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From 1924: With a vagabond around Vimy

Seven years ago this month the Canadians captured Vimy Ridge. What does this famous hill look like to-day?


 

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I had made up my mind not to re-visit the battlefields, but the temptation to see again the old haunts just back of the line proved irresistible and almost before I could realize my position I was standing once more in the streets of Arras. Already, by train from Paris, we had skirted the Somme battlefields, and in flashing by desolated Albert I had caught a glimpse of the ruined basilica—no longer so picturesque as in the days when we had our headquarters in the ruined school house hard by, for the pendant Madonna had been quite shot away by shell fire. They used to say that when She and her Babe fell the war would terminate, but I am afraid the legend was not justified by subsequent events.

At Arras I found a local train departing almost immediately for Lens, where a tram was due to leave for Lievin,

Souchez, Carency, Viliers-au-Bois — some of the very spots I desired again to look upon. It was a terrible ride in more senses than one— heat, clatter, smoke (a little steam engine pulled us), and especially the parched, unlovely aspect of the devastated area.

It was not long, however, before the consequential little engine had taken us through Lievin—by an advanced dressing station, Crocus House, which I recognized—towards Angres and Souchez. At Angres I recognized yet another dressing station (Paulin’s).

We ran on—or, rather, bumped along—towards Souchez, the “Pimple” hill on our left and Vimy ahead; then turned off to the right for Ablain, where I descended.

Thus far my journey had been hurried, rough and tumble; but now I found myself quiet and alone at a crossroads, while the pretentious little train steamed down the white road towards Aubigny and Frevent. I went over and sat down on a bank to take stock of my surroundings and to plan a route march of my own. The landscape was one of green and gold, affording a very pleasant contrast to the cancerous condition of Lens and Lievin. In a field behind me three women and a man were stooking the giant barley sheaves, and across the road a goodly patch of wheat was ripening to gold. The hill of de Lorette sloped up to my right, and behind, bathed in the July haze, lay the famous ridge—Vimy. Down the road I could see the battered church of Ablain, scaffolded now, and therefore less picturesque than when I had seen it in 1917. Meanwhile, as if to remind one of what had been, I tripped up on some barbed wire, and then, passing a trench by the roadside, I saw a bombstick and an old army boot.

World’s Tiniest “Pub.”

At the church a workman paused in the dismantling process to allow my safely passing by. A moment later I saw him heave a loose piece of masonry to the ground and heard the thud as it fell into what had once been the nave of the church. The tower has already been strongly reinforced and I gather it is the intention to restore the church to something of its pre-war grandeur. When one reflects that the inhabitants of Ablain are living in every kind of makeshift dwelling, this early rebuilding of the Temple is, to say the least, commendable.

Most popular as a temporary home, seems to be the inevitable Nissen hut, which I had also observed still doing its bit in Lens and Lievin. I peeped into one of these dome places, on the floor of many a one of which I so often slept pendant la guerre, and was astonished to find how cosy it appeared. One of the Nissen huts on the roadside was now an estaminet, and as I was very thirsty I entered for a drink. The b er had no remarkable quality, but it was sensational to the extent of being cold and sharp—and I was very dry. I wanted to talk with the hostess, but she was busy in the little room which has been boarded off behind the bar. I should think this must be one of the tiniest “pubs” in the world.

I took the road again, on through Ablain towards Gouy. And now all signs of war were being left behind, save here and there on the road one could see a battered cartridge or a begrimed piece of equipment. Beyond the village magnificent crops bordered the way—cats to the left, wheat to the right, golden and silver, rustled by the breeze which made my going so pleasant. To my right went up the wooded flank of de Lorette, most pleasant to behold, especially as a background to the ripening grain. Very blithely sang the larks.

As I proceeded towards Chateau de la Haie, known so well to thousands of Canadians, Vimy was becoming a purple haze behind, and ahead I caught sight of the steeple of Petit Servins’ church. I was disappointed on coming to the chateau entrance to discover that it was forbidden to enter. I plodded on, for the afternoon was advancing and I planned to be at Estree Cauchee for supper and much remained to be seen. Taking a light railway track to the left, and thus avoiding the unlovely Servins, I soon found myself in very familiar ways—the sylvan vicinity of the Chateau de la Haie.

