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   Chapter 20 No.20

The Great War As I Saw It By Frederick George Scott Characters: 25248

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

We Take Hill 70.

July and August, 1917.

Bracquemont was a very charming home. There were many men about us, the artillery horse lines were there as well as two battalions in rest, and various other units. Behind the British C.C.S. there was a large hall with a stage at one end. Here our concert party gave a performance every night. Between us and the front line, were the villages of Maroc, Le Brebis, Mazingarbe, and Bully-Grenay, which were our billeting area while we occupied the trenches in advance of Loos. I was thus in easy reach of all the units in the Division and could do a great deal of parish visiting.

In the country behind us, there were many Chinese Labour Companies and one of Zulus. When not at work, they were encamped in large compounds surrounded by barbed wire. Our band used to play occasionally for the entertainment of the Chinese, who very much enjoyed both the music and the compliment that was paid to them by its being provided. On one occasion, I went with General Thacker to visit one of the Chinese Labour Companies. The officer in charge wished us to see some of their sports, and so we sat on chairs at the top of the field and the Chinamen came up and gave us an exhibition of their skill in something that looked like fencing. They used sticks for foils. We could not quite see who won in the encounter, or what constituted the finishing stroke, but, as soon as each pair of performers retired they turned and bowed solemnly to the General and made way for two other combatants. They were great powerful men, very different from the type of Chinese one sees in this country. One of the performers we were told by the O.C., could carry a weight of five hundred pounds on his shoulders. After the gymnastic performance, we had a concert, and a man sang, or rather made a hideous nasal sound, to the accompaniment of something that looked like a three stringed fiddle. The song, which greatly delighted the Chinese listeners, consisted of an interminable number of verses; in fact we never heard the end of it, for the O.C. stopped it and told the musicians that the officers had to leave. He told us that the men were well behaved, and that only once had he had occasion to hold a court-martial.

The Zulus were encamped near Ranchicourt. They too were a stalwart lot of men, but felt the cold of the winter very much. I was riding past them in the road one day and spoke to the British sergeant in charge of them. He pointed out one young man who, he said, was the son of a chief, and, in his own country, was entitled to a body-guard of fifteen men. In recognition, therefore, of his aristocratic birth, he was allowed to wear three stripes. While we were talking, the boy looked round and saw that we were speaking about him. The sergeant called out something to him in Zulu language, and the boy smiled and nodded to me. I asked the sergeant what he had said to him. He replied: "I told him that you thought you had met him before, and it pleased him." This accounted for the boy's smiling at me and the nod of recognition. I suppose he thought that on some occasion in my rambles through Africa we had met in the jungle. At any rate, I admired the sergeant's tact and savoir faire. There was a great mixture of races among the allied forces in France, and I always felt sorry for the poor heathen that they should be dragged into the war of the Christian nations.

Our front trenches were not comfortable places. To reach them one had to pass through Maroc and along a road on the outskirts of Loos. Beside the road, in the cellars of a broken building, called Fort Glatz, was a dressing station. The neighbourhood was frequently shelled, for the road from Maroc to Loos was under observation from the two mysterious iron towers in Wingles. Beyond Fort Glatz, the engineers had a store of trench materials. The place was called "Crucifix Dump," on account of the large crucifix which stood there on a mound of earth. The figure on the crucifix was made of metal and it had been struck by shrapnel. It looked so pathetic standing there amid the ruin and desolation around, mutely saying to those who had ears to hear, "Is it nothing to you, all ye who pass by; behold and see if there was ever sorrow like unto my sorrow?" From a shrapnel hole near the heart of the figure, birds could be seen flying in and out, getting food for their young. At the foot, there was the grave of a German officer who had been killed when the Germans occupied Loos.

I often used to go to Bully-Grenay to visit some of the siege batteries. They had comfortable billets but the Germans soon found out their location and sent over some very big shells. One large shell had a curious experience. It fell in the road to the south of Bully-Grenay, burrowing under the ground without exploding. Then it rose and went through the side of a brick house, and finally reposed on the floor of an upper room. We all went to see it lying there, like some gigantic sea monster dead and stranded on the shore. The potential force of the huge shell was enormous, but it lay there perfectly harmless after its strange pilgrimage.

