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   Chapter 4 No.4

The Great War As I Saw It By Frederick George Scott Characters: 32050

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

Off To France.

January To March, 1915.

Towards the end of January, rumors became more frequent that our departure was close at hand, and we could see signs of the coming movement in many quarters. The disposition of the chaplains was still a matter of uncertainty. At last we were informed that only five chaplains were to proceed with the troops to France. This was the original number which the War Office had told us to bring from Canada. The news fell like a thunderbolt upon us, and we at once determined to get the order changed. The Senior Roman Catholic Chaplain and myself, by permission of the General, made a special journey to the War Office. The Chaplain-General received us, if not coldly, at least austerely. We told him that we had come from Canada to be with the men and did not want to leave them. He replied by saying that the Canadians had been ordered by Lord Kitchener to bring only five chaplains with them, and they had brought thirty-one. He said, looking at me, "That is not military discipline; we must obey orders." I explained to him that since the Canadian Government was paying the chaplains the people thought it did not matter how many we had. Even this did not seem to convince him. "Besides", he said, "they tell me that of all the troops in England the Canadians are the most disorderly and undisciplined, and they have got thirty-one chaplains." "But", I replied, "you ought to see what they would have been like, if we had brought only five." We succeeded in our mission in so far that he promised to speak to Lord Kitchener that afternoon and see if the wild Canadians could not take more chaplains with them to France than were allotted to British Divisions. The result was that eleven of our chaplains were to be sent.

Early in February we were told that our Division was to go in a few days. In spite of the mud and discomfort we had taken root in Salisbury Plain. I remember looking with affection one night at the Cathedral bathed in moonlight, and at the quaint streets of the dear old town, over which hung the shadow of war. Could it be possible that England was about to be crushed under the heel of a foreign tyrant? If such were to be her fate, death on the battlefield would be easy to bear. What Briton could endure to live under the yoke or by the permission of a vulgar German autocrat?

On entering the mess one evening I was horrified to read in the orders that Canon Scott was to report immediately for duty to No. 2 General Hospital. It was a great blow to be torn from the men of the fighting forces. I at once began to think out a plan of campaign. I went over to the G.O.C. of my brigade, and told him that I was to report to No. 2 General Hospital. I said, with perfect truth, that I did not know where No. 2 General Hospital was, but I had determined to begin the hunt for it in France. I asked him if he would take me across with the Headquarters Staff, so that I might begin my search at the front. He had a twinkle in his eye as he told me that if I could get on board the transport, he would make no objection. I was delighted with the prospect of going over with the men.

When the time came to pack up, I was overwhelmed by the number of things that I had accumulated during the winter. I disposed of a lot of useless camp furniture, such as folding tables and collapsible chairs, and my faithful friend the oil stove. With a well-filled Wolseley kit-bag and a number of haversacks bursting with their contents, I was ready for the journey. On February 11th, on a lovely afternoon, I started off with the Headquarters Staff. We arrived at Avonmouth and made our way to the docks. It was delightful to think that I was going with the men. I had no batman and no real standing with the unit with which I was travelling. However, I did not let this worry me. I got a friend to carry my kit-bag, and then covering myself with haversacks, till I looked, as the men said, like a Christmas tree, I made my way to the ship with a broad grin of satisfaction on my face. As I went up the gangway so attired and looking exceedingly pleased with myself, my appearance excited the suspicion of the officer in command of the ship, who was watching the troops come on board. Mistaking the cause of my good spirits, he called a captain to him and said, "There is an officer coming on board who is drunk; go and ask him who he is." The captain accordingly came over and greeting me pleasantly said, "How do you do, Sir?" "Very well, thank you," I replied, smiling all the more. I was afraid he had come up to send me back. Having been a teetotaler for twenty-two years, I knew nothing of the horrible suspicion under which I lay at the moment. The captain then said, "Who are you, Sir?" and I, thinking of my happy escape from army red tape, answered quite innocently, with a still broader grin, "I'm No. 2, General Hospital." This, of course confirmed the captain's worst suspicions. He went back to the O.C. of the ship. "Who does he say he is?" said the Colonel. "He says he is No. 2 General Hospital," the Captain replied. "Let him come on board" said the Colonel. He thought I was safer on board the ship than left behind in that condition on the wharf. With great delight I found all dangers had been passed and I was actually about to sail for France.

