MoboReader> Literature > The Adventure of Living : a Subjective Autobiography

   Chapter 23 IDYLLS OF THE WAR

The Adventure of Living : a Subjective Autobiography By John St. Loe Strachey Characters: 39507

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


People are getting tired of military controversies, and if they were not, I should be precluded from dealing with them by the fact that I intend to avoid as far as possible matters which concern living men, unless these are non-contentious. Horas non numero nisi serenas. Again, and even if it were desirable to add fresh fuel to the controversial fire, I could not, speaking generally, add to knowledge without violating confidence.

Nevertheless I cannot treat the war as if it had never existed, or as if it had no influence on my life. It had, of course, a profound influence, and that I am bound to display in an autobiography of the kind I am writing.

This influence, however, must be gathered indirectly rather than directly. All I propose to do at present is to touch the war on two points. First, I want to give one or two examples of what I may call "War Idylls"-recollections which were of so picturesque and poignant a character that they made a fast impression on my mind. Later, I must say something of the adventure of living continuously for four and a half years in a hospital. There I learnt great and useful lessons about my countrymen and countrywomen and confirmed from direct knowledge what had been but guesses or intuitive visions.

My Idylls of the conflict are partly objective and partly subjective. In my visits to the front and in such war-work as I did at home, I witnessed many striking and even entertaining things, and I saw them at moments of mental concentration and exaltation which no doubt heightened them and sometimes made them assume an interest and importance not altogether their own.

The first visit to the front undertaken by me began on the 8th of May, 1915, that memorable day on which was received the news of the sinking of the Lusitania.

I shall not give any account of my feelings when hearing for the first time a great cannonade, or seeing shells burst, or catching a glimpse of the German line. Of all such things none were or could afford an experience so terrible as the sight I saw at Bailleul. A number of men still in the agonies of gas-poisoning, men hovering between life and death, lay on their stretchers in rows in the vestibule of the Hospital, awaiting removal. They spoke in strange, lifeless voices, like men recalled from death by some potent spell. But on this unnecessary horror of war I do not mean to dwell. I shall, however, quote from my War Diary an account of a visit to the Scherpenberg, because it gives a glimpse of a side of war too often neglected or ignored.

May 19th, 1915:-From the hospital we went to one of the most wonderful places in the theatre of war, a place of which I had heard a great deal, but not a word too much, from my guide. This was the Scherpenberg. Directly overlooking the plain in which Ypres stands are two hills, Scherpenberg and Kemmel. Kemmel is constantly being pounded by artillery fire of all sorts, but Scherpenberg, for some strange or at any rate unknown reason, is never shelled, and the windmill on the top of it is still going merrily. As I sat on the grass of the hill-top, with the men working at the mill behind us and a nightingale singing in the little hazel brake on our left, it was very difficult to believe that one was looking not only at the scene of recent battle, but at the scene of a battle proceeding at that very moment. The Germans were engaged in a fierce counter-stroke on the North-Eastern front of the Ypres salient. The only indication was the bursting of a good deal of shrapnel at this point. It was here that I first saw shrapnel shells and noticed the little white puffs of smoke, which for all the world looked like the steam let off by an ordinary locomotive. Behind us, or rather, on the right of Scherpenberg hill, there was a big British gun which was firing steadily on the German trenches. The rush of the shell made a distinctly cheerful sound. My companion told me that the sound was anything but cheerful when the direction was reversed and the shell, instead of going from you, was coming towards you. Then the noise was converted into a melancholy moan. While the German and British shrapnel was bursting on the trenches to the North-East of us, there was noticeable a good deal of dark cloud round Ypres, due, as we learnt afterwards, to some buildings having been set on fire during the German attack that morning. With glasses one could see quite clearly the tower of the Cloth Hall, which had not apparently been at all injured. The towers of the Cathedral were also quite plain, but owing to the roof having been blown off, it was very difficult to realise that they belonged to the same building and were not independent towers. The wood to the South-East of Ypres was very clearly seen. This is the wood, as far as I can make out, which R-- had on several occasions told me was a dreadful place, filled with unburied bodies, pitted with shell-holes and with half the trees broken by explosions and ready to fall. None of this, however, could be seen from a distance. As one looked from the windmill, Poperinghe with its prominent church spire was to the left and it was quite impossible to discern anything abnormal in its appearance. It looked even then like an ordinary prosperous Flemish town. In the foreground, that is between the Scherpenberg and Ypres, lay what everyone calls "Dickybush" and Voormezeele, or as the soldiers would say, Vermicelli. There were plenty of people moving up and down the road, which ran straight from the base of the Scherpenberg into Ypres, passing through "Dickybush." The ground all round was being tilled quite as assiduously as if there had been no war. In fact, close to us the only difference the war made was that there were a great many Tommies, either alone or in small parties, going backwards and forwards on the road, just as one sees them at manoeuvres. They appeared to be perfectly at home, quite cheerful, and on the best of good terms with the inhabitants.

