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Roamin' in the Gloamin'

HOME again early in 1916 just in time to welcome John on his first leave from France and the trenches! Oh, but it was splendid to see the boy safe and sound and grown bigger and stronger than ever! He was now a captain, having been promoted several months before. We had a few days at the Glen together and spoke of the many things we would do "after the war." A list of provincial dates kept me as busy as usual and in the late autumn I went into my first Revue at the Shaftesbury Theatre, London. My first— and my last. "Three Cheers" was quite as good a show as most successful revues are but somehow I never felt myself thoroughly happy in it. My work as an artiste is too individual for revue. Ethel Levey and I had some excel lent scenes in "Three Cheers" and one of the big hits in the piece was my war-song "The Laddies Who Fought and Won." This number sent the audience into hysterical enthusiasm at every performance; the chorus was always taken up and shouted vociferously. A company of Scots Guards in full uniform marched on to the stage at the finish of the song, the final scene, before the fall of the curtain, being most war-like and inspiring. I put my whole soul into the singing of this song. John was never out of my mind from the opening bars till the last—it was of him and his gallant boys of the Fifty-first I was singing. Yet, as I have said, I never was at happy ease in this revue. Often I had fits of the most violent depression. These were not altogether dissociated from the daily publication of tremendously lone lists of British casualties. I dreaded to buy a newspaper: In the closing days of the year Nance went up to Scotland to be beside her ain folks for that peculiarly Scottish festival. I was left alone in London.

On Monday morning, the first day of 1917 1 was handed a telegram. My heart started to beat double-time. I could not bring myself to open the telegram. I knew what it contained. God! the agonies I suffered that bright New Year's morning. They cannot be written about. But hundreds of thousands, aye, millions, of fathers and mothers will know just what I passed through for many hours and for many weeks. My only son. The one child God had given us.

"Captain John Lauder killed in action. Official.
War Office."

That was what the telegram said when I came to read it. Then I noticed the post-mark. It was from Dunoon. So Nance knew already! Brave soul, she had received the information first and simply re-directed it on to me. Pulling myself together I realized that my place was at Dunoon with my boy's mother. Throughout the day many of my personal friends called at the hotel and their presence and kindly words of sympathy and encouragement kept me on something of a level keel mentally and physically. Tom Valiance, the boy's uncle, never left me for a moment and he and I travelled up to Scotland by the midnight mail. The meeting between Nance and myself next morning I shall never forget. She was wonderful. Through her tears her eyes shone with a brave light. For her there were no hysterics, no frenzied outbursts against Fate—and God. She was proud of John in death as she had been of him in life. I was the weak individual that morning; she the strong. And after we had prayed a little together, not questioning His mysterious ways, but simply asking Him for strength and comfort, we both felt slightly more resigned to our, terrible loss.

Had it not been for Nance and her mothering of me at that time I think my professional career would have ended with John's death. "We mustna forget, Harry," she would often say, "that you and I are only two amongst countless fathers and mothers who have made the same sacrifice as we have been called on to make! Think, Harry, of all the weeping mothers in Scotland and England and ower the seas every day of the war! There's hardly a house in Scot- land where a bonnie laddie hasna been grat for by a father or mother some day or another since the struggle began. And think o' the fatherless bairns an' the stricken wives an' the auld folks wi' naebody left to fend for them and care for them!" Thus did John's mother carry more than her own load during that day or two of our sad reunion in the silent house on Clydeside.

The London Revue "Three Cheers" was closed down on account of my trouble for the first three days of the year. Had I merely consulted my own inclinations I would, of course, have immediately cut adrift from all stage work. But to replace me in the Revue was impossible. I had either to return and resume my part in the show or see it suddenly disbanded with all that this meant in the way of financial loss to hundreds of people. My wife said I ought to go back. Tom pointed out that I had a duty to the more poorly paid members of the profession associated with me in the production—loss of work at this season of the year would for them be little short of disaster. A letter from one of John's brother officers telling us how he died decided my line of action. The last words my boy uttered were "Carry on t" I resolved that I also would carry on!

