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The Great War As I Saw It By Frederick George Scott Characters: 23654

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

How I Got Into The War.

July to September, 1914.

It happened on this wise. It was on the evening of the 31st of July, 1914, that I went down to a newspaper office in Quebec to stand amid the crowd and watch the bulletins which were posted up every now and then, and to hear the news of the war. One after another the reports were given, and at last there flashed upon the board the words, "General Hughes offers a force of twenty thousand men to England in case war is declared against Germany." I turned to a friend and said, "That means that I have got to go to the war." Cold shivers went up and down my spine as I thought of it, and my friend replied, "Of course it does not mean that you should go. You have a parish and duties at home." I said, "No. I am a Chaplain of the 8th Royal Rifles. I must volunteer, and if I am accepted, I will go." It was a queer sensation, because I had never been to war before and I did not know how I should be able to stand the shell fire. I had read in books of people whose minds were keen and brave, but whose hind legs persisted in running away under the sound of guns. Now I knew that an ordinary officer on running away under fire would get the sympathy of a large number of people, who would say, "The poor fellow has got shell shock," and they would make allowance for him. But if a chaplain ran away, about six hundred men would say at once, "We have no more use for religion." So it was with very mingled feelings that I contemplated an expedition to the battle-fields of France, and I trusted that the difficulties of Europe would be settled without our intervention.

However, preparations for war went on. On Sunday, August 2nd, in the afternoon, I telephoned to Militia Headquarters and gave in my name as a volunteer for the Great War. When I went to church that evening and told the wardens that I was off to France, they were much surprised and disconcerted. When I was preaching at the service and looked down at the congregation, I had a queer feeling that some mysterious power was dragging me into a whirlpool, and the ordinary life around me and the things that were so dear to me had already begun to fade away.

On Tuesday, August the Fourth, war was declared, and the Expeditionary Force began to be mobilized in earnest. It is like recalling a horrible dream when I look back to those days of apprehension and dread. The world seemed suddenly to have gone mad. All civilization appeared to be tottering. The Japanese Prime Minister, on the night war was declared, said, "This is the end of Europe." In a sense his words were true. Already we see power shifted from nations in Europe to that great Empire which is in its youth, whose home is in Europe, but whose dominions are scattered over the wide world, and also to that new Empire of America, which came in to the war at the end with such determination and high resolve. The destinies of mankind are now in the hands of the English-speaking nations and France.

In those hot August days, a camp at Valcartier was prepared in a lovely valley surrounded by the old granite hills of the Laurentians, the oldest range of mountains in the world. The Canadian units began to collect, and the lines of white tents were laid out. On Saturday, August 22nd, at seven in the morning, the detachment of volunteers from Quebec marched off from the drill-shed to entrain for Valcartier. Our friends came to see us off and the band played "The Girl I Left Behind Me," in the traditional manner. On our arrival at Valcartier we marched over to the ground assigned to us, and the men set to work to put up the tents. I hope I am casting no slur upon the 8th Royal Rifles of Quebec, when I say that I think we were all pretty green in the matter of field experience. The South African veterans amongst us, both officers and men, saved the situation. But I know that the cooking arrangements rather "fell down", and I think a little bread and cheese, very late at night, was all we had to eat. We were lucky to get that. Little did we know then of the field kitchens, with their pipes smoking and dinners cooking, which later on used to follow up the battalions as they moved.

The camp at Valcartier was really a wonderful place. Rapidly the roads were laid out, the tents were run up, and from west and east and north and south men poured in. There was activity everywhere. Water was laid on, and the men got the privilege of taking shower-baths, beside the dusty roads. Bands played; pipers retired to the woods and practised unearthly music calculated to fire the breast of the Scotsman with a lust for blood. We had rifle practice on the marvellous ranges. We had sham battles in which the men engaged so intensely that on one occasion, when the enemy met, one over-eager soldier belaboured his opponent with the butt end of his rifle as though he were a real German, and the poor victim, who had not been taught to say "Kamarad", suffered grievous wounds and had to be taken away in an ambulance. Though many gales and tempests had blown round those ancient mountains, nothing had ever equalled the latent power in the hearts of the stalwart young Canadians who had come so swiftly and eagerly at the call of the Empire. It is astonishing how the war spirit grips one. In Valcartier began that splendid comradeship which spread out to all the divisions of the Canadian Corps, and which binds those who went to the great adventure in a brotherhood stronger than has ever been known before.

