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   Chapter 23 No.23

The Great War As I Saw It By Frederick George Scott Characters: 32524

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05

Visits To Rome and Paschendaele.

October and November, 1917.

It was a good thing, after the bitter experience which I had just passed through, that permission was granted me at this time to take some men on a leave trip to Rome. My visit to Paris had convinced me that it was no proper place for men to spend their leave in, so when my next leave was nearly due I wrote to Division and asked permission to take a party to Italy in order that some of our men might have the benefit of seeing the great monuments of European history and art. Weeks passed away and I heard nothing about the matter, until at last a telegram came through granting my request. I had only asked permission to take twelve men with me whose names had to be sent in beforehand. But the telegram which granted permission was couched in such vague terms, merely referring to a certain file-number, that I, knowing that nobody would take the trouble to turn up the original document, said nothing about it, and by a stroke of good luck succeeded in taking with me forty-six men, including two chaplains, two young officers and one of the staff of the Y.M.C.A. Two of the men, alas, became casualties in the Paris barrage on the first night, and were reported "missing, believed dead," but were found two days afterwards by the police and sent back. The rest of us had a glorious time and travelled to Rome via Marseilles, Nice-which included a visit to Monte Carlo-Genoa and Pisa. I shall never forget the delightful trip across France by daylight, and the moonlight night at Marseilles, where we put up at the Hotel Regina. The men were in fine form and presented a splendid soldierlike appearance. Their new uniforms were set off by the bright red patch upon their sleeves, and their buttons were kept well polished. I told them, before we started, that I did not wish to be either a detective or a nursery-maid, but I asked them to play the game and they did. We were going into the country of an ally and I knew that such a large party would be under very critical observation wherever we went. I had really no authority over the men beyond that which they were willing that I should exercise. The individuals of the party were not specially selected, but I felt perfect confidence that we should have no trouble, although I was naturally very much teased by members of "C" mess who prophesied that I should lose some men in Paris, some in Marseilles and some in Rome, and my friends even went so far as to declare that they doubted whether I should ever come back myself. We were favoured with glorious weather, and travelled by daylight the whole length of the Riviera. The utmost good humour prevailed, and the glorious view of the blue Mediterranean on one side, with that of the romantic mountains on the other, drove from our minds all uncomfortable memories of the war. In fact we seemed to get into another world.

The train arrived at Pisa at about nine o'clock p.m. and was to wait there for three hours, so we all got out and had some supper and started off to see the famous leaning tower by moonlight. The sudden appearance of British troops in the quaint old town caused quite a sensation, and the people came out of the cafes to see us and a mob followed us wherever we went. We were of course pounced upon by the vendors of souvenirs, and a number of the men came back to the station carrying alabaster leaning towers under their arms. I warned the party about the danger of loading themselves with such heavy and brittle mementos, for we had still a long journey before us. The wisdom of my warning was apparent later on, for on leaving Rome the alabaster towers had begun to lean so much that they could no longer stand up. A shelf full of leaning towers propped up one against another, looking as if they had just partaken of an issue of rum, was left in the hotel. We journeyed all night, some of the men sleeping on the seats, some on the floor, and some in the hatracks overhead, and in the morning amid intense excitement we arrived at the station in Rome. I had been able to get a shave and clean up in the train, so on arrival was ready to go and hunt for a hotel. I told the men, however, to find their way to the Leave Club and make themselves presentable and that I would return for them as soon as possible. After securing billets in the Hotel Bristol, I went back for the party. Although I knew the men would want to go about the city by themselves, I felt it would be a good thing for our esprit-de-corps, that we should march to the hotel in a body. So, not knowing how to give military orders myself, and remembering what real colonels always did in similar predicaments, I turned to the senior sergeant and said, "Sergeant, make the men fall in, and when they are ready I will take over the parade." When the sergeant came up to me and saluting said the parade was ready, I found to my dismay that the men were facing the wrong way and if I said "Quick march", they would walk into the brick wall opposite. I went up close to the sergeant and whispered to him, "Turn the men round." This he did, and placing myself at their head I shouted, "Quick March." I think that moment, as I started off to march through Rome at the head of that fine body of men who followed two abreast, was the proudest of my life. I had always been interested in history, and have read Gibbon from cover to cover, so the thought suddenly flashed upon me, "Julius Caesar once led his forces through Rome. Later on, Augustus Caesar led his forces through Rome. In the middle ages, Rienzi led his forces through Rome, and now, (here my head began to swell till it grew too big for my cap) Canon Scott is leading his forces through Rome." We marched through the streets at "attention" and looked not to the right nor to the left, in spite of the fact that we passed many groups of admiring onlookers. When we arrived at the hotel, I called out, "Halt", in proper military tones and the men halted, but I did not know the usual formula for telling them to disperse, and I did not want such a proper beginning to have a miserable end. I thought of saying, "Now I will dismiss the congregation," but that sounded too religious. I knew that if I said, "Now we will take up the collection," my army would fly off quickly enough. However, while I was debating with myself, the men took the law into their own hands and, breaking off, went into the hotel.

