A PADRE IN FRANCE
GEORGE A. BIRMINGHAM
"THE MAJOR'S NIECE," "GENERAL JOHN REGAN," "SPANISH GOLD" "BENEDICT KAVANAGH," ETC.
HODDER AND STOUGHTON
LONDON NEW YORK TORONTO
Printed in Great Britain by Hazell, Watson & Viney, Ld., London and Aylesbury.
WORKS BY THE SAME AUTHOR
THE MAJOR'S NIECE MINNIE'S BISHOP GENERAL JOHN REGAN HYACINTH BENEDICT KAVANAGH
LONDON: HODDER & STOUGHTON
R. M. L.
FRIEND AND FELLOW-WORKER
PAGE CHAPTER I THE UTTERMOST PART 15
CHAPTER II GETTING THERE 27
CHAPTER III A JOURNEY IN THE WAR ZONE 40
CHAPTER IV SETTLING DOWN 52
CHAPTER V KHAKI 63
CHAPTER VI LEISURE HOURS 78
CHAPTER VII COMING AND GOING 95
CHAPTER VIII WOODBINE HUT 115
CHAPTER IX Y.S.C. 131
CHAPTER X THE DAILY ROUND 151
CHAPTER XI ANOTHER JOURNEY 164
CHAPTER XII MADAME 177
CHAPTER XIII THE CON. CAMP 194
CHAPTER XIV A BACKWATER 214
CHAPTER XV MY THIRD CAMP 229
CHAPTER XVI LEAVE 245
CHAPTER XVII A HOLIDAY 261
CHAPTER XVIII PADRES 275
CHAPTER XIX CITIZEN SOLDIERS 289
A PADRE IN FRANCE
THE UTTERMOST PART
I have always admired the sagacity of Balak, King of Moab, about whom we learn something in the Book of Numbers. He was threatened with invasion by a powerful foe and felt unequal to offering armed resistance. He invoked the aid of spiritual powers by inviting a prophet, Balaam, to come and curse the army of the invaders. Balaam suffered himself to be persuaded and bribed by the king. All kings—and the statesmen who nowadays regulate the conduct of kings—understand the business of managing men so far. Persuasion and bribery are the methods of statecraft. But Balak knew more than the elements of his trade. He understood that spiritual forces, if merely bribed, are ineffective. To make a curse operate there must be a certain amount of conviction in the mind of the curser. Balaam was not convinced, and when he surveyed the hosts of Israel from the top of a hill felt himself compelled by the spirit within him to bless instead of curse. The king, discouraged but not hopeless, took the prophet to the top of another hill, showed him a different view of the camp of Israel and invited him to curse the people from there.
At first sight this seems a foolish thing to have done; but properly considered it appears very crafty. From the fresh viewpoint, Balaam saw not the whole, but only the "uttermost part" of the hosts of Israel. I suppose he no longer saw the first-line troops, the army in battle array. Instead he saw the base camps, the non-combatant followers of the army, a great deal that was confused and sordid, very little that was glorious or fine. It might conceivably have been possible for him to curse the whole army and cast a blight upon its enterprise, when his eyes rested only on the camp-followers, the baggage trains, the mobs of cattle, the maimed and unfit men; when the fine show of the fighters was out of sight. Plainly if a curse of any real value was to be pronounced it must be by a prophet who saw much that was execrable, little that was obviously glorious.
It is Balak's sagacity in choosing the prophet's second point of view which I admire. If any cursing of an army is done at all, it will be done by some one, whose post is behind the lines, who has seen, not the whole, but only the uttermost part, and that the least attractive part of the hosts.
It was my luck to remain, all the time I was in France, in safe places. I never had the chance of seeing the gallantry of the men who attack or the courageous tenacity of those who defend. I missed all the excitement. I experienced none of those hours of terror which I have heard described, nor saw how finely man's will can triumph over terror. I had no chance of knowing that great comradeship which grows up among those who suffer together. War, seen at the front, is hell. I hardly ever met any one who doubted that. But it is a hell inhabited not by devils, but by heroes, and human nature rises to unimaginable heights when it is subjected to the awful strain of fighting. It is no wonder that those who have lived with our fighting army are filled with admiration for the men, are prepared to bless altogether, not war which we all hate, but the men who wage it.
The case is very different behind the lines. There, indeed, we see the seamy side of war. There are the men who, in some way or other, have secured and keep safe jobs, the embusques whom the French newspapers constantly denounce. There are the officers who have failed, proved unfit for command, shown themselves lacking in courage perhaps, and in mercy have been sent down to some safe base. There are the men who have been broken in spirit as well as in body, who drag on an existence utterly dull, very toilsome, well-nigh hopeless, and are illuminated by no high call for heroic deeds. There the observer sees whatever there is to be seen of petty spite and jealousies, the manipulating of jobs, the dodging of regulations, all that is most ignoble in the soldier's trade. There also are the men with grievances, who, in their own estimation, are fit for posts quite other than those they hold. Some one described war at the front as an affair of months of boredom punctuated by moments of terror. If that philosopher had been stationed at a base he might have halved his epigram and described war as months of boredom unpunctuated even by terror.
Yet even behind the lines, in the remotest places, that which moves our admiration far outshines what is sordid and mean. We still bless, not war, but soldiers. We forget the failures of man in joyful contemplation of his achievements.
Here are the great hospitals, where suffering men succeed each other day after day, so that we seem to see a mist of pain rising like a ceaseless cloud of incense smoke for the nostrils of the abominable Moloch who is the god of war. A man, though long inured to such things, may curse the Moloch, but he will bless the sufferers who form the sacrifice. Their patience, their silent heroism, are beyond our praise.
Here are huge cemeteries, long lines of graves, where every morning some are laid to rest, with reverence indeed, but with scant measure of the ritual pomp with which men are wont to pay their final honour to the dead. These have passed, not in a moment amid the roar of battle, but after long bearing of pain, and lonely, with the time for last farewells but none greatly loved to say them to. Yet, standing above the lines of rude coffins, viewing the names and numbers pencilled on the lids, our hearts are lifted up. We know how great it is to lay down life for others. The final wailing notes of the "Last Post" speak our feeling: "Good night. Good-bye. See you again, soon."
Here, among those less worthy, are men who are steadily doing, without much hope of praise, things intolerably monotonous, doing them day after day for years, inspired by what Ruskin calls "the unvexed instinct of duty." Often these are old men, too old for field command. They have spent their lives in the army, have learned, have worked, have waited in the hope that some day their chance would come. Soldiers by profession and desire, they have looked for the great opportunity which the war they foresaw would give. The war came and the opportunity; but came too late for them. They can look for nothing but the dull duties of the base. They do them, enduring minor hardships, facing ceaseless worries, going calmly on, while the great stream of war on which they hoped to float moves on, leaving them behind. With them are others, younger men, who have seen some fighting, have been wounded or broken in health. Often they have struggled hard to secure the posts they hold. They might have gone home. They counted it a desirable thing to be employed still, since actual fighting was impossible, somewhere in touch with fighting men.
I wonder how much Balaam divined of the greatness which, no doubt, was in "the uttermost part" of the host when the king showed it to him. I suppose he understood something of it, for once again, to the indignation of Balak, he blessed instead of cursing. I am sure that any one who has lived long among the men at our bases will feel as I do, that his pride in what is great there far outweighs his disappointment at the other things he saw. I never saw the fighting or the actual front, but even if I had seen nothing else but the fighting I could scarcely feel greater admiration for our officers and men or more love for them.
I have, of course, no tales of adventure to tell. Perhaps I am too old for adventuring, or never had the spirit which makes adventures possible. Yet I own to a certain feeling of disappointment when the doctor who examined me in London told me with almost brutal frankness that he would not allow me to be sent to the front. To France I might go, and even that permission, I think, was a concession. But in France I must remain in places where hardship is not extreme. Doctors are powerful people in the army and in certain matters their word is the supreme law. But fortunately there are always other doctors. And I think I could in the end have managed to get to the very front, in spite of that first man, though he held high rank and was much be-tabbed. But by the time I found out how to get round his prohibition I had become so much interested in my work that I did not want to leave it and even felt grateful to that doctor for sending me to France in the position of a man marked P.B., letters which stand for Permanent Base, and mean that their bearer will not be asked to go where fighting is.
For one other thing I am thankful to the doctor who examined me. He did not ask me to be vaccinated, inoculated, or half-poisoned in any other way. If he had demanded such things of me before I held my commission, I might have had to yield, and I should have disliked the business greatly. Afterwards I remained an unpersecuted heretic and never underwent any of these popular operations. For months, I know, a form was constantly filled up about me and sent to the medical staff of the base at which I was, stating the awful fact that I had escaped the safeguards provided for me, and was still alive. I used to expect that trouble of some sort would arise, but none ever did. Perhaps the authorities were merciful to me because I made no attempt to propagate my opinions; which indeed are scarcely opinions. I should not dream of denying that inoculation of every known kind is excellent for other people, and ought to be rigorously enforced on them. My only strong feeling is that I should escape.
My medical examination was a much more rigorous and unpleasant business than my interview—I can scarcely call this an examination—with my particular chief, the Chaplain-General. He appeared to be satisfied by previous inquiries that I was a fit and proper person—or as little unfit as could reasonably be hoped—to minister to soldiers in France. He took down my answers to half a dozen questions on a sheet of paper which somebody afterwards must have lost, for I had to answer the same questions again by letter after I got to France.
