THE LOST CHORD,
LAST night I cycled into the neighbouring village to make inquiries about a lad who had perished in the fighting. As I drew near the church I heard sounds of music floating out through the shattered windows. If a seraph had stood in the streets of the village and sung heavenly songs to us, he could hardly have caused greater surprise to the occasional passers-by. The village lies forsaken. Every house is in ruins, or bears the marks of shells. There, at the cross roads, where the sentry stands, a shell burst a few weeks ago. The soldier on duty felt no pain and needed no burial. Now, on the same spot, stood another soldier wistfully listening to the music of the church. The civilians have fled, and taken their belongings with them. A stranger race---an aforetime enemy---guards for them their land. The heroic breed is not dead, and in that youthful sentry is seen the England of a thousand years. I blessed him as I passed him, for in him I saw all the undimmed and undying glory of the race.
I placed my bicycle against the church wall, and sought the back entrance. The right-hand, corner of the priest's garden wall had been blown away. The damaged archway had been propped up with a pole, and the path was blocked by a large shell-crater. The door of the vestry was off its hinges, and the floor was littered with books, vestments, and débris. Stepping over obstructions, I passed into the chancel. What a sight! A shell had been hurled through the centre of the wall immediately above the altar. The wall was two and a half feet thick, but it had broken before the invader like brown paper. A hole two yards wide gaped like a wound. The picture above the altar had been blown into a thousand fragments, and these were lying about the floor and window-sills. The altar, with its ornaments, lay crushed beneath a mass of masonry. The windows and the communion-rail were shattered to pieces and scattered far and wide. A lump of stone had been carried from above the altar in to the pulpit. A still larger stone had been hurled to the other end of the church and lay in the central aisle. It seemed the work of some mad giant---some Samson insane with sorrow for the loss of his eyes. Stones had smashed through the back of the movable pews and, with bits of the communion-rail, strewed the floor and the seats. Plaster from the ceiling, fragments from the lamps, and stained glass from the windows crunched under my feet. I felt as guilty as if I were treading on lilies. I understood Jeremiah's tears. Chairs lay on the floor overturned, like cripples, and no one lifted them. The unhinged side-door leaned helplessly against the wall. It was a scene of desolation ---a holy place desecrated by the dance of devils. Yet, looking down from a picture on the wall was the sweet face of the Virgin. Straining to her breast her beautiful Babe, she seemed to be shielding Him from the horrible happenings about Him. But the figure of the suffering Saviour nailed against the wall on the opposite side showed how impotent even a mother's love may be.
Out from the soul of the organ came a chord sweet as the fragrance of violets at the unsealing of a maiden's letter, and 'dear as remembered kisses after death.' It was the Lost Chord of Germany. All unconsciously the English lad at the French organ was calling up the spirit of old Germany to witness the havoc of new Germany in the temple of the God it has ceased to worship.
At the peril of his life he was touching those ivory keys. Straight before him gaped the great hole above the altar. Yet he played on. A few days before he had leapt over the parapet amid a murderous fire, and, armed with bomb and bayonet, had sought the evil heart of a race that has become the disgrace and terror of mankind. But now the War was forgotten. He was back in the old days, and he heard not the sound of the guns. Peace wrapped him round as with a phalanx of angels' wings. By the incantation of his music he had called up the soul of old Germany as in the ancient days the Witch of Endor called back the soul of the sad-eyed Samuel. It sang of the shame and sorrow brought upon it by its children. 'Hear My Prayer'. trembled upon the air as from a soul in pain. Crushed beneath the iron heel of the Prussian, like a daisy beneath the hoof of a stamping war-steed, the ancient spirit of Germany cried for deliverance. The Hymn of Hate deafens in the streets which once echoed to the sacred melodies of young Luther. The grieved spirit of Mendelssohn turns away from the lifeless churches of his own land, as Paul turned away from the synagogues of his countrymen. Passing over the desolation of No Man's Land, he enters a ruined shrine and finds at the organ one with whom he may commune, and together the German musician and the English soldier pray for the return to the Fatherland of the gospel that makes men great. 'Hear My Prayer.' Will God hear, and send a new Luther to save Germany from the new tyrant and the new superstition? Or will He let the nation perish in its sins?
The prayer of Mendelssohn died away into silence, and a message of comfort floated through the ruined church. 'O rest in the Lord; wait patiently for Him, and He shall give thee thy heart's desire. O rest in the Lord.' It was a song of hope to the broken-hearted nations which have been swept into the vortex of this world-tragedy. It floated out through the shattered windows, and I saw a soldier quietly listening without. Oh that the bereaved and anxious might hear it, and rest in the Lord! The priest of the church was away in the trenches, but God had sent to us from heaven a prophet of the old and better Germany. The voice of Mendelssohn grew still, and there came to us the voices of English men and English women sweetly singing of the faith that had made light for them the valley of the shadow of death, and bidding us be of good courage. They had sung the hymn on the sinking deck of the Titanic-and they were singing it still:
Nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer to Thee;
E'en though it be a cross
That raiseth me,
Still all my song shall be,
Nearer, my God, to Thee,
Nearer to Thee.
