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   Chapter 21 No.21

The Great War As I Saw It By Frederick George Scott Characters: 15430

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

Every Day Life.

August to October 1917.

Hill 70 being now in our grip the Division came out of the line on August 21st, and moved back to our old billets in Bruay.

Every night, as usual, our concert party gave a performance in the theatre. We were very proud of them. The men's costumes were well made and very tasteful. "Babs," our leading lady, was most charming and engaging, in spite of the fact that her hands looked decidedly masculine. The townspeople enjoyed the entertainments as much as we did, and the battalions were given their own special nights. Occasionally, some of the jokes appeared to me a trifle too broad. At such times I would pay a visit to the Green-room, as Senior Chaplain, and mildly suggest their withdrawal. I must say that the men took my interference in good part and kept their exuberance of spirits well in check. Our Divisional band was up to high-water mark, and their rendering of the hymns and chants on Sundays made our services in the theatre extraordinarily hearty.

One afternoon I motored over to Quatre Vents to take a funeral service in the cemetery there. Instead of returning, I went down to Cambligneul to see the men of the 7th Battalion. They were enjoying a rest in the quaint old town. In the evening, I went down to the Y.M.C.A. hut which was in charge of the British. Here I found our men crowded into the building, not knowing what to do with themselves. The officer in charge of the hut was a quiet man, who was doing his best in superintending the work at the counter. It struck me, however, that he felt a little embarrassed by the situation, and did not know how to provide amusement for the wild Canadians. I asked him if he would object to our having a stag-dance. He said, "Certainly not, you may do anything you like." At once we got several dozen candles and illuminated the place. Then we sent out for a pianist and some violinists, and got up a scratch orchestra. We then cleared away the tables and benches and turned the place into a dance-hall. The orchestra struck up a lively two-step, and great burly chaps chose their equally burly partners, and started off in the dance with such gusto that the place was filled with the sounds of dissipation. This attracted more men from outside, and finally we had the liveliest scene imaginable. I actually found myself joining in the mazes of the waltz, and amid roars of laughter the dancing went on fast and furious. So delighted was the Y.M.C.A. officer, that he mounted the platform at the end of a dance, and in spite of my protest, called for three cheers for the man who had suggested the entertainment. At the close of the evening, we had cups of hot coffee and biscuits, and parted in the best of humours. I was then confronted by a problem that had not presented itself to me before, and that was, how I was to get back to my home in Bruay, which was about ten miles off. Once more my favourite text came to my mind, "The Lord will provide." So I bid good-bye to my friends in the hut and went off, trusting that a car or lorry would pick me up on the road. This time I found that the Lord did not provide, so I started at about half-past ten on my homeward journey on foot. As I passed through the sleeping village of Estrée-Cauchie, I came upon some men of another Division who had been imbibing very freely in an estaminet, and who were about to wind up a heated argument with a free fight. It was very dark, and it was hard for me to convince them that I was a chaplain with the rank of Lieut.-Colonel, until I turned my flashlight upon my white collar. Happily, my efforts as peacemaker were not in vain. I poured oil on the troubled waters till I saw them subside, and the men went off to their billets. One young fellow, however, was experiencing that interest in spiritual problems, which was sometimes aroused in the most unexpected quarters by free libations of spirituous liquors. He caught hold of my arm and implored me to enlighten him on the theological differences which separated Anglicans and Presbyterians. I forget which he was himself, but at the time the problem was a matter of extraordinary interest to him. While I always considered it my duty to impart enlightenment to darkened souls whenever I could, the recollection that I had about seven miles to walk to my home that night rather tempered my missionary zeal, and by a promise to discuss the whole matter on our next meeting I managed to tear myself away and proceed on my journey.