The boat which took us and the 3rd Artillery Brigade, was a small vessel called "The City of Chester." We were horribly crowded, so my bed had to be made on the table in the saloon. A doctor lay on the sofa at the side and several young officers slept on the floor. We had not been out many hours before a terrific gale blew up from the West, and we had to point our bow towards Canada. I told the men there was some satisfaction in that. We were exceedingly uncomfortable. My bed one night slid off the table on to the sleeping doctor and nearly crushed him. I squeezed out some wonderfully religious expressions from him in his state of partial unconsciousness. I replaced myself on the table, and then slid off on to the chairs on the other side. I finally found a happy and safe haven on the floor. On some of the other transports they fared even worse. My son, with a lot of other privates, was lying on the floor of the lowest deck in his boat, when a voice shouted down the gangway, "Lookout boys, there's a horse coming down." They cleared away just in time for a horse to land safely in the hold, having performed one of those miraculous feats which horses so often do without damage to themselves.

On the 15th of February we arrived off the west coast of France and disembarked at St. Nazaire. Our life now took on fresh interest. Everything about us was new and strange. As a Quebecer I felt quite at home in a French town. A good sleep in a comfortable hotel was a great refreshment after the voyage. In the afternoon of the following day we entrained for the front. I spread out my Wolesley sleeping bag on the straw in a box car in which there were several other officers. Our progress was slow, but it was a great thing to feel that we were travelling through France, that country of romance and chivalry. Our journey took more than two days, and we arrived at Hazebrouck one week after leaving Salisbury Plain. The town has since been badly wrecked, but then it was undamaged. The Brigadier lent me a horse and I rode with his staff over to Caestre where the brigade was to be billeted. In the same town were the 15th and 16th Battalions and the 3rd Field Ambulance. I had a room that night in the Chateau, a rather rambling modern house. The next morning I went out to find a billet for myself. I called on the Mayor and Mayoress, a nice old couple who not only gave me a comfortable room in their house, but insisted upon my accepting it free of charge. They also gave me breakfast in the kitchen downstairs. I was delighted to be so well housed and was going on my way rejoicing when I met an officer who told me that the Brigade Major wanted to see me in a hurry. I went over to his office and was addressed by him in a very military manner. He wanted to know why I was there and asked what unit I was attached to. I told him No. 2 General Hospital. He said, "Where is it?" "I don't know", I replied, "I came over to France to look for it." He said, "It is at Lavington on Salisbury Plain," and added, "You will have to report to General Alderson and get some attachment till the hospital comes over." His manner was so cold and businesslike that it was quite unnerving and I began to realize more than ever that I was in the Army. Accordingly that afternoon I walked over to the General's Headquarters, at Strazeele, some five miles away, and he attached me to the Brigade until my unit should come to France. I never knew when it did come to France, for I never asked. "Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof" was my motto. I held on to my job at the front. But the threat which the Brigadier held over me, that if I went into the trenches or anywhere out of his immediate ken I should be sent back to No. 2 General Hospital, was something which weighed upon my spirits very heavily at times, and caused me to acquire great adroitness in the art of dodging. In fact, I made up my mind that three things had to be avoided if I wished to live through the campaign-sentries, cesspools, and generals. They were all sources of special danger, as everyone who has been at the front can testify. Over and over again on my rambles in the dark, nothing has saved me from being stuck by a sentry but the white gleam of my clerical collar, which on this account I had frequently thought of painting with luminous paint. One night I stepped into a cesspool and had to sit on a chair while my batman pumped water over me almost as ill-savoured as the pool itself. On another occasion, when, against orders, I was going into the trenches in Ploegsteert, I saw the General and his staff coming down the road. Quick as thought, I cantered my horse into an orchard behind a farm house, where there was a battery of Imperials. The men were surprised, not to say alarmed, at the sudden appearance of a chaplain in their midst. When I told them, however, that I was dodging a general, they received me with the utmost kindness and sympathy. They had often done the same themselves, and offered me some light refreshments.

