Notes of a Camp-Follower on the Western Front
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But it is not so easy to travel sixty miles up or down the Line. It is a question of permits, which take some getting, and of facilities which very properly do not exist. Military railways are not for the transport of civilian camp-followers on private business; moreover, they do go slow when there is no military occasion for much speed; and I had my work, when all was said. But my luck (if you like) was in again. The first old friend that I had met in France was a friend in a higher place than I may say. Already he had shown himself my friend indeed; now, in my need – But here the coincidences multiply, and must be kept distinct.
On the very morning I heard from Ypres – with the watch and the invitation – I was due to visit this old friend in another part altogether. He sent his car for me, the splendid man. I showed him my letter from Ypres.
'You will have to go,' he said.
'In my car.'
(It was much more from where he was.)
'You can have it for two days.'
I could not thank him; nor can I here. How can a man speak for the mother of an only child, whose grave he was to see with her eyes as well as with his own, so that one day he might tell her all? Without a car, in fine, the thing was impossible. There are no thanks for actions such as this: none that words do not belittle. A day was fixed, ten days ahead; this gave me time to write to the boy's mother, and gave her time to send direct to Ypres all the bulbs and plants that she could get, to make her child's bed as gay that spring as he himself had been all the days they were together.
And yet – and yet —was it his grave that had been found? Was the evidence as good as it seemed? I was going all the way to Ypres on the strength of that local evidence only. If I could but have taken one or other of those two men who were there when it happened in 1915! But one of them was away on leave, his three weeks not nearly up; the other, the bandsman who knew most of all, might or might not be with the Battalion; but the Battalion itself was still away. I found that out for certain on the morning of the day before I was to start. They were still resting many kilometres back. I had no means of getting to them, even if I had had the right sort of desire; but the fact was that everything had come about so beautifully without one move of mine, that I was quite consciously content to drift in the current of an unfathomable influence.
That afternoon there came to my hut, for no particular reason that he ever told me, a man I had not met before. He was the Senior Chaplain of the boy's Division. We made friends, by what steps I cannot remember, but I must have told him where I was going next day. He was interested. I told him the whole thing. He said: 'But surely there must be somebody in the Battalion that you could take with you, to identify the place?' I told him there was such a man, a bandsman, but the Battalion was away resting and I was not sure but that the man himself was on leave.Said the Chaplain: 'I can find out. I know where they are. I can get them on the telephone. If you don't hear from me again, go round their way in the morning when you get the car. It's ten kilometres in the wrong direction, but it may be worth your while.'
Worth my while! I did not hear from him again; not a word all that anxious evening to spoil the prospect he had opened up; and in the morning came the car, a powerful limousine, mine for the next two days! My pass from the A.P.M. was for Ypres only, but I did not think of that. In less than an hour we had found those rest-billets among ploughed fields at peace in the spring sunshine; and at the right regimental headquarters, a young Corporal ready waiting in his field overcoat. It was the bandsman: he who had been nearest to the boy at the very last, to whose special care his dear body had been committed. The living man who had most to tell me!
And the first thing he told me showed what a mercy it was to have him with me; but at the moment it came as a shock. I had shown him the watch; he had shaken his head. No watch had been buried with the boy; of that the Corporal was unshakably certain; and he was the man to know, the man whose duty it had been to make sure at the time. Away went our strongest piece of evidence! Then I told him about the boot-strap, always a doubtful item in my own mind; and the Corporal swept it aside at once. The boy had not worn boots with straps; he had worn ordinary laced boots and puttees; exactly as I had been thinking at the back of my mind. He had not been out many weeks, and I knew every noble inch of him that went away. So, after all, it was not his grave that had been found! That would have been a grievous blow but for the transcending thought – it was not his grave that had been disturbed! And we might never have known but for this young soldier at my side who was saying quite confidently that he could show me where the grave really was! One of – at most – three living men who could!
Who had brought him to my side – at the last moment – the very man I wanted – the one man needful?