It was a long tramp down the silent road in the darkness. The houses in the little villages through which I passed were tightly shut. Not a light could be seen, and Providence supplied no car or lorry for my conveyance. On a hill in the distance, I saw the revolving light which acted as a signal to the aeroplanes. It would shine out for a few seconds and then die away. The air was fresh and cool, and I had time to meditate on the curious events of the intense life which I lived. It was still day in Canada, and the sun was shining over our cities, the great lakes, the prairies, and the jagged peaks in the mountain province on the Pacific coast. When was this life going to end? Were we really making any progress? Overhead, my beloved friends the stars, kept up their silent twinkling, which gave them an appearance of life. In the valley lay the old medieval Chateau of Ohlain. I thought of the historical figures from the pages of French history who had walked along that road centuries before, filled with the anxieties and problems of their own age. Now and then, some bird of the night would break the silence with its cry or twitter, and still I plodded on. At last, long after midnight, I reached the outskirts of Bruay, and entering the High Street, made my way to my billet, where Alberta was waiting to give me a warm welcome.

It was the privilege of the British Army to have as its commanders, good and devout men. One always felt that, in any appeal, the cause of religion would be upheld. General Horne, who commanded the First Army, of which we formed a part, was a man of sincere religious life, and never failed to show his appreciation of the chaplains and their work. One day he invited all the Chaplains of the First Army to have tea with him at his headquarters in the beautiful Chateau of Ranchicourt. It was a lovely afternoon, and we motored over to the meeting in busses. Tables were set for tea and refreshments on the lawn, and the Count and his charming daughter were there, giving a touch of home life to the gathering. All the chaplains who could be off duty were present. After tea, while we sat on the grass, the General gave us a very helpful talk on religious work among the men from a soldier's point of view. The old Chateau, with its beautiful gardens in front of the huge elms gave a fine setting to the scene.

On August 31st I was driven over to a field at the back of Villers-Chatel, where the 2nd Brigade was to hold a memorial service for those who had been killed at the taking of Hill 70. I had been asked to give the address. The place chosen was a wide and green field which sloped gradually towards the line of rich forest trees. On the highest part of the ground facing the woods, a small platform had been erected and was decorated with flags. On this the chaplains stood, the Corps Commander and the Brigadier and staff being at one side. Before us, forming three sides of a square, were the four battalions of the Brigade. The scene when viewed from the platform was magnificent. The sky was blue, the sun was shining, and the glorious trees guarded the green mysteries of the forest behind. The troops were in splendid form, and the bright red patches

on their arms gave a touch of colour which set off the khaki uniforms. Every one of the men had been through the battle and was a hero. The service went well, and the hymns, to the accompaniment of the band, were sung heartily. At the close, the Corps Commander and staff went round to each battalion, and those who had won honours came forward to receive them. As the officers and men stood in turn before the General, the A.D.C. read out a short account of what each had done to win the decoration. It was deeply moving to hear the acts of gallantry that had been performed. Fixed and motionless each man would stand, while we were told how his courage had saved his company or platoon at some critical moment. I remember particularly hearing how one sergeant who got the D.C.M., had carried his Lewis gun, after all the other members of the crew had been wounded or killed, and, placing it at a point of vantage, had, by his steady fire, covered the advance of a company going forward to attack. Little do people at home know by what supreme self-sacrifice and dauntless courage those strips of bright-coloured ribbon on the breasts of soldiers have been won. After the decorations had been presented, the men fell back to their battalions. The band struck up the strains of "D'ye ken John Peel?", and the whole Brigade marched past the General, the masses of men moving with machine-like precision. Even the rain which had begun to fall did not mar the fine effect.

Our stay at Bruay was not to be of long duration. In the early hours of September 5th a bomb dropped in the garden behind the administration building where our Headquarters were, waking us from sleep with a sudden start. It did no harm, but on the next day we were informed that we were all to move back to our old quarters in Barlin. I always said that I regarded a bomb dropped on Headquarters as a portent sent from heaven, telling us we were going to move. Accordingly on September 6th we all made our way to Barlin, where I was given a billet in an upper room in an estaminet. The propriety of housing a Senior Chaplain in an estaminet might be questioned, but this particular one was called the estaminet of St. Joseph. An estaminet with such a title, and carried on under such high patronage, was one in which I could make myself at home. So on the door was hung my sign, "Canon Scott, Senior Chaplain," which provoked many smiles and much comment from the men of the battalions as they passed by. I was looking out of my window in the upper storey one day when the 2nd Battalion was marching past, and, to the breach of all good discipline, I called out to the men and asked them if they did not envy me my billet. A roar of laughter went up, and they asked me how I got there and if I could take them in as well. I told them that it was the reward of virtue, and only those who could be trusted were allowed to be housed in estaminets.