Up to the point of my interview and examination in London, the negotiations with regard to my commission as Chaplain to the Forces were conducted with dignified deliberation. My letters were answered a fortnight or so after they were received. There was no sense of urgency or hurry. We might have been corresponding about a monument to be erected at a remote date to some one still alive and quite young. This, if slightly irritating, gave me a feeling of great confidence in the Chaplains' Department of the War Office. It was evidently a body which worked methodically, carefully, and with due consideration of every step it took. Its affairs were likely to prove efficiently organised. I looked forward to finding myself part of a machine which ran smoothly, whose every cog fitted exactly into the slot designed for it. No part of the War Office was likely at the moment to adopt a German motto; but the Chaplains' Department was plainly inspired by the spirit of Goethe's Ohne haste, ohne raste.
I have heard other men complain that the Department is dilatory, not merely deliberate, and that it is often impossible to get an answer to a letter at all. There is a story told of a man who wrote offering his services as chaplain, wrote again after a decent interval, continued to write for many months, and finally received, by way of reply, a nice little tract—not even on patience, but on conversion. I do not know whether that story is true or not. No tract was ever sent to me, and my letters were answered—after a time.
After my visit to London, the interview, and the examination, the whole spirit of the proceedings changed. I was involved in a worse than American hustle, and found myself obliged to hustle other innocent people, tailors and boot-makers, in order to get together some kind of a kit in time for a start to be made at the shortest possible notice.
I am told that the whole military machine works in this way in dealing with individuals. There is a long period of leisurely and quiet thought—it sometimes appears of complete inertia. Then there is a violent rush, and all sorts of things happen in a minute. I do not know for certain whether officers in other branches of the service suffer in this way. My experience as a chaplain made me feel like a bullet in a gun. For a long time I lay passive, and, except for the anxiety of anticipation, at rest. The man who held the weapon was making up his mind to fire. Then, without any special warning to me, he pulled the trigger, and before I could take a long breath I was flying through space to an unknown destination, without even the comfort of knowing that I had been aimed at any particular object.
But my faith in the Department was unshaken. I remembered the cautious deliberation of the earlier proceedings, and came to the conclusion that whereas there had been for many months an ample supply of chaplains at the front, and a regular flow of reinforcements from home, a sudden and desperate shortage had occurred—owing to casualties in battle, or some kind of pestilence—and that it was necessary to rush new men to the scene of action at the highest speed. This explanation seemed to me reasonable. It did not turn out to be true. There was no particularly urgent demand for chaplains when I reached France.
I am now inclined to think that the Chaplains' Department does its business in this particular way with deliberate intention. It desires first to produce an impression of stability, wisdom, and forethought. It proceeds slowly, and for long periods does not proceed at all. It also wishes its servants to feel that it is vigorous, filled with energy, and working at terrifically high pressure. Then it does things with a rush which would put to shame the managing directors of the New York Underground Railway.
I made my start from Victoria Station on a January morning. I had worn His Majesty's uniform for no more than two days, and was still uneasily conscious of my strange clothes. I was uncertain about the proper adjustment of straps and buttons. I came for the first time in my life into touch with the army. I, a man of over fifty, went back with a leap to the emotions of forty years before. I was a new boy in a big school.
Others—some who have had the experience and more who have not—have described that start from Victoria or Waterloo. They have said something about the pangs of farewell, though I cannot imagine how any one who has been through it wants to talk about that. They have said a good deal about the thrill of excitement which comes with the beginning of adventure. They have described a certain awe of the unknown. They have tingled with intense curiosity.
I confess chiefly to bewilderment, the discomfort of strangeness and an annoying sense of my own extreme insignificance. I was a new boy. I wanted to behave properly, to do the right thing, and I had no way of knowing what the right thing was. I was absurdly anxious not to "cheek" anybody, and thereby incur the kind of snubbing, I scarcely expected the kicks, which I had endured long ago when I found myself a lonely mite in a corner of the cloisters of my first school.
I sat, with my bundle of papers tucked in beside me, in a corner of a Pullman car. Opposite me was an officer. I recognised, by the look of his Sam Browne belt, that he was an old boy, that he had been there before. I did not know then, being wholly unskilled in pips and badges, what he was. My impression now is that he was an artillery captain, probably returning to the front after leave. It seems ridiculous to be afraid to speak to an artillery captain; but nothing would have induced me to begin a conversation with that man. For all I knew he might have been a general, and it might have been the worst kind of bad form for a mere padre to speak to a general. I even thought of saluting him when I first caught his eye, but I did not know how to salute.
It was he, in the end, who spoke to me. We had reached the end of our train journey and were gathering coats and haversacks from the racks above our heads. I left my papers—Punch and The Bystander—on the seat.
"You ought to take those with you," he said. "You'll find lots of fellows jolly thankful to get them over there."
So I was going to a land where men could not easily come by Punch and The Bystander. In a general way I knew that before he spoke. I had heard of the hardships of war. I was prepared for my share of them. But I had somehow failed to realise that it might be impossible, under certain circumstances, to buy Punch if I wanted it.
The boat, though we arrived beside it early in the morning, did not actually start till afternoon. I might have gone to an hotel and had a comfortable luncheon. I was afraid to do anything of the sort. Military discipline is not a thing to play tricks with. I had made up my mind about that before I started, and in the orders given me for my journey there was not a word about luncheon. I went hungry—foolishly, no doubt.
I heard a story once about a sergeant and several men who were cut off by the Germans from their battalion. They held out for forty hours and were finally rescued. It was found that they had not touched their iron (emergency) ration. Asked why they had gone hungry when they had food in their pockets, the sergeant replied that the eating of iron rations without orders from a superior officer was forbidden. His was a great devotion to discipline—heroic, though foolish. My abstinence was merely foolish. I could not claim that I had any direct orders not to go to an hotel for luncheon.
While I waited on the deck of the steamer I met M. He was alone as I was; but he looked much less frightened than I felt. He was a padre too; but his uniform was not aggressively new. It seemed to me that he might know something about military life. My orders were "to report to the M.L.O." when I landed. I wanted very much to know what that word "report" meant. I wanted still more to know what an M.L.O. was and where a stray voyager would be likely to find him.
It was not difficult to make friends with M. It is never difficult for one padre to make friends with another. All that is necessary by way of introduction is a frank and uncensored expression of opinion about the Chaplains' Department of the War Office. The other man's soul is knit to yours at once. I cannot now remember whether M. or I attacked the subject first. I know we agreed. I suppose it is the same with all branches of the service. Combatant officers are, or used in those days to be, one in heart when discussing the Staff. I never met a doctor who did not think that the medical services are organised by congenital idiots. Every one from the humblest A.S.C. subaltern to the haughtiest guardsman agrees that the War Office is the refuge of incompetents. Padres, perhaps, express themselves more freely than the others. They are less subject to the penalties which threaten those who criticise their superiors. But their opinions are no stronger than those of other people.
Even without that bond of common feeling I think I should have made friends with M. No franker, more straightforward, less selfish man has crossed the sea to France wearing the obscured Maltese Cross which decorates the cap of the padre. It was my first real stroke of luck that I met M. on the deck of that steamer. As it turned out he knew no more than I did about what lay before us. His previous service had been in England and he was going to France for the first time. An M.L.O. was a mystery to him.
But he was cheerful and self-confident. His view was that an exaggerated importance might easily be attached to military orders. If an M.L.O. turned out to be an accessible person, easily recognised, we should report to him and set our consciences at ease. If, on the other hand, the authorities chose to conceal their M.L.O. in some place difficult to find, we should not report to him. Nothing particular would happen either way. So M. thought, and he paced the deck with so springy a step that I began to hope he might be right.
Our passage was abominably rough. M., who dislikes being seasick in public, disappeared. I think what finished him was the sight of an officer in a kilt crawling on his hands and knees across the wet and heaving deck, desperately anxious to get to the side of the ship before his malady reached its crisis. M.'s chair was taken by a pathetic-looking V.A.D. girl, whose condition soon drove me away.
It is one of the mitigations of the horrors of this war that whoever takes part in it is sure to meet friends whom he has lost sight of for years, whom he would probably lose sight of altogether if the chances of war did not bring unexpected meetings. That very first day of my service was rich in its yield of old friends.
When I fled from the sight of the V.A.D.'s pale face, I took to wandering about the decks and came suddenly on a man whom I had last seen at the tiller of a small boat in Clew Bay. I was beating windward across the steep waves of a tideway. His boat was running free with her mainsail boomed out; and he waved a hand to me as he passed. Once again we met at sea; but we were much less cheerful. He was returning to France after leave, to spend the remainder of a second winter in the trenches. He gave it to me as his opinion that life in the Ypres salient was abominable beyond description, and that no man could stand three winters of it. I wanted to ask him questions about military matters, and I might have got some light and leading from him if I had. But somehow we drifted away from the subject and talked about County Mayo, about boats, about islands, and other pleasant things.
M., recovering rapidly from his seasickness, proved his worth the moment we set foot on dry land. He discovered the M.L.O., who seemed a little surprised that we should have taken the trouble to look him up. We left him, and M., still buoyant, found another official known as an R.T.O. He is a man of enormous importance, a controller of the destinies of stray details like ourselves. He told us that we should reach our destination—perhaps I should say our first objective—if we took a train from the Gare Centrale at 6 p.m. We had a good look at the Gare Centrale, to make sure that we should know it again.
