eighteen years old, poor chap. It was a bad wound, but, as sometimes happens, it didn’t make him unconscious–then. And when he realized what had happened to him, and saw his arm hanging limp, so that he could know he was bound to lose it, he began to cry.
“‘What’s the trouble?’ I asked him, hurrying over to him. I was sorry enough for him, but you’ve got to keep up the morale of your men. ‘Soldiers don’t cry when they’re wounded, my lad.’
“‘I’m not crying because I’m wounded, sir!’ he fired back at me. And I won’t say he was quite as respectful as a private is supposed to be when he’s talking to an officer! ‘Just take a look at that, sir!’ And he pointed to his wound. And then he cried out:
“‘And I haven’t killed a German yet!’ he said, bitterly. ‘Isn’t that hard lines, sir?’
“That is the spirit of my men!”
I made many good friends while I was roaming around the country just behind the front. I wonder how many of them I shall keep–how many of them death will spare to shake my hand again when peace is restored! There was a Gordon Highlander, a fine young officer, of whom I became particularly fond while I was at Tramecourt. I had a very long talk with him, and I thought of him often, afterward, because he made me think of John. He was just such a fine young type of Briton as my boy had been.
Months later, when I was back in Britain, and giving a performance at Manchester, there was a knock at the door of my dressing-room.
“Come in!” I called.
The door was pushed open and a man came in with great blue glasses covering his eyes. He had a stick, and he groped his way toward me. I did not know him at all at first–and then, suddenly, with a shock, I recognized him as my fine young Gordon Highlander of the rest billet near Tramecourt.
“My God–it’s you, Mac!” I said, deeply shocked.
“Yes,” he said, quietly. His voice had changed, greatly. “Yes, it’s I, Harry.”
He was almost totally blind, and he did not know whether his eyes would get better or worse.
“Do you remember all the lads you met at the billet where you came to sing for us the first time I met you, Harry?” he asked me. “Well, they’re all gone–I’m the only one who’s left–the only one!”
There was grief in his voice. But there was nothing like complaint, nor was there, nor self-pity, either, when he told me about his eyes and his doubts as to whether he would ever really see again. He passed his own troubles off lightly, as if they did not matter at all. He preferred to tell me about those of his friends whom I had met, and to give me the story of how this one and that one had gone. And he is like many another. I know a great many men who have been maimed in the war, but I have still to hear one of them complain. They were brave enough, God knows, in battle, but I think they are far braver when they come home, shattered and smashed, and do naught but smile at their troubles.
The only sort of complaining you hear from British soldiers is over minor discomforts in the field. Tommy and Jock will grouse when they are so disposed. They will growl about the food and about this trivial trouble and that. But it is never about a really serious matter that you hear them talking!
I have never yet met a man who had been permanently disabled who was not grieving because he could not go back. And it is strange but true that men on leave get homesick for the trenches sometimes. They miss the companionships they have had in the trenches. I think it must be because all the best men in the world are in France that they feel so. But it is true, I know, because I have not heard it once, but a dozen times.
Men will dream of home and Blighty for weeks and months. They will grouse because they cannot get leave–though, half the time, they have not even asked for it, because they feel that their place is where the fighting is! And then, when they do get that longed-for leave, they are half sorry to go–and they come back like boys coming home from school!
A great reward awaits the men who fight through this war and emerge alive and triumphant at its end. They will dictate the conduct of the world for many a year. The men who stayed at home when they should have gone may as well prepare to drop their voices to a very low whisper in the affairs of mankind. For the men who will be heard, who will make themselves heard, are out there in France.
It was seven o’clock in the morning of a Godly 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 attack.
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 you, in France–and reel it up in underneath their wheels as if it were a tape.
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 colors.
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 had 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 traveled. 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, someone–Hogge, I think–suggested that a bottle of ginger beer all around 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 at once.
“Well, here’s old Harry Lauder!” cried one braw laddie.
“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 theater 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 would have 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 from those concerts I gave as a minstrel wandering in France than did the soldiers or any of those who heard me!
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 honors. I have told you about that great and overwhelming reception that greeted me when I sailed into Sydney Harbor. 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 thanks.
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 cornflowers blue through the yellow fields of grain beside the roads! They cheered me, do you 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! 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 some there are who will never come out.
Despite all the interruptions, though, it was not much after noon when we reached Blangy. Here, in that suburb of Arras, were the headquarters of the Ninth Division, and as I stepped out of the car I thrilled to the knowledge that I was treading ground forever 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-lid 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 no, a golden fence should be built around it, and it should forever 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 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 Hun.
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–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 plowshare. Soldiers were everywhere, and guns–guns, guns! For Arras had a new importance now. It was a center 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 brickdust. 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 to beware of the imminent collapse of some heap of 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 medieval 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 Cloth 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 nearby 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 decomposed 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 eyelid. “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 immediately 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-place of the men who had charged across this maze of wire and died within it. They rose, did those rough crosses, like sheathed swords out of the wild, luxurious 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 so 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?
[ILLUSTRATION: Berlin struck off this medal when the “Lusitania” was sunk: on one side the brutal catastrophe, on the other the grinning death’s head Teutonically exultant. “And so now I preach the war on the Hun my own way,” says Harry Lauder. (See Lauder09.jpg)]
[ILLUSTRATION: HARRY LAUDER “Laird of Dunoon.” (See Lauder10.jpg)]
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 blood-stained tartan, for Auld Lang Syne, and thought of what a tale it could tell if it could only speak!
“Ha’ ye seen a’ the men frae the braes and the glen, Ha’ ye seen them a’ marchin’ awa’?
Ha’ ye seen a’ the men frae the wee but-an’-ben, And the gallants frae mansion and ha’?”
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–ayes and terrible they were! But I dinna wish to harrow the feelings of those who read more than I need, 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 brings 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 gray, 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 halfway 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. Everyone was mowed down–everyone 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 the 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.”
That was the tale I thought of when I found that bit of the Black Watch tartan. And I remembered, too, that it was with the Black Watch that John Poe, the famous American football player from Princeton, met his death in a charge. He had been offered a commission, but he preferred to stay with the boys in the ranks.
We left our motor cars behind us in Arras, for to-day we were to go to a front-line trench, and the climax of my whole trip, so far as I could foresee, was at hand. Johnson and the wee piano had to stay behind, too–we could not expect to carry even so tiny an instrument as that into a front-line trench! Once more we had to don steel helmets, but there was a great difference between these and the ones we had had at Vimy Ridge. Mine fitted badly, and kept sliding down over my ears, or else slipping way down to the back of my head. It must have given me a grotesque look, and it was most uncomfortable. So I decided I would take it off and carry it for a while.
“You’d better keep it on, Harry,” Captain Godfrey advised me. “This district is none too safe, even right here, and it gets worse as we go along. A whistling Percy may come along looking for you any minute.”
That is the name of a shell that is good enough to advertise its coming by a whistling, shrieking sound. I could hear Percies whistling all around, and see them spattering up the ground as they struck, not so far away, but they did not seem to be coming in our direction. So I decided I would take a chance.