Valcartier was to me a weird experience. The tents were cold. The ground was very hard. I got it into my mind that a chaplain should live the same life as the private soldier, and should avoid all luxuries. So I tried to sleep at night under my blanket, making a little hole in the ground for my thigh bone to rest in. After lying awake for some nights under these conditions, I found that the privates, especially the old soldiers, had learnt the art of making themselves comfortable and were hunting for straw for beds. I saw the wisdom of this and got a Wolesley sleeping bag, which I afterwards lost when my billet was shelled at Ypres. Under this new arrangement I was able to get a little rest. A kind friend in Quebec provided fifty oil stoves for the use of the Quebec contingent and so we became quite comfortable.

The dominating spirit of the camp was General Hughes, who rode about with his aides-de-camp in great splendour like Napoleon. To me it seemed that his personality and his despotic rule hung like a dark shadow over the camp. He was especially interesting and terrible to us chaplains, because rumour had it that he did not believe in chaplains, and no one could find out whether he was going to take us or not. The chaplains in consequence were very polite when inadvertently they found themselves in his august presence. I was clad in a private's uniform, which was handed to me out of a box in the drill-shed the night before the 8th Royal Rifles left Quebec, and I was most punctilious in the matter of saluting General Hughes whenever we chanced to meet.

The day after we arrived at the camp was a Sunday. The weather looked dark and showery, but we were to hold our first church parade, and, as I was the senior chaplain in rank, I was ordered to take it over. We assembled about three thousand strong, on a little rise in the ground, and here the men were formed in a hollow square. Rain was threatening, but perhaps might have held off had it not been for the action of one of the members of my congregation, who in the rear ranks was overheard by my son to utter the prayer-"O Lord, have mercy in this hour, and send us now a gentle shower." The prayer of the young saint was answered immediately, the rain came down in torrents, the church parade was called off, and I went back to my tent to get dry.

Day after day passed and more men poured in. They were a splendid lot, full of life, energy and keen delight in the great enterprise. Visitors from the city thronged the camp in the afternoons and evenings. A cinema was opened, but was brought to a fiery end by the men, who said that the old man in charge of it never changed his films.

One of the most gruesome experiences I had was taking the funeral of a young fellow who had committed suicide. I shall never forget the dismal service which was held, for some reason or other, at ten o'clock at night. Rain was falling, and we marched off into the woods by the light of two smoky lanterns to the place selected as a military cemetery. To add to the weirdness of the scene two pipers played a dirge. In the dim light of the lanterns, with the dropping rain over head and the dripping trees around us, we laid the poor boy to rest. The whole scene made a lasting impression on those who were present.

Meanwhile the camp extended and improvements were made, and many changes occurred in the disposition of the units. At one time the Quebec men were joined with a Montreal unit, then they were taken and joined with a New Brunswick detachment and formed into a battalion. Of course we grew more military, and I had assigned to me a batman whom I shall call Stephenson. I selected him because of his piety-he was a theological student from Ontario. I found afterwards that it is unwise to select batmen for their piety. Stephenson was a failure as a batman. When some duty had been neglected by him and I was on the point of giving vent to that spirit of turbulent anger, which I soon found was one of the natural and necessary equipments of an officer, he would say, "Would you like me to recite Browning's 'Prospice'?" What could the enraged Saul do on such occasions but forgive, throw down the javelin and listen to the music of the harping David? Stephenson was with me till I left Salisbury Plain for France. He nearly exterminated me once by setting a stone waterbottle to heat on my stove without unscrewing the stopper. I arrived in my tent quite late and seeing the thing on the stove quickly unscrewed it. The steam blew out with terrific force and filled the tent. A moment or two more and the bottle would have burst with disastrous consequences. When I told Stephenson of the enormity of his offence and that he might have been the cause of my death, and would have sent me to the grave covered with dishonour for having been killed by the bursting of a hot waterbottle-an unworthy end for one about to enter the greatest war the world has ever known-he only smiled faintly and asked me if I should like to hear him recite a poem.

News from overseas continued to be bad. Day after day brought us tidings of the German advance. The martial spirits amongst us were always afraid to hear that the war would be over before we got to England. I, but did not tell the people so, was afraid it wouldn't. I must confess I did not see in those days how a British force composed of men from farms, factories, offices and universities could get together in time to meet and overthrow the trained legions of Germany. It was certainly a period of anxious thought and deep foreboding, but I felt that I belonged to a race that has never been conquered. Above all, right and, therefore, God was on our side.

The scenery around Valcartier is very beautiful. It was a joy now and then to get a horse and ride away from the camp to where the Jacques Cartier river comes down from the mountains, and to dream of the old days when the world was at peace and we could enjoy the lovely prospects of nature, without the anxious care that now gnawed at our hearts. The place had been a favorite haunt of mine in the days gone by, when I used to take a book of poems and spend the whole day beside the river, reading and dozing and listening to the myriad small voices of the woods.