Just below the hill, or, rather, half-way down, is a very pleasant- looking small farm, or big peasant's house. As I had not yet talked to a Belgian peasant I felt I must make the picture complete by doing so. We therefore went to the house and made an excuse for talking to the people. Several women came out and all more or less talked volubly-but unfortunately in Flemish. Soon, however, a typical farmer's daughter of about sixteen or seventeen came out and fired off a great deal of very bad French and English intermixed with Flemish. She was a pleasant- looking, fat girl, with beady black eyes. She told us that she had been living in Ypres up till a fortnight before. I suppose as a servant or possibly in a shop. It seems that at first she found nothing disagreeable in the bombardment, but of late things had got so hot that she determined to leave. Indeed, although she looked the picture of health and good spirits, she told us that towards the end she had felt rather nervous. She had been near too many bursting shells and burning houses and seen too many people killed. In fact, as the Tommies would say, she could not stick it any longer. I asked her how she had got away. The answer was simple. She had merely walked down the road to Poperinghe and then, "fetching a compass" like St. Paul, had got into "Dickybush" and so home. "A very long walk?" I queried. At this she giggled, and added that "les soldats Anglais sont si gentils." She had had a good many lifts in motor-cars on the road. I did not doubt it. She was just the kind of girl, perfectly straight and of good intent I am sure, who, whether in peace or war, would get lifts from any British soldier engaged in driving anything, from a motor-car to a gun.

As we finished our conversation with the group of women I looked in at the window with the innocent idea of seeing what the furnishings of a Flemish farmhouse were like. There, to my amazement, I saw two prim and perfectly well-behaved Tommies sitting at a table and just beginning to have tea, or, rather, coffee. It was the modern version of those seventeenth century Flemish pictures which one sees in most Museums, where a brutal and licentious soldiery are in possession of some wretched Belgian yeoman's house. The Tommies were, of course, going to pay liberally for their coffee and were evidently behaving with the pink of propriety.

From the farm we walked down the road half-way into "Dickybush" and then, turning to the right, took a field-path up a little hill to get one last view of Ypres under its canopy of mist and smoke, pierced by the towers of the Cloth Hall and the Cathedral. The little field-path was of the kind which one sees everywhere on the Continent, a path somehow quite different from the English field-path. At the end of it stood a typical Belgian peasant, for we were over the border. I asked him a question, but he shook his head, for he could only talk Flemish, and muttered something about "les Allemands," making the usual sign for throat cutting. It was curious to see that this was not done in the conventional, theatrical way, but with a grim stoicism which was not unimpressive. He was not in any kind of panic and was working hard in his fields. He meant merely to convey in gesture some expression like "those damned cutthroats of Germans." I left the Scherpenberg Hill with great regret. It was a wonderful "specular mount." As one stood by the side of the windmill and gazed over the battle-ground, one seemed to get war in its true perspective, something not quite as horrible or sensational as one gathers from special correspondents at the front, and yet something full of a deadly earnestness, intensity, and most impressive fatefulness. Though one forgot it at moments, there was always present to one's mind "the rough edge of battle" of which Milton spoke, out yonder in the trenches. The battlefield seen from a distance and in a position of complete safety is like going over a hospital and seeing the flowers in the wards, the perfect sanitary arrangements and the general air of orderly comfort, and ignoring the operating-theatre with all its grim tragedies. In a battle of this kind the first-line trench is the operating theatre, hidden away from the people who have no business in it.