“Well,” I said, as I took the steel hat off, “I’ll just keep this bonnet handy and slip it on if I see Percy coming.”
But later I was mighty glad of even an ill-fitting steel helmet!
Several staff officers from the Highland Brigade had joined the Reverend Harry Lauder, M.P., Tour by now. Affable, pleasant gentlemen they were, and very eager to show us all there was to be seen. And they had more sights to show their visitors than most hosts have!
We were on ground now that had been held by the Germans before the British had surged forward all along this line in the April battle. Their old trenches, abandoned now, ran like deep fissures through the soil. They had been pretty well blasted to pieces by the British bombardment, but a good many of their deep, concrete dugouts had survived. These were not being used by the British here, but were saved in good repair as show places, and the officers who were our guides took us down into some of them.
Rarely comfortable they must have been, too! They had been the homes of German officers, and the Hun officers did themselves very well indeed when they had the chance. They had electric light in their cave houses. To be sure they had used German wall paper, and atrociously ugly stuff it was, too. But it pleased their taste, no doubt. Mightily amazed some of Fritz’s officers must have been, back in April, as they sat and took their ease in these luxurious quarters, to have Jock come tumbling in upon them, a grenade in each hand!
Our men might have used these dugouts, and been snug enough in them, but they preferred air and ventilation, and lived in little huts above the ground. I left our party and went around among them and, to my great satisfaction, found, as I had been pretty sure I would, a number of old acquaintances and old admirers who came crowding around me to shake hands. I made a great collection of souvenirs here, for they insisted on pressing trophies upon me.
“Tak them, Harry,” said one after another. “We can get plenty more where they came from!”
One laddie gave me a helmet with a bullet hole through the skip, and another presented me with one of the most interesting souvenirs of all I carried home from France. That was a German sniper’s outfit. It consisted of a suit of overalls, waterproofed. If a man had it on he would be completely covered, from head to foot, with just a pair of slits for his eyes to peep out of, and another for his mouth, so that he could breathe. It was cleverly painted the color of a tree–part of it like the bark, part green, like leaves sprouting from it.
“Eh, Jock,” I asked the laddie who gave it to me. “A thing like yon’s hard to be getting, I’m thinking?”
“Oh, not so very hard,” he answered, carelessly. “You’ve got to be a good shot.” And he wore medals that showed he was! “All you’ve got to do, Harry, is to kill the chap inside it before he kills you! The fellow who used to own that outfit you’ve got hid himself in the fork of a tree, and, as you may guess, he looked like a branch of the tree itself. He was pretty hard to spot. But I got suspicious of him, from the way bullets were coming over steadily, and I decided that that tree hid a sniper.
“After that it was just a question of being patient. It was no so long before I was sure, and then I waited–until I saw that branch move as no branch of a tree ever did move. I fired then–and got him! He was away outside of his lines, and that nicht I slipped out and brought back this outfit. I wanted to see how it was made.”
An old, grizzled sergeant of the Black Watch gave me a German revolver.
“How came you to get this?” I asked him.
“It was an acceedent, Harry,” he said. “We were raiding a trench, do you ken, and I was in a sap when a German officer came along, and we bumped into one another. He looked at me, and I at him. I think he was goin’ to say something, but I dinna ken what it was he had on his mind. That _was_ his revolver you’ve got in your hand now.”
And then he thrust his hand into his pocket.
“Here’s the watch he used to carry, too,” he said. It was a thick, fat-bellied affair, of solid gold. “It’s a bit too big, but it’s a rare good timekeeper.”
Soon after that an officer gave me another trophy that is, perhaps, even more interesting than the sniper’s suit. It is rarer, at least. It is a small, sweet-toned bell that used to hang in a wee church in the small village of Athies, on the Scarpe, about a mile and a half from Arras. The Germans wiped out church and village, but in some odd way they found the bell and saved it. They hung it in their trenches, and it was used to sound a gas alarm. On both sides a signal is given when the sentry sees that there is to be a gas attack, in order that the men may have time to don the clumsy gas masks that are the only protection against the deadly fumes. The wee bell is eight inches high, maybe, and I have never heard a lovelier tone.
“That bell has rung men to worship, and it has rung them to death,” said the officer who gave it to me.
Presently I was called back to my party, after I had spent some time with the lads in their huts. A general had joined the party now, and he told me, with a smile, that I was to go up to the trenches, if I cared to do so. I will not say I was not a bit nervous, but I was glad to go, for a’ that! It was the thing that had brought me to France, after a’.
So we started, and by now I was glad to wear my steel hat, fit or no fit. I was to give an entertainment in the trenches, and so we set out. Pretty soon I was climbing a steep railroad embankment, and when we slid down on the other side we found the trenches–wide, deep gaps in the earth, and all alive with men. We got into the trenches themselves by means of ladders, and the soldiers came swarming about me with yells of “Hello, Harry! Welcome, Harry!”
They were told that I had come to sing for them, and so, with no further preliminaries, I began my concert. I started with my favorite opening song, as usual–“Roamin’ in the Gloamin’,” and then went on with the other old favorites. I told a lot of stories, too, and then I came to “The Laddies Who Fought and Won.” None of the men had heard it, but there were officers there who had seen “Three Cheers” during the winter when they had had a short leave to run over to London.
I got through the first verse all right, and was just swinging into the first chorus when, without the least warning, hell popped open in that trench. A missile came in that some officer at once hailed as a whizz bang. It is called that, for that is just exactly the sound it makes. It is like a giant firecracker, and it would be amusing if one did not know it was deadly. These missiles are not fired by the big guns behind the lines, but by the small trench cannon–worked, as a rule, by compressed air. The range is very short, but they are capable of great execution at that range.
Was I frightened? I must have been! I know I felt a good deal as I have done when I have been seasick. And I began to think at once of all sorts of places where I would rather have been than in that trench! I was standing on a slight elevation at the back, or parados, of the trench, so that I was raised a bit above my audience, and I had a fine view of that deadly thing, wandering about, spitting fire and metal parts. It traveled so that the men could dodge it, but it was throwing oft slugs that you could neither see nor dodge, and it was a poor place to be!
And the one whizz bang was not enough to suit Fritz. It was followed immediately by a lot more, that came popping in and making themselves as unpleasant as you could imagine. I watched the men about me, and they seemed to be unconcerned, and to be thinking much more of me and my singing than of the whizz bangs. So, no matter how I felt, there was nothing for me to do but to keep on with my song. I decided that I must really be safe enough, no matter how I felt. But I had certain misgivings on the subject. Still, I managed to go on with my song, and I think I was calm enough to look at–though, if I was, my appearance wholly belied my true inward feelings.
I struggled through to the end of the chorus–and I think I sang pretty badly, although I don’t know. But I was pretty sure the end of the world had come for me, and that these laddies were taking things as calmly as they were simply because they were used to it, and it was all in the day’s work for them. The Germans were fairly sluicing that trench by now. The whizz bangs were popping over us like giant fire-crackers, going off one and two and three at a time. And the trench was full of flying slugs and chunks of dirt, striking against our faces and hurtling all about us.