On the following Sunday we had our first church parade in the war zone. We were delighted during the service to hear in the distance the sound of guns and shells. As the war went on we preferred church parades when we could not hear guns and shells.

After a brief stay in Caestre the whole brigade marched off to Armentieres. Near Flêtre, the Army Commander, General Smith-Dorrien, stood by the roadside and took the salute as we passed. I went with the 15th Battalion, and, as I told the men, being a Canon, marched with the machine gun section. We went by the delightful old town of Bailleul. The fields were green. The hedges were beginning to show signs of spring life. The little villages were quaint and picturesque, but the pavé road was rough and tiring. Bailleul made a delightful break in the journey. The old Spanish town hall, with its tower, the fine old church and spire and the houses around the Grande Place, will always live in one's memory. The place is all a ruin now, but then it formed a pleasant home and meeting place for friends from many parts. We skirted the borders of Belgium and arrived at Armentieres in the afternoon. The place had been shelled and was partly deserted, but was still a populous town. I made my home with the Brigade transport in a large school. In the courtyard our horses and mules were picketed. I had never heard mules bray before and I had a good sample next morning of what they can do, for with the buildings around them the sound had an added force. The streets of Armentieres were well laid out and some of the private residences were very fine. It is astonishing how our camp life at Salisbury had made us love cities. Armentieres has since been destroyed and its church ruined. Many of us have pleasant memories of the town, and the cemetery there is the resting place of numbers of brave Canadians.

I ran across an imperial Chaplain there, whom I had met in England. He told me he had a sad duty to perform that night. It was to prepare for death three men who were to be shot at daybreak. He felt it very keenly, and I afterwards found from experience how bitter the duty was.

We were brought to Armentieres in order to be put into the trenches with some of the British units for instruction. On Wednesday evening, February the 24th, the men were marched off to the trenches for the first time and I went with a company of the 15th Battalion, who were to be attached to the Durham Light Infantry. I was warned to keep myself in the background as it was said that the chaplains were not allowed in the front line. The trenches were at Houplines to the east of Armentieres. We marched down the streets till we came to the edge of the town and there a guide met us and we went in single file across the field. We could see the German flare-lights and could hear the crack of rifles. It was intensely interesting, and the mystery of the war seemed to clear as we came nearer to the scene of action. The men went down into the narrow trench and I followed. I was welcomed by a very nice young captain whom I never heard of again till I saw the cross that marked his grave in the Salient. The trenches in those days were not what they afterwards became. Double rows of sandbags built like a wall were considered an adequate protection. I do not think there was any real parados. The dugouts were on a level with the trench and were roofed with pieces of corrugated iron covered with two layers of sandbags. They were a strange contrast to the dugouts thirty feet deep, lined with wood, which we afterwards made for our trench homes.

I was immensely pleased at having at last got into the front line. Even if I were sent out I had at least seen the trenches. The captain brought me to his tiny dugout and told me that he and I could squeeze in there together for the night. He then asked me if I should like to see the trench, and took me with him on his rounds. By this time it was dark and rainy and very muddy. As we were going along the trench a tall officer, followed by another met us and exchanged a word with the captain. They then came up to me and the first one peered at me in the darkness and said in abrupt military fashion, "Who are you?" I thought my last hour had come, or at least I was going to be sent back. I told him I was a chaplain with the Canadians. "Did you come over with the men?" "Yes", I said. "Capital", he replied, "Won't you come and have lunch with me tomorrow?" "Where do you live?" I said. The other officer came up to my rescue at this moment and said, "The General's Headquarters are in such and such a place in Armentieres," "Good Heavens", I whispered in a low tone to the officer, "Is he a general?" "Yes" he said. "I hope my deportment was all that it ought to have been in the presence of a general," I replied. "It was excellent, Padré," he said, with a laugh. So I arranged to go and have luncheon with him two days afterwards, for I was to spend forty-eight hours in the trenches. The first officer turned out to be General Congreve, V.C., a most gallant man. He told me at luncheon that if he could press a button and blow the whole German nation into the air he would do it. I felt a little bit shocked then, because I did not know the Germans as I afterwards did. I spent nearly four years at the front hunting for that button.