Still, the centre of interest now wa

s the camp, with its turmoil and bustle and indefinite longing to be up and doing. The officer commanding my battalion had brought his own chaplain with him, and it was plainly evident that I was not wanted. This made it, I must confess, somewhat embarrassing. My tent, which was at the corner of the front line, was furnished only with my bed-roll and a box or two, and was not a particularly cheerful home. I used to feel rather lonely at times. Now and then I would go to Quebec for the day. On one occasion, when I had been feeling particularly seedy, I returned to camp at eleven o'clock at night. It was cold and rainy. I made my way from the station to my tent. In doing so I had to pass a Highland Battalion from Vancouver. When I came to their lines, to my dismay I was halted by a sentry with a fixed bayonet, who shouted in the darkness, "Who goes there?" I gave the answer, but instead of being satisfied with my reply, the wretched youth stood unmoved, with his bayonet about six inches from my body, causing me a most unpleasant sensation. He said I should have to come to the guardroom and be identified. In the meantime, another sentry appeared, also with a fixed bayonet, and said that I had to be identified. Little did I think that the whole thing was a game of the young rascals, and that they were beguiling the tedious moments of the sentry-go by pulling a chaplain's leg. They confessed it to me months afterwards in France. However, I was unsuspecting and had come submissive into the great war. I said that if they would remove their bayonets from propinquity to my person-because the sight of them was causing me a fresh attack of the pains that had racked me all day-I would go with them to the guardroom. At this they said, "Well, Sir, we'll let you pass. We'll take your word and say no more about it." So off I went to my dripping canvas home, hoping that the war would be brought to a speedy termination.

Every night I used to do what I called "parish visiting." I would go round among the tents, and sitting on the ground have a talk with the men. Very interesting and charming these talks were. I was much impressed with the miscellaneous interests and life histories of the men who had been so quickly drawn together. All were fast being shaken down into their places, and I think the great lessons of unselfishness and the duty of pulling together were being stamped upon the lives that had hitherto been more or less at loose ends. I used to sit in the tents talking long after lights were out, not wishing to break the discussion of some interesting life problem. This frequently entailed upon me great difficulty in finding my way back to my tent, for the evenings were closing in rapidly and it was hard to thread one's way among the various ropes and pegs which kept the tents in position. On one occasion when going down the lines, I tripped over a rope. Up to that moment the tent had been in perfect silence, but, as though I had fired a magazine of high explosives, a torrent of profanity burst forth from the inhabitants at my misadventure. Of course the men inside did not know to whom they were talking, but I stood there with my blood curdling, wondering how far I was personally responsible for the language poured forth, and terrified lest anyone should look and find out who had disturbed their slumbers. I stole off into the darkness as quickly as I could, more than ever longing for a speedy termination of the great war, and resolving to be more careful in future about tripping over tent ropes.

We had church parades regularly now on Sundays and early celebrations of the Holy Communion for the various units. Several weeks had gone by and as yet we had no definite information from General Hughes as to which or how many chaplains would be accepted. It was very annoying. Some of us could not make satisfactory arrangements for our parishes, until there was a certainty in the matter. The question came to me as to whether I ought to go, now that the Quebec men had been merged into a battalion of which I was not to be the chaplain. One evening as I was going to town, I put the matter before my friend Colonel, now General, Turner. It was a lovely night. The moon was shining, and stretching far off into the valley were the rows of white tents with the dark mountains enclosing them around. We stood outside the farmhouse used as headquarters, which overlooked the camp. When I asked the Colonel whether, now that I was separated from my men, I ought to leave my parish and go, he said to me, "Look at those lines of tents and think of the men in them. How many of those men will ever come back? The best expert opinion reckons that this war will last at least two years. The wastage of human life in war is tremendous. The battalions have to be filled and refilled again and again. Don't decide in a hurry, but think over what I have told you." On the next evening when I returned from Quebec, I went to the Colonel and said, "I have thought the matter over and I am going."

