit quicker or better than the right sort of music?" I asked myself. "And what sort of music does it best of all!"

There can be only one answer to that last question ! And so I organized my recruiting band, that was to be famous all over Britain before so very long. I gathered fourteen of the best pipers and drummers I could find in all Scotland. I equipped them, gave them the Highland uniform, and sent them out, to travel over Britain skirling and drumming the wail of war through the length and breadth of the land. They were to go everywhere, carrying the shrieking of the pipes into the highways and the by-ways, and so they did. And I paid the bills.

That was the first of many recruiting bands that toured Britain. Because it was the first, and because of the way the pipers skirled out the old hill melodies and songs of Scotland, enormous crowds followed my band. And it led them straight to the recruiting stations. There was a swing and a sway about those old tunes that the young fellows couldn't resist.

The pipers would begin to skirl and the drums to beat in a square, maybe, or near the railway station. And every time, the skirling of the pipes would bring the crowd. Then the pipers would march, when the crowd was big enough, and lead the way always to the recruiting place. And once they were there the young fellows who weren't "quite ready to decide" and the others who were just plain slackers, willing to let better men die for them, found it mighty hard to keep from going on the wee bit o' the way that the pipers had left them to make alone!

It was wonderful work my band did, and when the returns came to me I felt like the Pied Piper! Yes I did, indeed.

I did not travel with my band. That would have been a waste of effort. There was work for both of us to do, separately. I was booked for a tour of Britain, and everywhere I went I spoke, and urged the young men to enlist. I made as many speeches as I could, in every town and city that I visited, and I made special trips to many. I thought, and there were those who agreed with me, that I could, it might be, reach audiences that another speaker, better trained than I in this sort of work, would not touch.

So there was I, without official standing, going about, urging every man who could, to don khaki. I talked wherever and whenever I could get an audience together, and I began then the habit of making speeches in the theatres, after my performance, that I have not yet given up. I talked thus to the young men.

"If you don't do your duty now," I told them, "you may live to be old men. But even if you do, you will regret it! Yours will be a sorrowful old age. In the years to come, mayhap, there'll be a wee grandchild nestling on your knee that'll circle its little arms about your neck and look into your wrinkled face, and ask you:

"'How old are you, Grandpa? You're a very old man.'

"How will you answer that bairn's question % " So I asked the young men. And then I answered for them: "I don't know how old I am, but I am so old that I can remember the Great War."

"And then"—I told them, the young men who were wavering—"and then will come the question that you will always have to dread—when you have won through to the old age that may be yours in safety if you shirk now! For the bairn will ask you straightaway: 'Did you fight in the Great War, Grandpa? What did you do?"

"God help the man," I warned them, "who cannot hand it down as a heritage to his children and his children's children that he fought in the Great War!"

I must have impressed many a brave lad who wanted only a bit of resolution to make him do his duty. They tell me that I and my band together influenced more than twelve thousand men to join the colours ; they give me credit for that number, in one way and another. I am proud of that. But I am prouder still of the way the boys who enlisted upon my urging feel. Never a one has upbraided me; never a one has told me he was sorry he listened to me and had been led to go.

It is far otherwise. The laddies who went because of me called me their godfather, many of them! Many's the letter I have had from them ; many the one who has greeted me, as I was passing through a hospital, or, long afterward, when I made my first tour in France, behind the front line trenches. Many letters, did I say? I have had hundreds, thousands ! And not so much as a word of regret in any one of them.

It was not only in Britain that I influenced enlistments. I preache'd the cause of the Empire in Canada, later. And here is a bit of verse that a Canadian sergeant sent to me. He dedicated it to me, indeed, and I am proud and glad that he did.

"ONE OF THE BOYS WHO WENT"

Say, here now, Mate,
Don't you figure it's great
To think when this war is all over;
When we're through with this mud,
And spilling o' blood,
And we're shipped back again to old Dover.
When they've paid us our tin,
And we've blown the lot in,
And our last penny is spent;
We'll still have a thought—
If it's all that we've got—
I'm one of the boys who went!

And perhaps later on
When your wild days are gone,
You'll be settling down for life.
You've a girl in your eye
You'll ask by and by
To share up with you as your wife.
When a few years have flown
And you've kids of your own,
And you're feeling quite snug and content;
It'll make your heart glad
When they boast of their dad
As one of the boys who went.

There was much work for me to do beside my share in the campaign to increase enlistments. Every day now the wards of the hospitals were filling up. Men suffering from frightful wounds came back to be mended and made as near whole as might be. And among them there was work for me, if ever the world held work for any man.

I did not wait to begin my work in the hospitals. Everywhere I went, where there were wounded men, I sang for those who were strong enough to be allowed to listen, and told them stories, and did all I could to cheer them up. It was heartrending work, oftentimes. There were dour sights, dreadful sights in those hospitals. There were wounds the memory of which robbed me of sleep. There were men doomed to blindness for the rest of then lives.

But over all there was a spirit that never lagged or faltered, and that strengthened me when I thought some sight was more than I could bear. It was the spirit of the British soldier, triumphant over suffering and cruel disfigurement, with his inevitable answer to any question as to how he was getting on. I never heard that answer varied when a man could speak at all. Always it was the same. Two words were enough.

"All right!"


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