I went through the wood and soon came upon a field of wheat, found a pathway through, and emerged at the end of the Chateau gardens. How well I knew that spot! It was here, in war days, we used to enter for the Y.M.C.A. and the large concert hall of the Maple Leaves. I turned off to the right across the strip of stubble ground, and got on to the Villers road. I went down the road towards Villers, to where, as I knew only too well, lay the cemetery; to where, as I also knew, I should find the resting-place of comrades who had lived and laughed on the spot whence I had just come and who had been subsequently “killed in action.” I passed the main entrance of Chateau de la Haie and then made out the white figure of The Crucified at the cemetery entrance.

At the extreme western end of the cemetery I found the grave of our O.C.—Lt.-Col. H. H. Moshier. Below the name, etc., on the simple, unpainted wooden cross is the text, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friend.” Colonel Moshier —Dr. Moshier as he was in private life—was killed by overhead shrapnel while making forward arrangements for the evacuation of wounded prior to the engagement which broke through the Hindenburg line. He lies, as I said, at the west end of the cemetery, and a few yards away begins the wheatfield.

I then found the graves of comrades—C. S. Murray, S. Hanson, Staff-sergeant Hammond—each marked by a simple, white cross decorated with a green maple leaf. They lie six rows off from the Colonel and immediately in front of him. Their crosses catch the first rays of the morning sun and at evening time the shadow of each cross falls upon each grave.

I again took the road, but the heat and the much travelling made me feel very sleepy and I was glad to turn aside to the shade of some trees to take off my dusty shoes and rest awhile. I made a pillow of my coat and tried to sleep, but my brain was too active with memories, nor could I shake off a feeling of intense loneliness.

I was not pleased with my thoughts, and the peace of the place was (paradoxical as it is to say so) a little disquieting. I put on my shoes and socks, cat down a stick from the tree for a staff, and started off in the direction of Maisnil Bouche. Here, it will be remembered by many, formerly was located the Gas School, and I recalled having seen, in a field nearby, the tapes across which the famous Vimy attack was rehearsed. Maisnil Bouche was also the location of one of the Khaki University Field libraries.

From this little village I got on to the main road that runs to the Servins and I could now see the peak of a spire which I knew was the church of Estree Cauchee, where I had decided to spend the night. I began to wonder whether my old friends would still be there— the aged couple at the cottage in the lane; and whether I should still be able to obtain, as during the war, good fresh boiled eggs, coffee, bread and butter.

It was now about 6.30 and I was but two kilometres from my proposed resting place for the night. Taking the main Bethune road I was soon up to the village, and as I went down the one street which is Estree Cauchee a little French boy sang out, “One cigarette?” I knew at once that my identity was disclosed, although I had not a particle of army equipment on. I was making for a corner estaminet, the proprietors of which I had known and who were friends of my old couple. The door was closed; I opened it gently and—voila, she was there, the familiar hostess. “Ah, m’sieur, c'est vous!"

I at once inquired if my old friends were well. For answer the good hostess, having caught sight of someone in the street, ran out of doors to call in—who but my old, white-bonneted lady. It seemed to me that she was wearing the same garments as when I had last seen her in 1917, the same snowy bonnet, the same heavy shoes and worsted stockings. At least the old, furrowed face was the same, the old light in the eyes; so was the little cottage towards which we made; so were the coffee and the fresh eggs, while the bread and butter was much better and more plentiful. Never was I more ready for a meal, never have I more enjoyed one.

My old friend explained to me that hundreds of soldiers— French, English and Canadian—had promised to come back to see her, but that I was the very first to do so. I felt quite proud to hear this.

War Memories

I shall remember that meal of fresh eggs under the old rafters of that humble, red-tiled cottage. It was not the first time I had been so entertained. During the winter of 1916-17, when our headquarters was Les Quatre Vents, two kilometres down the road, this cottage was my “home.” How often, supper over at camp, had I run up here for coffee; and the good dame, having carefully trimmed an old, white lamp, used to allow me to write at her table. A story that I am quite proud of was written here.

The old farmer came in while I was eating. He is seventy-four, but had spent all that long, hot summer’s day in the harvest field. My old lady is seventy-one, and apart from a slight stoop, owing to rheumatism in the knees, is wonderfully hale. Her pleasure at seeing me again was childlike in its sincerity and the smile absolutely refused to die from her face. She sat in a rush chair by the little stove, the sideboard (crammed with knicknacks) at her back, and the strong black rafters above hung with drying pease. With the old farmer opposite, his face a veritable calendar of the seasons, and myself “tucking in” to the simple fare, the scene would have made a subject for the artist’s brush.