Then M. led me off to find a censor. Censors, though I did not know it then, are very shy birds and conceal their nests with the cunning of reed warblers. Hardly any one has ever seen a censor. But M. found one, and we submitted to his scrutiny letters which we had succeeded in writing. After that I insisted on getting something to eat. I had breakfasted at an unholy hour. I had crossed the sea. I had endured great mental strain. I had tramped the streets of an exceedingly muddy town in a downpour of rain. I felt that I must have food and if possible, wine. M. is indifferent to food and hardly ever tastes wine. But he is a kind-hearted man. He agreed to eat with me, though I am sure he would much rather have looked up another official or two, perhaps introduced himself to the Base Commandant.
We went to an hotel, the largest and most imposing in the town, but, as I discovered months afterwards, quite the worst. There I found another friend. Or rather, another friend found me. He was a young man in the uniform of the R.A.M.C. and he rushed at me from the far end of a large salon. I am ashamed to say that I neither recognised him nor knew his name when he told it to me. But there was no doubt of his friendly feelings. He asked me where I was going. I told him, "G.H.Q." It appeared that he had just come from G.H.Q. in a motor. How he came to have control of a motor I do not know. He was a very junior officer, not on anybody's staff and totally unconnected with transport of any kind. He offered us the car and said that we could start any time we liked. He himself was going on leave and the car had to go back to G.H.Q. I had been distinctly told by the R.T.O. to go in a train and—it was my first day in the army—I had a very high idea of the importance of obeying orders. M. laughed at me. So did my other friend.
"Nobody," he said, "cares a pin how you get there, and it doesn't matter when. This week or next, it's all the same. In fact, if I were you I should take a couple of days off and see the country before I reported at G.H.Q."
I know now that I might have done this and that no one would have been surprised or angry if I had. But the new-boy feeling was still strong on me. I was afraid. It seemed to me an awful thing to go for a tour in the war zone in a kidnapped motor, which might for all I knew be a car specially set apart for the use of the Commander-in-Chief.
At 6 o'clock we started in that car, M., I, and a total stranger who emerged from the hotel at the last moment and sat on my valise. There was also the driver and M.'s luggage. M. had a great deal of luggage. We were horribly cramped. It rained with increasing fury. We passed through a region of pallid mud, chalk, I suppose, which covered us and the car with a slimy paste. But I enjoyed the drive. Sentries, French and English, challenged us, and I could see the rain glistening on their bayonets in the light of our lamps. We rushed through villages and intensely gloomy woods. Sign-posts shone white for an instant at cross roads and disappeared. The wind whipped the rain against our faces. The white slime utterly dimmed my spectacles, and I looked out at walls of darkness through frosted glass.
The stranger, balanced perilously on my valise, shouted to me the news that G.H.Q. had been bombed by aeroplanes the day before. It was all that was wanted to complete the sense of adventure. I could have wished for a bomb or two which would miss us, for the sight of a Taube (they were Taubes, not Fokkers or Gothas, in those days) swooping into sight suddenly through the darkness and vanishing again. None came.
We took the advice of our unknown travelling companion and engaged rooms in the hotel he recommended. It was not at all a bad hotel. If we had had any sense or experience, we should have dined and gone straight to bed. That was what M. wanted to do. I suffered from an attack of conscience, and insisted that we ought to report ourselves to the Deputy-Chaplain-General.
"Our orders," I reminded M., "are to report on arrival."
We set out to look for the Deputy-Chaplain-General, M. averring that he had a special talent for finding his way in strange towns at night. Owing to what are officially known as the "unhappy divisions" of the Christian Church, there are two chief chaplains in France. One controls the clergy of the Church of England. The other drives a mixed team of Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, and others who owe spiritual allegiance to what is called "The United Board." At that time both these gentlemen had offices in the same town.
In spite of M.'s instinct for locality we came on the wrong one first. Our chief was located in the most obscure corner. We found him at last, or rather we found his office. The good man himself was probably in bed. An orderly invited us to write our names in block capitals, insisting severely on the block capitals, in a large book. Then—he must have recognised that we were new boys and gullible—he said that we ought to report ourselves to some one else called the billeting officer.
The fact that we were already provided with beds made no difference. To the billeting officer we ought to go. It is greatly to our credit that we did. I followed M. through the streets of that town, very narrow streets, very twisty and very badly lighted. I felt as Carruthers did when Davis piloted him across the sand-banks through the fog to Memert. It was 11 o'clock when we found the billeting officer. He was playing bridge and did not in the least want to see us, appeared indeed to think that our visit was unnecessary and troublesome. We left him hurriedly.
Our hotel seemed a home when we got back to it. A friendly subaltern helped us out of a difficulty and increased our knowledge of the French language by telling us that:
"In this country when you want soda water you say 'Oh, gas us.'"
We said it to the damsel behind the bar, and I have seldom been more surprised than I was when she produced a siphon. After that we went to bed.
A JOURNEY IN THE WAR ZONE
Next morning we went to see the Deputy-Chaplain-General. It is not right or possible, either in the army or anywhere else, to plunge straight into very august presences. We introduced ourselves first to a staff officer. I was impressed afresh with the way the war throws old acquaintances together. I had taken that staff officer out trout-fishing, when he was a small boy, and he remembered it. He said that Irish trout gave better sport than those in the French rivers, from which I gathered that it was sometimes possible to get a little fishing, in between battles and other serious things. He had also been a college friend of M.'s at Cambridge. He asked us to luncheon and treated us most hospitably. Indeed, I formed an impression that officers, at all events staff officers at G.H.Q., are not badly fed. I have in my time "sat at rich men's feasts." That staff officers' luncheon did not suffer by comparison. M. is, as I said, indifferent to food, but even he was moved to admiration.
"If this," he said afterwards, "is war, the sooner it comes to England the better."
It is pleasant to be treated as an honoured guest, and the friendliness of that officer was reassuring. But I had not yet done with the new-boy feeling. It came on me with full force when I was led into an inner office for an interview with the Deputy-Chaplain-General. He was both a bishop and a general. I have met so many bishops, officially and otherwise, that I am not in the least afraid of them. Nor do generals make me nervous when I am not myself in uniform. But a combination of bishop and general was new to me. I felt exactly as I did in 1875, when Mr. Waterfield of Temple Grove tested my knowledge of Latin to see what class I was fit for.
There was no real cause for nervousness. The Deputy-Chaplain-General, in spite of his double dose of exalted rank, is kind and friendly: but I fear I did not make any better impression on him than I did on my first head master. Mr. Waterfield put me in his lowest class. The Deputy-Chaplain-General sent me to the remotest base, the town farthest of any town in British occupation from the actual seat of war. M., whose interview came after mine, might perhaps have done better for himself if he had not been loyal to our newly formed friendship. As Ruth to Naomi so he said to me, "Where thou goest I will go," and expressed his wish to the Deputy-Chaplain-General. This, I am sure, was an act of self-denial on his part, for M. has an adventurous spirit. The Deputy-Chaplain-General is too kind and courteous a man to refuse such a request. It was settled that M. and I should start work together.
We set forth on our journey at 4 o'clock that afternoon, having first gone through the necessary business of interviewing the R.T.O. He was a young man of a most detestable kind. The R.T.O. has a bad name among officers who travel in France. He is supposed to be both uncivil and incompetent. My own experience is not very large, but I am disinclined to join in the general condemnation. I have come on R.T.O.'s who did not know their job. I have come on others wearied and harassed to the point at which coherent thought ceases to be possible. I only met one who deliberately tried to be insolent without even the excuse of knowing the work he was supposed to be doing. On the other hand I have met men of real ability engaged on military railway work, who remain quietly courteous and helpful even when beset by stupid, fussy, and querulous travellers.
M. and I struggled into a train and immediately became possessed by the idea that it was going the wrong way, carrying us to the front instead of the remote base to which we were bound. I do not remember that we were in any way vexed. We had a good store of provisions, thanks to my foresight and determination. We were in a fairly comfortable carriage. We were quite ready to make the best of things wherever the train took us.
A fellow-traveller, a young officer, offered us comfort and advice. He had a theory that trains in France run round and round in circles, like the London Underground. The traveller has nothing to do but sit still in order to reach any station in the war area; would in the end get back to the station from which he started, if he sat still long enough. M. refused to believe this. He insisted on making inquiries whenever the train stopped, and it stopped every ten minutes. His efforts did not help us much. The porters and station masters whom he hailed did not understand his French, and he could make nothing of their English. The first real light on our journey came to us in an odd way. At one station our compartment was suddenly boarded by three cheerful young women dressed in long overalls, and wearing no hats.
"Are you," they asked, "going to B.?"
"Not if we can help it," I said. "But we may be. The place we are trying to go to is H."
The young women consulted hurriedly.
"If you're going to H.," said one, "you must go through B."
A second, a more conscientious girl, corrected her.
"At least," she said, "you may go through B."
"I should think," said the third, "that through B. is as likely a way as any. Will you take a letter for us? It's most important and the post takes ages. You've only got to hand it to any of our people you see on the platform or drop it in at any of our canteens. It will be delivered all right."
Who "our people" or what "our canteens" might be I did not at that time know. It was our fellow-traveller who offered to take the letter.
"I'm not exactly going to B.," he said; "but I expect I'll fetch up there sooner or later."