There I was. I had a good “house.” I wanted to please my audience. Was it no a trying situation? I thought Fritz might have had manners enough to wait until I had finished my concert, at least! But the Hun has no manners, as all the world knows.
Along that embankment we had climbed to reach the trenches, and not very far from the bit of trench in which I was singing, there was a railroad bridge of some strategic importance. And now a shell hit that bridge–not a whizz bang, but a real, big shell. It exploded with a hideous screech, as if the bridge were some human thing being struck, and screaming out its agony. The soldiers looked at me, and I saw some of them winking. They seemed to be mighty interested in the way I was taking all this. I looked back at them, and then at a Highland colonel who was listening to my singing as quietly and as carefully as if he had been at a stall in Covent Garden during the opera season. He caught my glance.
“I think they’re coming it a bit thick, Lauder, old chap,” he remarked, quietly.
“I quite agree with you, colonel,” I said. I tried to ape his voice and manner, but I wasn’t so quiet as he.
Now there came a ripping, tearing sound in the air, and a veritable cloudburst of the damnable whizz bangs broke over us. That settled matters. There were no orders, but everyone turned, just as if it were a meeting, and a motion to adjourn had been put and carried unanimously. We all ran for the safety holes or dugouts in the side of the embankment. And I can tell ye that the Reverend Harry Lauder, M.P., Tour were no the last ones to reach those shelters! No, we were by no means the last!
I ha’ no doot that I might have improved upon the shelter that I found, had I had time to pick and choose. But any shelter was good just then, and I was glad of mine, and of a chance to catch my breath. Afterward, I saw a picture by Captain Bairnsfather that made me laugh a good deal, because it represented so exactly the way I felt. He had made a drawing of two Tommies in a wee bit of a hole in a field that was being swept by shells and missiles of every sort. One was grousing to his mate, and the other said to him:
“If you know a better ‘ole go ‘ide in it!”
I said we all turned and ran for cover. But there was one braw laddie who did nothing of the sort. He would not run–such tricks were not for him!
He was a big Hie’land laddie, and he wore naught but his kilt and his semmet–his undershirt. He had on his steel helmet, and it shaded a face that had not been shaved or washed for days. His great, brawny arms were folded across his chest, and he was smoking his pipe. And he stood there as quiet and unconcerned as if he had been a village smith gazing down a quiet country road. I watched him, and he saw me, and grinned at me. And now and then he glanced at me, quizzically.
“It’s all right, Harry,” he said, several times. “Dinna fash yoursel’, man. I’ll tell ye in time for ye to duck if I see one coming your way!”
We crouched in our holes until there came a brief lull in the bombardment. Probably the Germans thought they had killed us all and cleared the trench, or maybe it had been only that they hadn’t liked my singing, and had been satisfied when they had stopped it. So we came out, but the firing was not over at all, as we found out at once. So we went down a bit deeper, into concrete dugouts.
This trench had been a part of the intricate German defensive system far back of their old front line, and they had had the pains of building and hollowing out the fine dugout into which I now went for shelter. Here they had lived, deep under the earth, like animals–and with animals, too. For when I reached the bottom a dog came to meet me, sticking out his red tongue to lick my hand, and wagging his tail as friendly as you please.
He was a German dog–one of the prisoners of war taken in the great attack. His old masters hadn’t bothered to call him and take him with them when the Highlanders came along, and so he had stayed behind as part of the spoils of the attack.
That wasn’t much of a dog, as dogs go. He was a mongrel-looking creature, but he couldn’t have been friendlier. The Highlanders had adopted him and called him Fritz, and they were very fond of him, and he of them. He had no thought of war. He behaved just as dogs do at hame.
But above us the horrid din was still going on, and bits of shells were flying everywhere–anyone of them enough to kill you, if it struck you in the right spot. I was glad, I can tell ye, that I was so snug and safe beneath the ground, and I had no mind at all to go out until the bombardment was well over. I knew now what it was really to be under fire. The casual sort of shelling I had had to fear at Vimy Ridge was nothing to this. This was the real thing.
And then I thought that what I was experiencing for a few minutes was the daily portion of these laddies who were all aboot me–not for a few minutes, but for days and weeks and months at a time. And it came home to me again, and stronger than ever, what they were doing for us folks at hame, and how we ought to be feeling for them.
The heavy firing went on for three-quarters of an hour, at least. We could hear the chugging of the big guns, and the sorrowful swishing of the shells, as if they were mournful because they were not wreaking more destruction than they were. It all moved me greatly, but I could see that the soldiers thought nothing of it, and were quite unperturbed by the fearful demonstration that was going on above. They smoked and chatted, and my own nerves grew calmer.
Finally there seemed to come a real lull in the row above, and I turned to the general.
“Isn’t it near time for me to be finishing my concert, sir?” I asked him.
“Very good,” he said, jumping up. “Just as you say, Lauder.”
So back we went to where I had begun to sing. My audience reassembled, and I struck up “The Laddies Who Fought and Won” again. It seemed, somehow, the most appropriate song I could have picked to sing in that spot! I finished, this time, but there was some discord in the closing bars, for the Germans were still at their shelling, sporadically.
So I finished, and I said good-by to the men who were to stay in the trench, guarding that bit of Britain’s far flung battleline. And then the Reverend Harry Lauder, M.P., Tour was ready to go back–not to safety, at once, but to a region far less infested by the Hun than this one where we had been such warmly received visitors!
I was sorry to be leaving the Highland laddies in that trench. Aye! But for the trench itself I had nae regrets–nae, none whatever! I know no spot on the surface of this earth, of all that I have visited, and I have been in many climes, that struck me as less salubrious than you bit o’ trench. There were too many other visitors there that day, along with the Reverend Harry Lauder, M.P., Tour. They were braw laddies, yo, but no what you might call over-particular about the company they kept! I’d thank them, if they’d be havin’ me to veesit them again, to let me come by my ain!
Getting away was not the safest business in the world, either, although it was better than staying in yon trench. We had to make our way back to the railway embankment, and along it for a space, and the embankment was being heavily shelled. It was really a trench line itself, full of dugouts, and as we made our way along heads popped in all directions, topped by steel helmets. I was eager to be on the other side of you embankment, although I knew well enough that there was no sanctuary on either side of it, nor for a long space behind it.
That was what they called the Frenchy railway cutting, and it overlooked the ruined village of Athies. And not until after I had crossed it was I breathing properly. I began, then, to feel more like myself, and my heart and all my functions began to be more normal.
All this region we had to cross now was still under fire, but the fire was nothing to what it had been. The evidences of the terrific bombardments there had been were plainly to be seen. Every scrap of exposed ground had been nicked by shells; the holes were as close together as those in a honeycomb. I could not see how any living thing had come through that hell of fire, but many men had. Now the embankment fairly buzzed with activity. The dugouts were everywhere, and the way the helmeted heads popped out as we passed, inquiringly, made me think of the prairie dog towns I had seen in Canada and the western United States.