The time was now drawing near for our departure and at last word was sent round that General Hughes wished to meet all the chaplains on the verandah of his bungalow. The time set was the cheerful hour of five a.m. I lay awake all night with a loud ticking alarm clock beside me, till about half an hour before the wretched thing was to go off. With great expedition I rose and shaved and making myself as smart as possible in the private's uniform, hurried off to the General's camp home. There the other chaplains were assembled, about twenty-five or thirty in all. We all felt very sleepy and very chilly as we waited with expectancy the utterance which was going to seal our fate. The General soon appeared in all the magnificence and power of his position. We rose and saluted. When he metaphorically told us to "stand easy", we all sat down. I do not know what the feelings of the others were, but I had an impression that we were rather an awkward squad, neither fish, flesh, nor fowl. The General gave us a heart to heart talk. He told us he was going to send us with "the boys." From his manner I inferred that he looked upon us a kind of auxiliary and quite dispensable sanitary section. I gathered that he did not want us to be very exacting as to the performance of religious duties by the men. Rather we were to go in and out amongst them, make friends of them and cheer them on their way. Above all we were to remember that because a man said "Damn", it did not mean necessarily that he was going to hell. At the conclusion of the address, we were allowed to ask questions, and one of our number unadvisedly asked if he would be allowed to carry a revolver. "No," said Sam with great firmness, "take a bottle of castor oil." We didn't dare to be amused at the incident in the presence of the Chief, but we had a good laugh over it when we got back to our tents.

Two Sundays before we left, the most remarkable church parade in the history of the division was held, at which fully fifteen thousand men were present. The Senior Chaplain asked me to preach. A large platform had been erected, on which the chaplains stood, and on the platform also were two signallers, whose duty it was to signal to the battalions and bands the numbers of the hymns. On the chairs in front of the platform were seated the Duke and Duchess of Connaught, the Princess Patricia, Sir Robert Borden, and other notables. Beyond them were gathered the men in battalions. At one side were the massed bands. It was a wonderful sight. The sun was shining. Autumn tints coloured the maple trees on the sides of the ancient mountains. Here was Canada quickening into national life and girding on the sword to take her place among the independent nations of the world. It had been my privilege, fifteen years before, to preach at the farewell service in Quebec Cathedral for the Canadian Contingent going to the South African war. It seemed to me then that never again should I have such an experience. Yet on that occasion there were only a thousand men present, and here were fifteen times that number. At that time the war was with a small and half-civilized nation in Africa, now the war was with the foremost nations of Europe. On that occasion I used the second personal pronoun "you", now I was privileged to use the first personal pronoun "we". Almost to the last I did not know what text to choose and trusted to the inspiration of the moment what to say. My mind was confused with the vastness of the outlook. At last the words came to me which are the very foundation stone of human endeavour and human progress, "He that loseth his life for My sake shall find it." I do not know exactly what I said, and I do not suppose it mattered much, for it was hard to make oneself heard. I was content if the words of the text alone were audible. We sang that great hymn, "O God our help in ages past," which came into such prominence as an imperial anthem during the war. As we sang the words-

"Before the hills in order stood,

Or earth received her frame"-

I looked at the everlasting mountains around us, where the sound of our worship died away, and thought how they had watched and waited for this day to come, and how, in the ages that were to dawn upon Canadian life and expansion, they would stand as monuments of the consecration of Canada to the service of mankind.

Things began to move rapidly now. People from town told us that already a fleet of liners was waiting in the harbour, ready to carry overseas the thirty-three thousand men of the Canadian contingent.

At last the eventful day of our departure arrived. On September 28th, with several other units, the 14th Battalion, to which I had been attached, marched off to the entraining point. I took one last look at the great camp which had now become a place of such absorbing interest and I wondered if I should ever see again that huge amphitheatre with its encompassing mountain witnesses. The men were in high spirits and good humour prevailed.

We saw the three companies of Engineers moving off, each followed by those mysterious pontoons which followed them wherever they went and suggested the bridging of the Rhine and our advance to Berlin. Someone called out, "What are those boats?" and a voice replied, "That's the Canadian Navy." We had a pleasant trip in the train to Quebec, enlivened by jokes and songs. On our arrival at the docks, we were taken to the custom-house wharf and marched on board the fine Cunard liner "Andania", which now rests, her troubles over, at the bottom of the Irish Sea. On the vessel, besides half of the 14th Battalion, there was the 16th (Canadian Scottish) Battalion, chiefly from Vancouver, and the Signal Company. Thus we had a ship full to overflowing of some of the noblest young fellows to whom the world has given birth. So ended our war experience in Valcartier Camp.

Nearly five years passed before I saw that sacred spot again. It was in August 1919. The war was ended, peace had been signed, and the great force of brother knights had been dispersed. Little crosses by the highways and byways of France and Belgium now marked the resting-place of thousands of those whose eager hearts took flame among these autumn hills. As I motored past the deserted camp after sunset, my heart thrilled with strange memories and the sense of an abiding presence of something weird and ghostly. Here were the old roads, there were the vacant hutments. Here were the worn paths across the fields where the men had gone. The evening breeze whispered fitfully across the untrodden grass and one by one the strong mountains, as though fixing themselves more firmly in iron resolve, cast off the radiant hues of evening and stood out black and grim against the starlit sky.

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