The letter was given to him. The young women, profuse in their thanks, sprang from the train just as it was starting. Our fellow-traveller told me that our visitors belonged to the Y.M.C.A. I was not, even then, much surprised to find a Young Men's Christian Association run chiefly by young women, but I did wonder at this way of transmitting letters. Afterwards I came to realise that the Y.M.C.A. has cast a net over the whole war area behind the lines, and that its organisation is remarkably good. I imagine that the letter would have reached its destination in the end wherever our fellow-traveller happened to drop it. I suppose he took the same view. His responsibility as a special messenger sat lightly on him.
"I may spend the night at B.," he said, "or I may get into the Paris express by mistake. It is very easy to get into a wrong train by mistake, and if I once get to Paris it will take me a couple of days to get away again. I'm not in any kind of hurry, and I deserve a little holiday."
He did. He had been in the trenches for months and was on his way to somewhere for a course of instruction in bombing, or the use of trench mortars, or map-reading. In those days, early in 1916, the plan was to instruct young officers in the arts of war after they had practised them, successfully, for some time. Things are much better organised now. Trains are no longer boarded by young women with letters which they wish to smuggle through uncensored. It is difficult to get into the Paris express by accident. But courses of instruction are still, I imagine, regarded by every one, except the instructors, as a way of restoring officers who are beginning to suffer under the strain of life in a fighting battalion. A holiday frankly so-called, in Paris or elsewhere, would be better; but a course of instruction is more likely to meet with the approval of a general.
That journey of ours would have taken eight or ten hours in peace time. We spent thirty hours over it, and that was considered good going. The theory of circulating trains turned out to be entirely wrong. We changed at wayside stations, standing for hours on desolate platforms. We pursued trains into remote sidings in the middle of the night, tripping over wires and stumbling among sleepers. We ate things of an unusual kind at odd hours. We slept by snatches. I shaved and washed in a tin mug full of water drawn from the side of an engine. M., indomitably cheerful, secured buns and apples at 6 o'clock in the morning. He paid for the buns. I believe he looted the apples out of a truck in a siding near our carriage.
We found ourselves at noon in a large town with four hours' leisure before us. An R.T.O.—we reported to every R.T.O. we could find—recommended an excellent restaurant. M. shaved and washed elaborately in a small basin which the thoughtful proprietor had placed in the passage outside the dining-room door. We had a huge meal and made friends with a French officer who was attached to some of our troops as interpreter. He had spent two years before the war at Cambridge. There perhaps, more probably elsewhere, he had been taught that Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Webb are the most influential people in England, and that Mr. H. G. Wells, though not from a purely literary point of view a great writer, is the most profound philosopher in the world. He deeply lamented the fact that compulsory military service had just been introduced into England.
"The last fortress of individual liberty," he said, "has fallen. The world is now militarised."
I reminded him that Ireland still remained a free country; but he did not seem consoled. He took the view that the Irish, though not compelled to fight, are an oppressed people.
I found that interpreter an interesting man, though he would not talk about the early fighting at Charleroi where he had been wounded. I should much rather have heard about that. Lyrical eulogies of Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Webb seemed out of place. I had been "militarised" for no more than four days. But I already felt as if the world in which clever people suppose themselves to think were a half-forgotten dream. The only reality for me was that other world in which men, who do not profess to be clever, suppose themselves to be doing things. On the whole the soldiers, though they fuss a good deal, seem to have a better record of actual accomplishment than the thinkers.
The last stage of our journey—an affair of some six hours—was unexciting. I think I should have slept through the whole of it if it had not been for a major, plainly a "dug-out" who had not gone soldiering for many years. He had landed from England a day before we did, and had, by his own account, been tossed about northern France like a shuttlecock, the different R.T.O.'s he dealt with being the battledores. He had been put into trains going the wrong way, dragged out of them and put into others which did not stop at his particular station. He was hungry, which he disliked; dirty, which he disliked still more; and was beginning to lose hope of ever reaching his destination. M. slept; but then M. was at the far end of the compartment. The other three people with us were French, and the major could not speak their language. It was to me that he expressed his feelings, so I could not sleep.
We reached H. at 10 p.m., almost as fagged and quite as dirty as that major. I had already learned something. I was determined not to report myself to any one until I had washed, slept, and eaten. It was snowing heavily when we arrived. With the help of a military policeman whom we met we found an hotel. He told us that it was a first-rate place; but he was no judge of hotels. It was very far from being good. We had, however, every reason to be thankful to that policeman. We secured two beds. While we were smoking our final pipes, two young officers turned up. They had been round all the good hotels in the town and failed to find accommodation. They failed again in our hotel. We had engaged the last two beds. They went off sadly to sleep on the platform in the railway station. If our policeman had known more about hotels and sent us to a good one, it might very well have been our fate to sleep on the platform.
Next morning, M., who is extraordinarily persevering, secured a bath. It is a great advantage when in France not to know any French. M. is wholly unaffected when the proprietor of an hotel, the proprietor's wife, the head waiter, and several housemaids assure him with one voice that a bath is tout a fait impossible. He merely smiles and says: "Very well then, bring it along or show me where it is." In the end he gets it, and, fortunate in his companionship, so do I.
There are, or used to be, people who believe that you can best teach a boy to swim by throwing him into deep water from the end of a pier and leaving him there. If he survives, he has learned to swim and the method has proved its value. If he drowns, his parents have no further anxiety about him. The authorities who are responsible for the religion of the army believe in this plan for teaching chaplains their business. Having accepted a civilian parson as a volunteer, they dump him down in a camp without instruction or advice, without even so much as a small red handbook on field tactics to guide him. There he splutters about, makes an ass of himself in various ways, and either hammers out some plan for getting at his job by many bitter failures, or subsides into the kind of man who sits in the mess-room with his feet on the stove, reading novels and smoking cigarettes—either learns to swim after a fashion or drowns unlamented.
M., who had at all events three months' English experience behind him, found himself on the top of a steep hill, the controller of a wooden church planted in the middle of a sea of sticky mud. He ministered to a curiously mixed assortment of people, veterinary men, instructors in all kind of military arts, A.S.C. men, and the men of a camp known as Base Horse Transport.
The army authorities have been laughed at since the war began on account of their passion for inverting the names of things. You must not, if you want such a thing, say one pot of raspberry jam. You say, instead, jam, raspberry, pot, one. It is odd that in the few cases in which such inversion is really desirable the authorities refuse to practise it. Horse Transport, Base, would be intelligible after thought. Base Horse Transport, till you get accustomed to it, seems a gratuitous insult to a number of worthy animals, not perhaps highly bred but strong and active.
Base Detail is another example of the same thing. To describe a man as a detail is bad enough. To call him a Base Detail must lower his self-respect, and as a rule these poor fellows have done nothing to deserve it. A Base Details Camp contains, for the most part, men who have just recovered from wounds received in the service of King and Country. "Details" perhaps is unavoidable, but it would surely be possible to conform to the ordinary army usage and call the place Camp, Details, Base.
My fate was more fortunate than M.'s. I had no church—he had the better of me there—but I was put into a homogeneous camp, an Infantry Base. (Our colonel was a masterful man. He would not have allowed us to be called Base Infantry.) There was a small permanent staff in the camp, the colonel, the adjutant, the doctor, and myself among the officers, a sergeant-major, an orderly-room staff, and a few others among the men. Every one else passed in and out of the camp, coming to us from England in drafts, or from hospitals as details, going from us as drafts into the mists of the front. Our camp occupied the place of a reservoir in a city's water supply. The men and officers flowed in to us from many sources, stayed a while and flowed out again through the conduits of troop trains when the insatiable fighting army, perpetually using and losing men, turned on its taps, demanding fresh supply.
It happened, I do not know why, that there had never been a chaplain specially attached to that camp before. I have no reason to suppose that a chaplain had been asked for or was specially desired. I expected, at best, to be tolerated as a necessary evil; at worst to be made to feel that I was a nuisance.
I was, in fact, extremely kindly received. My experience is that a chaplain is almost always well received both by officers and men in France, and is very much less a stranger than a parson at home who finds himself in a club where he is not well known. But I do not pretend that my first evening in that mess was a particularly comfortable one. As it happened, neither the colonel nor the adjutant was there. I had as companions half a dozen officers, any one of whom was young enough to be my son. They were laboriously polite and appallingly respectful. We talked to each other in restrained whispers and I do not think that any one laughed during the whole course of dinner.
My discomfort lasted far beyond that evening, and I do not wonder that it took me some time to settle down. I came, for the first time in my life, under military discipline. I lived in a mess, a strange kind of life for me. I had to obey rules which I did not know and conform to an etiquette which was utterly strange to me. Looking back over it all now I realise that I must have blundered horribly, and trodden, without intending to, on all sorts of tender feet. Yet, from the moment I entered the camp I received nothing but kindness and consideration.
The officers of our old army are wonderful. Every one, I think, agrees about this. To me it seems that one of the most wonderful things about them is the way they have treated civilians, amateurs, always ignorant, often conceited, who suddenly burst into their highly organised profession. Now and then, though rarely, I came across senior officers set temporarily in positions of command who were objectionable or silly, who "assumed the god" and made themselves ridiculous. But these were seldom regular soldiers. And perhaps what I resented arose from too much zeal, was an attempt, by wrong ways, to achieve a kind of dignity which every one respects.
Looking back over the period of my service I do not know that I met more than two or three of this kind, tyrants to their men, insolent to officers of lower rank. The regular soldier, who has given his life to his profession and has generally served and fought in various corners of the world, is amazingly considerate and helpful to outsiders even when they are gauche and awkward.