How I managed to get through that ordeal on the Thursday evening God only knows. I remember very little about it and what I do remember seems to be part of a terrible dream. They tell me that the house was crowded to suffocation. That the feeling of tenseness both in front and behind was almost unbearable. That I dressed for my part as usual and stood in the wings for a few minutes before the orchestra played the first notes of my opening song, a simple little love-lyric called "I Love My Jean." That I faltered then and turned away as from an impossible task but that Tom caught hold of me, wheeled me round and whispered in my ear, "Remember John's words, Harry—Carry On!" The next few minutes I do most vividly recollect. I braced my shoulders and ran on to the stage. For just a moment the people were silent. Then they burst into a tornado of cheering standing up in all parts of the house and shouting the most loving and affectionate and encouraging remarks to the poor Jack Point who was trying to do his duty while his heart was breaking. After cheering they started to cry —there can have been few dry eyes in the Shaftesbury Theatre at that moment. All this I remember. What happened afterwards is not so clear in my mind. But they say I sang my first song as well and as brightly as ever I sang in my life even if I did fall helplessly into Tom's arms on coming off the stage.

I must have made a tremendous effort to keep going during the rest of the performance. I am told that I did not miss a cue or a line or a gesture all the way through. But I knew that the final scene would get me on the raw! The big scene in the last act of the revue was my song "The Laddies Who Fought and Won." As Fate would have it I had written two lines in the refrain of this song picturing what would happen at the end of the war:

When we all gather round the old fireside And the fond mother kisses her son I knew I would never be able to sing these words. It was unthinkable. The song went all right so far as the verses were concerned, but each time I came to these lines in the chorus I choked—I tried hard but it was impossible. The music went on, the Scots Guards and the audience sang the lines and I was able to recover myself sufficiently to continue. I have an idea that at the finish of the performance there was another big emotional outburst on the part of the people in front. They tell me so. But after I had led the singing of "God Save the King" I fainted. You may ask why I chose to recall all these details about a night so sad, so full of grief, so charged with personal drama. I do so because I think it is only right and proper if I am to tell the real story of my life in these memoirs. As a rule the public only sees the successful side of the actor, or public man anywhere, who has made good at his profession or in his business. They see only the outward and visible signs of his prosperity, his triumphs; they note only the approving shouts and the worship of the multitude; too often do they envy his riches, his popularity, his life all "spread in pleasant places." My God, they ought to know what I suffered that night and for many, many nights and weeks and months afterwards!

Yes, I played in "Three Cheers" until the piece ended. Nance came up to London. During the days we did a lot of hospital work together. This took our minds off our own trouble, for there's nothing like taking an interest in the sorrows of others for assuaging your own. At least that was our experience. In addition to singing to the wounded in different hospitals all over London I spoke at many functions on behalf of war charities or on the then highly important topic of conserving food supplies. One of the largest demonstrations held in London during the war took place in Drury Lane Theatre. Lord Balfour of Burleigh, the great Scottish nobleman, and I were the two chief speakers and I remember how pleased I was to be told by this wonderful veteran that my work for the wounded and in the soldiers' camps all round London was much appreciated by the Government. When the revue at the Shaftesbury Theatre came off I made up my mind to enlist. Older men than I had done so. But I didn't want home service .—if I joined up I wanted a guarantee that I would be sent to the front! I broached the subject to more than one prominent man in the Government or at the War Office. There would be no difficulty, I was told, about enlisting and there would be even less in getting me a commission. But when ever I said that I wanted to go out and fight the enemy who had killed my boy they simply laughed and told me I was far too old for the trenches.

"Then, for God's sake," I replied, "if you won't let me fight in the trenches let rue go out and sing to the boys in the trenches!" This idea was not pooh-poohed as the other had been. There certainly was something in it, the big men admitted. But for a long time I heard no more about my highly original suggestion. I had only to say the word and I could easily have done what many other prominent artistes had been doing—constantly visiting the bases in France and Belgium and there entertaining the thousands of men and women engaged in base work or the wounded lying in the hospitals. But I wanted to do something bigger. I was all lit up now with this idea of singing to the boys who were actually in the fighting line. I wanted to get right among them, to see for myself what they were doing, how they were doing it, to cheer them up and encourage them. And perhaps, I secretly told myself, I might be able to visit my own little hallowed spot of ground where John was sleeping.

For a long time I heard no more of this wonderful scheme of mine. I knew that it had been put up to those in supreme authority but as the weeks went past and I heard nothing I gloomily decided that it had been turned down. Nance and I went up to Scotland for a wee holiday among the hills. We were both very ill and exhausted. We spent our time between Laudervale and Glen Branter but both places were too full of associations with John for us to be anything else but thoroughly miserable. At every point and at every turn we were reminded of the boy who was lying dead in France. There were his photographs, his guns, his fishing-rods, his horse, his billiard cue, his books, his music! And right over the road from Glen Branter was Invernoaden House all ready to receive him and his bonnie bride. I tell you we cried ourselves to sleep every night.