The river Scarpe flowed close by. It was a narrow, sluggish stream, and it did not look to me worthy of its famous name. But often, that spring, its slow-moving waters had been flecked by a bloody froth, and the bodies of brave men had been hidden by them, and washed clean of the trench mud. Now, uninviting as its aspect was, and sinister as were the memories it must have evoked in other hearts beside my own, it was water. And on so hot a day water was a precious thing to men who had been working as the laddies hereabout had worked and labored.
So either bank was dotted with naked bodies, and the stream itself showed head after head, and flashing white arms as men went swimming. Some were scrubbing themselves, taking a Briton’s keen delight in a bath, no matter what the circumstances in which he gets it; others were washing their clothes, slapping and pounding the soaked garments in a way to have wrung the hearts of their wives, had they seen them at it. The British soldier, in the field, does many things for himself that folks at hame never think of! But many of the men were just lying on the bank, sprawled out and sunning themselves like alligators, basking in the warm sunshine and soaking up rest and good cheer.
It looked like a good place for a concert, and so I quickly gathered an audience of about a thousand men from the dugouts in the embankment and obeyed their injunctions to “Go it, Harry! Gie us a song, do now!”
As I finished my first song my audience applauded me and cheered me most heartily, and the laddies along the banks of the Scarpe heard them, and came running up to see what was afoot. There were no ladies thereabout, and they did not stand on a small matter like getting dressed! Not they! They came running just as they were, and Adam, garbed in his fig leaf, was fully clad compared to most of them. It was the barest gallery I ever saw, and the noisiest, too, and the most truly appreciative.
High up above us airplanes were circling, so high that we could not tell from which side they came, except when we saw some of them being shelled, and so knew that they belonged to Fritz. They looked like black pinheads against the blue cushion of the sky, and no doubt that they were vastly puzzled as to the reason of this gathering of naked men. What new tricks were the damned English up to now? So I have no doubt, they were wondering! It was the business of their observers, of course, to spot just such gatherings as ours, although I did not think of that just then–except to think that they might drop a bomb or two, maybe.
But scouting airplanes, such as those were, do not go in for bomb dropping. There are three sorts of airplanes. First come the scouting planes–fairly fast, good climbers, able to stay in the air a long time. Their business is just to spy out the lay of the land over the enemy’s trenches–not to fight or drop bombs. Then come the swift, powerful bombing planes, which make raids, flying long distances to do so. The Huns use such planes to bomb unprotected towns and kill women and babies; ours go in for bombing ammunition dumps and trains and railway stations and other places of military importance, although, by now, they may be indulging in reprisals for some of Fritz’s murderous raids, as so many folk at hame in Britain have prayed they would.
Both scouting and bombing planes are protected by the fastest flyers of all–the battle planes, as they are called. These fight other planes in the air, and it is the men who steer them and fight their guns who perform the heroic exploits that you may read of every day. But much of the great work in the air is done by the scouting planes, which take desperate chances, and find it hard to fight back when they are attacked. And it was scouts who were above us now–and, doubtless, sending word back by wireless of a new and mysterious concentration of British forces along the Scarpe, which it might be a good thing for the Hun artillery to strafe a bit!
So, before very long, a rude interruption came to my songs, in the way of shells dropped unpleasantly close. The men so far above us had given their guns the range, and so, although the gunners could not see us, they could make their presence felt.
I have never been booed or hissed by an audience, since I have been on the stage. I understand that it is a terrible and a disconcerting experience, and one calculated to play havoc with the stoutest of nerves. It is an experience I am by no means anxious to have, I can tell you! But I doubt if it could seem worse to me than the interruption of a shell. The Germans, that day, showed no ear for music, and no appreciation of art–my art, at least!
And so it seemed well to me to cut my programme, to a certain extent, at least, and bid farewell to my audience, dressed and undressed. It was a performance at which it did not seem to me a good idea to take any curtain calls. I did not miss them, nor feel slighted because they were absent. I was too glad to get away with a whole skin!
The shelling became very furious now. Plainly the Germans meant to take no chances. They couldn’t guess what the gathering their airplanes had observed might portend, but, if they could, they meant to defeat its object, whatever that might be. Well, they did not succeed, but they probably had the satisfaction of thinking that they had, and I, for one, do not begrudge them that. They forced the Reverend Harry Lauder, M.P., Tour to make a pretty wide detour, away from the river, to get back to the main road. But they fired a power of shells to do so!
When we finally reached the road I heard a mad sputtering behind. I looked around in alarm, because it sounded, for all the world, like one of those infernal whizz bangs, chasing me. But it was not. The noise came from a motor cycle, and its rider dashed up to me and dropped one foot to the ground.
“Here’s a letter for you, Harry,” he said.
It was a package that he handed me. I was surprised–I was not expecting to have a post delivered to me on the battlefield of Arras! It turned out that the package contained a couple of ugly-looking bits of shell, and a letter from my friends the Highlanders on the other side of the railway embankment. They wrote to thank me for singing for them, and said they hoped I was none the worse for the bombardment I had undergone.
“These bits of metal are from the shell that was closest to you when it burst,” their spokesman wrote. “They nearly got you, and we thought you’d like to have them to keep for souvenirs.”
It seemed to me that that was a singularly calm and phlegmatic letter! My nerves were a good deal overwrought, as I can see now.
Now we made our way slowly back to division headquarters, and there I found that preparations had been made for very much the most ambitious and pretentious concert that I had yet had a chance to give in France. There was a very large audience, and a stage or platform had been set up, with plenty of room on it for Johnson and his piano. It had been built in a great field, and all around me, when I mounted it, I could see kilted soldiers–almost as far as my eye could reach. There were many thousands of them there–indeed, all of the Highland Brigade that was not actually on duty at the moment was present, and a good many other men beside, for good measure.
Here was a sight to make a Scots heart leap with pride! Here, before me, was the flower of Scottish manhood. These regiments had been through a series of battles, not so long since, that had sadly thinned their ranks. Many a Scottish grave had been filled that spring; many a Scottish heart at hame had been broken by sad news from this spot. But there they were now, before me–their ranks filled up again, splendid as they stretched out, eager to welcome me and cheer me. There were tears in my eyes as I looked around at them.
Massed before me were all the best men Scotland had had to offer! All these men had breathed deep of the hellish air of war. All had marched shoulder to shoulder and skirt to skirt with death. All were of my country and my people. My heart was big within me with pride of them, and that I was of their race, as I stood up to sing for them.
Johnson was waiting for me to be ready. Little “Tinkle Tom,” as we called the wee piano, was not very large, but there were times when he had to be left behind. I think he was glad to have us back again, and to be doing his part, instead of leaving me to sing alone, without his stout help.
Many distinguished officers were in that great assemblage. They all turned out to hear me, as well as the men, and among them I saw many familiar faces and old friends from hame. But there were many faces, too, alas, that I did not see. And when I inquired for them later I learned that many of them I had seen for the last time. Oh, the sad news I learned, day after day, oot there in France! Friend after friend of whom I made inquiry was known, to be sure. They could tell me where, and when, and how, they had been killed.