We happened to arrive in Rome just at the time of the great Italian disaster in the North, and we found the populace plunged into great anxiety. English and French newspapers were banned by the censor, so it was difficult to find out what was happening, but I was told privately that matters were very critical, and there might be a revolution in Rome at any moment. I was also advised to see that our men behaved with great circumspection, for German agents were secretly trying to make trouble between the British and Italians. I told our men to remember we had to help on the cause of the Allies and to be very careful about details, such as saluting every Italian officer. I think they saluted every Italian private as well. I also told them, in case they were questioned on the subject, to say they were quite pleased with the war, in fact that they rather enjoyed it and were not a bit afraid of the Germans, and were determined to fight until a decisive victory gave us a chance of lasting peace.

Wherever we went on the journey, we stayed at the best hotels, for I had told each man to bring with him a thousand francs. It was a great puzzle to the Italians that Canadian soldiers were able to stay at the most select hotel in Rome, and also that the officers and men were able to mix together in real comradeship. The Highlanders in our party of course attracted the greatest attention, and were frequently followed by an admiring crowd as they passed through the streets. Colonel Lamb, the military attaché at the Embassy, was very kind to us and secured us many privileges, not the least acceptable of which was free transportation. We split up into small parties, and visited the sights of the Eternal City as we pleased. On the first night after dinner, we paid a visit to the Coliseum by moonlight, which is something to remember. Wherever we went we met with the kindest treatment. The ladies of the Leave Club gave us an entertainment one evening, which was attended by the military and naval attachés at the British and American Embassies, and by some of the English residents. I was proud of the appearance of the men. Before we left the hotel at Nice, an English lady, the wife of a British General at the front, came up and congratulated me upon the men, and said they were the most gentlemanly young fellows she had ever seen. I think it was a help to them to feel that their appearance in Rome at that critical time was something which gave our party a kind of political significance, and the phrase, "to help on the cause of the Allies," became a watchword among us.

One night an Italian Colonel asked some of our men to dine with him at his hotel and took them to the theatre afterwards. On another occasion, five of our men were sitting in the front row of one of the theatres when an actor gave an impersonation of the different sovereigns of Europe. When he appeared as King George, the orchestra struck up our National Anthem, and at once our men rose up and stood to attention. One of them told me afterwards that he felt cold shivers going down his back as he did so, because he was in full view of everybody. For a moment there was a pause, then the audience, understanding what the action meant, rose en masse and stood till the music was over and then clapped their hands and shouted "Viva l'Inghilterra!"

Many of our men were very anxious to see the Pope, and so it was arranged that we should have an audience. Colonel Lamb informed the 1st Italian Division that we would march in a body through their district. We started off in the morning, our young Highland officer being in command. As we passed through the streets, the people greeted us very cordially. Many of them raised their hats. The traffic, too, would stop to let us pass. We went over the bridge of Hadrian and arrived at the entrance of the Vatican beside St. Peter's in good time. There we were met by an Irish priest, who remembered me from my previous visit. I asked him if the men should break ranks but he told me to let them come in formation. So, two by two, we mounted the glorious Royal Staircase, the splendid surroundings being a good setting for the fine looking soldiers. At the various landings, the Swiss Guards in their picturesque uniforms presented arms, and we found ourselves at last in a wonderful hall with richly frescoed walls and ceiling. Here the men were halted and passed in single file into the audience chamber. We had to wait for quite a long time, and at last the Pope entered, clothed in white and looking much older and more worn than when I had seen him only a year and a half before. He was very guarded in what he said to us, because we were the first soldiers whom he had received in a body, and any expression he might make with reference to the war would be liable to various interpretations. He spoke to some of our men in French and then wished us health and protection and a safe return to Canada. Then, giving his blessing he left us, and we made our way to the outer room where we reformed and marched off as we had come.