As a pendant to what I saw from the Scherpenberg while heavy fighting was going on in the salient, I may set forth how, a year later (that is, in August, 1916), I and a friend climbed the steep path of yellow sand which leads to the top of "Le Mont des Cats," a sister summit. From this isolated sandhill, one sees the whole plain of Flanders laid out like a green map at one's feet. But on this occasion, instead of seeing, as I had seen from the Scherpenberg, the pomp and circumstance of war, the view on that particular August afternoon from the Mont des Cats was apparently one of perfect peace.

The opposing armies lay quiet in their trenches. Only the boom of an occasional gun which the foe or the British were firing (cheerfully rather than sullenly) and now and then the noise of an "Archie" warning a Taube to "keep off the grass" in the vault of Heaven, destroyed the illusion of profound rest and reminded one that the wide world was at war. Otherwise the pacific fallacy was for the moment complete. In the sober sunlight of the late summer afternoon the whole earth seemed lapped in happy slumber.

Yet two hours after, and at the actual sunset, so quick are the changes at the front, the present writer, by that time off the hill and in the plain below, saw the heavens gloriously alive with the pageantry of conflict. The vault was pitted with woolly tufts of shrapnel and beautiful dead-whitesmoke-wreaths from the phosphorescent bombs. These spread their sinuous toils high and low and seemed to fill the skies. On both sides the aerial combatants were going home to roost, exchanging challenges by the way. And all the time, hidden in a hundred woods and brakes, the Archies sang in chorus. These evening voluntaries, including the winding-up of a good many aerial sausages, were competing with the last rays of the glorious indolent, setting sun, and were made complete and appropriate by a good deal of "field music" from the big guns. But even this, though it was a reminder of war, seemed to those who watched rather part of the setting of a dramatic fantasia of the sky than a real cannonade. It was one of the most wonderful pageants of the sky that human eyes ever beheld. Even Staff Officers stopped their cars and got out to look. A series of accidents: a gorgeous sunset, a clear sky, great visibility, all combined to make the empyrean into an operatic "set" which Wagner might have envied but could never have imitated.

In November, 1915, I also paid a visit to the front. I had some exciting moments, but here again I want to give, not war reminiscences which will seem very small beer to half the population of the United Kingdom, but merely to describe an incident which combined the picturesque and the entertaining.

I was taken by my son-in-law, Captain Williams Ellis, and a life-long friend, Lord Ruthven, then the Master of Ruthven, and chief Staff Officer of the Guards Division, into the first trench-line opposite the Aubers Ridge, and incidentally to view some of the worst and wettest trenches on the whole front, at the moment held in part by my son-in- law's regiment, the Welsh Guards. My guides naturally took me up a communication-trench, named "Fleet Street," where one was always up to one's knees in water and sometimes over them. They brought me back, however, by Drury Lane, which was a somewhat drier street, also appropriate to The Spectator. Here again I will quote from my Diary:

When we emerged from the end of the Drury Lane communication-trench upon the Route de Tilleloi, we proceeded down that excellent road, discoursing on a hundred war topics. Suddenly, however, we came upon a strange spectacle,-a row of men with their backs to the trench-line, walking with extreme slowness and seriousness, in the most strict alignment, both as regards their front and the distances between them, across a piece of muddy pasture. The sun was just about to set, but the light was good and we could see in this row of intent backs that there was a subaltern in the middle and about eight or nine men on each side of him. In solemn silence they went on their way. I was just beginning to think within myself how very worthy it was of the said subaltern to take out a section of his platoon and practise them in some particular type of advance in open order, when, looking more closely at the line of backs, I noticed that the men on the extreme right and left were carrying something slung over their shoulders. I then saw that these somethings were hares. The young devil of a subaltern, quite contrary to orders and at the risk of courtmartial, was indulging in a hare drive under shell-fire! His men, of course, were greatly delighted in the adventure. The whole proceeding was marked by that seriousness which Americans say is only shown by Britons when engaged in some form of sport. Light-heartedness is good enough for the trenches, but not to be thought of when on a predatory sporting expedition. Fortunately for my conductor, the subaltern and his party did not belong to his Division, and so he was able to turn a blind eye. My heart warmed to the young wretch, but the authorities are perfectly right to be very stern in such matters. All shooting is forbidden by the French law, and of course a French proprietor feels it a horrible outrage that while he is not allowed to shoot, some young English officer prances over his ground and bags his hares. That is more than flesh-and-blood can stand, and one is glad to think that it is being stamped upon. Still, when all is said and done, I wouldn't have missed the sight of shooting hares under shell- fire for anything in the world. It is correct to say that the drive was conducted under shell-fire, but no one must suppose that shells were exploding at everybody's feet. All the same, only a little time before a shell did drop the other side of the shooting party, and a very little time afterwards we saw one explode to the right, about two hundred yards from where we were. In fact, the general position was not unlike that described by Mr. Jorrocks: the shooters were having all the pleasures and excitements of war with only one per cent. of the risks.

After a very pleasant visit to General French at his headquarters at St.

Omar, the visit ended with a touch of excitement.

On the morning of my departure, we received news that a hospital ship had been sunk in the Channel. At 10.30, I finished my talk with Sir John, got into a motor and drove to Boulogne. Having been told that all the mines had been swept up and that everything was perfectly right, I was to have started by the 12.15 boat, that is the boat which started an hour after the doomed hospital ship. We were all told, however, that we were not to cross by the said 12.15, or leave-boat, but must wait for the P. & O. mail-boat. I rather kicked at this, but as all sorts of generals and big wigs were placed under the same condemnation I saw it was useless to protest, and went and had lunch. I can only presume they had already had wireless news of the sinking of the hospital ship and also of the steam collier, and wanted to be sure that there were no more mines about. Accordingly we did not sail till 3.45, no one in the ship, of course, knowing anything about the disaster. I only heard of it coming up in the train to London, and then the news characteristically came-not from a general with whom I was travelling-but from a subaltern who had somehow picked up the news on the Folkestone quay…. It was curious to reflect that if anyone had offered me the opportunity of going on a hospital ship as one of the sights, I should have closed with it unhesitatingly. Luckily for me, however, I had not come across any R. A. M. C. people, and therefore am still in a position to sign my name to these notes. I managed to get to Brooks's for some late supper at 9.30. At first I was told that I could only have cold beef, but not being a Staff Officer, and not being afraid of being called a luxurious and self-indulgent pig, I insisted upon having some hot soup and some cold pheasant, and also a cup of hot cocoa. After this warming supper I went to Garland's, and found awaiting me large packets of letters and proofs. Next morning I was writing my Thursday leader at The Spectator office, "as usual."

My last and most exciting visit to the front took place on August 2, 1916, that is, just after the great attack on the Somme. Most of my experiences, however, though very exciting to me at the time, would now make very dull reading. Still, there were one or two impressive moments. During the visit I was for a night a guest at Lord Haig's advanced headquarters, and from a little hill above the chateau in which he lived, I was able to see the trench-line by night.

During dinner, the guns began to speak loudly, and after dinner I got one of the Staff to take me to the top of the down above the chateau to watch the lights of the battle-line. It was a memorable sight. The flashes of our guns on one side, and of those of the Germans on the other, made an almost continuous line of pallid light. Besides, every minute or two, all along the front, one could see the German or British magnesium flares illuminating the trench-line. These flares are used as one uses a bull's-eye on a dark walk. Just as you turn the bull's-eye on any place which you are not quite sure of, so a flare-light is sent up when either side suspects evil designs on a pa

rticular part of their trench-line. The effect of the lights was very much like that of a distant firework display, but the continual roar of the guns gave a touch of anger and menace which made one realise that one was watching war and not a Brock's Benefit. The roar of the artillery lasted all night, and when I woke early in the morning it was still going on. Just about five o'clock, however, it suddenly stopped, and I realised with a thumping heart that the Australians and Kents and Surreys were going over the parapet at Pozières.