Up above us, as I began to sing, our airplanes were circling. No Boche planes were in sight now, I had been told, but there were many of ours. And sometimes one came swooping down, its occupants curious, no doubt, as to what might be going on, and the hum of its huge propeller would make me falter a bit in my song. And once or twice one flew so low and so close that I was almost afraid it would strike me, and I would dodge in what I think was mock alarm, much to the amusement of the soldiers.
I had given them two songs when a big man arose, far back in the crowd. He was a long way from me, but his great voice carried to me easily, so that I could hear every word he said.
“Harry,” he shouted, “sing us ‘The Wee Hoose Amang the Heather’ and we’ll a’ join in the chorus!”
For a moment I could only stare out at them. Between that sea of faces, upraised to mine, and my eyes, there came another face–the smiling, bonnie face of my boy John, that I should never see again with mortal eyes. That had been one of his favorite songs for many years. I hesitated. It was as if a gentle hand had plucked at my very heart strings, and played upon them. Memory–memories of my boy, swept over me in a flood. I felt a choking in my throat, and the tears welled into my eyes.
But then I began to sing, making a signal to Johnson to let me sing alone. And when I came to the chorus, true to the big Highlander’s promise, they all did join in the chorus! And what a chorus that was! Thousands of men were singing.
“There’s a wee hoose amang the heather, There’s a wee hoose o’er the sea.
There’s a lassie in that wee hoose Waiting patiently for me.
She’s the picture of perfection– I would na tell a lee
If ye saw her ye would love her
Just the same as me!”
My voice was very shaky when I came to the end of that chorus, but the great wave of sound from the kilted laddies rolled out, true and full, unshaken, unbroken. They carried the air as steadily as a ship is carried upon a rolling sea.
I could sing no more for them, and then, as I made my way, unsteadily enough, from the platform, music struck up that was the sweetest I could have heard. Some pipers had come together, from twa or three regiments, unknown to me, and now, very softly, their pipes began to skirl. They played the tune that I love best, “The Drunken Piper.” I could scarcely see to pick my way, for the tears that blinded me, but in my ears, as I passed away from them, there came, gently wailing on the pipes, the plaintive plea–
“Will ye no come back again?”
Now it was time to take to the motor cars again, and I was glad of the thought that we would have a bracing ride. I needed something of the sort, I thought. My emotions had been deeply stirred, in many ways, that day. I felt tired and quite exhausted. This was by all odds the most strenuous day the Reverend Harry Lauder, M.P., Tour had put in yet in France. So I welcomed the idea of sitting back comfortably in the car and feeling the cool wind against my cheeks.
First, however, the entertainers were to be entertained. They took us, the officers of the divisional staff, to a hut, where we were offered our choice of tea or a wee hauf yin. There was good Scots whisky there, but it was the tea I wanted. It was very hot in the sun, and I had done a deal of clambering about. So I was glad, after all, to stay in the shade a while and rest my limbs.
Getting out through Arras turned out to be a ticklish business. The Germans were verra wasteful o’ their shells that day, considering how much siller they cost! They were pounding away, and more shells, by a good many, were falling in Arras than had been the case when we arrived at noon. So I got a chance to see how the ruin that had been wrought had been accomplished.
Arras is a wonderful sight, noble and impressive even in its destruction. But it was a sight that depressed me. It had angered me, at first, but now I began to think, at each ruined house that I saw: “Suppose this were at hame in Scotland!” And when such thoughts came to me I thanked God for the brave lads I had seen that day who stood, out here, holding the line, and so formed a bulwark between Scotland and such black ruin as this.
We were to start for Tramecourt now, but on the way we were to make a couple of stops. Our way was to take us through St. Pol and Hesdin, and, going so, we came to the town of Le Quesnoy. Here some of the 11th Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders were stationed. My heart leaped at the sight of them. That had been my boy’s regiment, although he had belonged to a different battalion, and it was with the best will in the world that I called a halt and gave them a concert.
I gave two more concerts, both brief ones, on the rest of the journey, and so it was quite dark when we approached the chateau at Tramecourt. As we came up I became aware of a great stir and movement that was quite out of the ordinary routine there. In the grounds I could see tiny lights moving about, like fireflies–lights that came, I thought, from electric torches.
“Something extraordinary must be going on here,” I remarked to Captain Godfrey. “I wonder if General Haig has arrived, by any chance?”
“We’ll soon know what it’s all about,” he said, philosophically. But I expect he knew already.
Before the chateau there was a brilliant spot of light, standing out vividly against the surrounding darkness. I could not account for that brilliantly lighted spot then. But we came into it as the car stopped; it was a sort of oasis of light in an inky desert of surrounding gloom. And as we came full into it and I stood up to descend from the car, stretching my tired, stiff legs, the silence and the darkness were split by three tremendous cheers.
It wasn’t General Haig who was arriving! It was Harry Lauder!
“What’s the matter here?” I called, as loudly as I could.
“Been waitin’ for ye a couple of ‘ours, ‘Arry,” called a loud cockney voice in answer. “Go it now! Get it off your chest!” Then came explanations. It seemed that a lot of soldiers, about four hundred strong, who were working on a big road job about ten miles from Tramecourt, had heard of my being there, and had decided to come over in a body and beg for a concert. They got to the chateau early, and were told it might be eleven o’clock before I got back. But they didn’t care–they said they’d wait all night, if they had to, to get a chance to hear me. And they made some use of the time they had to wait.
They took three big acetylene headlights from motor cars, and connected them up. There was a little porch at the entrance of the chateau, with a short flight of steps leading up to it, and then we decided that that would make an excellent makeshift theater. Since it would be dark they decided they must have lights, so that they could see me–just as in a regular theater at hame! That was where the headlights they borrowed from motor cars came in. They put one on each side of the porch and one off in front, so that all the light was centered right on the porch itself, and it was bathed in as strong a glare as ever I sang in on the stage. It was almost blinding, indeed, as I found when I turned to face them and to sing for them. Needless to say, late though it was and tired as I was, I never thought of refusing to give them the concert they wanted!
I should have liked to eat my dinner first, but I couldn’t think of suggesting it. These boys had done a long, hard day’s work. Then they had marched ten miles, and, on top of all that, had waited two hours for me and fixed up a stage and a lighting system. They were quite as tired as I, I decided–and they had done a lot more. And so I told the faithful Johnson to bring wee Tinkle Tom along, and get him up to the little stage, and I faced my audience in the midst of a storm of the ghostliest applause I ever hope to hear!
I could hear them, do you ken, but I could no see a face before me! In the theater, bright though the footlights are, and greatly as they dim what lies beyond them, you can still see the white faces of your audience. At least, you do see something–your eyes help you to know the audience is there, and, gradually, you can see perfectly, and pick out a face, maybe, and sing to some one person in the audience, that you may be sure of your effects.
It was utter, Stygian darkness that lay beyond the pool of blinding light in which I stood. Gradually I did make out a little of what lay beyond, very close to me. I could see dim outlines of human bodies moving around. And now I was sure there were fireflies about. But then they stayed so still that I realized, suddenly, with a smile, just what they were–the glowing ends of cigarettes, of course!