The adjutant received me in the orderly-room when I reached the camp, some time after dark. I was as respectful as possible for I thought he was the colonel. Even if I had known him for an adjutant I should still have been respectful, for I like to be on the safe side of things and I had not the remotest idea what the position and functions of an adjutant are. I know now that he is something like an archdeacon, a man of enormous importance whose duties it is a little difficult to define exactly. He expected me. With the help of the sergeant-major he had found a servant for me and assigned a hut to me.
For the servant I have nothing but praise. He could and did darn socks well. Indeed he confided to me that when at home he darned his wife's stockings, being much better at the job than she was. He could talk to French people in a language that was neither theirs nor his, but which they understood without difficulty. He was very punctual and he did not like the kind of tobacco which I smoke. His one fault was that he did not know whether an oil stove was smoking or not and could not learn. I am often haunted by the recollection of one snowy night on which I arrived at my hut to find the whole air inside dense with fine black smuts. I had to drag everything I possessed out of the hut into the snow. It took me hours to get myself clean after that night, and I still find traces of lampblack on some of the garments which suffered with me.
But that inability to deal with lamps was my servant's one failing. In every other respect I was satisfied with him. I hope he was equally satisfied with me. He was at first. I know that; for he asked for the congratulations of a friend on his appointment. "I have got a soft job at last," he said. "I'm an officer's servant, and a chaplain's at that." The job, I imagine, continued to be a soft one all the time I was in France; but I am not sure that he would have said "and a chaplain's at that" quite so complacently the morning after my scene with the oil stove in the snow storm. Chaplains do not, of course, swear; but any one who studies the Psalms gains a certain command of language which can be used effectively and without scandal.
For the hut I cannot say anything good. This was in no way the adjutant's fault. He had nothing else except that hut to offer me. It was made of brown canvas, stretched over a wooden frame. It was lit by small square patches of oiled canvas let into its walls at inconvenient places. It had a wooden door which was blown open and shut on windy nights and could not be securely fastened in either position. There was a corrugated-iron roof—apparently not part of the original plan of the hut—on which pouring rain made an abominable noise. The floor bent and swayed when walked on. Small objects, studs and coins, slipped between the boards of the floor and became the property of the rats which held revel there night and day.
The hut was cold in winter and stiflingly hot in summer. Draughts whistled through its walls and up between its boards when the wind blew. On calm nights it was impossible to get any fresh air into it at all. The canvas was liable to catch fire on the smallest provocation. I do not think there can be in the world any more detestable form of human habitation than huts like that. Mine was not unique. There were hundreds of them in those camps. They were, I am told, the invention of a man who succeeded in palming off these fruits of stupidity and malice on the War Office. They were called by his name. If I knew how to spell it I should set it down here for public execration. I expect he made a fortune out of his huts.
My first few nights in that hut were cold and unhappy, for I slept on the floor in a "flea bag." Then, with the help of the quartermaster, I secured a camp bedstead and was much less uncomfortable. The quartermaster came from Galway and was sympathetic with a particularly helpless fellow-countryman. He served me out blankets until I was ashamed to accept any more. He supplied the oil stove, and it kept my bath water from freezing during the night when it could be got to burn without smoking.
My servant "acquired" packing-cases and arranged them as washstand and dressing-table. He hung cords like clothes lines across the corners of the hut and suspended my kit on them. He watched the comings and goings of other officers and looted from vacant huts a whole collection of useful articles—a lantern which held a candle, a nest of pigeon-holes, three bookshelves, a chair without a back, a tin mug for shaving water, and a galvanised iron pot which made an excellent basin. He spent a whole morning making and fixing up outside my door a wooden boot-scraper. I suppose he hoped in this way to prevent my covering the floor of the hut with mud. But the effort was wasted. The scraper lay down flat on its side whenever I touched it with my foot. It remained a distinguishing ornament of my hut, useful as a guide to any one who wanted to know where I lived, but no good for any other purpose. In this way I gradually became possessed of a kind of Robinson Crusoe outfit of household furniture.
I cannot say that I was ever comfortable in that hut. Yet the life agreed with me. It is evidently a mistake to suppose that damp beds, damp clothes, and shivering fits at night are injurious to health. It is most unpleasant but it is not unwholesome to have to rise at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. and run up and down in the rain to get warm enough to go to sleep.
Yet I escaped without even a cold in my head. I should be most ungrateful if I wished any real harm to the inventor of those huts. But perhaps some day his health will give way and he will find himself suffering from rheumatism, congestion of the lungs, or frost bite. Then I hope he will try a winter in one of his own huts. He will not like it, but he will be a healthy man again before spring—if he is not dead.
War must always have been a miserable business; but our fathers and grandfathers had the sense to give it an outward semblance of gaiety. They went forth to battle dressed in the brightest colours they could find. They put feathers in their hats. They sewed gold braid on their coats. They hung sparkling metal about their persons. They had brass bands to march in front of them. While engaged in the business of killing their enemies they no doubt wallowed in mud, just as we do; went hungry, sweated, shivered, were parched or soaked, grumbled and cursed. But they made a gallant effort at pretending to enjoy themselves. They valued the properties of romantic drama, though they must have recognised soon enough that the piece in which they played was the sordidest of tragedies.
We are realists. Not for us the scarlet coats, the tossing plumes, the shining helmets or tall busbies. War is muddy, monotonous, dull, infinitely toilsome. We have staged it with a just appreciation of its nature. We have banished colour. As far as possible we have banished music.
I suppose we are right. If it is really true that a soldier is more likely to be killed when wearing a scarlet coat, it is plain common sense to dress him in mud colour. If music attracts the enemy's fire, then bands should be left at home to play for nursemaids in parks and on piers. Yet there is something to be said for the practice of our ancestors. The soldier's business is to kill the enemy as well as to avoid being killed himself. Indeed killing is his first duty, and he only tries to avoid being killed for the sake of being efficient.
A cheerful soldier is a much more effective fighter than a depressed soldier. Our ancestors knew this and designed uniforms with a view to keeping up men's spirits. We have ignored their wisdom and decked ourselves in khaki. I can imagine nothing better calculated to depress the spirits, to induce despondency, and to lower vitality than khaki. The British soldier remains cheerful—indeed it is largely his unfailing cheerfulness which makes him the splendid fighting man he is—but he has had to keep up his spirits without help from the authorities who have coloured his whole life khaki and deprived him of music.
I was placed in a camp which was one of a series of camps stretching along a winding valley. To right and left of us were steep hills, and off the side of one of them, that on which M. lived, the grass had been scraped and hacked. There remained mud which harmonised tonelessly with our uniforms. Under our feet as we walked along the roads and paths which led from end to end of the valley there was mud. The parade grounds—each camp had one—were mud. The tents were mud-coloured or dirty grey. The orderly-rooms, mess-rooms, recreation huts and all the rest were mud coloured and had soiled grey roofs. Men mud-coloured from head to foot paraded in lines, marched, or strolled about or sat on mud banks smoking.
Even the women who served in the canteens and recreation huts refused to wear bright frocks, succumbing to the prevailing oppression of mud. The authorities have put even these women into khaki now, but that has made little difference. Before that order came out the ladies had failed to realise that it was their duty to deck themselves in scarlet, green, and gold, to save the rest of us from depression.
Mr. Wells went out to see the war at one time, and returned to make merry, rather ponderously, over the fact that some officers still wear spurs. Perhaps if Mr. Wells had lived for two months in a large camp wholly given over to the devil of khaki he would have taken a different view of spurs. They are almost the only things left in war which glitter. They are of incalculable value. So far from stripping them from the boots of officers supposed to be mounted, additional spurs should be worn on other parts of the uniform, on shoulder straps for instance, with a view to improving the spirits, and therefore the moral, of the army.
It does not in the least matter that spurs are seldom driven into the sides of horses. No one now uses spurs as goads. They are worn for the sake of the shine and glitter of them. In the fortunate owner they are an inspiriting evidence of "swank." To every one else they are, as Ireland used to be, "the one bright spot" in a desperately drab world. M., a wiser man than I, always wore spurs, though I do not think he ever used them on his horses. He was naturally a man of buoyant cheerfulness, and I daresay would not have succumbed to khaki depression even if he had worn no spurs. But I think the spurs helped him. I know the sight of them helped me when they glittered on the heels of his boots as he tramped along, or glanced in the firelight when he crossed his legs in front of the mess-room stove.
For a long time after settling down in that camp I was vaguely uneasy without being able to discover what was the matter with me. I was thoroughly healthy. I was well fed. I was associating with kindly and agreeable men. I had plenty of interesting work to do. Yet I was conscious of something wrong. It was not homesickness, a feeling I know well and can recognise. It was not fear. I was as safe as if I had been in England.
I discovered, by accident, that I was suffering from an unsatisfied yearning for colour. Drafts of a Scottish regiment came out from home wearing bright-red hackles in their caps; unmistakable spots of colour amid our drab surroundings. I found my eyes following these men about the camp with a curious pleasure, and I realised that what I wanted was to see red, or blue, or green, or anything else except khaki.
