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Private Peat By Harold Reginald Peat Characters: 11170

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

"Hush, boys,... we're in enemy country!" our second in command whispered ominously. We shivered. The sound of the guns seemed to grow louder. Captain Johnson repeated his warning:

"Not a word, men," he muttered, and we stumbled out of the station in silence that could be cut with a knife. Sure enough the enemy was near. He couldn't have been less than twenty-two miles away! We could hear him. There was no disposition on our part to talk aloud. Captain Johnson said: "Whisper," and whisper we did.

We trekked over mud-holes and ditches, across fields and down through valleys. We had many impressions-and the main impression was mud. The main impression of all active service is-mud. It was silent mud, too, but we knew it was there. Once in a while during that dark treading through an unfamiliar country one of the boys would stumble and fall face down. Then the mud spoke ... and it did not whisper. There were grunts and murmurings, there were gurgling expletives and splutterings which sent the army, and all fools who joined it, to places of unmentionable climatic conditions. We were in it up to our necks, more or less literally.

All the way along we could see the flashes of star shells. When one went up we could fancy the battalion making a "duck" in perfect unison. The star shells seemed very close. It was still for us to learn that they always seem close.

After about seven miles of this trekking, we reached billets. This was our first experience of French billets. The rest-house was a barn and we were pretty lucky. We had straw to lie on.

Notwithstanding our distance from the enemy, as Captain Johnson had said, we were in his country, and in consequence there had to be a guard. Four of the boys were picked for the job. There was no change in my luck. I was one of the chosen four.

The guardroom, whether for good or ill, was set in a chicken house. And thereby hangs a tale-feather. Corporal of the guard was a sport. He was a young chap from Red Deer, Alberta. Now, figure the situation for yourself. For days past we had been feeding on bully beef-bully beef out of a tin. Four men on guard, a dozen chickens perched not a dozen feet away. Would abstemiousness be human? Ask yourselves, mes amies.

We drew lots. My luck had turned. But I ate of it. It was tender; it was good; it was roasted to a turn.

They say dead men tell no tales. Of dead chicken there is no such proverb. Wish there had been. We buried those feathers deep. Alas, that Monsieur, in common with all the folk in Northern France, was so thorough in his cataloguing of his properties. I don't blame him. He had dealt with Germans when they overran the territory. He had met with Belgians when they hastened forward. He had had experience of his own countrymen when they endeavored to drive back the enemy. He had billeted the Imperial British soldier. Now he was confronted with a soldier of whom he had no report, save only the name-Canadian. Monsieur had counted his chickens before they were perched.

We had not yet had read or explained to us the laws and penalties attaching to such a crime while on active service. Of course, no one killed that chicken. No one ate it. No one knew anything about it. We were perfectly willing, if need be, to pay double price for the chicken rather than have such a term as "chicken thief" leveled at us. We of the guard, however, protested, but paid five francs each to smooth the matter over. This totaled about four dollars.

The next morning the whole battalion was lined up before the colonel while the adjutant read aloud the law which we boys term the "riot act." This document informed us very clearly that if any soldier was found to have taken anything from the peasantry for his own use; if any man was found drunk on active service, or if he committed any other crime or offense which might be counted as minor to these two, the punishment for a first offense would be six months first field punishment. For any offense of a similar nature thereafter the man would be liable to court martial and death.

While this paper was being read, I shook in my boots, to think that I had been-innocently or at least ignorantly-associated with what was probably the first crime of our battalion.

On our way

We went back to billets a very subdued lot of soldiers.

Later in the day I noticed a lot of boys talking to a young Belgian girl. I had no opportunity to speak to her then, but after a time I found her alone, and with the little English Mademoiselle Marie B-- had picked up from British soldiers lately billeted there, and with the small amount of French I had stored away, we held quite a long conversation.

?Famous Players-Lasky Corporation. Scene from the Photo-Play THE VOICE OF THE TEMPTER.

I should judge that she was about fifteen. She told me she was sixteen. She was piquant and pretty in appearance, but her features were drawn and her expression was sad. She had a questioning wistfulness in her eyes, but she showed no fear of the many British soldiers round.

This young girl, little over a child, was all alone. She awaited in terror the coming of her baby, and the fiends who had outraged her had brutally cut off her right arm just a little above the elbow.

"How did this happen to you, Mademoiselle?" I asked in French.

"Ah, Monsieur," she replied, "les Allemands, they did-chop it off."

"Why, Mademoiselle, surely no German would do such a hideous thing as that without some reason."

At that time I believed, as apparently do the majority of people in this country

to-day believe, that the Germans did not commit the atrocities that were attributed to them. But it is all true.