The captain and I had very little room to move about in his dugout. I was very much impressed with the unostentatious way in which he said, "If you want to say your prayers, Padré, you can kneel over in that corner first, because there is only room for one at a time. I will say mine afterwards"-and he did. He was a R

oman Catholic, and had lived in India, and was a very fine type of man. When I read the words two years afterwards on a cross in a cemetery near Poperinghe, "Of your charity pray for the soul of Major Harter, M.C.," I did it gladly and devoutly.

I had brought with me in a small pyx, the Blessed Sacrament, and the next morning I gave Communion to a number of the men. One young officer, a boy of eighteen, who had just left school to come to the front, asked me to have the service in his dugout. The men came in three or four at a time and knelt on the muddy floor. Every now and then we could hear the crack of a bullet overhead striking the sandbags. The officer was afterwards killed, and the great promise of his life was not fulfilled in this world.

There was a great deal of rifle fire in the trenches in those days. The captain told me the Canadians were adepts in getting rid of their ammunition and kept firing all night long. Further down the line were the "Queen's Own Westminsters." They were a splendid body of young men and received us very kindly. On my way over to them the next morning, I found in a lonely part of a trench a man who had taken off his shirt and was examining the seams of it with interest. I knew he was hunting for one of those insects which afterwards played no small part in the general discomfort of the Great War, and I thought it would be a good opportunity to learn privately what they looked like. So I took a magnifying glass out of my pocket and said, "Well, my boy, let me have a look for I too am interested in botany." He pointed to a seam in his shirt and said, "There, Sir, there is one." I was just going to examine it under the glass when, crack! a bullet hit the sandbags near-by, and he told me the trench was enfiladed. I said, "My dear boy, I think I will postpone this scientific research until we get to safer quarters, for if I am knocked out, the first question my congregation will ask will be, "What was our beloved pastor doing when he was hit?" If they hear that I was hunting in a man's shirt for one of these insects, they will not think it a worthy ending to my life." He grinned, put on his shirt, and moved down the trench.

That afternoon a good many shells passed over our heads and of course the novelty of the thing made it most interesting. After a war experience of nearly four years, one is almost ashamed to look back upon those early days which were like war in a nursery. The hideous thing was then only in its infancy. Poison gas, liquid fire, trench mortars, hand grenades, machine guns, (except a very few) and tanks were then unknown. The human mind had not then made, as it afterward did, the sole object of its energy the destruction of human life. Yet with a deepening knowledge of the instruments of death has come, I trust, a more revolting sense of the horrors and futility of war. The romance and chivalry of the profession of arms has gone forever. Let us hope that in the years to come the human mind will bend all its energies to right the wrongs and avert the contentions that result in bloodshed.

On the following Sunday, we had a church parade in the square in Armentieres. Two or three men watched the sky with field glasses lest an enemy plane should come up. We had now finished our instruction in trench warfare and were going to take over part of the front line. We were marched off one afternoon to the village of Bac St. Maur, where we rested for the night. I had dinner with the officers of the 15th Battalion, and went out afterwards to a big factory at the end of the straggling brick village to see my son, whose battalion was quartered there. On returning I found the night was very dark, and every door and window in the long rows of houses was tightly closed. No lights were allowed in the town. Once more my faculty for losing my way asserted itself, and I could not tell which was the house where I had dined. It was to be my billet for the night. The whole place was silent, and I wandered up and down the long street. I met a few soldiers and when I asked if they could tell me where I had had dinner they naturally began to eye me with suspicion. At the same time it was no laughing matter. I had had a long walk in the afternoon and had the prospect of another on the following day. I was separated from my kit-bag and my safety razor, which always, at the front, constituted my home, and the night was beginning to get cold. Besides it was more or less damaging to one's character as a chaplain to be found wandering aimlessly about the streets at night asking where you had dined. My habits were not as well known to the men then as they were after a few years of war. In despair I went down the road behind the village, and there to my joy I saw a friendly light emerging from the door of a coach house. I went up to it and entered and found to my relief the guard of the 16th Battalion. They had a big fire in the chimney-place, and were smoking and making tea. It was then about one o'clock, and they were both surprised and amused at my plight, but gave me a very glad welcome and offered me a bed and blankets on the floor. I was just going to accept them when I asked if the blankets were "crummy". The men burst out laughing. "You bet your life they are, Sir," they cried. "Well, boys," I said, "I think that I prefer to spend the night walking about the village and trying to compose a poem." Once more I made my way down the dark street, examining closely every door and window. At last I found a crack of light which came from one of the houses. I knocked at the door and it was opened by an officer from Quebec, who had been engaged with some others in a quiet game of cards. He was amused at my homeless condition and kindly took me in and gave me a comfortable bed in his own room. On the next morning of course I was "ragged" tremendously on my disappearance during the night.