There were many tall poplar trees around the chateau. I knew where to look for them, but that night I could scarcely see them. I tried to find them, for it was a strange, weird sensation to be there as I was, and I wanted all the help fixed objects could give me. I managed to pick out their feathery lines in the black distance–the darkness made them seem more remote than they were, really. Their branches, when I found them, waved like spirit arms, and I could hear the wind whispering and sighing among the topmost branches.
Now and then what we call in Scotland a “batty bird” skimmed past my face, attracted, I suppose, by the bright light. I suppose that bats that have not been disturbed before for generations have been aroused by the blast of war through all that region and have come out of dark cavernous hiding-places, as those that night must have done, to see what it is all about, the tumult and the shouting!
They were verra disconcertin’, those bats! They bothered me almost as much as the whizz bangs had done, earlier in the day! They swished suddenly out of the darkness against my face, and I would start back, and hear a ripple of laughter run through that unseen audience of mine. Aye, it was verra funny for them, but I did not like that part of it a bit! No man likes to have a bat touch his skin. And I had to duck quickly to evade those winged cousins of the mouse–and then hear a soft guffaw arising as I did it.
I have appeared, sometimes, in theaters in which it was pretty difficult to find the audience. And such audiences have been nearly impossible to trace, later, in the box-office reports. But that is the first time in my life, and, up to now, the last, that I ever sang to a totally invisible audience! I did not know then how many men there might have been forty, or four hundred, or four thousand. And, save for the titters that greeted my encounters with the bats, they were amazingly quiet as they waited for me to sing.
It was just about ten minutes before eleven when I began to sing, and the concert wasn’t over until after midnight. I was distinctly nervous as I began the verse of my first song. It was a great relief when there was a round of applause; that helped to place my audience and give me its measure, at once.
But I was almost as disconcerted a bit later as I had been by the first incursion of the bats. I came to the chorus, and suddenly, out of the darkness, there came a perfect gale of sound. It was the men taking up the chorus, thundering it out. They took the song clean away from me–I could only gasp and listen. The roar from that unseen chorus almost took my feet from under me, so amazing was it, and so unexpected, somehow, used as I was to having soldiers join in a chorus with me, and disappointed as I should have been had they ever failed to do so.
But after that first song, when I knew what to expect, I soon grew used to the strange surroundings. The weirdness and the mystery wore off, and I began to enjoy myself tremendously. The conditions were simply ideal; indeed, they were perfect, for the sentimental songs that soldiers always like best. Imagine how “Roamin’ in the Gloamin'” went that nicht!
I had meant to sing three or four songs. But instead I sang nearly every song I knew. It was one of the longest programmes I gave during the whole tour, and I enjoyed the concert, myself, better than any I had yet given.
My audience was growing all the time, although I did not know that. The singing brought up crowds from the French village, who gathered in the outskirts of the throng to listen–and, I make no doubt, to pass amazed comments on these queer English!
At last I was too tired to go on. And so I bade the lads good-nicht, and they gave me a great cheer, and faded away into the blackness. And I went inside, rubbing my eyes, and wondering if it was no all a dream!
“It wasn’t Sir Douglas Haig who arrived, was it, Harry?” Godfrey said, slyly.
The next morning I was tired, as you may believe. I ached in every limb when I went to my room that night, but a hot bath and a good sleep did wonders for me. No bombardment could have kept me awake that nicht! I would no ha’ cared had the Hun begun shelling Tramecourt itself, so long as he did not shell me clear out of my bed.
Still, in the morning, though I had not had so much sleep as I would have liked, I was ready to go when we got the word. We made about as early a start as usual–breakfast soon after daylight, and then out the motor cars and to wee Tinkle Tom. Our destination that day, our first, at least, was Albert–a town as badly smashed and battered as Arras or Ypres. These towns were long thinly held by the British– that is, they were just within our lines, and the Hun could rake them with his fire at his own evil will.
It did him no good to batter them to pieces as he did. He wasted shells upon them that must have been precious to him. His treatment of them was but a part of his wicked, wanton spirit of destructiveness. He could not see a place standing that he did not want to destroy, I think. It was not war he made, as the world had known war; it was a savage raid against every sign and evidence of civilization, and comfort and happiness. But always, as I think I have said before, one thing eluded him. It was the soul of that which he destroyed. That was beyond his reach, and sore it must have grieved him to come to know it–for come to know it he has, in France, and in Belgium, too.
We passed through a wee town called Doullens on our way from Tramecourt to Albert. And there, that morn, I saw an old French nun; an aged woman, a woman old beyond all belief or reckoning. I think she is still there, where I saw her that day. Indeed, it has seemed to me, often, as I have thought upon her, that she will always be there, gliding silently through the deserted streets of that wee toon, on through all the ages that are to come, and always a cowled, veiled figure of reproach and hatred for the German race.
There is some life in that wee place now. There are no more Germans, and no more shells come there. The battle line has been carried on. to the East by the British; here they have redeemed a bit of France from the German yoke. And so we could stop there, in the heat of the morning, for a bit of refreshment at a cafe that was once, I suppose, quite a place in that sma’ toon. It does but little business now; passing soldiers bring it some trade, but nothing like what it used to have. For this is not a town much frequented by troops–or was not, just at that time.
There was some trouble, too, with one of the cars, so we went for a short walk through the town. It was then that we met that old French nun. Her face and her hands were withered, and deeply graven with the lines of the years that had bowed her head. Her back was bent, and she walked slowly and with difficulty. But in her eyes was a soft, young light that I have often seen in the eyes of priests and nuns, and that their comforting religion gives them. But as we talked I spoke of the Germans.
Gone from her eyes was all their softness. They flashed a bitter and contemptuous hatred.
“The Germans!” she said. She spat upon the ground, scornfully, and with a gesture of infinite loathing. And every time she uttered that hated word she spat again. It was a ceremony she used; she felt, I know, that her mouth was defiled by that word, and she wished to cleanse it. It was no affectation, as, with some folk, you might have thought it. It was not a studied act. She did it, I do believe, unconsciously. And it was a gesture marvelously expressive. It spoke more eloquently of her feelings than many words could have done.
She had seen the Germans! Aye! She had seen them come, in 1914, in the first days of the war, rolling past in great, gray waves, for days and days, as if the flood would never cease to roll. She had seen them passing, with their guns, in those first proud days of the war, when they had reckoned themselves invincible, and been so sure of victory. She knew what cruelties, what indignities, they had put upon the helpless people the war had swept into their clutch. She knew the defilements of which they had been guilty.
Nor was that the first time she had seen Germans. They had come before she was so old, though even then she had not been a young girl–in the war of 1870, when Europe left brave France to her fate, because the German spirit and the German plan were not appreciated or understood. Thank God the world had learned its lesson by 1914, when the Hun challenged it again, so that the challenge was met and taken up, and France was not left alone to bear the brunt of German greed and German hate.
She hated the Germans, that old French nun. She was religious; she knew the teachings of her church. She knew that God says we must love our enemies. But He could not expect us to love His enemies.