Though like the wanderer,' the lad could not be silent. He lifted up his voice and sang with the heavenly visitants. Then came the sound of other voices. They were from over the sundering sea. Under their influence we forgot the ruined church. We were home again. The melody, 'I hear you calling me,' passed out through the broken windows and wafted our spirits over the waters as on the wings of angels.
'It's enough to break a man's heart, isn't it, Sir?' said a soldier who had just entered the chancel, and was looking at the ruins. From the soul of the organ came the answer:
Rock of ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee.
There was one sanctuary left unscarred; one Rock that towered above the surging floods of hate and lust; and the lad at the organ had found it.
While I draw this fleeting breath,
When my eyelids close in death,
When I soar to worlds unknown,
See Thee on Thy judgment Throne,
Rock of ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee.
He was a simple soldier---a private in the Rangers---who a few days before had seen hundreds of his comrades fall at his side as he charged through a triple curtain of fire, and he was playing, from memory, the songs that soothed his spirit. He was holding companionship with the truths by which men live, and for which men die. And he brought from the soul of the organ the chord which modern Germany has lost, and which no nation can lose and live. The German dead on the slopes around are the silent witnesses.
LILIES AND FORGET-ME-NOTS
It was Sunday, but here everything happens on Sunday, and no one knows why. It just is so. After tea I had returned to my billet--- a crazy attic at an estaminet. On the bed I found a card-board box with crushed-in sides. It had come by post, and it filled the little room with the fragrance of flowers. On opening it I found a black-bordered letter lying amid lilies and forget-me-nots. The letter was from a broken-hearted mother in London, and the flowers were for a grave at Ypres. She wanted me to put the flowers on her boy's' grave, for it was his twenty-first birthday.
How I hated the War when I saw the flowers and the letter! If the monster would but discriminate! If it took the old and left the young, or if it slew the bad and spared the good, something might be said for it. But it does not even look into the eyes it is closing for ever. It is a soulless machine. It knows not whom it strikes, and cares not. The shell that I hear cracking as I write may be slaying a mother's only son and support, or it may be putting an end to a life of crime. It does not know. The War is like a plough running amuck in a field of daisies. Here was a lad of twenty, and his fate was the fate of the daisy in the path of a plough. His mother sent flowers for his grave.
In lilies and forget-me-nots
A woman's love is writ;
And to the soil that wraps her son
A mother's heart is knit.
Flowers for his twenty-first birthday1 How often she had dreamed of the feast she was to give him! And even the flowers will not be his. The regiment had moved from Flanders, and now was deep in France. At 6.30, in the corner of a field behind my billet, I was conducting divine worship, and I told his old comrades the story of the flowers. Then I drew out my hymn-book and gave out, verse by verse, 'For all the saints.' The worshipful voices of his comrades were the equivalents of lilies and forget-me-nots. It was an impressive moment, for our minds were with the sleepers at Ypres.
Thou wast their Rock, their Fortress, and their Might;
Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well-fought fight;
Thou in the darkness drear their one true Light.
Then thoughts of the immediate future followed fast, and we prayed for ourselves:
O may Thy soldiers, faithful, true, and bold,
Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,
And win with them the victor's crown of gold.
The glory of the dying sun gilded with its splendour the otherwise leaden clouds of the western sky, and we, sang:
The golden evening brightens in the west,
Soon, soon to faithful warriors cometh rest;
Sweet is the calm of Paradise the blest!
But what should I do with the flowers? Like the water from the well of Bethlehem which David poured out before the Lord, they were sacred. Two days before, I had visited a little cemetery where many a lad will sleep---not with his fathers, but with his comrades. There were five graves, and none was a week old. The lads who were lying there were from Bedfordshire, Hertford, and far-away Somerset. All had died of wounds. Could I, even in the agony of death, have shown them English lilies and forget-me-nots their eyes would have shone with joy and tears. I would take to them the flowers meant for the grave at Ypres.
Next morning, therefore, I cycled into the village, and down the high street. Then I turned into a sweet little country lane. The Tommies had named it 'Lovers' Lane,' and painted the words on a small board at the turning. It is not a lovers' lane, for there are no lovers. All have gone to the War. But Tommy knew what it ought to be, and it brought to him happy memories from over the sea. Had he not entered France singing 'It's a long, long way to . . . but my heart's right there'? The title 'Lovers' Lane' was not a joke of Tommy's, any more than the chorus of 'Tipperary' was the light song some dull people imagined. There was more of tears than laughter in it. The sackcloth next the skin was visible through the down's gay trappings. For if the soldier and traveller dreams more of one thing than another it is of some lovers' lane and some little cottage in Tipperary, or otherwhere. He leaves the dear place to do his duty, and marches away with a smile on his face, but he leaves his heart behind him. His heart is' right there.' Tommy always speaks of deep things with the half-revealing, half-concealing reticence of poetry. Has a terrible shell fallen in his trench? It is a 'Jack Johnson'---a lump of brutality with smiles in it. Has his comrade been killed? He has 'gone West.'