I was passing one of the siege batteries one day, when I saw a number of men working round a damaged gun-pit. I went over to it and found that a shell had landed there that morning, just as they were changing shifts on the guns. It had killed and buried a number of the men, at the same time setting fire to our ammunition. The bodies of those who were buried were burnt almost to ashes by the terrific heat, and only charred bits of them were recovered.

South of Loos there was the famous Double Crassier. It was a large slag heap on which once ran a line of railway. The top, of course, was in sight of the Germans, but down in the hollow on our side of it we had a great number of battery positions. That little corner where our guns were concentrated was an easy target for the German artillery, and many were the high explosives and gas-shells which they dropped. In the town of Maroc itself there was a large fosse or mine-head. The buildings round it were capacious, and well made. They were of course now much damaged, but the cellars were extraordinarily commodious and extensive. They were lined with white tiles, and the largest one was fitted up as a place of rest and amusement with a canteen where the men could get coffee, cakes and cigarettes. I stationed one of our chaplains there to look after the work and hold services in one of the cellars which was fitted up as a chapel. In the large room there were benches, and a stage afforded a good floor for boxing. I determined to start boxing there as a sport for the artillerymen, who had few opportunities of enjoying the entertainments which were given behind the line. I had a great friend in one of the Highland battalions, who had been wounded three times in the war, and was heavy-weight champion of the 1st Division. I got his O.C. to attach him to me, and I placed him in the cellar at Maroc where he began to instruct the men in the noble art of self defence. People used to wonder why I had a prize-fighter attached to me, and I told them that if the Junior Chaplains were insubordinate, I wanted to be able to call in some one in an emergency to administer discipline. I always said, with perfect truth, that since my prize-fighter was attached to me I had had no trouble with any of the chaplains. It is wonderful what things one can do in the Army which are not according to the King's Regulations. By right, as Senior Chaplain of a Division, I was entitled only to one man who was to act in the dual capacity of batman and groom, but later on I managed to get a man to act as secretary, who was given sergeant's stripes and looked after the office when I went on my wanderings through the Division. Then I got a man who knew something about music to be appointed as my organist. He used to travel with me in the staff car with my portable organ when I went to take church parades on Sunday. He was afterwards gassed and I lost him, but he did useful work while he was with me in helping the singing. The prize-fighter made another addition to what I called the Senior Chaplain's battalion. Then, as time went on, I was able to get a man to take over the duties of a batman, and I finally obtained a chauffeur to run my side-car. This large army of assistants was a sore puzzle to our Camp Commandant, who had to arrange for their rations and discipline. I was always being asked how many men I had on my staff. However, to use a soldier's expression "I got away with it."

The road through Maroc was not a pleasant one to travel. It was liable to be shelled at any moment. On one side of the street was a large brick wall which had been perforated by a shell and the place was called "The Hole in the Wall." The Germans knew that we had many batteries concealed in the ruined town, so they never left it alone for very long. I was going up to the front one day, when I met in the street an artillery officer coming back. We had not seen each other for some time, and he gave me such a warm greeting that I at once determined to reward him by reciting to him one of my poems. I got about half way through when the enemy, not knowing, of course, what was going on, began to shell the place, and some bits of mud and brick fell in the road not far off. In spite of the beauty of the poem, my friend began to get restless, and I was faced with the problem of either hurrying the recitation and thereby spoiling the effect of the rhythm, or of trusting to his artistic temperament and going on as if nothing was happening. I did the latter, and went on unmoved by the exploding shells. I thought the Major would see that the climax of the poem had not yet been reached and was worth waiting for. I was mistaken. He became more and more restless, till at last he said, "Excuse me, Canon, but I think I must be hurrying on." He left me standing in the road with the last part of the poem and its magnificent climax still in my throat. I looked after him for a moment or two, then turned sorrowfully, lamenting the depravity of human nature, and pursued my journey. I had not gone far in the street before I came to a large pool of blood, where a man had just been killed. There was some excuse, therefore, for my friend's conduct, for he must have passed that pool of blood before he met me, and his nerves were probably not in their normal condition. He went back to his battery and told his friends there that I had actually buttonholed him in Maroc and insisted upon his listening to a miserable poem of mine while shells were falling in the place.