Albert, when we came to it, we found a ruin indeed. The German guns had beaten upon it until it was like a rubbish heap in the backyard of hell. Their malice had wrought a ruin here almost worse than that at Arras. Only one building had survived although it was crumbling to ruin. That was a church, and, as we approached it, we could see, from the great way off, a great gilded figure of the Holy Virgin, holding in her arms the infant Christ.
The figure leaned at such an angle, high up against the tottering wall of the church, that it seemed that it must fall at the next moment, even as we stared at it. But–it does not fall. Every breath of wind that comes sets it to swaying, gently. When the wind rises to a storm it must rock perilously indeed. But still it stays there, hanging like an inspiration straight from Heaven to all who see it. The peasants who gaze upon it each day in reverent awe whisper to you, if you ask them, that when it falls at last the war will be over, and France will be victorious.
That is rank superstition, you say? Aye, it may be! But in the region of the front everyone you meet has become superstitious, if that is the word you choose. That is especially true of the soldiers. Every man at the front, it seemed to me, was a fatalist. What is to be will be, they say. It is certain that this feeling has helped to make them indifferent to danger, almost, indeed, contemptuous of it. And in France, I was told, almost everywhere there were shrines in which figures of Christ or of His Mother had survived the most furious shelling. All the world knows, too, how, at Rheims, where the great Cathedral has been shattered in the wickedest and most wanton of all the crimes of that sort that the Germans have to their account, the statue of Jeanne d’Arc, who saved France long ago, stands untouched.
How is a man to account for such things as that? Is he to put them down to chance, to luck, to a blind fate? I, for one, cannot do so, nor will I try to learn to do it.
Fate, to be sure, is a strange thing, as my friends the soldiers know so well. But there is a difference between fate, or chance, and the sort of force that preserves statues like those I have named. A man never knows his luck; he does well not to brood upon it. I remember the case of a chap I knew, who was out for nearly three years, taking part in great battles from Mons to Arras. He was scratched once or twice, but was never even really wounded badly enough to go to hospital. He went to London, at last, on leave, and within an hour of the time when he stepped from his train at Charing Cross he was struck by a ‘bus and killed. And there was the strange ease of my friend, Tamson, the baker, of which I told you earlier. No–a man never knows his fate!
So it seemed to me, as we drove toward Arras, and watched that mysterious figure, that God Himself had chosen to leave it there, as a sign and a warning and a promise all at once. There was no sign of life, at first, when we came into the town. Silence brooded over the ruins. We stopped to have a look around in that scene of desolation, and as the motors throbbed beneath the hoods it seemed to me the noise they made was close to being blasphemous. We were right under that hanging figure of the Virgin and of Christ, and to have left the silence unbroken would have been more seemly.
But it was not long before the silence of the town was broken by another sound. It was marching men we heard, but they were scuffling with their feet as they came; they had not the rhythmic tread of most of the British troops we had encountered. Nor were these men, when they swung into sight, coming around a pile of ruins, just like any British troops we had seen. I recognized them as once as Australians– Kangaroos, as their mates in other divisions called them–by the way their campaign hats were looped up at one side. These were the first Australian troops I had seen since I had sailed from Sydney, in the early days of the war, nearly three years before. Three years! To think of it–and of what those years had seen!
“Here’s a rare chance to give a concert!” I said, and held up my hand to the officer in command.
“Halt!” he cried, and then: “Stand at ease!” I was about to tell him why I had stopped them, and make myself known to them when I saw a grin rippling its way over all those bronzed faces–a grin of recognition. And I saw that the officer knew me, too, even before a loud voice cried out:
“Good old Harry Lauder!”
That was a good Scots voice–even though its owner wore the Australian uniform.
“Would the boys like to hear a concert?” I asked the officer.
“That they would! By all means!” he said. “Glad of the chance! And so’m I! I’ve heard you just once before–in Sydney, away back in the summer of 1914.”
Then the big fellow who had called my name spoke up again.
“Sing us ‘Calligan,'” he begged. “Sing us ‘Calligan,’ Harry! I heard you sing it twenty-three years agone, in Motherwell Toon Hall!”
“Calligan!” The request for that song took me back indeed, through all the years that I have been before the public. It must have been at least twenty-three years since he had heard me sing that song–all of twenty-three years. “Calligan” had been one of the very earliest of my successes on the stage. I had not thought of the song, much less sung it, for years and years. In fact, though I racked my brains, I could not remember the words. And so, much as I should have liked to do so, I could not sing it for him. But if he was disappointed, he took it in good part, and he seemed to like some of the newer songs I had to sing for them as well as he could ever have liked old “Calligan.”
I sang for these Kangaroos a song I had not sung before in France, because it seemed to be an especially auspicious time to try it. I wrote it while I was in Australia, with a view, particularly, to pleasing Australian audiences, and so repaying them, in some measure, for the kindly way in which they treated me while I was there. I call it “Australia Is the Land for Me,” and this is the way it goes:
There’s a land I’d like to tell you all about It’s a land in the far South Sea.
It’s a land where the sun shines nearly every day It’s the land for you and me.
It’s the land for the man with the big strong arm It’s the land for big hearts, too.
It’s a land we’ll fight for, everything that’s right for Australia is the real true blue!
It’s the land where the sun shines nearly every day Where the skies are ever blue.
Where the folks are as happy as the day is long And there’s lots of work to do.
Where the soft winds blow and the gum trees grow As far as the eye can see,
Where the magpie chaffs and the cuckoo-burra laughs Australia is the land for me!
Those Kangaroos took to that song as a duck takes to water! They raised the chorus with me in a swelling roar as soon as they had heard it once, to learn it, and their voices roared through the ruins like vocal shrapnel. You could hear them whoop “Australia Is the Land for Me!” a mile away. And if anything could have brought down that tottering statue above us it would have been the way they sang. They put body and soul, as well as voice, into that final patriotic declaration of the song.
We had thought–I speak for Hogge and Adam and myself, and not for Godfrey, who did not have to think and guess, but know–we had thought, when we rolled into Albert, that it was a city of the dead, utterly deserted and forlorn. But now, as I went on singing, we found that that idea had been all wrong. For as the Australians whooped up their choruses other soldiers popped into sight. They came pouring from all directions.
I have seen few sights more amazing. They came from cracks and crevices, as it seemed; from under tumbled heaps of ruins, and dropping down from shells of houses where there were certainly no stairs. As I live, before I had finished my audience had been swollen to a great one of two thousand men! When they were all roaring out in a chorus you could scarce hear Johnson’s wee piano at all–it sounded only like a feeble tinkle when there was a part for it alone.
I began shaking hands, when I had finished singing. That was a verrainjudeecious thing for me to attempt there! I had not reckoned with the strength of the grip of those laddies from the underside of the world. But I had been there, and I should have known.
Soon came the order to the Kangaroos: “Fall in!”
At once the habit of stern discipline prevailed. They swung off again, and the last we saw of them they were just brown men, disappearing along a brown road, bound for the trenches.
Swiftly the mole-like dwellers in Albert melted away, until only a few officers were left beside the members of the Reverend Harry Lauder, M.P., Tour. And I grew grave and distraught myself.