Then one day, at the end of May, came a letter from the War Office giving me my orders. My request had been agreed to. I was to visit the front with full permission to entertain the Scottish troops wherever they were. I was to be taken specially to those sectors of the British front where the Argyll and Sutherlands, the Black Watch, the Camerons, the Gordons and the Highland Light Infantry were operating. These names always make the blood of a Scot run faster for the hearing even in the "piping times of peace" but in the war years they were magic words to me and to "ilka son o' the heather." I knew how our Highland glens had been cleared to the last young man, how every town and village in Scotland had been drained to supply these famous regiments with the necessary man-power. Can you wonder if I felt like going across the Channel and hugging every kilted laddie to my heart?

Two intimate personal friends of my own had been selected to accompany us.—James Hogge, a member of Parliament for one of the divisions of Edinburgh, whose work on behalf of the widows and orphans of fallen soldiers and sailors had won the admiration of the country, and the Reverend George Adam, at that time a prominent official in the Munitions Ministry, who had come home from his church in Montreal to lend a hand in the struggle. Better companions could not have been desired. "Jamie" Hogge and "Geordie" Adam and I have been through lots of "ploys" together but none half so interesting or memorable as our trip to the War Zone in 1917. On the boat which took us across the Channel we were christened "The Reverend Harry Lauder, M.P.'s Party," and this cognomen stuck to us all the time. I carried with me a small portable piano and tens of thousands of packets of cigarettes. My intention was to accompany my own songs where I could not pick up a volunteer accompanist but I was not called upon to strike a note on the instrument because there were always more volunteers than I could find employment for. The "fags" I thought would last me a week, giving a packet to every Tommy I found short of a smoke, but they were all distributed within a very few hours of our setting foot in France! Had I taken a full ship-load the result would have been the same.

Our party was put under the absolute command of a smart young staff officer, Captain Godfrey, and he seldom left us night or day during our tour. I gave my first concert in the Casino at Boulogne, then being used as a base hospital. All the wounded men able to crawl or be helped into one of the largest wards attended the "show" and I have never sung to a more enthusiastic audience. My heart was near my mouth all the time I was singing but there wasn't a dull face among that maimed and stricken assembly of heroes. Next day we went "up the line" and our adventures started in earnest. We were seldom far away from the firing-line. We worked eastward to Albert and Arras and down as far as Peronne, having many opportunities of seeing every phase of the soldiers' lives from the base right up to the front-line trenches. We visited the infantry, the artillery, and the transport and wherever it was a feasible proposition I set up my portable piano and sang to officers and men in the open-air, in rest camps, in dug-outs, in old chateaux, ruined farms, tumble-down barns—everywhere. There was never any difficulty in getting an audience; the news of my presence travelled like wild-fire and all the chaps who could get off duty came post-haste to hear Harry Lauder. I knew dozens and dozens of the men in the Ninth, Fifteenth and Fifty-first Divisions. Old schoolmates in Arbroath and old miners from Hamilton and other towns in the West Country came forward and greeted me; at each halt it was like a reunion of good friends and acquaintances.

Sometimes I gave as many as half-a-dozen concerts in a day. The audiences varied from a hundred or two up to several thousands. At Arras, for instance, which was one of the great British centres in France, there must have been at least five thousand men assembled in the twilight of a soft June evening. That was a scene I shall never forget. The ruins all around, soldiers densely packed in front of me, behind, and to left and right, aeroplanes circling overhead to keep off prowling Jerries, my voice ringing out in the verses of my songs and being drowned in the lusty and spontaneous singing of the choruses. Occasionally a shell would come whizzing overhead just to let us know that there was a war on and that death was lurking near. I remember finishing that concert in almost pitdi darkness. I must have sung a dozen or fifteen songs to the boys but they were still anxious for more. There were calls for some of the old favourites I hadn't included, and above the shouts came a great voice which boomed, "I'm frae Aberfeldy, Harry—for God's sake sing us 'The Wee Hoose 'Mang the Heather!" Such a request could not be ignored. I sang the old lyric with its simple refrain:

There's a wee hoose 'mang the heather,
There's a wee hoose ow'er the sea,
There's a lassie in that wee hoose
Waiting patiently for me.
She's the picture o' perfection'.
I wonidna' tell a lee;
If ye saw her ye would love her
Just the same as me.

And I'm thinking that many of the kilties who sang the haunting chorus with me at Arras that night never again saw the wee hoose or the lassie they had in mind and that the lassie herself is still dreaming of a soldier's lonely grave overseas.