At breakfast the Commander-in-Chief showed us a telephone message he had just received from Pozières, saying that we had carried the piece of trench which we desired to carry, and had inflicted considerable losses upon the Germans without suffering too heavily ourselves. We had, besides, taken several hundred prisoners.

In the course of this visit, I had the good luck to go into the former German trenches at Notre Dame de Lorette, and also to see some of the German first-line trenches and dug-outs on the Somme at Fricourt, and Albert and its hanging statue. But although this was exciting, it was eclipsed by a visit to Ypres, which I was able to induce my friend, R--, to manage for me. Ypres just then was not considered a very healthy spot. I was General Hunter Weston's guest at the Chateau de Louvet.

I had once before been in Ypres. It was in the course of a bicycle tour in 1896 or '97, a fact which afforded me some very poignant points of comparison. The chief thing that is impressed on my memory was a curious and pathetic little idyll which is thus recorded in my Diary.

We left our car outside the walls, and entered Ypres close to the Menin Gate, now demolished-where my wife and I entered the town twenty years ago.

(We bicycled from Lille, where we had gone to see the Lille bust-a journey which the whole wealth of the world could not now buy one the right to take.)

I was glad to find that my memory was not in fault, and I recalled perfectly the great grey-brick walls and the wide moat which in June, 1896, was covered with white waterlilies. There seemed to be none now, but perhaps "they withered all" when the town died. I should not wonder if this were so, for shells must certainly have dropped in the moat, and in so doing must have disturbed them at the very roots. Crossing the moat by the bridge, we went to the Place, once bordered by one of the greatest and most magnificent examples of civic mediaeval architecture the world had to show-the Cloth Hall of Ypres. Its walls now only stand some 20 or 30 feet high. The remains of the towers of the Cathedral are a little higher, and one of the pinnacles of the Cloth Hall points like a gaunt grey finger to the sky. I wandered alone into the Institute of St. Vincent de Paul, which stands to the north of the Place and is only partially ruined. The fa?ade, a pleasant example of Louis XIV work, is still standing, and there are also pieces of the roof intact. One enters by the church or chapel door. I passed through this, with its desecrated altars and its ruined ecclesiastical finery, into the sacristies and other rooms behind, including one lofty room lined entirely with blue-and-white tiles. While there, I heard, to my surprise, a faint and very distant sound of a sweeping broom. It echoed through those empty, roofless halls with a weird sound, for at that moment there was only an occasional growl of artillery in the air. Everything else was strangely quiet. Needless to say, an uninhabited town is never noisy, and at five o'clock in the morning it is not merely not noisy but deadly still. Greatly astonished, I followed the sound through a long succession of ruined rooms, until I came upon a soldier with a broom, steadily sweeping the floor of a small empty room a little off the main sacristy. He had a steel helmet upon his head, like myself. Slowly and like a man in a dream he plied his work. He looked at me as if I too were part of the dream, and when I asked him what his regiment was, he answered with a sort of shadowy salute and in faint, far-away tones, "The 52nd." I am bound to say I have never been more taken aback than I was by that answer. It literally left me speechless-a record, my friends tell me. The strangeness of the whole scene and the silence had made me prepared for mysteries, but it was a little too much to be told that I was face to face with a man from one of the most famous of the Peninsular regiments. It is unnecessary to say that no modern soldier, asked his regiment, would now give its old numeral. He would have described himself as belonging to, say, the 2nd Battalion of the Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry. I hastily retreated from this vision of the past, and recounted my experiences to R--. As much mystified as myself, he moved with me on the sound of the broom. The man gave him the same answer as he did to me, and produced the same sense of mystery. But then there came the prosaic explanation. He belonged, he added, to the Canadians. His far-away