In order to avoid the danger of passing through the town, we generally used a path across the fields. I was returning from the trenches with some men one night along this path, when we saw from Maroc flashes of a light which was apparently being used as a signal. At once we were seized with an attack of spy-fever, and I said to the men, "There is someone signalling to the Germans." The night was so dark that signalling could have been seen at a considerable distance. Immediately we started off towards the light, which went out when we approached, but we discovered an officer in a mackintosh, and I at once asked him who he was. Tired as our men were, for they were coming out after being several days in the trenches, they followed me and were so keen on the adventure that one of them had drawn his revolver. The officer became very rude and he used some blasphemous words towards me in the dark, which naturally provoked a stern rebuke. I told him I was a Lieut.-Colonel, and that I should report him to his commanding officer. Then we asked him to give proof of his identity. I could see by his manner that he was becoming exceedingly uncomfortable, so I insisted upon his leading us to his headquarters. He did, and we stumbled on over telephone wires and piles of bricks till he brought us into the yard of a broken down house, in the cellars of which we found the officers of his battery. The O.C. was very polite and, when I pointed out to him the danger of flashing a light in the neighbourhood of the track which was used by our infantry battalions at night when going to or coming from the trenches, he said his unit would be more careful in the future. After a little conversation we left. A day or two afterwards I met one of the officers of the battery, and we had a good laugh over the incident, but he told me that it was even more amusing than I had thought, for the young officer had a dugout in the field and was

making his way thither with nothing on but his pyjamas and his mackintosh. When we asked him for some proofs of his identity, he was terrified lest we should search him and find him in this peculiarly unmilitary costume, which might have made us still more suspicious.

Ever since our moving to Bracquemont, we had been preparing to complete the work of our advance towards Lens by an attack on Hill 70, the high ground to the north-west of that city. Compared with the taking of Vimy Ridge, the exploit was of course a minor one, but, for many reasons, it was felt to be an exceedingly dangerous task and one which would cost us dearly. The Germans had had time to concentrate their forces in front of us, and they knew the value of the commanding position which they held. Everyone felt anxious as to the result of the enterprise, and we had learnt from recent experiences on the Ridge and at Fresnoy how powerful the enemy was. Although, of course, I did not let the men see it, I was always worried when we had an attack in view. When I held services for them on parade, or addressed them at their entertainments, or met them by the roadside, I used to look into their eyes and wonder if those eyes would soon be viewing the eternal mysteries "in the land that is very far off." I tried to make it a point never to pass anyone without a handshake or a word of cheer and encouragement. How their faces used to brighten up at some trifling kindness or some funny story!

I was fond of visiting the men who acted as the road control on the east side of Maroc. One of their number was of course on guard day and night, so I was always sure of meeting a friend whenever I passed. I never went down to their cellar without being offered a cup of tea and other dainties. They used to sleep on shelves, and often invited me to rest my weary limbs there. I would thank them for their kindness, but thought it prudent, for reasons of personal cleanliness, not to accept it. It always gave me great pleasure to come upon friends in out of the way places. I remember meeting an officer late one night near the front at Loos. It was very dark, and, as soon as he recognized me, he exclaimed, "Here's old Canon Scott, I'll be d-d!" "My friend," I said solemnly, "I hope you will not allow that sad truth to get abroad. The Canadian Government is paying me a large salary to try and keep you from that awful fate, and if they hear that your meeting me has had such a result, I shall lose my job." He apologized for the expression, and said it was only meant as an exclamation of surprise.