Near me, at Barlin, the motor machine-gun brigade was encamped. It had been there for some time, and I was glad to meet old friends and renew acquaintance with the unit that had such a distinguished career at the front. I had not seen them much since the old days at Poperinghe, but wherever they went they covered themselves with glory. To spend an evening in the hut used as the sergeants' mess was a delight. The rollicking good humour that prevailed was most contagious, and I shall always treasure the memory of it which has now been made sacred through the death of so many whom I met there. I used to visit the tents, too, and sitting on a box in their midst have a smoke and talk with the men. Heavy indeed has been the toll of casualties which that noble brigade has suffered since those happy days.

Word was sent to the Division one day by the British troops holding our trenches on Hill 70, that some bodies of our men were lying unburied in No Man's Land. One of our battalions was ordered to provide a burial party and I decided to accompany them. I was to meet the men at a certain place near Loos on the Lens-Arras road in the evening, and go with them. The burial officer turned up on time, but the party did not. At last the men arrived and we went through the well-known trenches till we came to the front line. Here I had to go down and see some officers of the British battalions, and try to find out where the bodies were. Apparently the officers could give us little information, so we decided to divide up into small parties and go into No Man's Land and search for the dead ourselves. As we were in sight of the enemy, we could not use our electric torches, and only by the assistance of German flare-lights were we able to pick our steps over the broken ground. We found a few bodies which had not been buried, but it was impossible to do more than cover them with earth, for the position was an exposed one. We did the best we could under the circumstances, and were glad to find that the number of unburied had been greatly exaggerated. On another occasion I took a burial party out one night, and found that the officers and men sent were a new draft that had never been in the line before. They were much interested in the novel and somewhat hazardous nature of the expedition. On this occasion when we returned to Bully-Grenay, the morning sun was shining brightly overhead, and it began to get quite warm. The men were very tired with their night's work, and when we halted they lay down on the pavement by the road and went to sleep. One poor fellow actually collapsed, and we had to send off to a dressing station for a stretcher on which he was taken away for medical treatment. A burial party, from the nature of the case, was not a pleasant expedition, and Canada ought to be grateful for the way in which our Corps burial officers and the men under them carried out their gruesome and often dangerous duty. One of our burial officers, a fine young fellow, told me how much he disliked the work. He said, "There is no glory in it, and people think that we have an easy time, but two of my predecessors have been killed and I expect to get knocked out myself some day." A year later he was killed near Cambrai, after he had faithfully done his duty in caring for the bodies of the slain.

Our front trenches were now to the right of Hill 70, in advance of Liéven, and it seemed as if we were going to be stationed in the neighbourhood for some time, for the rumour was that the Canadians had to complete their work at Vimy by the capture of Lens. Barlin, therefore, and the area around it was a great centre of Canadian life and activity. We had our large Canadian tent-hospitals, our brigade schools, and various Y.M.C.A. places of entertainment, besides our officers' clubs.

In an open field near my billet were stationed the horse lines of our Divisional Train, and it used to give me great pleasure to pass the long rows of wagons which by the constant labour of the men were kept in prime condition. The paint was always fresh, and all the chains were polished as if they were merely for show. It would be hard for people at home to realize that the wagons which had been used for years under such rough conditions always looked as if they had just come out of the shop, but that was the case. The constant attention to detail in the army, the smartness of the men, and the good turn-out of the horses and limbers, have a great moral effect upon every department of the service. The men were always grumbling about polishing buttons and chains, but I told them that the impression of efficiency it gave one made it quite worth while. A Division that could turn out such a fine looking Train as we had could always be depended upon to do its duty.

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