manner was soon accounted for by the fact that he was a French-speaking Canadian and only very dimly understood my question. So passed into prose a very pretty piece of mystery! He was no doubt a Roman Catholic and anxious to do anything he could to keep the sanctuary clean. From the Grande Place, with its air of Pompeian melancholy, we passed on to the ramparts. There, I was thrilled to see the guard being relieved in the dead silence of the dawn by helmet-clad men. Mounting or relieving guard on these ramparts is no empty pageant, for at any moment a German shell may drop and obliterate the post…. When we had gone what I judge to be about a mile along the canal, it being now seven o'clock, we turned off to the left into some fields, in order to take a path which led to a point in the road where our car had been sent round to meet us. When we were about half the way across the fields a shell came over our heads, and we could see it bursting upon the road almost exactly at the spot where we expected the car to wait. This was somewhat disconcerting, and R., after the manner of the British officer, whose first thought in reality as well as in fiction is for his man, showed a good deal of anxiety lest his chauffeur should have been in trouble. The shell was not a solitary one, and there was soon another bursting on our left and another in the air in front of us. Though I have, in the abstract, no desire for shellfire, even when very mild, I could not, in a sense, help being glad that I was obliged to get so excellent a view of what a shell bursting in the air looks like at fairly close quarters. To be truthful, it looks almost exactly like what I used to call an absurdly exaggerated picture in the illustrated newspapers! There was no great danger, but R.-- who was no doubt slightly anxious about his charge, i.e. myself, just as one is anxious when showing sights to visitors when one is threatened by a hailstorm,-thought we had better sit down and wait till we saw whether the shelling was going to stop or possibly develop into something really unpleasant. Accordingly, we sat down on what had once been a rather neat piece of sandbag work, something in the nature of what an Irishman might have called a "built-up dug-out." Though the roof was off, I was glad to have a feeling of security in the small of my back. It rested against a double thickness of sandbags. While waiting here I was consoled by my companion by a story of what an artillery general had said to him under similar circumstances, i.e. that when one saw the shells not bursting near enough to do any harm, one was perfectly safe. The only trouble, he went on, was that "some infernal idiot in the German artillery positions might go and monkey with the sights." "In that case, there might be a nasty accident." Happily no interfering idiot in this case monkeyed with the sights, and very soon the battery which was attending to our part of the country "ceased fire," and it was soon pronounced safe for us to resume our walk. Altogether I was much impressed with R.'s complete indifference. Nothing could have been more reassuring for civilian nerves. When we emerged on the piece of road where we ought to have found our car and chauffeur, we were immediately plunged back from the solemnities of war into the normal picnic situation. Everyone knows how at a picnic the car is sent round another way, with clear directions to go to a perfectly familiar spot, a place where the host says he has made his chauffeur meet him a dozen times before, and to wait there. Yet the rendezvous when you reach it always turns out to be absolutely vacant and bereft, not only of the car but of any signs of human life whatever. No desert looks so forlorn as a place where one expects to meet somebody and does not meet them. This was exactly our case. Happily there were no signs of the car having been destroyed, and therefore our anxiety for the chauffeur's safety was relieved.

To cut a long story short, we wandered about till we found and commandeered another car, and drove up the main road. There we soon found the errant car, wailing behind a shed and some trees. It appeared that the chauffeur had found the rendezvous too hot for him, after two shells burst not a dozen yards away from the car, and he retreated therefore to a safe corner, where we found him talking to a fellow- soldier. He was very properly reprimanded for having moved from the place where he was told to wait, but all the same I was glad there was no accident.