Later on an order came out that camp commandants should wear coloured cap-bands and coloured tabs on their coat. It suddenly became a joy to meet a colonel. Certain camps flew flags in front of their orderly-rooms. Very often the weather had faded the colours, but it was a satisfaction to feel that once, at all events, the things had not been drab. The Y.M.C.A., adding without meaning to another to its long list of good deeds, kept its bright-red triangle before our eyes. It seems absurd to mention such things; but I suppose that a starving man will count a few crumbs a feast.
I am not a painter. If any one had talked to me before I went to France of the value of colour, I should have laughed at him. Now, having lived for months without colour, I know better. Men want colour just as they want liquid and warmth. They are not at their best without it.
Nothing seemed stranger to me at first, nothing seems more pathetic now than the pains which men took to introduce a little colour into the drab world in which we were condemned to live. Outside orderly-rooms and other important places men made arrangements of coloured stones. Sometimes a regimental crest was worked out, with elaborate attention to detail, in pebbles, painted yellow, blue, and green. Sometimes the stones were arranged in meaningless geometrical patterns. They were always brightly coloured.
There was a widespread enthusiasm for gardening. Every square yard of unused mud in that great series of camps was seized and turned into flower-beds. Men laboured at them, putting in voluntarily an amount of work which they would have grudged bitterly for any other purpose. They wanted flowers, not vegetables, though any eatable green thing would have been a treat to them.
When spring and early summer came to us we rejoiced in the result of our labours, frequently fantastic, sometimes as nearly ridiculous as flowers can be. There were beds of daffodils and hyacinths in which it was possible, when the designer acted as showman, to recognise regimental crests. The French flag came out well, if the flowers of the tricolour consented to bloom at the same time. A sergeant, who professed to be an expert, arranged a bed for me which he said would look like a Union Jack in June. Unfortunately I left the place early in May, and I have heard nothing since about that Union Jack. I suppose it failed in some way. If it had succeeded, some one would have told me about it. A fellow-countryman of mine designed a shamrock in blue lobelia. The medical Red Cross looked well in geraniums imported from England at great expense.
Generally our efforts were along more conventional lines. I remember a rose-garden with a sundial in the middle of it. The roses, to preserve them from frost, were carefully wrapped in sacking during severe weather, and an irreverent soldier, fresh from the trenches, commented on the fact that "These blighters at the base are growing sandbags."
We were short of implements, but we dug. I have seen table forks and broken dinner knives used effectively. I have seen grass, when there was grass, clipped with a pair of scissors. Kindly people in England sent us out packets of seeds, but we were very often beaten by the names on them. We sowed in faith and hope, not knowing what manner of thing an antirrhinum might be.
I do not believe that it was any form of nostalgia, any longing for home surroundings, which made gardeners of the most unlikely of us. Heaven knows the results we achieved were unlike anything we had ever seen at home. It was not love of gardening which set us digging and planting. Men gardened in those camps who never gardened before, and perhaps never will again. At the bottom of it all was an instinctive, unrealised longing for colour. We knew that flowers, if we could only grow them, would not have khaki petals, that, war or no war, we should feast our eyes on red and blue.
Newspapers and politicians used to talk about this as "the war to end war," the last war. Perhaps they were right. We may at least fairly hope that this is the world's last khaki war. It is not indeed likely that when men next fight they will revert to scarlet coats and shining breastplates. We have grown out of these crude attempts at romanticism.
But it is very interesting to note the increase of attention given to camouflage. It occurred to some one—the wonder is that it did not occur to him sooner—that a mud-coloured tiger, a tiger with a khaki skin, would be more visible, not less visible, than a tiger with its natural bright stripes. It was our seamen who first grasped the importance of this truth and began to paint ships blue, yellow, and red, with a view to making it difficult for submarine commanders to see them. There are, I believe, a number of artists now engaged in drawing out colour schemes for steamers. I have seen a mother ship of hydroplanes which looked like a cubist picture.
Landsmen are more conservative and slower to grasp new ideas. But even in my time in France tents were sometimes covered with broad curves of bright colours. They looked very funny near at hand; but they are—this seems to be established—much less easily seen by airmen than white or brown tents. It seems a short step to take from colouring tents to colouring uniforms. In the next war, if there be a next war, regiments will perhaps move against the enemy gay as kingfishers and quite as difficult to see. Fighting men will look to each other like ladies in the beauty chorus of a revue. By the enemy they will not be seen at all. War will not, in its essentials, be any pleasanter, however we dress ourselves. Nothing can ever make a joy of it. But at least those who take part in it will escape the curse of khaki which lies heavily on us.
We suffered a good deal from want of music when I went out to France, though things were better then than they had been earlier. They certainly improved still further later on. Music in old days was looked upon as an important thing in war. The primitive savage beat drums of a rude kind before setting out to spear the warriors of the neighbouring tribes. Joshua's soldiers stormed Jericho with the sound of trumpets in their ears. Cromwell's men sang psalms as they went forward. Montrose's highlanders charged to the skirl of their bagpipes. Even a pacifist would, I imagine, charge if a good piper played in front of him.
Our regiments had their bands, and many of them their special marching tunes. But we somehow came to regard music as part of the peace-time, ornamental side of soldiering. The mistake was natural enough. Our military leaders recognised, far sooner than the rest of us, that this war was going to be a grim and desperate business. Bands struck them as out of place in it. Music was associated in their minds with promenades at seaside resorts, with dinners at fashionable restaurants, with ornamental cavalry evolutions at military tournaments. We were not going to France to do musical rides or to stroll about the sands of Boulogne with pretty ladies. We were going to fight. Therefore, bands were better left at home. It was a very natural mistake to make; but it was a mistake, and it is all to the credit of the War Office, a body which gets very little credit for anything, that it gradually altered its policy.
At first we had no outdoor music except what the men produced themselves, unofficially, by singing, by whistling, or with mouth-organs. Indoors there were pianos in most recreation huts, and the piano never had a moment's rest while the huts were open—a proof, if any one wanted a proof, of the craving of the men for music. Then bands were started privately by the officers in different camps. This was a difficult and doubtful business. Funds had to be collected to buy instruments. Musicians who could play the instruments had to be picked out from among the men, and nobody knew how to find them. Hardly anybody stayed long in these base camps, and a good musician might at any moment be reft away and sent up the line.
Yet bands came into existence. An Irish division started the first I came across, and it used to play its men to church on Sundays in a way that cheered the rest of us. My friend M.'s camps on top of the hill started a band. Other camps, which could not manage bands, discovered Scottish pipers and set them playing on ceremonial occasions. Later on in another place I found an excellent band in a large Canadian hospital, and a convalescent camp started a band which went for route marches along with the men.
But these were all voluntary efforts. The best that could be said for the higher authorities is that they did not actually discourage them. The regimental bands, which we ought to have had in France, still remained at home, and I do not know that they did much playing even there. I think it was the Brigade of Guards which first brought a band out to France. It used to play in the market-place of the town which was then G.H.Q. Later on another Guards' band went on tour round the different bases. There was no mistake about the warmth of its reception. The officers and men gathered in large numbers to listen to it on the fine Sunday afternoon when it played in the camp where I was stationed.
Since then I have heard of, and heard, other regimental bands in France. Their visits have been keenly appreciated. But we ought to have more than occasional visits from these bands. It is probably impossible to have them playing close to the firing-line. But it would be an enormous advantage if we had a couple of good regimental bands at every base, and especially in places where hospitals are numerous.
It is a mistake to regard music simply as a recreation or as an "extra," outside the regular war programme. It is really an important factor in producing and maintaining that elusive but most important thing called moral. Men are actually braver, more enduring, more confident, more enthusiastic, if they hear music.
These qualities cannot be destroyed in our men by any privation. They are indestructible in the race. But their growth can be stimulated, and they can be greatly strengthened. A hundred years ago no one would have doubted the value of music in producing and maintaining moral. Two hundred years ago or thereabouts Dryden wrote a poem which illustrated the power of music. Forty years ago Tolstoi wrote a short novel to show how a particular sonata affected not moral, but morality. We seem to have forgotten the truths familiar then.
There ought not to be any doubt about the value of music in restoring health. Nobody is fool enough to suppose that a broken bone would set itself, or fragments of shrapnel emerge of their own accord from a man's leg even if it were possible to secure the services of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. But most doctors admit that in certain obscure and baffling maladies, classed generally as cases of shell-shock, mental and spiritual aid are at least as useful as massage or drugs. Next to religion—which is an extremely difficult thing to get or apply—music is probably the most powerful means we have of spiritual treatment. There is an abundant supply of it ready to hand. It seems a pity not to use it more freely than we do.
The problem which faces the commandant of a base in France, or a camp at home, must be very like that which a public schoolmaster has to tackle. The business of instruction comes first. Men and officers must be taught their job, as schoolboys must be taught their lessons. Hardly less pressing is the problem of spare time. You cannot keep a soldier throwing bombs all day, and there is a limit to the time which can be occupied in route marching. The obvious solution of the problem is organised games and sports. Most men are keen enough on cricket and football. Most officers are glad to join tennis clubs. In some places in France there are plenty of outdoor amusements of this kind, and matches are arranged between different units which keep interest alive.
Where I was first stationed games were sternly discouraged. The theory, I think, was that the French people would be disgusted if they saw us playing. Perhaps the French people in that neighbourhood were more seriously minded than those in other parts of the country. Perhaps they were less friendly, and it was necessary to consider their feelings with particular care. I have no way of judging about that. Elsewhere the French seemed to take a mild interest in our passion for games; but in that district they may very well have been of a different mind.