I went down Tommy's 'Lovers' Lane,' and I came to what every lover comes to, sooner or later. I came to a cemetery. There the lads lay, and somewhere else, equally hidden from view, are women's hearts breaking. Is it only English hearts that break? Nay, on the left-hand side, divided only by the road made by human intercourse, was a French cemetery. Is it only the lovers of soldiers who have their hearts broken? Nay, for the French cemetery was the last resting-place of civilians. Tommy is right. 'Lovers' Lane' is a sweet road, 'dewy with nature's tear-drops'; but on this side and on that side is a cemetery, and neither soldier nor civilian, English nor French, may tread that enchanted lane without coming to the place of tears and the sundering of sweet fellowships. The toll-bar of the road is not at the entrance, but at the end. The lover pays with pain, but without repentance, for
'Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.
I left my bicycle at the gate and entered the enclosure. I entered in the name of mothers and wives and sweethearts. When I have gone, and the guns have gone, they will come themselves, and the place will be hallowed by their presence. The graves were neat and smooth, and a cross---the sacred symbol of suffering and sacrifice---stood at the head of each, and recorded the soldier's name and nobleness. He was lying there 'for his King and Country.' I laid a lily, all white and gold, on each bed, and thanked God that there was no red in a lily. White for purity of his patriotism; gold for his triumph over fear, and selfishness, and death. But no red, for the bitterness of war was past. Then I dug a few forget-me-not roots into the mould of each grave, that they may witness to the unforgetting love which will guard the sacred dead. As I dug them in I prayed that God would lead some one with English flowers to the grave at Ypres, that he who had missed his mother's flowers might not be left without fair tokens of remembrance.
My work done, I bade good-bye alike to lads and lilies, and stepped once more into 'Lovers' Lane.'
THE KITTEN IN THE CRATER
I CANNOT get it out of my mind---that kitten in the crater. I had just come up. with my men who had been in another part of the line, and a Comrade of the Cross was showing me the lay of the land. We passed the battered-down church from which soldiers were carting bricks to build incinerators---a good use of bricks from what had been a moral incinerator---and we entered the communication-trench from the village street. After a time we reached a support-trench, and looking over the parapet we could see our own front line, No Man's Land, the German trenches, and the village beyond, with the church pointing with unheeded finger to heaven. Then we came to some forsaken dugouts. They had been rendered untenable by the violence of shell-fire. The roofs were battered in, and the débris lay scattered about. 'Look,' said my comrade, and I looked. There, in a crater made by a large shell, was a pretty little kitten.
If anything speaks of home it is a kitten. It carries our memory back to the blazing fire and the cat sleeping within the fender. Yet here are thousands of lads who have not been home for months, and here are poor dug-outs---the crudest possible imitations of homes---that have been battered in. Day and night these soldiers dream of home. There is not a man in the army who dare sing 'Home, Sweet Home'; and not one who dare play it on a gramophone. The men could not stand it, and no one dare try them with it. Home is ever in their thoughts. But when they speak of it they veil the depth of their feelings by calling it 'Blighty.' When a soldier gets his leave-warrant, whether he be old or young, officer or private, he behaves exactly like a schoolboy who has got a month's holiday. His joy bubbles over. In a trench a man is as much out of place as a kitten in a crater, and as surely will he leave the trench for the fireside. The home will triumph over the trench.
The crater belongs to war; the kitten to peace. The one speaks of death; the other of life. And it is life that will triumph and death that will be buried. As I entered the village that day I saw some gunners fly for their lives, for the German guns had located their battery. Shell after shell I watched as it fell near the guns and sent up its cloud of smoke and dust.
And yet over the shells as they hurtled through the air were two skylarks singing as though their throats would burst with song. They were teaching the same lesson as the kitten in the crater.
When I look upon the horrors of war I do not despair, for in the toad's head there is ever to be found a precious jewel. Who that has seen it can ever forget the brave yet anxious smile of a lad as he stands listening to the shells passing over his head and falling a little beyond him? Who that has seen a platoon entering a communication-trench, and shouting good-bye to the watching comrades, can ever forget it? The courage and cheerfulness of the men, their patience and self-denial, their devotion to the wounded and sick, are jewels which shine like stars in the black night of war, and make us almost love the night which reveals them to us. War is a horrible crater, but within it is the sweet kitten of human nobleness.