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 traveled 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 joined him.
“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 hide 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 pray 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 good boy!
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 him. 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 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 I 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 Argyle 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 Captain Lauder 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 should 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 neighbors and his friends.
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-Hamul, 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 Argyle 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 scene.
“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 Fritzies 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 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’s. 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 Argyle 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 honorable 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 myself that hill will be the shrine to which my 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 lie hard by, who died for God and for their flag.
So at last, I turned back toward the road, and very slowly, with bowed head and shoulders that felt very old, all at once, I walked back toward the Bapaume highway. I was still silent, and when we reached the road again, and the waiting cars, I turned, and looked back, long and sorrowfully, at that tiny hill, and the grave it sheltered. Godfrey and Hogge and Adam, Johnson and the soldiers of our party, followed my gaze. But we looked in silence; not one of us had a word to say. There are moments, as I suppose we have all had to learn, that are beyond words and speech.
And then at last we stepped back into the cars, and resumed our journey on the Bapaume road. We started slowly, and I looked back until a turn in the road hid that field with its mounds and its crosses, and that tiny cemetery on the wee hill. So I said good-by to my boy again, for a little space.
Our road was by way of Poizieres, and this part of our journey took us through an area of fearful desolation. It was the country that was most bitterly fought over in the summer long battle of the Somme in 1916, when the new armies of Britain had their baptism of fire and sounded the knell of doom for the Hun. It was then he learned that Britain had had time, after all, to train troops who, man for man, outmatched his best.
Here war had passed like a consuming flame, leaving no living thing in its path. The trees were mown down, clean to the ground. The very earth was blasted out of all semblance to its normal kindly look. The scene was like a picture of Hell from Dante’s Inferno; there is nothing upon this earth that may be compared with it. Death and pain and agony had ruled this whole countryside, once so smiling and fair to see.
After we had driven for a space we came to something that lay by the roadside that was a fitting occupant of such a spot. It was like the skeleton of some giant creature of a prehistoric age, incredibly savage even in its stark, unlovely death. It might have been the frame of some vast, metallic tumble bug, that, crawling ominously along this road of death, had come into the path of a Colossus, and been stepped upon, and then kicked aside from the road to die.
“That’s what’s left of one of our first tanks,” said Godfrey. “We used them first in this battle of the Somme, you remember. And that must have been one of the very earliest ones. They’ve been improved and perfected since that time.”
“How came it like this?” I asked, gazing at it, curiously.
“A direct hit from a big German shell–a lucky hit, of course. That’s about the only thing that could put even one of the first tanks out of action that way. Ordinary shells from field pieces, machine-gun fire, that sort of thing, made no impression on the tanks. But, of course—-“
I could see for myself. The in’ards of the monster had been pretty thoroughly knocked out. Well, that tank had done its bit, I have no doubt. And, since its heyday, the brain of Mars has spawned so many new ideas that this vast creature would have been obsolete, and ready for the scrap heap, even had the Hun not put it there before its time.
At the Butte de Marlincourt, one of the most bitterly contested bits of the battlefield, we passed a huge mine crater, and I made an inspection of it. It was like the crater of an old volcano, a huge old mountain with a hole in its center. Here were elaborate dugouts, too, and many graves.
Soon we came to Bapaume. Bapaume was one of the objectives the British failed to reach in the action of 1916. But early in 1917 the Germans, seeing they had come to the end of their tether there, retreated, and gave the town up. But what a town they left! Bapaume was nearly as complete a ruin as Arras and Albert. But it had not been wrecked by shell-fire. The Hun had done the work in cold blood. The houses had been wrecked by human hands. Pictures still hung crazily upon the walls. Grates were falling out of fire-places. Beds stood on end. Tables and chairs were wantonly smashed and there was black ruin everywhere.
We drove on then to a small town where the skirling of pipes heralded our coming. It was the headquarters of General Willoughby and the Fortieth Division. Highlanders came flocking around to greet us warmly, and they all begged me to sing to them. But the officer in command called them to attention.
“Men,” he said, “Harry Lauder comes to us fresh from the saddest mission of his life. We have no right to expect him to sing for us to-day, but if it is God’s will that he should, nothing could give us greater pleasure.”
My heart was very heavy within me, and never, even on the night when I went back to the Shaftesbury Theater, have I felt less like singing. But I saw the warm sympathy on the faces of the boys.
“If you’ll take me as I am,” I told them, “I will try to sing for you. I will do my best, anyway. When a man is killed, or a battalion is killed, or a regiment is killed, the war goes on, just the same. And if it is possible for you to fight with broken ranks, I’ll try to sing for you with a broken heart.”
And so I did, and, although God knows it must have been a feeble effort, the lads gave me a beautiful reception. I sang my older songs for them–the songs my own laddie had loved.
They gave us tea after I had sung for them, with chocolate eclairs as a rare treat! We were surprised to get such fare upon the battlefield, but it was a welcome surprise.
We turned back from Bapaume, traveling along another road on the return journey. And on the way we met about two hundred German prisoners–the first we had seen in any numbers. They were working on the road, under guard of British soldiers. They looked sleek and well-fed, and they were not working very hard, certainly. Yet I thought there was something about their expression like that of neglected animals. I got out of the car and spoke to an intelligent- looking little chap, perhaps about twenty-five years old–a sergeant. He looked rather suspicious when I spoke to him, but he saluted smartly, and stood at attention while we talked, and he gave me ready and civil answers.
“You speak English?” I asked. “Fluently?”
“How do you like being a prisoner?”
“I don’t like it. It’s very degrading.”
“Your companions look pretty happy. Any complaints?”
“No, sir! None!”
“What are the Germans fighting for? What do you hope to gain?”
“The freedom of the seas!”
“But you had that before the war broke out!”
“We haven’t got it now.”
I laughed at that.
“Certainly not,” I said. “Give us credit for doing something! But how are you going to get it again?”
“Our submarines will get it for us.”
“Still,” I said, “you must be fighting for something else, too?”
“No,” he said, doggedly. “Just for the freedom of the seas.”
I couldn’t resist telling him a bit of news that the censor was keeping very carefully from his fellow-Germans at home.
“We sank seven of your submarines last week,” I said.
He probably didn’t believe that. But his face paled a bit, and his lips puckered, and he scowled. Then, as I turned away, he whipped his hand to his forehead in a stiff salute, but I felt that it was not the most gracious salute I had ever seen! Still, I didn’t blame him much!
Captain Godfrey meant to show us another village that day.
“Rather an interesting spot,” he said. “They differ, these French villages. They’re not all alike, by any means.”
Then, before long, he began to look puzzled. And finally he called a halt.
“It ought to be right here,” he said. “It was, not so long ago.”
But there was no village! The Hun had passed that way. And the village for which Godfrey was seeking had been utterly wiped off the face of the earth! Not a trace of it remained. Where men and women and little children had lived and worked and played in quiet happiness the abominable desolation that is the work of the Hun had come. There was nothing to show that they or their village had ever been.
The Hun knows no mercy!
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 labor 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 traveled 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.