The Battle of the Scarpe, 1918

On the 19th August the 2nd H.F.A. took over the M.D.S. at St. Catherine, a suburb of Arras, where they had good (and old-standing) accommodation in a little- damaged brewery. The unit was not sorry to see the last of Cambligneul, where they had been freely bombed during their Stay : one driver being seriously wounded, and another slightly wounded, with thirteen horses killed and the same number wounded the night before they left. The 2/1st H.F.A. moved the same day to Agnez-les-Duisans to act as Divisional Rest Station, and the 3rd H.F.A. took over the Maræuil Field Ambulance site. D.H.Q. had now moved to the hutments above Mareuil, and on the night of the 2Ist we had the highly unpleasant experience of having fifteen bombs dropped amongst us. One landed in front of “Q” office, and an orderly there saved himself only by promptly diving head first into a chalk trench seven feet deep. When brought in for treatment of the many bruises and excoriations that naturally followed this athletic effort, he groused out, “It’s a d- d shame they dinna mak steps doon into thae trenches!” On its being pointed out to him that the delay caused by the use of the steps would certainly have led to his demise, he grudgingly allowed, “Aweel, I widna wonder but there ‘s maybe something in that !”It was a curious fact that in the whole camp, where much material destruction was done, he and another man were the only two who sustained any damage from the raid.

On the 25th, D.H.Q. moved to Victory Camp on the Lille road, two kılometres north-east of Arras, and not far from our old Collecting Post at the Vimy Ridge battle in April, 1917. The Collecting Post (over which the R.A.M.C. fatigue parties had expended months of labour) was by now gutted and in use as a billet. 

Once more we were working up the Scarpe valley, with Collecting Posts at L’Abbayette and Fampoux : the same villainous old shelled area. Going through Blangy one day a large Hun “dud’ landed on a ruined house at the roadside while our car was passing, and battered us with a vigorous shower of broken bricks and dust. There were three passengers inside, and it was with strained and artificial smiles that we simultaneously remarked “Dud !” Next day while working round the various medical posts (at Fampour ; the Sandpit Collecting Post in front of it ; and Single Arch Collecting Post on the railway embankment) we got back to the road and ran the car up to the quarry at the chemin creux near Roux, to explore it with the view of its becoming a Relay Bearer Post. Jerry’s observation balloon had evidently spotted the car, for (just as we had come out of the place and Started on our return journey) the enemy put thirty shells and some shrapnel slick into the quarry. That was the worst of “visibility good.” And then, as further harassment, on the road home a couple of horses in a limber bolted out of a farm entrance, drove the pole into our ambulance car, and tore the side covering off in ribbons, luckily without damage to the °insides.’) 

At this time propaganda work of ours amongst the Boches was increasing, and fleets of white balloons used occasionally to sail overhead making for their lines, dropping at intervals showers of leaflets. These, quivering and wavering in the breeze, drifted down like silver lace as the sun shone on them from a serene blue sky.

Behind us in a dip near Anzin was a Japanese battle-ship gun, made by Armstrongs, mounted on a bogey and pulled about by its own engine. With a shell of nearly a ton weight it fired hourly on Douai, and the whole out- fit was said to be worth quarter of a million sterling. It made a devilish noise when it fired ; and, on one occasion as we passed, the concussion split the canvas roof and smashed the windows of our ambulance car. 

When the Division came out of the line D.H.Q. moved again to the Marcuil hutments on 14th September. How familiar thousands of troops must have become with that blessed village and all its landmarks! Coming up the road from Ecoivres one passed the cemetery on the left, then turned right and downhill a bit before again turning left at right angles along the battered pavé that ran between the church and the château. The end of the church that abutted on the street had got, early in the war, a bite taken out of it by a shell, and the gap was propped with a wooden beam. The main ecclesiastical treasure had been long ago removed elsewhere for safety. This was a casket of gilded bronze – XIII century work – containing the relics of Saint Berthilde, who had died a widow at Marcuil about the year 685. Down in the lower part of the village stood her fountain, covered in by a little brick chapel, famous for the cure of diseases of the eye, to which shrine in peace time pilgrimages were regularly made. The water looked clean and clear, but there were, unfortunately, no cases of maux d’yeux at the time amongst us whereby to test its efficacy. 

On the other side of the little valley was the neighbouring village of Etrun, once the site of a fine country house for the pleasuring of the ancient bishops of Arras. Formerly also, it had contained a celebrated abbey of Benedictines. But these glories of Etrun had long departed, and its chief interest was now due to the fact that near it were the remains of the old Roman camp of Mont-César. One always lacked, however, the necessary literature and leisure–to assimilate local archæology ; but one sighed for a day there with some French Monkbarns, when all the racket was past and gone.