"But, oui, Monsieur,... les Allemands, they have no reason. They kill my two brothers ... my father I have not seen, my mother I have not seen ... no, not for five months. Les Allemands, they have taken them also ... they are dead also, peutetre."

"And you?" I continued. "Where was your home?"

"Ah, but it is the long story. We live close by Liége. It is a small village. The Uhlans come and we are sorely frightened. We hide in the cellar, and do not go out at all. While there les Allemands post a notice in the village. It is that every person who has a gun, a pistol, a shell, an explosive, must hand such over to the burgomaster. We do not know of this, and do nothing. At last, Monsieur, the Uhlans come to our house to search, and there they see a shotgun and some shot. It is such a gun as you must know in the house of British, in the house of American. It is the common gun. We did not know. But there is no pardon for ignorance in war. My brothers were roughly pulled to the market place and shot dead." Little Marie choked down a sob. "My mother and my father," she continued, "were carried away. I refuse. I fight, I bite, I scratch, I scream with frenzy, I tear. One of les Allemands ... perhaps he was mad, Monsieur, he slash ... so, and so ... he cut off my arm.

"I remember no more, Monsieur. After a day ... two days, I find that I can walk. I walk and walk. It is now one hundred and fifty miles from my home ... it is that I stay here until...."

I grasped the girl's left hand and turned away. I was sick. What if she had been my sister?

And then I thought of the laws read aloud to us that morning. We soldiers, fighting under the flag of the British Empire, were we to violate one little rule ... were we to take any property, no matter how small, without just payment to its owner; were we to drink one glass of beer too much ... were we to overstep by a hair's breadth the smallest rule of the code of a "soldier and a gentleman," we were liable to be shot.

What of the German who had ruined this young girl and maimed her body? Believe me, I realized then, if never before, what we were fighting for. I was ready to give every drop of blood in my veins to avenge the great crimes that this little girl, in her frail person, typified.

We passed another night in the same billets. Next morning at five-thirty we were roused to make a forced march, across country, of some twenty-two miles. This was the hardest march of the entire time I was at the front. Those ammunition boots! Those gol-darned, double distilled, dash, dash, dash, dashed boots!

It was winter. There was heavy traffic over the roads. There were no road builders, and precious little organization for the traffic. Part of the way the surface had been cobblestones; now it was broken flints.

We started out gallantly enough with full packs, very full packs. Then, a few miles out, one would see out of the corner of his eye, a shirt sail quietly across the hedge-row; an extra pair of boots in the other direction; another shirt, a bundle of writing paper; more shirts, more boots. Packs were lightening. Down to fifty pounds now; forty, thirty, twenty, ten ... the road was getting worse.

No one would give up. Half a dozen men stooped and slashed at their boots to get room for a pet corn or a burning bunion. But every man pegged ahead. This was the first forced march. We were on our way to the trenches. No man dare run the risk of being dubbed a piker. We agonized, but persevered.

Armentières was our objective. A fine city, this, and one which we might have enjoyed under happier circumstances. It was under fire, but not badly damaged, and consequently many thousands of the Imperial soldiers were "resting" there while back from the trenches.

We were the First Canadians. We were expected, and the English Tommies determined to give us right royal welcome and a hearty handshake. We had a reputation to keep up, for in England the Cockney Tommy and his brother "civvies" had named us the "Singing Can-ydians."

But on the road to Armentières ... oh, ma foi! There was no singing. Call us rather the "Swearing Can-ydians," as we stumbled, bent double, lifting swollen feet, like Agag, treading on eggs through the streets of the city.

Tommy Atkins to right of us; Tommy Atkins to left of us, cobblestones beneath us, we staggered and swayed. The English boys cheered and yelled a greeting. It was rousing, it was thrilling, it was a welcome that did our hearts good; but we could not rise to the occasion.

Suddenly from out of the crowd of khaki figures there came a voice-that of a true son of the East End-a suburb of Whitechapel was surely his cappy home.

"S'y, 'ere comes the Singin' Can-ydians ... 'Ere they come ... 'Ear their singin'."

Not a sound from our ranks. Silence. But it was too much. No one can offer a gibe to a man of the West without his getting it back. Far from down our column some one yelled:

"Are we downhearted?" "No!" We peeled back the answer raucously enough, and then on with the song:

Are we downhearted? No, no, no.

Are we downhearted? No, no, no.

Troubles may come and troubles may go,

But we keep smiling where'er we go,

Are we downhearted? Are we downhearted?

No, no, NO!

"No, Gor'blimey, y'er not down'earted, but yer look bally well broken-'earted," chanted our small Cockney comrade, with sarcasm ringing strong in every clipped tone of his voice.

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