On my way home on leave I put up for the night at a casualty clearing-station. There I saw a horrible sight that did not seem horrible. A gunner had alone, and by the skin of his teeth, survived the destruction of his battery. In body he was but the fragment of a man, and was a sad sight, but in spirit he was ennobling. A comrade was shaving him, and it was a moving sight to see the tenderness with which he did it. The cheerfulness and courage of the wounded man were superb. They made what might have been sordid, sublime. They were the kitten in the crater. 'I think,' said my comrade to one of the nurses, 'that his love for his sweetheart has pulled him through.' 'I don't,' replied the nurse. 'You think his nurse pulled him through?' he asked. 'Yes,' she replied; 'he was brought in unconscious, and remained so for two or three days, and his nurse held on to him night and day till she got him on the road to recovery. It wasn't his sweetheart but his nurse who saved him!' The speaker was pale and worn. She, too, had had many a wrestle with death for the life of a stranger lad. She is like the daisy I plucked near the ruined dug-outs and carried home. The guns cannot destroy her. She springs up in every war. We find her here as surely as our grandfathers found her in the Crimea. War is horrible, but there is a kitten in the crater and a woman in the hospital, and the kitten and the woman speak of home and love and gentleness. The love which brought the kitten to the crater and the woman to the hospital is the love that will conquer hate and put an end to war.
'ABIDE WITH ME'
It was Thursday evening, in a little village behind the line, and the hour we had chosen for worship. Stepping off the road that threaded its way through the cluster of farmhouses, we passed through a field, in which some of our comrades were playing at football, and entered the field beyond. There we found a quiet corner where the trees stood round us like to the pillars in the aisles of our churches at home. There were about fifteen of us. Some were in the R.A.M.C., and had just come out. The others were in an infantry regiment which had served twelve months in Flanders, and had been but recently transferred to France. Quietly they formed themselves into a semi-circle round me, and I asked them what they would like to sing.
'That will do nicely,' I said. 'Will you please give it out?'
At even ere the sun was set,
The sick, O Lord, around Thee lay;
O in what divers pains they met!
O with what joy they went away
Once more 'tis eventide, and we,
Oppressed with various ills, draw near;
What if Thy form we cannot see?
We know and feel that Thou art here.
The evening was quite still. The voices of the men playing at football sounded sweetly distant, and the sound of the guns broke upon our ears like the thud of incoming waves falling on the sea-shore. We lifted up our voices and sang, with the subdued note of the birds in the neighboring hedges. To him who has only sung this hymn in a church much of its beauty must of necessity be hidden. It is revealed only in the light of the setting sun. The men were facing the Golden West. The pomp of the dying day lay upon the rustling leaves of the trees and upon the grass at our feet. It lit up with beauty the faces of the men as they sang. Soon it would be gone, and the shadows would wrap us round as with a mantle. We should feel the isolation of darkness, that which makes children afraid. A sense of loneliness would creep over us, and the coldness of nature would grip us.
'We would see Jesus'---the Light that never fails. And our hearts cried out to Him, 'Abide with us, for the day is far spent.'
Thy touch hath still its ancient power,
No word from Thee can fruitless fall;
Hear in this solemn evening hour,
And in Thy mercy heal us all.
Then we bowed our heads, and I asked one or two of the men to lead in prayer---not knowing which would respond, but leaving them to the Spirit's promptings. Quietly, naturally, and with humility, they lifted up their voices in prayer. Two prayed; three prayed; and I asked for more. It was so sweet to hear them that I could not bring myself to stop the music of their prayers. Five or six prayed; then came a silence as thrilling as speech, and, after it, we joined in the Lord's Prayer. We knew that He who taught us the prayer was in the midst to hear it, and to present it to His Father and ours.
After the prayers, the men chose No. 14, with its fine opening line to each verse:
Fight the good fight with all thy might.
Run the straight race through God's good grace.
Cast care aside, lean on thy Guide.
Faint not, nor fear, His arms are near.
Then I read to them the 91st Psalm:
'He that dwelleth in the secret Place of the Most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. . . . He shall cover thee with His feathers, and under His wings shalt thou trust. His truth shall be thy shield and buckler. Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day; nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday. . . . For He shall give His angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways. They shall bear thee up in their hands.'
A few weeks later many of the men were to see the arrow that flieth by day, for suddenly shells fell like thunder-bolts about their billets, killing and wounding many. They were also to feel the terror by night, for while out in front of their trenches, digging in darkness, the foe discovered their presence and searched their ranks with shot and shell. But the Wings were over the lads who had met for worship on that calm evening of which I write, and who, with faces lit by the setting sun, had listened to that psalm of confidence in God. They were saved from the arrow by day and the terror by night.
I asked them what they would sing next, and they chose No. 12:
Lead, kindly light, amid the encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on;
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on.
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
So long Thy power hath blessed me, sure it still
Will lead me on,
O'er moor and fen, o'er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone;
And with the morn those angel faces smile
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.
Ah, me! We did not know the meaning of hymns before. When you are far from home, with the darkness gathering round you, and the guns booming in your ears, you see again the angel faces you have left behind you, and wonder if the dawn will ever break through, for you, the long night of war, and restore them to you. Unutterable longings come to you, and at such times you know the meanings of hymns. As we sang Newman's hymn, and prayed for light, 'kindly' light, we knew something of Newman's secret. We understood something of his feelings as, with the shadows gathering over him, he sat alone on the deck of a wandering ship, far from England and home.