Thus far I had made no arrangements about a billet, and but for the fact that the flies were bad and I was thinly clad, and had not even a waterproof, I should certainly have spent the night in the near-by glade. Given an army greatcoat, and a box-respirator for a pillow, I most certainly should have done so.

I suggested the barn to my old friend, but she argued that it was too dirty for me. She then said that if I wished I could sleep with Papa (the old farmer, i.e.) and she took me into the bedroom, where I saw two large beds, the one at the foot of the other. Apprehensive, I inquired if Madame herself would not be sleeping in the other bed, and she innocently, but quite definitely, affirmed, “Oui, oui!” I am not a prude, but I confess my sense of propriety was a little outraged, and I gratefully declined an offer that was nevertheless very generous. There was no hint of screening Papa and myself off, or I might have fallen in with the suggestion.

As it was I tried to give Mamma to understand that the orchard opposite was just the place for me if only the necessary blanket were forthcoming. I felt sure that if only I knew where to lay hands on it, much army equipment in the way of blankets and groundsheets (perhaps even an officer’s bed) was still to be found at Estree Cauchee. However, my suggestions were not understood, but Madame told me that I would certainly procure a good bed at Monsieut Hermant’s in the village.

To this estaminet (i.e. “pub”) I accordingly went, to find the proprietor a huge, pot-bellied individual, completely dominated by his wife. The latter graciously consented to receive me.

I awakened at seven o’clock next morning, hurriedly dressed, and paid my host (five francs), assuring him in answer to inquiries that I had slept well. I refused his offer of coffee, since I had promised my old friends of the cottage that I would breakfast with them. The old lady was ready for me with the good, hot coffee, with which I had some bread and butter and home-made jam.

Having decided to go to Villers-au-bois (instead of Camblin L’Abbe) for the train, I was faced with a tramp of from four to five kilometres, and this I knew would take at least an hour. I found my staff (my baton, as Mamma called it) and prepared to start. My old friend protested when I paid her for the two meals that I was on a visit and that in any case what I had given was far too much. We embraced and she wished me “bon santé, bon voyage!"

I was to be sure to say “good day” to my Mother for her.

I could not help wondering as I withdrew whether I should ever see that great-hearted old French peasant again.

Avoiding the main roads and keeping to the byeways I saw Chateau de la Haie to the left and the pronglike vestiges of Mt. St. Eloi ahead. It was nine o’clock when I came up to Villers station and the train was due at 9.14. I was the only passenger. Duly the important little train whistled up from Camblin L’Abbe.

It took us but a few minutes to run up to Carency and I had a good opportunity to observe the excellent progress which that much-battered town has made towards recovery. I kept a sharp lookout for the corner—known during the war as Hospital Corner —and was interested to see that wheat was growing above where the Dressing Station had been. The amount of land which has been redeemed from the desolation of war is really astonishing.

The train ran along the bank of the little Souchez and soon drew up at the new little brick station, where I descended. The village of Souchez, wiped out during the war, lay on my right—a place of temporary structures, of course, and many Nissen huts. Beyond the village began the rise of ground which I knew well was the little hill of Vimy.

I left the mainroad for a light railway track which seemed to lead toward Vimy and suddenly found myself at the little Souchez river babbling along a very pleasant course in grateful contrast to the ugliness of the half-reconstructed villages.

I made my way up the hill further by the white pathway, to the left of which is a trench rapidly filling up.

Monument to the 44th

Making my way around the shellholes I arrived at a huge chalk crater from which all the surface soil had been blown. Near this spot is the wooden monument, “Sacred to the memory of the 44th Canadian Infantry who fell in the attack on Vimy Ridge, the Triangle and La Coulotte, April, May, June, 1917."

As I was surveying this monument (which will need to be replaced by a more substantial one shortly) I observed two Frenchmen a little way off gathering wood. I learnt subsequently that a good deal of the wood employed in putting up temporary homes consists of trench supports and dugout material.

The general aspect of Vimy is unlovely enough and is only redeemed by the profusion of wild flowers—foxglove, cornflower, poppy and a variety of whiteflower. In one shellhole I observed the cornflower, poppy and white foxglove flowering together—red, white and blue.