To be sure, the Senior Chaplain of their Division; but why should the Senior Chaplain, a man I never saw before, have come to my hut in the nick of time to do me this service, so definitely desired? Why should I myself have come to the very place in France where the Division was waiting for me – the one place where I had also an old friend with a car to lend me when the time came? Why had I not gone to Belgium (to be near the boy) as I at first intended? And why, at that very time, should a complete stranger have been making entirely independent efforts to find the grave in Belgium that I yearned to see?
'Chance' is no answer, unless the word be held to cover an organic tissue of chances, each in turn closely related to some other chance, all component parts of a chance whole! And what sensation novelist would build a plot on such foundations and hope to make his tale convincing? Not I, at my worst; and there were more of these chances still to come, albeit none that mattered as did those already recounted.
Nor is there very much left to tell that bears telling here. In Ypres I did not find my great unknown friend; he had warned me, when it was too late to alter plans, that he might be called home on a private matter; and this had happened. But he had told me I should find his 'trusty Sergeant,' who had taken part in the investigations, ready to help me in every way; and so, indeed, I did. The man was, among other things, an enthusiastic amateur gardener; he had known exactly what to do with the bulbs and plants, which he had unpacked on their arrival and was keeping nice and moist for next morning. But this was not the first thing we had to talk about. The first thing was to impress upon the Sergeant the importance of not letting my witness know that a new cross had been put up, and so to ensure absolutely independent identification of the spot. He gave me his promise, and I know he kept it.
Next morning, under a leaden February sky, the three of us drove north in the car, accompanied by a second Sergeant with digging tools, in case the bandsman located the grave elsewhere and I was bent upon some proof. At the time I did not know why he was with us; later, the quiet little fact above spoke volumes for the good faith of the party. It was completed by a young Catholic Padre from Ypres, so that the only office which the boy had lacked at the hands of his dear men might now be fulfilled.
I am following the course we took upon a military map given to the boy's father by one of the many officers who had befriended him in his trouble; and I had been prepared for the thickening cluster of shell-holes further on by more than one aeroplane photograph sent from Army Headquarters. O that all whom this war has robbed of their hearts' delight could know, as this father knows, how the huge heart of the Army is with them in their sorrow! There was the Army Commander, who had done what he could for a man he met but once by chance; it was not much that even he could do, but how more than readily it had been done! And now here in the car, itself a tangible sign of infinite compassion, were these N.C.O.'s and this young priest, with their grave faces and their kind eyes! One's heart went out to them. It seemed all wrong to be taking men, who any day might be in theirs, to see a soldier's grave in cold blood. So we fell to discussing the sky, the mud, and such landmarks as remained, quite simply and naturally, as the boy himself would have wished.
'Plains that the moonlight turns to sea,' the boy had quoted in describing the plain we were crossing now; but it had become a broken plain since his time; covered with elephant huts and pill-boxes, scored by light railways; the roads on which no man might live in those days, themselves alive with traffic in these, with lorries and men and all the abundant activities of a host behind a host. The car stopped one or two hundred yards from our destination, towards which we threaded our way over duck-boards, through and past these mushroom habitations, till we came to the green open space which was all that remained of the farm. Not a stone or a brick to be seen; not even a heap of bricks, or a charred beam, or the empty socket of pillar or post; only the two gate-posts themselves, looking like the stumps of trees. But what better than a gateway to give a man his bearings? It led the bandsman straight to a regular file of such stumps, which really had been trees: and in his path stood a white cross, new and sturdy, at which I had been looking all the time: at which he stopped without looking twice, still studying the ground and the bits of landmarks that survived. It was the place.
It was the boy's grave; and the discoverer's – nay, the diviner's – instinct stood vindicated as wonderfully as his evidence had been discredited. Almost adjoining it was a great shell-hole full of water; but it was not our grave that the shell had rifled. Our grave had been dug too deep. It was as though the boy himself had said: 'It's my grave all right – but I don't want you to go thinking those were my things! All that was me or mine is just as they left it.'
So we took off our helmets and stood listening to the young priest reading the last office, in Latin first and then in English. And many of the beautiful sentences were punctuated by loud reports, which I took for our guns if I thought of them at all; for as yet I had heard hardly anything else down south; but after the service I saw little black balloons appearing by magic in mid-air, expanding into dingy cloudlets, and presently dissolving shred by shred. It was enemy shrapnel all the time.