After the hymn, I spoke to the men of the forward look to be seen on every page of the Bible. I showed them how, in all ages, God's people have been journeying 'towards the sunrising'; how they have always refused to be content with things as they are, or have been, and, urged by a divine discontent, have pressed on to a 'better country,' and a 'New Jerusalem,' 'whose Builder and Maker is God'; how they have sought the path that 'shineth more and more unto the perfect day,' and, refusing to believe in the finality of either darkness or twilight, have sought the pure light. A night of barbarism had overwhelmed the world, but it would yield to the daylight of love and peace.
'The day must dawn, and darksome night be past.' The land that was red with blood today would be red with roses to-morrow. A world for which the Son of God had died could not be lost, nor sink back into the abyss of barbarism out of which He had lifted it. Though humanity was being torn and cast upon the ground in the process, the devil was being cast out of the nations, and our children would not be thrown into the fire as we had been. Our feet were yet in the wasteful wilderness, but our eyes were towards the sunrising and the Land of Promise. And our feet would follow our eyes. So I spoke to the brave lads.
By now the night was on. We could scarcely see our books, but we turned to No. 51, and by the fast-failing light sang:
Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide;
When other helpers fail, and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.
The lights along the Front were becoming visible, but the worshippers had seen Him who is invisible, and they were unafraid. The faith that was in them had found its expression:
I fear no foe with Thee at hand to bless;
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness;
Where is death's sting? Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if Thou abide with me.
Hold Thou Thy Cross before my closing eyes,
Shine through the gloom, and point me to the skies;
Heaven's morning breaks, and earth's vain shadows flee;
In life and death, O Lord, abide with me.
After the blessing the men quietly separated and walked to their billets. They walked in twos and threes, speaking softly as they went. As they walked I stood and watched them, for there was One with them whose form was like unto the form of the Son of God. He was abiding with them.
THE WAYSIDE CALVARY
LAST Tuesday I had my first Communion Service out here in France. We could not get a room of any kind, so we held the service in the corner of a field behind some billets. I spread my mackintosh on the grass and it served for a table; I used the Communion service which was given me when I left the old country. Twelve men formed a semi-circle round me, and the evening shadows were gathering over us when I began to read the words, 'Dearly beloved in the Lord.' Then in the twilight the twelve came one by one and knelt upon a corner of the mackintosh and received the broken bread and outpoured wine. As we knelt together in Holy Communion we could hear the voices of men returning from a game of football in a neighbouring field. As they passed through an opening in the hedge near us, they lowered their voices and passed quietly on to their billets in the village. When each of the twelve soldiers had partaken, and returned to his place, I gave out, verse by verse, by the help of an electric torch, 'When I survey the wondrous cross.' In the utter stillness of the fields we sang, and, although between the verses we could hear the low booming of distant guns, we rejoiced in the love of God revealed in Christ Jesus. After the Benediction we went our several ways, but two of our lads walked with me to the crossroads. From there my way lay through a piece of open country for some two miles. The night was dark, and the wind wailed over the fields. On my right I could plainly see the flashes and flares that light up the battle-front at night., They held my eyes with a strange fascination as I took my solitary way. Suddenly I turned to a clump of trees on my left, and there saw what I had already seen by day---a tall, stone cross with a small bronze figure of Christ nailed upon it. There the cross stood in the gloom, with just sufficient light to show forth its solemn grandeur. I am a Protestant, but when I looked at the fitful lights on the French front and then turned again to the cross, I could not forbear to lift my hand to Him in salute. I know now why it is that on the French roads you see representations of the Crucifixion rather than the Ascension. It is that this weary, war-stricken world needs assurance of God's love rather than of His power. There on the right were our sons being sacrificed, but there on the left the representation of the sacrifice of God's Son. The men I had knelt with at the Sacrament had been twelve months in the trenches. They knew the meaning of those lights on my right, but they knew also the meaning of that cross on my left, and standing between the two they can say, 'God is love.'
BEFORE AND AFTER THE BATTLE
WE knew the 'Big Push' was coming, but we did not know when. I therefore announced a service for Holy Communion to be held on the Monday evening. All day long the rain came down in torrents, and I watched it almost as anxiously as the people of old must have watched the beginning of the Deluge. We had no building, and the Lord's Supper was to be spread in a field. We were, therefore, dependent on the weather. Towards six o'clock the rain stopped. The field was sodden, but the men came to the service in larger numbers than I had ever seen. We had the same hymns and form of service as we should have had at home, except that before we partook of the bread and wine we sang:
Just as I am, without one plea,
But that Thy blood was shed for me,
And that Thou bidd'st me come to Thee,
O Lamb of God, I come.
After the Benediction we sang:
God be with you till we meet again,
Keep love's banner floating o'er you;
Smite death's threatening waves before you;
God be with you till we meet again.