Whether the official estimate of the French spirit was right or wrong, the result for us was that we were very badly off for outdoor games. Football and cricket were played, half-heartedly, for matches (on the plan of League matches at home) were not allowed. The formation of an officers' tennis club was forbidden.
On the other hand the men were very well off for indoor amusements. Every Y.M.C.A. hut ran concerts. There were two large cinema huts in the camps. Boxing was encouraged by many officers, and interesting competitions took place which were eagerly watched.
But as the days lengthened with the coming of spring, there were hours which hung very heavily on every one. The officers were slightly better off than the men. They could always go into the neighbouring town, some four miles off, and find a certain amount of amusement in walking about the streets. But it was a singularly dull town. The men could not leave the camps without permission, and a pass was not always, indeed not often, attainable.
Their favourite pastime was a game which they called "House," which was known to many of us when we were children as Loto. It is an exceedingly dull game, and I cannot believe that the men would have played it as they did if any other kind of game had been possible. There is a mild element of gambling about House. A small sum of money may be won, a very small sum lost. That I suppose was the attraction.
But it was rather a pitiful thing to walk through the camps on a fine afternoon and to see every waste piece of ground occupied by House players. There is no skill whatever in the game, and the players get no exercise. They sit on the ground with a pile of small pebbles before them, while one of them calls out a series of numbers. The French people, if they had seen us playing House, would have come to the conclusion that we are a nation of imbeciles. Bad as it may be to have as allies men light-hearted enough to play cricket, it must be several degrees worse to have to rely on imbeciles. However, the French did not see us playing House any more than they saw us boxing or attending concerts. They were not allowed into our camps.
For the men who did succeed in getting passes out of camp, the prospect was dreary enough, dreary or undesirable. Going into town in a crowded tram is an amusement which quickly palls. Various ill-defined portions of the town, when you got there, were out of bounds, and a man had need to walk warily if he did not want trouble with the military police.
And there were worse things than military police. On the roadway which led to the camp entrance there might be seen, any fine Sunday afternoon, a crowd of French girls waiting for the men who came out. They were, plainly, not the best girls, though no doubt some of them were more silly than vicious. There were eating-shops, or drinking-shops, of which ugly tales were told. Coffee, an innocent drink, was sometimes doped with brandy, and men found themselves half intoxicated without knowing that they had touched drink.
There were, of course, places where men could go safely. There was, for instance, the Central Y.M.C.A. hall, where excellent food was to be had, and where there were books, papers, games, and a kindly welcome. But one Y.M.C.A. recreation hut is very like another, and it seems rather waste of a hardly-won pass out of camp to spend the afternoon very much as it might be spent without leaving camp at all. What the men craved for was variety, interest, and—what was of course almost unobtainable—the society of decent women.
I cannot help feeling that in condemning ourselves to desperate dullness we paid too high a price for the good opinion of our French friends. If they were really shocked at our levity in playing games during the war, it would have been better to lacerate their feelings a little. They would very soon have got accustomed to our ways and come to regard our excitement over a League match as nothing worse than a curious form of eccentricity.
The officers were rather better off than the men. They could stay in town long enough to dine at a restaurant, and there is something rather exciting, for a short time, in dining at a French restaurant. There was a special officers' tram which brought us back to camp just in time to pass the sentries before 10.30 p.m. It was invariably over-crowded and we often had to stand, crowded together on the platforms of the driver and conductor. I have seen officers, of rank which gave dignity, clinging to the back of the conductor's platform with their feet planted insecurely on a buffer.
I remember one very exciting run home. We started rather late from town. There was a thick fog. The driver was inclined to be cautious, very properly; but it was doubtful whether we could reach the camp in time. I had found a precarious place on the step of the driver's platform. Three subalterns, spirited boys, fresh from school, tried to speed things up by shouting, "Vite, Vite!" "Much viter than that!" to the driver, and banging violently on the gong which warned pedestrians of our coming. The driver remained unmoved and the car moved very slowly. Two of the boys seized the driver. The third took control of the tram. I do not know whether he had any practice beforehand in electric motor work; but he made that tram go. We rushed through the fog, bumping and rattling, making very heavy weather of the points at junctions. I do not think we killed any one. If we had we should have heard of it afterwards. We got back to camp in time. The French chauffeur when he recovered his first shock seemed to enjoy himself. Our driver was a very gallant boy. No risk daunted him. I hope he has been transferred into the Tank service. The work there would suit him exactly and I feel sure he would enjoy it.
I do not know that even the prospect of returning to camp by the officers' tram would have lured me to dine in that town very often. One French hotel is very like another, and I had dined at many before the war.
But there was one restaurant which was especially attractive. I should never have discovered it for myself, for I am not very adventurous or fond of exploring. It was situated in a slum and approached through an abominable alley. It was found first, I believe, by some A.S.C. officers permanently stationed in the town, who had time on their hands for exhaustive research. I was taken there by a friend who hoped to have the pleasure of shocking a parson by leading him into the sort of place a parson ought not to visit. As a matter of fact the place was perfectly respectable, and the only part of me which was shocked was my nose. The smells in the pitch-dark gullies which led to that eating-house were the worst I encountered in France.
It was a most unconventional restaurant. The proprietor, an elderly man, his wife, and three married daughters ran it. They were, whenever I entered the place, engaged in eating a meal of their own at a table near a large fire at one end of the room. When guests appeared they all rose, uttered voluble welcomes, and shook hands with the strangers. There were, besides the family table, four others, all of rough deal, much stained, far from clean and without table-cloths. The seats were narrow benches. If you leaned back you bumped the man at the next table. The floor was sanded and hens walked about picking up the fragments which the diners dropped. When I knew the place first it was patronised chiefly by sailors, Belgians, and the A.S.C. officers who discovered it.
Ordering dinner was an interesting business. There was no menu card. Monsieur and his family talked a kind of French which none of us could ever understand. Also they talked at a terrific speed and all at once, circling round us. We knew that they were naming the kinds of food available, for we caught words like potage and poisson now and then. Our plan was to sit still and nod occasionally. One of the daughters made a note of the points at which we nodded, and we hoped for the best. The soup was generally ready. Everything else was cooked before our eyes on the fire behind the family table.
Madame did the cooking. The rest of the party sat down again to their own meal. Monsieur exhorted his wife occasionally. The daughters took it in turn to get up and bring us each course as madame finished cooking it. In this way we got a hot and excellent dinner. A good digestion was promoted by the long gaps between the courses. It was impossible to eat fast. Monsieur offered his guests no great choice in wine, but what he had was surprisingly good.
When dinner was over and the bill, a very moderate one, paid, the whole family shook hands with us again and wished us every kind of happiness and good luck. Monsieur then conducted us to a back door, and let us loose into an alley quite as dark and filthy as the one by which we entered. He was always firm about refusing to allow us to go by the way we came. I have no idea what his reasons were, but the plan of smuggling us out of the establishment gave us a pleasurable feeling that we had been breaking some law by being there. There is nothing that I ever could find in King's Regulations on the subject, so I suppose that if we sinned at all it must have been against some French municipal regulation.
That restaurant may be quite popular now; it was getting better known even in my time. But if it becomes popular it will lose its charm. Monsieur and his family will no longer be able to shake hands with every guest. There may be table-cloths. The hens—I always thought they were the poulets we ate fattened before our eyes—will be banished, and some officious A.P.M. will put the place out of bounds, suspecting it to be a haunt of vice. Its look and its smell, I admit, would arouse suspicion in the mind of any conscientious A.P.M., but Monsieur's patrons, if rough, were respectable people. Even the A.S.C. officers were above reproach. They looked like men who were satisfied at having discovered the best and cheapest dinner to be got in that town. I doubt whether they had even appreciated the eccentricities of the service.
In spite of our want of games and amusements, life in those camps was pleasant and cheerful. We all had work to do, and not too many hours of idleness. For me there were long walks with M., best and cheeriest of comrades, whose spirits and energy never failed or flagged. We saw a great deal of each other in those days until the time came at the end of April, when he moved off to a cavalry brigade; a post into which he was thrust because good horsemen are rare among chaplains. There was always excellent company in my own mess and others. Nowhere else have I met so many different kinds of men.
The regular soldiers, some of them old men, held themselves as a separate caste a little aloof from the rest of us. It is not to be wondered at. They were professionals, with a great tradition behind them. We were amateurs, and, at times, inclined to be critical of old customs and old ways. We came from every conceivable profession, and before the war had been engaged in a hundred different activities. Among us were men of real ability, who had made good in their own way. I think the regular soldiers were a little bewildered sometimes. They, almost as completely as we, were plunged into a new world. The wonder is that they stood us as patiently as they did.
We had our mild jokes, and it was wonderful how long the mildest jokes will last in circumstances like ours. There was a story of an unfortunate private who was dragged before his colonel for failing to salute a general, a general who should have been unmistakable. In defence he said that he did not know it was a general.
"But," said the colonel, "you must have seen the red band round his hat."
"Yes, sir," said the man, "but I thought that was to show he was a Salvation Army captain."
The whole camp chuckled over that story for a week. Whether any one ever told it to the general I do not know.
Another private, an Irishman, arrived in the camp one day from the firing-line. Ours was the remotest base; two days' journey from the nearest trench. Between us and the fighting men was what seemed an impassable entanglement of regulations, guarded at every angle by R.T.O.'s and military police. It was, any one would agree about this, a flat impossibility for an unauthorised person to travel through the zone of the army's occupation.