That afternoon we were photographed in the Coliseum, and I visited the interesting old church of St. Clement afterwards. Every evening, after a day spent in rambling among antiquities, we used to attend the opera in the Grand Opera House. It acted as a sort of relaxation after the serious business of sight-seeing. Rumours now reached us of the attack that our Division was making up in the Salient, and one night when I was having tea in the Grand Hotel I went over and asked a young British staff officer whom I saw there, if he had any news. He said to me that the Canadian Corps were making an attack at Passchendaele under the most appalling conditions of mud and rain and had covered themselves with glory. I asked him if it were true that Sir William Robertson had come to Rome. "Yes," he said, "I am his son. He has brought me with him and we are all very proud of the Canadians." At another table I saw M. Venezelos. It was understood now that Britain and France were to come to the assistance of Italy, but still Venice was in imminent peril, and the Italians were heart-broken at the way the 3rd Italian Army had behaved. Refugees from the North began to pour into Rome and affairs were very serious. I told our men of the gravity of the situation and the increased importance of helping on the cause of the Allies in every possible way.

It is the custom at Rome on All Soul's day, November 2nd, to place flowers and wreaths on the marble steps in front of the equestrian statue of Victor Emmanuel. This year, I was told, the people were going to make a special demonstration. It occurred to me that it might not be a bad idea if we, too, placed a wreath to the memory of our comrades. I put the matter before Colonel Lamb and he said it was a very good idea indeed, but asked us to put on the card which would be attached to our wreath, the words, "To the brave Italian dead, from their comrades in the British Empire," rather than, "To the brave Italian dead from their Canadian comrades." He said he was anxious to emphasize the connection between the British and the Italians. An Italian major made the arrangements with me for carrying out the project. Poor man, he was so moved at the thought of the disgraceful surrender of the 3rd Italian Army that his eyes filled with tears as he talked about it, and he said, "What will our Allies think of Italy when her men behave like that?" I told him it was only a small part of their army that had failed and that the rest had behaved very gallantly. That afternoon, preceded by two of our sergeants carrying a large wreath of laurel tied with purple ribbon, to which we attached two cards with the inscription, one in English and one in Italian, we marched through the crowds of onlookers, who took off their hats as we passed, until we reached the great marble steps which lead up to the gilded statue of the late King. Here there was a magnificent display of flowers made up in all sorts of designs. The crowd gave away before us, and one of the officials, who had been directed by the Italian major, took the wreath from us and gave it a place of honour in front of the statue. We stood in a long line on the marble steps and saluted and then turned and left. The people clapped their hands and shouted, "Viva l'Inghilterra!" We were pleased at the impression the simple act of courtesy made, and felt that it was helping on the cause of the Allies.

Our men were always very much amused by the moving picture shows, the characters of these entertainments being so different from that of similar exhibitions at the front. They were so tragic and so sentimental that they did not appeal strongly to the wholesome minds of Canadian soldiers. It was always very interesting to hear their criticisms of the customs and outlook of the people with whom we were sojourning. There is no doubt that the army mind is the sanest and most wholesome in the whole community. It may not express itself in the most artistic terms or the most religious language, but its judgments are absolutely sound and worthy of the most careful consideration. I am sure that Canadian political life, unless other influences nullify it, will be immeasurably bettered by the soldiers' vote.