During our return journey, we were not worried by bombardment of any kind, and got back to H. Q. for an excellent breakfast at 8.30. The morning I spent strolling about the grounds of the chateau. At luncheon, R. asked me what I would like to do, and I suggested a visit to the Belgian inundations. The arrangements required were somewhat elaborate, but thanks to the good offices of the Belgian liaison officer attached to the Corps Commander's staff, we got the necessary permits. I am exceedingly glad to think that we did pay this visit, for it was not only most picturesque but also most deeply interesting from a military point of view. The greater part of the Belgian line and the whole of the part we visited runs parallel to the course of the canalised river Yser, which empties itself into the sea at Nieuport. To reach it we had to pass through Furnes, most charming of old Flemish towns, with a ravishing Grande Place, surrounded by beautiful brick houses, some of them of the XVth century, some of them dating from the time of the Spanish occupation, and some again, of the epoch of Louis XIV. As the Belgian lines are on a dead flat alluvial plain reclaimed from the sea, it had proved impossible to manage communication-trenches. If they were dug into the ground they would instantly become full of water. No doubt they might have been built up with sandbag parapets, but this apparently was not thought necessary, owing, no doubt, to the fact that the inundation pushes back the German lines for nearly two miles. We (i.e. the two Belgian officers who accompanied us, R. and myself) all packed into one motor for this part of the drive, lest two motors should draw the attention of the enemy's artillery. Also the car was made to drive very slowly lest it should raise a cloud of dust and so give us away. We ran up a road parallel to the course of the Yser, and passed three brick chimneys belonging to a factory which had been much knocked about by the German artillery fire. One of the chimneys was pierced by the very neatest shell-hole you ever saw. It went straight through the shaft of the chimney, in at one side and out at the other, for all the world like two windows opposite each other. The fabric of the chimney remained secure. Needless to say, this eye was put into the needle of the chimney because it had been used as a Belgian observation- post. We soon got out of our car and walked across the fields to the old railway embankment, which was now being used as the bank of the inundation. On the land side of it the ground was marshy, but it was terra firma. On the other side there are two thousand yards of grey-brown water about three or four feet deep. The inundation was produced by reversing the process of reclamation. The gates of the Yser used to be shut against high tides, to prevent the sea-water coming up, and opened at low tides to let down the land water. Now they are opened at high tides, so that the tide can rush in and maintain the inundation, and at low tides they are closed, so that the fresh water of the Yser can overflow its banks. On the top of the railway bank is a fine series of sandbag parapets and parados. R., however, pointed out that the parados is so good as to be really another parapet. Therefore, if the enemy took those Belgian trenches they would, without any alteration of the premises, be able to open business on the south side. In the south face of the railway embankment a number of excellent dug-outs have been excavated, and strengthened with stone, brickwork, and concrete by the ingenious Belgian engineers. Those works showed what the world has always seen in the architecture of the Low Countries, namely, what wonderful constructors are the Flemings. Building seems to come as naturally to them as to the Italians, though their staple is brick, not marble.

Before I leave the subject of the inundations, I ought to say that across the stretch of muddy water the Belgians hold a good many little islets and pieces of ground, which, for some reason or other, are a few feet higher than the rest of the reclaimed plain. Communication with these is kept, not by boats, but by paths of duck-board which lie across the flooded lands. The Germans, however, recognise that they have been completely outwitted by the inundation, and that it is no use to attempt to attack the Belgians. Accordingly things are very quiet on this line. It happened, however, that as we walked back across the fields, having followed the same plan as in the morning of sending our car round to meet us at a safe place, the Germans chose to throw a few shells, and I had therefore, when I reached the place of safety, the feeling, good to the civilian heart, that I had been shelled both before and after luncheon in one day-though I admit that the shelling was not of a very serious description. It did, however, justify the steel helmet and the gas-mask.

I shall end my Idylls of the War with what I hope will not be called a frivolous note.

At the end of the war, when men had to be taken away even from the necessary work of agriculture, women, with that surprising capacity for work of all kinds, which seems to be their privilege, took on every sort of job and did them all remarkably well. Perhaps the most curious instance of this is that women at once took up the work of shepherds, and began to keep their flocks on bleak and lonely Downs; a function, remember, which no women had performed in England for two or three hundred years. Here is my account of the first shepherdess I ever saw, written on October, 1918, and on the day of my encounter.