By the beginning of August, everything was ready for the attack, and on the 14th, carrying my rations with me, I made my way to the 7th Siege Battery; for I had arranged to go to their observation post and watch the barrage from there. I started off in the evening, with one of the gunners. We skirted Maroc and reached the O.P., which was called St. Pat's. It was a long walk over the open and through the trenches before we got into the place. From it we looked down the slope towards our front line, and beyond this we saw the rise in the ground called Hill 70, held by the Germans. The barrage was to begin at four twenty-five in the morning; so the gunner and I went down into a dugout and tried to get a little rest. Before we got to sleep, however, we became aware of the smell of gas, and, hearing the tramping of feet in the trench at the top of the stairs, I went up and found the men of the 14th Battalion with their helmets on going forward in preparation for the advance. They recognized me because I did not put on my mask, and as they passed they shook hands with me and I wished them "good luck in the name of the Lord." Such cheery souls they were, going forth in their stifling helmets to the unknown dangers which awaited them.

I found that sleep was impossible, so I went up to the O.P. and waited for the barrage. It was a lovely night; the stars were shining beautifully, and the constellation of Orion hung on the horizon in the eastern sky, with the pale moon above. A great silence, stirred only by the morning breeze, brooded over the wide expanse of darkness. Then, at four-twenty-five, the guns burst forth in all their fury, and all along the German line I saw not only exploding shells, but the bursting oil drums with their pillars of liquid fire, whose smoke rose high in the air with a peculiar turn at the top which looked like the neck of a huge giraffe. At once the Germans sent up rockets of various colours, signalling for aid from their guns, and the artillery duel of the two great armies waxed loud and furious. I stood on the hill with some of our men, and watched the magnificent scene. Nothing but the thought of what it meant to human beings took away from our enjoyment of the mighty spectacle. When day dawned, we could see, silhouetted against the morning sky, men walking over the hilltop, and now and then jumping down into the captured trenches. Once again our Division had got its objective. At various points difficulties had been encountered, and in a place called the "Chalk Pit", which afterwards became our front line, the Germans had made a determined stand. They had a wonderful dugout there, like a rabbit-warren, with many passages and entrances, from which they were bombed out with great difficulty. One of our western battalions suffered heavily in taking the stronghold.

I went on to Fort Glatz and to some of the other advanced aid-posts. We had many casualties, but we felt that the worst was not yet over, for we knew that, although we had taken the hill, the Germans would make a desperate fight to get it back again. All day long our artillery pounded away and our infantry consolidated the line. Our Pioneer Battalion did splendid work in digging trenches under heavy fire, in order to connect our advanced positions. When the sun set and the night once more cast its shade over the earth, there was no cessation in the sound of battle.

The next morning I visited the wounded in the C.C.S., and in the afternoon went by car once more to the 7th Siege Battery and thence made my way through Maroc to the front, as I had heard from the General that the artillery were having a hard time. Their guns had been firing incessantly since the barrage started. I met many men on the journey who gave me accounts of their experiences during the battle, and, by the time I reached the Y.M.C.A. coffee-stall in a ruined building on the Maroc-Loos road it was quite late. Here in a cellar I found some men making coffee for the walking wounded, who were coming back very tired and glad of a shelter and a hot drink. I went on down the road to the well concealed trenches which led to the 1st and 2nd Artillery Brigade Headquarters. In the deep dugout, I found the O.C.s of the two brigades and their staffs hard at work. It was an anxious time, because ammunition was short, and every available man was employed in carrying it up to the guns. The Senior Colonel asked me if I would go round to some of the gun pits and talk to the men. They were tired out, he said, with the constant firing, and there was still no prospect of a rest. I told him that if he would give me a runner to act as guide, I would visit all the gun-pits of the two Brigades. Accordingly a runner was sent for, and he and I started off at midnight. It was very dark, and when we emerged from the trench and turned to the right on the Lens-Bethune road we met parties of wounded men coming back, and the batteries in the fields beside us were firing over our heads. We visited first the cellar of a building by the way, where there was an aid post. Here were many men being attended to by the doctors. They were all worn out, and did not look forward with much pleasure to their journey back to Maroc along the dark and dangerous road.