Further along on the Ridge I saw yet another monument, also among craters, and erected to the memory of S. St. C. Lloyd of the 78th Battalion, Winnipeg Grenadiers. “A gallant comrade who during a raid on Feb. 19, 1917, discovered a mine shaft, blew it, inflicting heavy loss on the enemy and sacrificed his own life.” The visible evidence of this courageous action appears in the gaping crater (named “Winnipeg Grenadier”) and one would have to possess a very torpid imagination not to be stirred by the sight of this earth-wound, hideous though it be: nor could I fail, on this quiet Sabbath morning, to contrast the almost uncanny stillness reigning on Vimy with the fearsome din that made the Ridge a veritable hell a little over four years ago.

Still keeping to the Ridge, I made for the village of Petit Vimy, seen away to the right.

Petit Vimy, like Souchez and Givenchy, is of course only convalescing from the war, and practically all the returned inhabitants are in makeshift dwellings. Seme miners’ houses have, however, been put up.

After some inquiry I learnt the exact location of the new monument unveiled by former Premier Meighen in 1921 and which I had been looking out for all the morning. A wide tract of country now lay stretched out before me and away over to the right I saw the object of my search —a large, white cross standing out against the sky.

I left the main road by a way that had once been the track of a light railway and soon came up to the little Thelus cemetery. The cemetery is so small that, but for the cross, one would easily overlook it. I soon saw evidences of the work of an English caretaker and his men, for the little place, tidy in every respect, had recently been sewn with grass, while the ground immediately around the monument has been carefully returfed. The tall cross is one of white stone, simple yet elegant, set with a drawn black sword which forms a second ross. It stands on five octagonal bases of varying height and girth and is, if one may so speak, very pleasing to behold. Floral tributes had been laid on the monument by the people of Thelus and Arras. These were inscribed “Aux heros Canadiens." Oats and barley are growing on the surrounding land, on the very ground they trod, those Canadian heroes, on the ever-memorable morning of April 9th, 1917.

A magnificent view of the surrounding country is obtainable at this point, and now the soft, misty, afternoon purples, peculiar I think in their viny tint, to the fair land of France, were beginning to enrich the sweet landscape. I could see the ruined church of Mt. St. Eloi, itself from my particular angle looking more like a monument than a ruin.

And then, ere long, there will be Allward’s magnificent memorial on Vimy!

I was by now very tired and had little heart for the eight kilometres into Arras. However, I set off, secretly hoping that a vehicle of some sort would come down the main road and give me a lift. During the War, of course, one would have “jumped a lorry,” but now, on this hot Sabbath, the Arras-Bethune Road was practically deserted. One or two cars passed during the two hours that I was tramping to Arras, but each was full and I can only hope that, with my formidable baton, I looked too determined a pedestrian to be insulted by the offer of a lift. I fear I should only too readily have accepted.

As I made away from Vimy, down the long road which switchbacks into Arras, I tried, as indeed I often tried during the war, to think it all out. But whether because I was fatigued or that we are too near the event, or that I had seen too much of the ugliness and the beastliness that is War; whether on account of the desolation which the leprosy of Vimy cannot fail to strike into the heart—I have to confess that I did not, as it seems to me an orthodox chronicler should have done, feel a glow of saddened thankfulness on account of what I had seen.

The Pity of it All

Two thoughts alone came to me—one, that civilization is still very much in its infancy; we are, as I think it is Mr. Chesterton who says, at the morning of the world. I said to myself, they did this sort of thing ages ago—the old, old Assyrians and the Greeks, only they did it better; for then it was a case of man for man, the quick eye, the well-kept body and the deft reining of the horse responsive to the master spirit.

For us—I suppose it is true to say that the majority of our infantrymen never even saw a German! They were killed, our lads, in many cases while talking with comrades in the trenches; they were shot down from afar as they started up over the top: others were cruelly bombed from above or were poisoned by deadly gas borne along on the innocent air. They were “put to death,” by your leave, with scarce a chance of meeting that old Usurper face to face, as, before God, every one of them had the brave heart to do. They were murdered by a sort of postdated process by old men in laboratories and mathematicians with lack-lustre eyes and hollow chests living far off from the fields of battle.

Suddenly, as I was thus thinking it came swiftly home to me that among all the dead left on the Ridge behind was not one of the culpables! They had got off! The company of the Dead on the Ridge—culpable?

We set up the tall white crosses by way of monumental tribute, but more truly is the action a tribute to their sacrificial death, and Golgotha and Vimy speak the same word. These fallen ones, they too were—

“Joint heirs with Christ because they bled to save

“His loved ones—not in vain.”

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