The next day we marched off to the village of Sailly-sur-Lys, which was to become our rear headquarters during our occupation of the trenches. The little place had been damaged by shells, but every available house was occupied. Our battalion moved up the country road and was dispersed among the farm houses and barns in the neighbourhood.

I made my home with some officers in a small and dirty farm house. The novelty of the situation, however, gave it a certain charm for the time. We were crowded into two or three little rooms and lay on piles of straw. We were short of rations, but each officer contributed something from his private store. I had a few articles of tinned food with me and they proved to be of use. From that moment I determined never to be without a tin of bully beef in my haversack, and I formed the bully beef habit in the trenches which lasted till the end and always amused the men. The general cesspool and manure heap of the farm was, as usual, in the midst of the buildings, and was particularly unsavoury. A cow waded through it and the family hens fattened on it. Opposite our window in one of the buildings dwelt an enormous sow with a large litter of young ones. When any of the ladies of the family went to throw refuse on the manure heap, the old sow, driven by the pangs of hunger, would stand on her hind legs and poke her huge face out over the half door of her prison appealing in pig language for some of the discarded dainties. Often nothing would stop her squeals but a smart slap on her fat cheeks by the lady's tender hand. In the hayloft of the barn the men were quartered. Their candles made the place an exceedingly dangerous abode. There was only one small hole down which they could escape in case of fire. It is a wonder we did not have more fires in our billets than we did.

The trenches assigned to our Brigade were to the right of Fleurbaix. They were poorly constructed, but as the time went on were greatly improved by the labours of our men. The Brigadier assigned to me for my personal use a tiny mud-plastered cottage with thatched roof and a little garden in front. It was in the Rue du Bois, a road which ran parallel with the trenches about 800 yards behind them. I was very proud to have a home all to myself, and chalked on the door the word "Chaplain". In one room two piles of straw not only gave me a bed for myself but enabled me to give hospitality to any officer who needed a billet. Another room I fitted up as a chapel. An old box covered with the silk Union Jack and white cloth and adorned with two candles and cross served as an altar. There were no chairs to be had, but the plain white walls were not unsuited to the purpose to which the room was dedicated.

In this chapel I held several services. It was a fine sight to see a group of tall and stalwart young Highlanders present. Their heads almost reached to the low ceiling, and when they sang, the little building trembled with the sound.

Every night when there were any men to be buried, I used to receive notice from the front line, and after dark I would set out preceded by my batman, Murdoch MacDonald, a proper young Highlander, carrying a rifle with fixed bayonet on his shoulder. It made one feel very proud to go off down the dark road so attended. When we got to the place of burial I would hold a short service over the open graves in which the bodies were laid to rest. Our casualties were light then, but in those days we had not become accustomed to the loss of comrades and so we felt the toll of death very bitterly.

It made a great difference to me to have a house of my own. Previously I had found it most difficult to get any place in which to lay my head. On one occasion, I had obtained permission from a kind-hearted farmer's wife to rent one corner of the kitchen in her two-roomed house. It was on a Saturday night and when the family had retired to their room I spread my sleeping bag in the corner and went to bed. I got up when the family had gone to Mass in the morning. All through the day the kitchen was crowded, and I saw that if I went to bed that night I should not have the opportunity of getting up again until the family went to Mass on the following Sunday. So I paid the woman five francs for my lodging and started out in pursuit of another. I managed to find a room in another little farmhouse, somewhat larger and cleaner. My room was a small one and had an earth floor. The ceiling was so low that I could touch the beams with my head when I stood on my toes. But in it were two enormous double beds, a table and a chair. What more could one want? A large cupboard full of straw furnished a billet for Murdoch and he was allowed to do my simple cooking on the family stove.