From the dressing station, my guide and I went into a trench and along this to the gun positions. As we came to each, we visited the officers and men. We got a glad welcome from the faithful, true-hearted fellows who were working with might and main to save the lives of their comrades in the front line. Some of the guns were fearfully heated and were hard to handle. Yet the S.O.S. signals from the front trenches would go up every now and then, telling our gunners that the Germans were making another counter-attack, and asking for artillery support to save the situation. We made our way through the trench towards the batteries at the foot of the Loos Crassier. In doing so, we had to pass under the road. I was going on ahead, and when I stooped down to pass under the bridge, to my surprise I could dimly descry in the darkness a row of silent men sitting on each side of the passage facing one another. I said, "Good-night, boys," but there was no answer. The figures in the darkness remained motionless and still. I could not quite make out what the matter was, for our men always responded to my greeting. Suddenly, an enemy flare-light went up in the distance, and I saw, to my horror, that the two rows of men sitting so silently were Germans. I was wondering if I had run my neck into a noose, when a voice from the other end of the passage called out, "They are prisoners, Sir. I am taking them back with me and giving them a few minutes rest." I must say that I was greatly relieved. I went on to the gun-pits just in front of the crassier, and here the men were working hard. It was splendid to see their absolute disregard of everything but their duty. I felt myself to be such a slacker beside them, but I told them how gloriously they were carrying on, and how their work was appreciated by the infantry. The night began to wear away, and when I reached the gun-pits that were further back it was broad daylight. In fact, I visited the last one at six a.m. Some of the batteries had by this time ceased firing, and the men had fallen asleep in all sorts of curious positions, ready to be roused in an instant. Altogether, my guide and I visited forty-eight gun-pits that night, and it was about seven o'clock when we returned to Brigade Headquarters.

The next night the Germans sent over a rain of gas-shells on the batteries, and the men at the guns found it impossible to see the sights through the eye-pieces of their gas-helmets, and so chose to face the poison unprotected rather than run the risk of injuring our infantry by bad firing. There were of course heavy casualties among the gunners as a result of this. Some died and many were badly gassed, but the line was held.

As I was returning after spending the night at the gun-pits, I felt terribly tired. The morning sun rose higher and higher, and beat down with summer heat on my steel helmet as I made my way along the path which skirted the town of Maroc. I sat down by the side of a trench to have some breakfast, and opened a tin of milk and my tin of bully beef and was just preparing to have a meal, when I must have fallen asleep instantaneously. How long I slumbered I do not know, but when I woke up I found, standing in front of me, three amused and puzzled Australian tunnellers. When I fell asleep, I must have upset my breakfast, which was lying at my feet, and the tunnellers were evidently enjoying what they considered to be the discovery of a padré a little the worse for wear. They were somewhat surprised, not to say disappointed, when I woke up, and they said, "You seem to be very tired, Sir." I told them that I had had very little sleep for several nights, and had been walking all night long, winding up my story (for the honour of the cloth) with the statement that I was a teetotaller. Whether they believed it or not I do not know, but we had a long talk together and they told me of the work they were doing in digging a tunnel from Loos to the front line.

The next day I went to the advanced dressing station and saw the men that were gassed being brought in. So strongly were their clothes saturated with the poison that, as they were being cut off, in order that the bodies of the men might be washed with the liquid used for counteracting the burning effects of the gas, our eyes and throats smarted from the fumes. There was nothing more horrible than to see men dying from gas. Nothing could be done to relieve their suffering. The body, as well as the throat and lungs, was burned and blistered by the poison.

The German counter-attack had now spent itself, and Hill 70 was ours. One more splendid deed had been achieved by the Canadian Corps, and we now held in our hands the commanding position which threatened the town of Lens.

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