While I was packing the Communion-set the rain began again to fall, and I had to shelter under a tree. One or two lads joined me, and asked me to take their home addresses in case they 'went under.'
The Friday evening following, groups of soldiers loitered somewhat restlessly about the village. Others stood round the big guns, watching the firing. Many were gathered round little wood fires cooking. They did not know what might happen, they told me, and they intended to prepare for it by having a good supper. I dined at the Regimental Head Quarters. The meal was hurried, and coming events cast their shadow over us. We had to open the window, for the vibration from the big gun opposite threatened to break the glass. The blinding flash and the horrible roar following produced feelings of irritation with each shot.
Dinner ended, the colonel, adjutant, and doctor buckled on their equipment. As we shook hands I wished them success and safe keeping. The men were already mustering in the village street, and a group of officers who had orders to remain behind, in reserve, were walking towards the church to watch the regiment pass. It was a fine evening. The sky, blue as the sea at Valparaiso, was flecked with clouds, white and beautiful as a navy of becalmed sailing ships. just as the golden glow of the sun began to burnish the western sky the men stood to attention. They were waiting on the sun, and the sun lingered in its setting. It was taking its last look of many a noble boy, and it seemed loth to go. At the first touch of twilight the men began to march, but, for fear of observation, a space was left between each company. By the church they halted. There we shook hands with the officers and shouted good-bye to the men. Then bravely, with laughter and song, they passed down the road. Other regiments followed, and soon the whole brigade had passed into the twilight.
About midnight a Roman Catholic chaplain and I, provided with steel helmet, gas helmet, water-bottle, and sandwiches, made our way to the Field Ambulance. There, after a short wait, we boarded an ambulance-car and rode through the gunlit darkness to the advanced dressing-station adjoining the communication-trenches in a village on the line. It looked like a few yards of an underground railway, and belonged to the 'elephant' style of dug-out. The day's work had not begun, and we were each given a cup of Oxo. In the corner lay a soldier suffering from shell-shock, and waiting for the departure of the car that brought us down. He was quite deaf, and could not understand it. Every now and then he raised himself up, and tapped his head above the ears, much as a man taps his watch when it has stopped for some unaccountable reason. A few minutes later a youth was brought in suffering from the loss of two fingers. A grenade had accidentally burst in his hand. He had escaped with remarkably small loss, yet he moaned more than any other sufferer that day. The morning wore on, and each hour the number of wounded increased. About 6 the sergeant-major decided to open the second dugout, and asked me to go with him. Stretcher cases only were to be carried to No. 1, and all walking cases were to go to No. 2. The R.C. chaplain served in the first, and I served in the second. All the morning the bombardment had been terrific. It sounded like the beating of a million iron drums. Great and small filled the air with their clangour. Thousands of shells passed invisibly over our heads, and carried death and destruction to our enemies on the other side of the line. Most of the German shells were concentrated on the infantry in our trenches, and we were kept busy in the dressing-station. It was hell, with the addition of hideous sounds.
At last our watches stood at 7.30, and we knew that our men were 'over the top' and charging across 'No Man's Land.' The scenes that followed defy description. I regretted that I had watched the men march out, for it almost broke my heart to see the condition in which so many of them came back. We forgot victory and defeat, rights and wrongs, and thought only of the frightful cost of war. The doctors worked like giants inspired. So did the sergeant-major. Soon, however, the steps down to the dug-out were crowded with wounded, while outside they lay on each side of the road waiting their turn for treatment. One of my duties was to pick out the worst cases for immediate attention. Some were in a fainting condition, and others were bleeding through their bandages. Those who had but slight wounds, which had been dressed by the regimental doctors in the trenches, were hurried through without further bandaging, and told to walk to the dressing-station at the next village. Registration and inoculation had alike to be dispensed with till they reached the Field Ambulance. We found wounds in every part of the body. Many had slight wounds in the head and owed their lives to their helmets, the steel of which had, though pierced, broken the force of the shell-fragments. All were brave and cheerful. They had been in hell, and the dressing-station was a resting-place on the way to 'Blighty.' A man had only lost an arm where he expected to lose all. He had been fortunate, and cheerfulness became him. Besides, there were others to think of, and cheerfulness was a duty. There was no moaning, except when the doctor probed a wound, or moved a shattered arm. When I took a man out of his turn there was no complaint by the other men. And gladly, after treatment, did they make way for a fainting man to get into a car before his turn. They talked of the battle with enthusiasm---such as could talk. They laughed at their wounds, and called themselves lucky in having got 'Blighty ones.' All were Territorials, and all alike carried themselves like heroes. There was a fine pride in the manner of some of the more seriously wounded. They had 'done their bit,' and knew it. They were too proud to moan. Some of the wounded we had to carry in our arms to the cars. Oxo and tea were passed round as quickly as they could be made. Many were almost dying for a drop of water. The need was so great that I passed a bucket and a cup outside to a Church of England chaplain, who was himself wounded later in the day. Only by ceaseless work could one keep from tears. My hands were red, yet the sight of blood had but little effect. It was the comparison of the scene before the battle with the sight after it that threatened to break open the fountain of tears.