I had the great privilege of a visit to Cardinal Gasquet in the home of the Dominicans not far from St. Peter's. The interview had been arranged for me by an English priest whom I met at the hospital of the Blue Nuns, where I had taken two of our men who were ill with pneumonia. The Cardinal is engaged in the stupendous task of revising the text of the Latin Vulgate. He showed me photographs of the ancient manuscripts with the various readings noted. It will be years before the great task is completed,

but when it is, it will remain untouched for centuries to come. He told me that news had just been received of the consecration of the first Roman Catholic Bishop in Russia. This had been made possible by the overthrow of the reigning dynasty. He was most kind, and told me many interesting things about life in Rome during the war, and before I left asked me to write my name in his visitor's book, pointing out to me on the upper part of the page the recent signature of the Cardinal Archbishop of Cologne.

Altogether we had been absent by this time for nearly two weeks, and had still a long return journey ahead of us. I thought, however, that the valuable service our men were rendering the great cause justified our over-staying our leave. In fact, when I went to say good-bye to Colonel Lamb, he and his staff told me that the presence of our men in the City at that time had been worth any amount of printed propaganda. I hinted that some statement of that kind to General Currie might be a good thing. To my great delight, soon after we had returned, General Currie received the following letter, which has an official stamp which I never expected:-



9th November, 1917.

"Dear General,

"With reference to the recent visit to Rome of a party of Canadian officers and soldiers, I am requested by H. E. Sir Rennel Rodd to inform you of the excellent impression produced among the inhabitants of this city, by the soldierlike turnout, and excellent and courteous behaviour of all ranks belonging to the party.

"Their visit has helped to inspire Italians with a feeling of confidence in their allies at a time of great anxiety and trial.

"Believe me,

Yours very truly,



Military Attaché.


We left for Florence on Saturday November 3rd. The ladies of the Leave Club came to see us off, and after a delightful trip in brilliant sunshine, we arrived at our destination at seven in the evening. On our journey we passed many trains filled with refugees, who were crowded together in third-class carriages. As the Austrian and German armies advanced in the North the people in the villages were given a quarter of an hour in which to decide whether they would stay or go. They were warned, however, that if they stayed and the Italians ever tried to retake the towns they would all be put to death. I was told by some officers of a British hospital in Turin, who had had to leave the Italian front in a hurry, that it was a sad sight to see the inhabitants of the towns fleeing down the roads from the advancing enemy. Old and infirm people dragged themselves along. Parents lost their children and children lost their parents in the crowd, and the people took with them only the things which they could carry on their persons. Florence was crowded with these unfortunates, who were lying out at night in the squares and being tended by the citizens. There was a great crowd at the station when we arrived, and a number of Italian soldiers who spoke English gathered round our party and told us that the war was over and that the soldiers would not fight any more. Our men, however, were equal to the occasion, and told them that we were going to keep on fighting no matter what the Italians did, and that there could be no peace until we had a decisive victory. The whole city was astir, and many Italian regiments were quartered there. I told the men before we sought for accommodation in the crowded town, how important it was that we should show a determined face at this time.