Then the two Sergeants prepared the ground with gentle skill; and we knelt and put in the narcissus bulbs, the primroses and pinks, the phlox and the saxifrage, that the boy's mother had sent him; and a baby rose-tree from an old friend who loved him, in the corner of England that he loved best; it must be climbing up his cross, if it has lived to climb at all.
The clouds had broken before the service ended with the sprinkling of Holy Water; and now between the shell-bursts, while we were yet busy planting, came strains of distant music, as thin and faint and valiant as the February sunshine. It was one of our British bands, perhaps at practice in some safe fold of the famous battle-field, more likely assisting at some ceremonial further away than I imagined; for they seemed to be playing very beautifully; and when they finished with 'Auld Lang Syne' they could not have hung more pathetically upon the closing bars if they had been playing at our graveside, for the boy who always loved a band.
Then there was his trench to see; but it was full of water where it had not fallen in, and was not like a trench any more. And the estaminet at the cross-roads, that cruelly warm corner whence he passed into peace, it too had vanished from the earth. But the gentle slope that had been No-Man's Land was much as he must have seen it in anxious summer dawns, and under the stars that twinkled on so many of his breathless adventures in the early bombing days, when he pelted Germans in their own trench with his own hand, and thought it all 'a jaunt'; thought it 'just like throwing in from cover'; declared it 'as safe as going up to a man's front door-bell – pulling it – and running off again!'
Well, this was where he had played those safe games; and true enough, it was not by them he met his death, but standing-to down there under shell-fire, on a summer's morning after his own heart, with eyes like the summer sky turned towards the same line of trees my eyes were beholding now, his last thought for his men. I could almost hear his eager question:
'Is everybody all right?'
They were the boy's last words.
Did I enter into the spirit of all that last chapter of his dear life the better for being on the scene, and watching shrapnel burst over it even as he had watched it a thousand times? I cannot say I did. I doubt if I could have entered into it more than I always had … we were such friends. But how he must be entering into the whole spirit of my whole pilgrimage! It was like so much of his old life and mine. Always he knew that he had only to call and I would come to him, at school or wherever he was; many a time I had jumped into a car and gone, though he never did call me in his life. Had he now? … There was my friend's car waiting, as it might have been once more in the lane opposite 'the old grey Chapel behind the trees.' … And here were we passengers, a party from the four winds, all brought together by different agencies for the same simple end. Who had brought us? Who had prompted or inspired those directly responsible for our being there? It was not, you perceive, a case of one god from a machine, but of three at the very least. Who had so beautifully arranged the whole difficult thing?
Even to that band! But for 'Auld Lang Syne' one might not take it seriously for a moment; but remembering those searching strains, and the pathos put into them, the early hour, the wild place, the bursting shrapnel, who can help the flash of fancy? Not one who will never forget the boy's gay, winning knack of getting bands to play what he wanted; this was just the tune he would have called, that we might all join hands and not forget him, yet remember cheerily for his sake!
But it all had been as he would have had it if he could: not one little thing like that, but the whole big thing he must have wanted: all granted to him or his without their mortal volition at any stage. Chances or accidents, by the chapter, if you will! No man on earth can prove the contrary; and yet there are few, perhaps, who have lost their all in this war, and who would not thank God for such a string of happenings. But one does not thank God for a chain of chances. And if any link was of His forging, why not the whole chain, as two thankful people dare to think?
THE REST HUT
It was not my inspiration to run one of our huts entirely as a library for the troops. I was merely the fortunate person chosen to conduct the experiment. In most of the huts there was already some small supply of books for circulation, and at our headquarters in the town a dusty congestion of several hundred volumes which nobody had found time to take in hand. The idea was to concentrate these scattered units, to obtain standard reinforcements from London and the base, indent for all the popular papers and magazines, and go into action as a Free Library at the Front. It was at first proposed to do without any kind of a canteen; but I was all against driving a keen reader elsewhere for his tea, and held out for light refreshments after four and cigarettes all the time. On this and many other points I was given my way in a fashion that would have fired anybody to make the venture a success.