Not till about 1 p.m. did the stream of wounded grow thin. Then one of the doctors asked me to go with him to breakfast---for none had touched food since the night before. Passing down the street we found several seriously wounded men in an unprotected house outside the No. 1 dug-out, which was still fully occupied. We ran back for dressings and filled our pockets, but the absence of water and medical instruments led the doctor to abandon his idea of dressing the wounded where they lay, and the C.O. coming up ordered the men to be put into cars and driven to the Field Ambulance before the Germans began shelling the street. Coats off, we lent a hand to the hard-worked R.A.M.C. stretcher-bearers, and soon the wounded were on their way to safety and attention. A little lower down a dozen Germans lay by the wayside wounded. They were not serious cases, and, having been bandaged, were waiting for cars to take them away. Some one was giving them Oxo, and I got them some cigarettes. They seemed surprised at an officer attending to them, and thanked me with the French word, 'Merci.'
After a little bully beef and bread at the Doctors' Mess, the R.C. padre and I, at the request of the C.O., left for the Field Ambulance, where he said there was now the greater call on our services. For some two miles we followed the track, which led through the English and French batteries. They were working at full strength. German shells fell here and there, but probably our greatest danger was from 'premature bursts' from our own guns. We were too weary to hurry, but felt relieved when we got behind the last battery. The track led to a road that was being shelled by the Germans to prevent reinforcements being sent up. When close to our billet (a cottage, afterwards blown up) we had three narrow escapes. After a meal we continued our way to the Field Ambulance. There we found the ground covered with wounded men. They were lying on stretchers and waiting for cars to carry them to the casualty clearing-station. The tents also were full of wounded. These were receiving the attention of the doctors. In one tent the most serious and delicate operations were being performed. We passed round tea, Oxo, and cigarettes to those awaiting removal, and in some cases we 'wrote home' for men.
All night the cars carried men away, and in a few days there was no sign that a battle had ever taken place. The tents were empty, and the grass was as green as ever. The wounded who were fit to travel were being welcomed in England, and the more serious cases were being tenderly nursed by Englishwomen in our hospitals in France. Never had men fought more gallantly---not even at Balaclava. They had charged, some smoking cigarettes the while, through three barrages of fire, and for several hours held the third German trench. Then, thinned in numbers and unable to get bombs through the barrages, they had been driven back until they reached their own lines. The killed, many of the wounded, and some who were unwounded were left in the German trenches. Their names appear among the 'missing.' In most cases nothing is known of them on this side of the line. They went 'over the top,' and they did not return. Only the enemy can relieve our suspense concerning them. During a short truce next day the wounded were brought in from 'No Man's Land,' but one, in the short time allowed for search, escaped notice, and was discovered on the twelfth night by a patrol party. His recovery at the Field Ambulance caused much joy among the doctors.
The calling of the roll on the morning after a battle is the saddest of all ceremonies, for
We look before and after,
And pine for what is not.
How the regiments were desolated! They had been called upon to sacrifice themselves for others, to hold as many guns and Germans against them as possible, while their comrades farther south broke through. To the end of life, as we sit in our peaceful homes, we shall see faces in the fire; faces that will never grow old, but remain for ever lit with hope and courage, as when, in the glowing beauty of the sunset, they marched through the village street and faded away in the deepening twilight.
TWO sentences flash like lightning through the army in France. The one is, 'Leave is opened'; the other is, 'Leave is closed.' The first brings a smile to every face; the second casts a shadow. An officer said to me some time ago that leave is the greatest invention of the War. Nothing else, he said, could have kept them going.
And now I have been on leave myself. I got the good news on a Friday, and sent a letter home, but I outdistanced it by four days.
On the Saturday evening, just before our regiment marched into the trenches, I with my bundle in my hand, set off for the nearest railway town. It was boyish, I know, to laugh from inward joy alone, but I could not help it. And it was boyish for those who saw me to look so envious, but I know they could not help it. 'Blighty' would make even the Sphinx betray its secret. I hailed a passing wagon, and, of course, must tell the driver that I was on my way to 'Blighty.' My words lit up his face like the striking of a match. Then the light went out. He had a long time to wait for his next leave.
I spent the night with a colleague, and for half an hour after getting into bed I watched him filling a little box with souvenirs that he wished me to post to his wife when I got home. We were up at 5.15 a.m. Breakfast followed. At 6.30 we were at the station. At 6.50 my friend was waving his hand to me as the train steamed out. Until the train actually started we were haunted with the fear that leave might, at the last moment, be closed. My fellow traveller---a Church of England chaplain ---was greatly perturbed. Even as he set off to the station a telegram had been handed to him announcing that he had been transferred to the Base, and must report to his senior before embarking. His nerves were all jangled, and he feared that his leave would be stopped. He had been a bombing officer before becoming a chaplain, and somehow had missed his turn for leave. For ten months he had been in France. Many a time and oft he had rubbed shoulders with death, but he felt he could go on no longer. He had reached 'the limit.'