On the following afternoon, which was Sunday, I had a curious experience. The Y.M.C.A. officer and I were going off to see the great church of Santa Croce, which is the Italian Westminster Abbey, many great Italians having been buried there. As we passed down the street my friend went into a shop to buy some chocolates. While I was waiting, I heard the stirring notes of the Marseillaise, and looking round saw a band coming up the street followed by three Italian flags, a number of soldiers, and a rabble of men, women and children. I called to my companion to come out quickly and salute the Italian colours. As they passed, we stood on the curb and saluted with strict military precision. In fact we saluted so well that the delighted members of the procession grabbed us by the hand and finally dragged us into their midst, others clapping their hands and shouting "Viva l'Inghilterra!" I was separated from my companion in the rabble and called over to him and asked him what it was. He said, "I think it is a Socialist demonstration." This rather dismayed me, but I turned to one of the people by my side and asked him in French what the crowd was. He told me it was the society for finishing the war, so I called out to my friend, "It's all right Captain, it is the society for finishing the war. I have wanted to join that society for some time." I saw at once that the procession was an attempt to pull the Italians together and rouse them to a supreme effort to resist the enemy and save Italy. The crowd was so enthusiastic about the presence of representatives of the British Army, that they finally caught us by our legs and carried us on their shoulders through the streets. It was a most amusing incident. I could not help thinking that the crowd were the descendants of the men who had burnt Savonarola at the stake. My friend, whose sense of humour had failed him, shouted over to me, "I hate being made a fool of like this." I told him not to be rude as we were helping on the cause of the Allies. Finally, overcome by our struggles, the men let us down, and we were pushed along in the crowd to the square in front of the Hotel Minerva. Here the leaders of the procession invited us into the hotel and we were taken upstairs to the front room, out of which opened a balcony overlooking the square. A young Italian officer, who had been a lawyer before the war and had lost both his eyes, went on to the balcony and made a most impassioned appeal to his countrymen. The crowd in the square was now very dense, and received his speech with great enthusiasm. When it was over, one of the officers of "The society for finishing the war," came and urged me to address the crowd. I was so pleased to find that my French was better understood in Italy than in any place except England, that I asked my friend if I should speak to them in French. He looked at me very sourly, for he had not quite got back his equanimity, and said curtly, "You had better not." Then I said, "I will talk to them in Italian." I shall never forget the look of dismay which passed over his countenance, but I told him it was helping on the cause of the Allies. I went out on the balcony, and the people seeing the British uniform and probably mistaking me for a general, at once began to cheer. I took off my cap, waved it in the air and shouted at the top of my voice "Viva l'Italia." It was the only speech they wanted. It was neither too long nor too short. The crowd repeated the words, and then shouted, "Viva l'Inghilterra!" and the band actually struck up "God save the King" and followed it by "Rule Britannia, Britannia rules the waves" (I wished at the time she had ruled under the waves as well.) I went back to the room and the Italians were so delighted with my short and pithy speech, that they invited me to dine with them that night and bring two officers with me. When we got down to the square, the mob crowded round us and shook hands with us, and I was afraid that some of the ladies were going to embrace us. I think people thought we were part of the advance guard that had been sent from France to the assistance of Italy.

That night three of us attended the dinner given by the officers of "The society for finishing the war," in a very fine restaurant. The Deputy for Florence, who had been one of the members of the government which had declared war on Austria, was present and I sat by the side of an alderman of the city. Opposite to me was an English lady who acted as an interpreter. At the close of the dinner the Deputy rose and made a very eloquent speech, welcoming us to Italy and saying how much Italians appreciated the fact that England was one of her Allies. I replied in English, which was translated by our fair interpreter, and told them how glad we were to be with them and that we had come, some of our men seven thousand miles, as a voluntary army to fight not only for the British Empire, but for something even bigger than that, for our common civilization, and that the war had made the Allies one family. I said that our men were determined to fight to the bitter end, for we could have no true peace until we had a decisive victory. Then I added that, if our Division were sent to Italy, we should all come with great pleasure, knowing that the Italians were our comrades and warm friends. I thought too, during my speech, that a dugout in Florence would be worth two in Bully-Grenay. The party seemed very pleased with my remarks and we all exchanged visiting cards and separated good friends. The whole affair was very amusing, and when the Italians pushed back the enemy in 1918, I used to tell the men, amid roars of laughter, that nothing but my modesty prevented my saying who it was that had saved Italy, that no one would ever hear from my lips the name of the man who, when Italy was lying prostrate at the feet of the advancing foe, shouted into her dying ear the startling words "Viva l'Italia" and set her on her feet.

Two days afterwards, accompanied to the station by an admiring crowd and three ladies carrying Italian flags, we bade farewell to Florence and started on our return journey. We spent the afternoon in Pisa, and, after a night's journey, arrived at Turin in the morning. Our men got out of the train and were making their way to the station when they were met by the British R.T.O. a very large officer who wore an eyeglass. He brought them quickly to attention by calling out, "Who are you?" They told him they were Canadians on leave, and I, fearing bloodshed, went up to the officer and explained who they were and why they had come. He told me that there had been a mutiny in Turin that summer and relations between the British and Italians were very much strained, owing to the action of German agents. He said he had been living on the top of a volcano for the past three months, and was afraid to allow any large body of troops to go about the town lest there might be trouble. I assured him that our men would behave with great circumspection. He then told me that they would have to be back in rest-billets, near the station, not later than ten o'clock. I asked if he could not make it eleven, because I knew that the men wanted to go to the theatre. He agreed to this and asked me to tell them that roll would be called in the rest-billets at eleven o'clock. I halted the men and said, "Boys, roll will be called in the rest-billets tonight at eleven o'clock sharp." Whether it was or not we never knew, for none of us was there to hear. The men went to the theatres and to the various hotels afterwards. No trouble ensued, and when we left on the following afternoon the R.T.O. was most friendly and gave us a hearty send-off, no doubt feeling too relieved at our departure to make any inquiries.