I had always longed to see a shepherdess, keeping her sheep on the Downs, and watching them feed, in sober security. I think it was that desire that made me, when at Oxford, contemplate a learned study of Elizabethan pastoral plays-a work which, if I remember rightly, never got beyond a dedication to a damsel who, "perchance to soothe my youthful dreams," appeared too bright for common life and needed the crook and the wreath. And now today I saw, as I was riding along the Pilgrim's Way across the Downs, a shepherdess. Alas! quantum mutata ab ilia. Even when I saw her, a long distance off, leaning on her crook, I did not desire to:-

"Assume her homely ways and dress,

A shepherd, she a shepherdess."

Still less, when I rode up closer, did I entertain any romantic ideas. I had not been so fantastic in mind as to expect a war shepherdess to wear a straw hat in December, wreathed with roses and forget-me-nots, or a mixture of all the flowers of spring, summer, and autumn, as is the wear of the pastoral Muse. Again, I did not look for a "Rogue in porcelain," with gold buckles on neat black shoes, and highly ornamented stays worn outside her gown. A stalwart young woman, in a khaki smock and sou'- wester, Bedford-cord breeches, and long leather boots, would have satisfied my utmost demands in 1918. Instead, however, my shepherdess was dressed, if her clothes could be called dress, like a female tramp. Long draggle-tailed skirts, some sort of a shawl, and the most appalling old cloth cap on her head, concealing a small quantity of grey hairs and shading a wrinkled, aged face! It was a bitter disappointment. She would have done far better for a Norn or one of the Weird Sisters. Yet, when I stopped my horse to talk to her-I had not forgotten that "the courtesy of shepherds" demands that one should always exchange words with the folk of the lonely trade-I found myself unconsciously dropping into the language of pastoral verse. Does not the Third Eclogue of Virgil begin:

"Die mihi, … ? An Melibei?"

At any rate, I began: "Whose flock is this?" She answered as if out of the book: "It's Farmer Black's. First the one-armed shepherd had it. Now I've got it," and her eyes looked lovingly on as fine a flock of ewes as you could wish to see. They were spread fanwise along the opposite side of the sharply-defined chalk valley. She went on to tell me that she had also got the lamb flock, but not with her that day. I asked how she had come to take up pastoral work, thinking that probably she was the widow of a shepherd. But it seemed that she had never done shepherd's work before, though, as she said, she had "been brought up among them." "Them" was obviously the ewes and lambs. One could see that she was thoroughly competent, and that while she was in charge there would be no straying or stealing, or over-feeding, or starving, or any other ill. Then we talked of her dog, who sat by her, vigilant and confident, ready at her slightest word or nod to race round his charges. Yes, he was a good dog now, but when she had him first he was wicked. "He was that spiteful, you dursn't trust him." The one-armed shepherd had "used him cruel," and made him savage with the sheep. Now at last she had got him quite right again, and she looked down lovingly upon the dog-a bob- tail of the South Down breed-who sat at attention by her side. But, she ended, the work was very hard, and the weather getting too cold for her to be up on the Downs much longer. She would have to give it up for this winter.

I wished her good luck and cantered off, a disillusioned man. But as I turned my heard for one more glimpse of my one and only shepherdess, I saw the dog looking up with the utmost faith and affection into her poor, kindly, weazened old face. I could not wish her other than she was. I could well believe that the farmer was satisfied with her, and hardly regretted that she had not thought it worth while to dress the part with a little more attention. Perhaps in the time to come we shall develop a real race of shepherdesses,

"Who without sadness shall be safe, And gay without frivolity." If we do, I think they are pretty sure, whether young or old, to tie bunches of wild flowers to their crooks. But, after all, for a war shepherdess, garments such as my Downland Amoret had on were more appropriate. Anyway, the brave old thing was doing her war-work sturdily. She shivered, I am sure, for service not for hire. All honour to her and the thousands of women who did as she did!

Free to Download MoboReader
(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top

shares