Farther down the line two other officers joined us. They had landed in France from Gallipoli, and had been over a year from England. As the train crawled along---and a fast train in France is a luxury that no soldier knows ---we related our varying experiences, and sought for signs by which to read the secret of the future. At one of the stations the train stopped for some twenty minutes, and we tried to get food and drink. But it was in vain. Hundreds of Tommies crowded round the buffet, and we had to be content with buying a few oranges at the news-stall. Farther down the line we halted for half an hour, and here the Y.M.C.A. supplied the troops with free tea, and sold them biscuits and chocolate. We had, however, to provide our own mugs, and here Tommy had the advantage. At last some one unearthed a cup, and we used it in turn. We were given a brown liquid. It was tea, if the common report may be trusted; and as the Apostle Paul advises us to eat that which is set before us, asking no questions, it may be best to accept the common report.
At last, after, fourteen hours in the train, we reached the boat. We showed our leave-warrants, and gave the R.T.O. (Railway Transport Officer) the larger half. Up the gangway we passed, and hurried down into the sleeping saloon to find a bunk. Having appropriated one each, we sauntered about, waiting for the hour when cold dinner would be served. Suddenly an officer hurried through the crowd, shouting out the name of Lieut. -----. There was no reply. Lieut. -----, like young Saul of earlier days, was hiding, among the stuff. Perhaps the officer was bringing the lieutenant good news, but the lieutenant thought that no news was the best news until the boat had started for 'Blighty.' 'Any one seen Lieut.-----?' cried the officer. No! No one had seen him. After a time dinner began. While one lot of men was feasting another lot stood round waiting to take their places. At last all were served, and we prepared for sleep. Crowds of Tommies covered the deck and slept in the purer but colder air. Others slept in the saloon below. We lay in the lower saloon, and our bunks were just under the port-holes. Each bunk was occupied, and each yard of the floor. There was little to choose between a bunk and the floor, for we all had to sleep, or rather lie, on the bare boards without mattress or blanket.
At noon of night, after three hours' rocking at the quay, the boat started for 'Blighty.' All was still on board. With their lifebelts for pillows, officers and men were at rest. Most of them seemed asleep. Some were unmistakably asleep, for they were snoring. Oh, the boon of sleep! To be able to forget the heaving of the sea and to lie like a child in a cradle! To forget the lurking submarine and the lifebelt under your head! After the intolerable weariness of the journey, what a boon to be able to snore with utter indifference to all created things! I am a poor sleeper, and not a good sailor, and I must have been green with envy as I watched for many long hours those blissful, snoring sleepers.
At last the sleepers awoke and strolled on deck. I had taken my boots off, and tried to put them on again. But it could only be done by easy stages. It was worse than sitting on a tight-rope to put one's boots on. After each pull at the lace I had to lie down again, for my stomach, like Dublin, was seething with revolt, and needed careful governing. At last I reached the deck and the fresh air, and felt that victory was assured. We were within sight of the haven where we would be.
Oh! dream of joy! Is this indeed
The lighthouse top I see?
Is this the hill? Is this the kirk?
Is this my ain countree?
I had but a halfpenny in English money, and with it I bought a paper at the station. What a bargain it seemed to buy, on the day of issue, for a halfpenny a paper that in France had cost us 2d. the day after its issue! I borrowed ninepence from the Church of England chaplain (who had had no opportunity to report to his senior, and was glad on that account), and I sent a telegram home to announce my arrival. What a luxury it was to be on a train that could run; to see hedges to the fields, and farmhouses in the midst of pastures!
Soon we were in dear old London. While we were yet a great way off it seemed to stretch out its all-embracing arms and draw us to its bosom. I changed French money into English, got a wash, a shave, and a shampoo. Then I got some refreshments. A taxi rushed me through familiar streets to Euston Station. There, waiting for a train, I almost fell asleep. The train came, however, and in less than an hour I got out, and stepped into a motor-bus that carried me to the end of my street. I looked at the chimneys. The home-fires were burning. The smoke of their burning curled up towards heaven as sweetly, it seemed to me, as the smoke of the altar fires in the days of old. As I drew nearer I saw my wife at the upstairs window. She was at her watch-tower, waiting and watching, like many another faithful heart. I opened the garden gate. 'Scott,' hearing the sound, bounded through the open window of the dining-room; but seeing me in khaki instead of black, he hesitated, and barked as at a stranger. 'Scott! ' I called, and at the sound of my voice he rushed across the lawn to be the first to give me welcome. I had wondered many a time if he would know me on my return, and his kisses on my hands warmed my heart. Impeded by 'Scott's' welcome, I reached the entrance. The door opened, and my wife stood before me. I had reached 'Blighty.'
Chapter VIII: An Inspirer on the Parapet
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