Although we had had a most delightful trip I was really thankful we were at last setting our faces towards the North. We arrived in Paris the next morning, and before we left the station I told the men that every one of them had to be at the train that evening. I had taken it upon myself to extend their leave, as I thought their presence in Italy was beneficial to the cause, but I asked them to show their gratitude by not failing to return all together. That night, to my intense satisfaction, they all turned up at the station at seven o'clock, and we started for Calais. We arrived there the next morning, and in the afternoon left for the front.

We arrived at Poperinghe that night at six o'clock. It was dark, a drizzling rain was falling, and the mud was thick. We could hear the big guns firing, and the men were coming and going in all directions. We took a hasty farewell of one another and then parted. No one we met cared whether we had come from Italy or were going to Jericho. The men did not know where their headquarters were, and I was particularly anxious not to find mine. I went over to the Officer's Club and secured a shake-down in the garret, but, as I heard that our Division had made an attack that day, I determined to go up to the line. I started off after dinner in an ambulance to the old mill at Vlamertinghe, where there was a repetition of the sights and sounds which I had experienced there on two previous occasions. Later on, I went forward in another ambulance through Ypres to an advanced dressing station. Then I started to walk up the terrible, muddy roads till I came to the different German pill-boxes which had been converted into headquarters for the battalions. Finally, after wading through water and mud nearly up to my knees, I found myself the next afternoon wandering through the mud and by the shell holes and miserable trenches near Goudberg Copse, with a clear view of the ruins of Paschendaele, which was held by another division on our right. The whole region was unspeakably horrible. Rain was falling, the dreary waste of shell-ploughed mud, yellow and clinging, stretched off into the distance as far as the eye could see. Bearer parties, tired and pale, were carrying out the wounded on stretchers, making a journey of several miles in doing so. The bodies of dead men lay here and there where they had fallen in the advance. I came across one poor boy who had been killed that morning. His body was covered with a shiny coating of yellow mud, and looked like a statue made of bronze. He had a beautiful face, with finely shaped head covered with close curling hair, and looked more like some work of art than a human being. The huge shell holes were half full of water often reddened with human blood and many of the wounded had rolled down into the pools and been drowned. As I went on, some one I met told me that there was a wounded man in the trenches ahead of me. I made my way in the direction indicated and shouted out asking if anybody was there. Suddenly I heard a faint voice replying, and I hurried to the place from which the sound came. There I found sitting up in the mud of the trench, his legs almost covered with water, a lad who told me that he had been there for many hours. I never saw anything like the wonderful expression on his face. He was smiling most cheerfully, and made no complaint about what he had suffered. I told him I would get a stretcher, so I went to some trenches not far away and got a bearer party and a stretcher and went over to rescue him. The men jumped down into the trench and moved him very gently, but his legs were so numb that although they were hit he felt no pain. One of the men asked him if he was only hit in the legs. He said, "Yes," but the man looked up at me and pulling up the boy's tunic showed me a hideous wound in his back. They carried him off happy and cheerful. Whether he ever recovered or not I do not know. If he did and ever sees this book, I wish he would write and tell me how he is.

That was our last attack at Paschendaele. Our Division had taken its final objective. The next morning, the infantry were to come out of the line, so in the late afternoon I returned with some stretcher bearers. Several times shells came near enough to splatter us with mud, and here and there I turned aside to bury those for whom graves had just been prepared.

At the front that day, a runner and I had joined in a brief burial service over the body of a gallant young officer lying where he fell on the side of a large shell-hole. As I uttered the words-"I am the Resurrection and the Life, saith the Lord," it seemed to me that the lonely wind bore them over that region of gloom and death as if it longed to carry the message of hope far away to the many sad hearts in Canada whose loved ones will lie, until the end, in unknown graves at Paschendaele.

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