The hut placed at my disposal was a very good one in the middle of the town, indeed within the palisade of the once magnificent Town Hall. That grandiose pile had been knocked into mountains of rubbish, with the mere stump of its dizzy belfry still towering over all as the Matterhorn of the range. These ruins formed one side of a square like a mouthful of bad teeth, all hollow stumps or clean extractions; our upstart hut was the only whole building of any sort within sight. It had a better saloon than my last land-ship; on the other hand, it was infested with rats from the surrounding wrecks. They would lope across the floor under one's nose, or dangle their tails from the beams overhead, and I slept with a big stick handy.
Relays of peace-time carpenters, borrowed from their units for a day or two each, fell upon all the benches and table-tops they required, and turned them into five long tiers of book-shelves behind the counter. In the meantime our own Special Artist was busy on a new and noble scheme of decoration, and two or three of us up to our midriffs in the first thousand books. They were a motley herd: the sweepings of unknown benefactors' libraries, the leavings of officers and men, cunning shafts from the devout of all denominations, and the first draft of cheap masterpieces from the base. Classification was beyond me, even if time had been no object: how could one classify 'The Sol of Germany,' 'A Yorkstireman Alroad,' 'The Livinz Waze,' 'From Workhouse to Westminster: Life-Story of With Gooks, M.P.' (four copies), or even the books these titles stood for in the typewritten catalogue that arrived (from Paris) too late to entertain us? All authors in alphabetical order seemed the simplest principle; and in practice even that arrangement ran away with days.
Then each volume had to be labelled (over the publishers' imprint on the binding) and the labels filled in with the letter and number of each in one's least illegible hand; and this took more days, though the rough draft of the catalogue emerged simultaneously; and the merit of the plan, if any, was that the catalogue order eventually coincided with that of the actual books on the shelves. The drawback was that books kept dropping in or turning up too late for insertion in their proper places. I could think of no better way out of this difficulty than by resorting to a large Z class, or dump, for late-comers. This met the case though far from satisfying my instincts for the rigour of a game. Another time (this coming winter, for instance, when I hope to have it all to do again) I shall be delighted to adopt some more approved method of dealing with a growing library; last spring one had to do the best one could by the light of nature. Nevertheless, there was not much amiss (except the handwriting) with the clean copy (in carbon duplicate) of a catalogue which ran to a good many thousand words, and kept two of us out of bed till several successive midnights; for by this time I had a staunch confederate who took the whole thing as seriously as I did, and perhaps even found it as good fun.
We had hoped to open – it was really very like producing a play – early in February, but a variety of vicissitudes delayed the event until the twentieth of the month. As the day approached we had many visitors, who had heard of our effort and were prepared to spread our fame; time was well lost in showing them round, and I confess I enjoyed the job. They had to begin by admiring the scraper. It was perhaps the worst scraper in Europe – I ached for a week from sinking its two uprights into harder chalk with a heavier pick-axe than I thought existed – but it was symbolical. It meant that you could leave the mud of war outside our hut; but I am afraid the first thing to be seen inside was inconsistent with this symbol. It was the complete Daily Mail sketch-map of the Western Front, the different sheets joined together and mounted on the locked door opposite the one in use. The feature of this feature was that the Line was pegged out from top to bottom with the best red-tape procurable in the town. It toned delightfully with the art-green of the sketch-map.
In the ordinary Y.M.C.A. nobody would have seen it! In winter, at any rate, it is dusk at high noon in the ordinary hut, which is lighted only by canvas windows under the eaves. In our hut, however, we had a pair of fine skylights, expressly cut to save our readers' eyes, and glazed with some shimmering white stuff which seemed to increase the light, like a fall of snow, instead of slightly diluting it like the best of glass. The side windows glistened with the same material, so that a dull day seemed to clear up as you entered. Between the skylights stood four trestle tables under one covering of American cloth, whereon the day's papers, magazines and weeklies, were to be displayed club-fashion; the writing tables, likewise in American cloth, were arranged under the side windows; and at an even distance from either end of the fourfold reading table were the two stoves. One stove is the ordinary hut-allowance.
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