Yet this man did it, and did it without in the least intending to. Up to a certain point his account of himself was clear. He had been sent off, one of a party under charge of an officer. He did not know—few people in the army ever do know—where he was going. He became detached from his party and found himself, a solitary unit, at what seems to have been a railhead. The colonel who dealt with him questioned:
"Why didn't you ask the R.T.O. where you were to go?"
"I did ask him, sir. The first thing ever I did was to ask him."
"And what did he say?"
"What he said, sir, was 'Go to the devil out of this.'"
The colonel checked a smile. He probably sympathised with the R.T.O.
"And what did you do then?" he asked.
"I got into the train, sir, and sure, here I am."
That particular colonel's temper was notoriously a little soured by long command. It was felt that the soldier had, after all, made a fair attempt to obey the orders of the R.T.O.
Another private—less innocent, I fear—caused me and a few other people some mild excitement. I was summoned to the orderly-room to answer a telephone call. I was told by some one, whose voice sounded as if he was much irritated, that he had caught the man who stole my shirt. No one, thanks to my servant's vigilance, had stolen any shirt of mine. I said so.
"Grey flannel shirt," said the voice, and I gathered that he was irritated afresh by my extreme stupidity. I disclaimed all knowledge of any stolen shirt, flannel or other.
An explanation followed. A deserter had been arrested. It was discovered that he was wearing four flannel shirts and three thick garments under them. "That," I said, "is good prima facie evidence that he really is a soldier." I thought that a useful thing to say, and true. No one in the world except a British soldier would wear four shirts and three jerseys at the same time. The British soldier—it is one of his characteristics—puts on all the clothes he can get in any weather.
The voice at the other end of the wire swore—unnecessarily, I think. Then it told me that one of the shirts was marked with my name and that I must identify it and the man. I refused, of course. The voice offered to send the shirt round for my inspection. I did not in the least want to inspect a shirt that had been worn, probably for a long time without washing, along with six other thick garments by a deserter; but I consented to look at the thing from a distance.
In the end I did not even do that. The unfortunate man confessed to having stolen the shirt from an officer in the trenches near Ypres. How it came to have my name on it I do not yet know. I did miss a couple of shirts from my store of civilian clothes when I got home. But I am sure no officer stole them. Indeed I do not see how any officer could.
That voice—I do not know that I ever met its owner—had a wonderful power of language, strong, picturesque, and highly profane language, suitable for expressing violent emotion over a telephone wire. It was once rebuked by a very gentle captain with a remark that was widely quoted afterwards. The language had been unusually flamboyant and was becoming worse. "Hold on a minute," said the listener, "and let the line cool. It's nearly red hot at this end."
When life failed to provide a joke or two we fell back on rumours and enjoyed them thoroughly. They say that Fleet Street as a breeding-ground for rumour is surpassed only by the drawing-rooms of the wives of ministers of state. I have no experience of either; but a base camp in France would be hard to beat. The number of naval battles declared by the best authorities to have been fought during the early months of 1916 was amazing. We had them once a week, and torpedo-boat skirmishes on off days.
Men in "the signals"—all rumour goes back to the signals in the end—had lively imaginations. We mourned the loss of Kut months before General Townshend was forced to surrender. We revelled in extracts from the private letters of people like the Brazilian ambassador in Berlin. We knew with absolute certainty the English regiments which were taking part in the defence of Verdun. The Guards, by a sudden move, seized the city of Lille, but owing to faulty staff work were cut off, hemmed in, and at last wiped out, the entire division. The last men, a mixed batch of Grenadiers, Coldstream, Scots, Irish, and Welsh, perished in a final glorious bayonet charge. It was a Guardsman who told me the story first, and he had it from what really was unimpeachable authority.
But there is no reason for railing against Rumour. She is a wild-eyed jade, no doubt, with disordered locks and a babbling tongue. But life at a base in France would be duller without her; and she does no one any real harm.
COMING AND GOING
The camp in which I lived was the first in the series of camps which stretched along the whole winding valley. We were nearest to the entrance gates, at which military police were perpetually on guard; nearest to the railway station, a wayside halte where few trains stopped; nearest to the road along which the trams ran into the town. All who came and went in and out passed by our camp, using a road, made, I think, by our men originally, which ran along the bottom of our parade ground and thence, with many side roads branching from it, through all the camps right along the valley. Our parade ground sloped down towards this road, ending in a steep bank which we tried to keep pleasantly grassy, which we crowned with flower-beds, so that new-comers might feel that they had arrived at a pleasant place.
Standing on this bank it was possible to watch all the entering and departing traffic of the camps, the motor lorries which rumbled by, the little road engines, always somewhat comic, which puffed and snorted, dragging trucks after them. Now and then came the motors of generals and other potentates, or the shabby, overworked Fords of the Y.M.C.A. Mounted officers, colonels, and camp commandants who were privileged to keep horses, trotted by. Orderlies on bicycles went perilously, for the road was narrow and motor lorries are big. A constant stream of officers and men passed by; or parties, on their way up the hill, to one of the instruction camps marched along.
This went on all day from early dawn till the "Last Post" sounded and quiet came. To a new-comer, as I was, one unused to armies and their ways, this traffic was a source of endless interest; but I liked most to stand on the bank above the road during the later hours of the forenoon. It was then that the new drafts, men fresh from England, marched in.
The transports which brought them reached the harbour early in the morning. The men disembarked at 8 a.m. and marched out to the camps, a distance of four or five miles. They were often weary when they arrived, wet and muddy perhaps, or powdered with dust, unshaved, unwashed. Often their faces were still pallid after a long night of seasickness. Their rifles and kit seemed a burden to some of them. They marched past our camp, and there were generally two or three of us who stood on the bank to watch and criticise.
Later on, when some of the camps had dealt with the music question, a band or a couple of pipers would go some distance along the road to meet the coming men and to play them into camp. Then, in spite of weariness and the effects of seasickness, the new drafts stepped out bravely and made a good show.
I had a friend, a sergeant who had seen much service, one of those N.C.O.'s of the old army to whom the empire owes a debt which will never be properly understood. He often stood beside me to watch the new men come in. He taught me to criticise their marching, to appreciate their bearing. He wore a South African ribbon then. He wears the Mons ribbon now and a couple of gold wound stripes and doubtless several chevrons, red and blue.
The skirl of pipes came to us, and a moment later the quick, firm tread of men marching.
"Guards, sir," said my friend.
They passed, swinging along, a mixed draft of Grenadiers, Coldstream, Scots, Irish, Welsh. My friend straightened himself as they went by.
"The Guards, sir, is the Guards, wherever they are."
He was not himself a guardsman, but there was no trace of jealousy in his voice. I have noticed the same thing again and again. There are people who dislike the Guards, accusing them of conceit or resenting certain privileges. I never met any one who refused to give the Guards first place in battle, on the march, in camp. It is a magnificent record to have established in an army like ours, a wonderful record to have kept through a long-drawn war like this, when every regiment has been destroyed and remade of new material half a dozen times.
Another draft came by.
My friend was prejudiced; but he is not the only soldier of the old army who is prejudiced against territorials. Against new battalions, Kitchener battalions, of regular regiments there is no feeling. The old army took them to its heart, bullied them, taught them as if they were younger brothers. The Territorials are step-brothers at best. Yet they have made good in France. I wonder that the prejudice persists. They do not march like the Guards. Even the London Territorials have not accomplished that. But they have established themselves as fighters, in the desperate holding of the Ypres salient in earlier days, and ever since everywhere in the long battle-line.
"R.F.A.," said my friend, "and the biggest draft of the lot. There must be a damned lot of guns at the front now. We could have done with a few more at Mons. It's guns that's wanted in this war. Guns and men behind them. And it's guns, and gunners anyway, we're getting. Look at those fellows now. You'll see worse drafts; though"—he surveyed the men carefully—"you might see better. There's some of them now that's young, too young. They'll be sent back sick before they harden. Beg pardon, sir, but here's our lot at last. I must be going."
He saluted and turned. A body of men with an elderly officer at their head followed the gunners closely. They turned sharp to the left up the steep little road which leads into our camp. They halted in the middle of the parade ground. Salutes were given and returned. The draft was handed over. The elderly officer detached himself and made his way to the mess-room. I followed to greet him, and to hear the latest news from England.
"What sort of a passage?"
"Vile. We crossed in a superannuated paddle-boat. Everybody sick. Not a spot to lie down in. My men were detailed to clean up the blessed packet afterwards. That's why we're late. Such a scene. Ugh! Can I get a drink?"
I do not know any one who has a more consistently disagreeable job than a draft-conducting officer. He crosses and recrosses the Channel under the most uncomfortable conditions possible. He has a lot of responsibility. He gets no praise and little credit. He is generally an elderly man. He has, most likely, been accustomed for years to an easy life. He is often an incurable victim to seasickness. There is no interest and no excitement about his work. He lives for the most part in trains and steamers. He snatches meals in strange messes, railway refreshment rooms, and quayside restaurants. He may have to conduct his draft all the way from Cork or Wick. He may be kept waiting hour after hour for a train. He may be embarked and disembarked again three or four times before his steamer actually starts. The men of his draft are strangers to him. He does not know whether his sergeants are trustworthy or not. Yet there is no epidemic of suicide among draft-conducting officers, though there very well might be. Great and unconquerable is the spirit of the British dug-out officer.