Small as my billet was, I was able on one occasion to take in and house three officers of the Leicesters, who arrived one night in preparation for the battle of Neuve Chapelle. I also stowed away a sergeant in the cupboard with Murdoch. My three guests were very hungry and very tired and enjoyed a good sleep in the ponderous beds. I saw a photo of one of the lads afterwards in the Roll of Honour page of the "Graphic," and I remembered the delightful talk I had had with him during his visit.

At that time we were all very much interested in a large fifteen-inch howitzer, which had been placed behind a farmhouse, fast crumbling into ruins. It was distant two fields from my abode. To our simple minds, it seemed that the war would soon come to an end when the Germans heard that such weapons were being turned against them. We were informed too, that three other guns of the same make and calibre were being brought to France. The gun was the invention of a retired admiral who lived in a farmhouse nearby and who, when it was loaded, fired it off by pressing an electric button. The officer in charge of the gun was very pleasant and several times took me in his car to interesting places. I went with him to Laventie on the day of the battle of Neuve Chapelle, and saw for the first time the effects of an attack and the wounded being brought back in ambulances.

There was one large barn not far off full of beautiful yellow straw which held several hundred men. I had a service in it one night. The atmosphere was smoky and mysterious, and the hundreds of little candles propped up on mess-tins over the straw, looked like a special illumination. A large heap of straw at the end of the barn served as a platform, and in lieu of an organ I had a mandolin player to start the hymns. The service went very well, the men joining in heartily.

The night before the battle of Neuve Chapelle, I went over to see the captain in charge of the big gun, and he showed me the orders for the next day, issued by the British General. He told me that at seven o'clock it would be "Hell let loose", all down the line. Next morning I woke up before seven, and blocked up my ears so that I should not be deafened by the noise of artillery. But for some reason or other the plans had been changed and I was quite disappointed that the Germans did not get the hammering it was intended to give them. We were on the left of the British line during the battle of Neuve Chapelle, and were not really in the fight. The British suffered very heavily and did not meet with the success which they had hoped for.

My son was wounded in this engagement and was sent out with the loss of an eye. On returning from seeing him put into a hospital train at Merville, I was held up for some hours in the darkness by the British Cavalry streaming past in a long line. I was delighted to see them for I thought we had broken through. On the next day to our great disappointment we saw them going back again.

Near Canadian Headquarters at Sailly there was a large steam laundry which was used as a bath for our men. It was a godsend to them, for the scarcity of water made cleanliness difficult. The laundry during bath hours was a curious spectacle. Scores of large cauldrons of steaming water covered the floor. In each sat a man with only his head and shoulders showing, looking as if he were being boiled to death. In the mists of the heated atmosphere and in the dim light of candles, one was reminded of Doré's illustrations of Dante's Inferno. In one of them he represents a certain type of sinner as being tormented forever in boiling water.

We had now finished our time in this part of the line and the Division was ordered back for a rest. The General was troubled about my transportation as I had no horse, but I quoted my favourite text, "The Lord will provide." It made him quite angry when I quoted the text, and he told me that we were engaged in a big war and could not take things so casually. When, however, he had seen me on various occasions picked up by stray motor cars and lorries and get to our destination before he did, he began to think there was more in the text than he had imagined. I was accused of helping Providence unduly by base subterfuges such as standing in the middle of a road and compelling the motor to stop until I got in. I considered that my being able to stop the car was really a part of the providing. In fact I found that, if one only had courage to stand long enough in the middle of the road without moving, almost any car, were it that of a private or a general, would come to a standstill. It was only a natural thing, when the car had stopped, to go to the occupants and say, "I know the Lord has sent you for the purpose of giving me a lift." It was quite a natural consequence of this for me to be taken in. One day at Estaires I tried to commandeer a fine car standing in the square, but desisted when I was informed by the driver that it was the private property of the Prince of Wales. I am sure that if the Prince had been there to hear the text, he would have driven me anywhere I wanted to go.

On the present occasion, I had not gone far down the road before a car picked me up and took me on my way-an incident which I narrated to the General afterwards with intense satisfaction.

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