When we were at Arras we were told that several companies of one of the Highland regiments were holding a railway cut on the line between that town and Lens out of which latter place the Germans had just been driven. Would it be possible for me to go out and sing to them? they sent a messenger in to ask. Certainly, I replied, and as Captain Godfrey was willing that we should take any risk that was going we set off without more ado. We reached the railway cutting all right and soon had all the soldiers gathered round us. The place was literally honey- combed with shell-holes and dugouts—a pretty dreadful spot it seemed to me. But a cheerier crowd of Scotties you couldn't imagine. They gave me an exceedingly boisterous welcome. Our concert had not been started more than a fw minutes when a shell came plump into the cutting and exploded with a shattering roar. I suddenly stopped short in the song I was singing; I felt queer in the pit of the stomach. After a little while I started again. But another shell followed, hitting a railway-bridge perhaps two hundred yards, or less, from where we were standing. "They've spotted us !" said the officer in charge. Sure enough a perfect rain of shells began to fall all around us. All thoughts of further singing left my mind and I turned and ran for the nearest dug-out into which I scrambled in a most undignified fashion. I was in my kilt and was wearing a tin helmet. The latter tilted off my head as I legged it for safety and Hogge and Adam afterwards told me that I was a most comical spectacle tearing down the cutting as hard as I could go with the tin, helmet dangling down the side of my face. Hogge certainly reached the dug-out some minutes after I did, but the Reverend George was there when I arrived so I do not see that he was in a position to say how I looked!

A German aeroplane had evidently observed the concentration of the men for the concert and had signalled the position to one of the enemy batteries. For fully half an hour the "strafe" was kept up and I must here testify to the remarkably accurate hitting of the Germans composing that particular battery. There were no casualties on our side, although several of the shells fell very near our dug-out. How did I feel under shell-fire? you may ask. To be per- fectly candid—horrible! I seemed to have no "middle register." I knew I had legs and a head but there was nothing in between. My main thought was not of death or injury but rather what would happen if a shell struck the dug- out and we were all buried beneath tons of earth and wood and iron. The soldiers in the dug-out with us were as cheery as crickets, laughing and joking and smoking—a group of them started to play cards. "Harry" said a brawny, hairy- legged sergeant from Dundee "dinna fash yersel'! If yer name's on a shell or a bullet you'll get it an' if it's no yer as safe as a bug in a rug !" But to say that this bit of soldier philosophy in any way steadied my nerves would be to tell a deliberate untruth. However, the din died down by and by and we sallied forth and concluded the concert without further interruption. The original audience was greatly added to by the presence of a large number of English and Irish and South African Tommies who had been bathing in the River Scarpe on the other side of the railway cutting and to whom the news of our presence had been carried. They did not wait to dress but came running up as they were born and lined up to hear my songs. I have had many weird audiences in my life in far-flung parts of the world but that was the only occasion I ever sang to hundreds of stark naked men! When I took my departure they used their shirts and other items of clothing to wave me a hearty farewell.

We were taken up to the historical Vimy Ridge and we watched, from different battery positions, our soldiers making the German trenches uncomfortable. I actually fired one of the British guns myself. When I had more or less recovered from the tremendous shock of the discharge Hogge, who had a pair of field-glasses at his eyes, swore that a German was coming over No Man's Land bearing in one hand a white flag and in the other a cocoanut! I had, he said, hit the bull's eye!

At Auhigny was the rest camp of the Fifteenth Division made up of Scottish troops second only in reputation to the redoubtable Fifty-first, or Highland Division. We were billed to give a concert here, and again I had a most cordial reception. Later in the evening our party, with many of the Scottish officers on rest-leave, were invited to a picturesque old chateau occupied by a French lady and her daughter who had point-blank refused to abandon their home for some safer territory farther away from the war area. The beautiful drawing-room was lit by candles and it was crowded with officers in kilts of different tartans reminding me for all the world of a social gathering of Scottish chiefs during the '45 Rebellion. Any one of the younger officers present might conceivably have been Bonnie Prince Charlie. I sang several songs. The scene when I gave the final toast to "our brave hostess and her lovely daughter" will long live in my memory.

Before leaving France after a most interesting and forti- Lying experience with our soldier lads I was able, as I had hoped, to visit John's grave. My companions went with me as far as the little cemetery at Ovillers, on the Albert Peronne Road. There, like the thoughtful and kindly men they are, they left me and I fought out my battle alone.


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