One of the ever pleasant duties of No. 2 H.Q. mess was to offer on behalf of the Division the most whole-hearted hospitality to all visitors who laid claim to it. Entirely free from the inevitable and sometimes oppressive dignity of No. !, it was in most divisions (certainly in ours) the cheeriest H.Q. mess. With ever memorable representatives of “A” and “Q,” we had the A.P.M., “Dados”, “Daddums’ and other worthies, and as mess president the Claims Officer (better known in his other capacity of O.C. “Balmorals,” our famous concert troupe) ; while the backbone of the whole show was perhaps the O.C. Employment (alias “Enjoyment” ) Company, that genial “Cotswold Highlander” and worshipper of Jorrocks, with his never-failing cheerfulness and caustic wit. Free criticism of each other, as occasion demanded, never interfered with our camaraderie ; and if any one of the bunch can look back on those days without many pleasant memories of them, I fear that he has fallen away from the high standard of No. 2 in war time.

On one occasion at Mareuil we received with the usual open arms a very well-known London literary man, who came to us in the guise of a lieutenant from G.H.Q. and as cicerone to several foreign journalists. Of these one was a Spaniard, representative of two newspapers another a Norwegian from Christiania. The Londoner, like many true intellectuals, successfully concealed the fact (in an environment he evidently considered unsuitable) that he was troubled this way. But the Spaniard, a cheery, cosmopolitan soul with a passable knowledge of English, blossomed forth later and spontaneously as an after-dinner speaker in an eloquent oration which No. 2 received with due and prolonged applause. Then ensued a painful hiatus while we sotto voce endeavoured to stimulate our “Q”  member – who had resided many years in the Argentine – to reply in the fluent Spanish we had so often heard him speak about. After a blank and ornamentally terse refusal on his part, I was earnestly requested by the mess president to endeavour to save the situation. Alas! What – on the spur of the moment does the average man know about Spain, save that the Moors had been in it, and that Miguel Cervantes had written Don Quixote? And of Norway, what again, save that the Maid of Norway must of necessity have come from there? So, with the aid of these scanty topical touches, a reply was effected ; the gallant señor assisting with many valuable interpolations, and the burly descendant of the Vikings (who knew no English) being affected to tears when the only appropriate and that a doubtfully authentic = verse from Sir Patrick Spens,

To Noroway, to Noroway 

To Noroway o’er the faem, 

The King’s daughter o’ Noroway 

Tis thou maun bring her hame !

was recited. And when, an hour later (and unexpectedly), the G.O.C, sent a message from No. 1 mess that he desired to interview the foreign visitors, we all saw the point of the joke much better than the professional humorist who grimly conducted his voluble charges thither over some open ground which seemed to be even more uneven than his party imagined. Rumour had it next day that the General’s manner had been frigid to all concerned.

It was while inspecting the sanitation of the surrounding area that I came one fine day to the village of Gauchin le Gal, some kilometres to the west of that historic landmark, the well-known twin towers of Mont St. Eloi. Standing in the little village market-place, amongst a collection of parked motor lorries and g.s. wagons, were two stones, evidently very old and of a nature that excited the regard of the folk-lorist. One, upright and of the shape and size of a small milestone, had an iron staple let into the top of it ; while the other, resembling a large Dutch cheese, had a slice taken off one end. Into the flat surface of the sliced end another iron staple was fixed, and a small incised cross was roughly carved beside it. “This, ” said I to myself, quoting the exclamation of Mr. Pickwick on the occasion of his great antiquarian discovery, “is very strange !” 

Well, when in doubt or when seeking information in France, go to the Maire ; and to the Maire I went, to find that he was from home and the schoolmaster acting as his deputy. The latter received me courteously. “The Stones! Ah, yes! There was a story – a foolish old story- – about these stones !” “Would he tell it to me?” “But yes, if monsieur cared for these things. He had written it down some years ago in a little notebook.” So with his permission, I copied it, sitting somewhat crampedly at one of the small school desks. And this is how the tale ran : 

“On our village square there is to be seen a large round stone chained to another upright one of red sandstone. Various explanations have been given of these stones. The first is that in an ancient fight between two noblemen one made a prisoner of the other, and to perpetuate the memory of his victory the upright Stone was erected to represent the victor, and the round stone chained to it to represent the vanquished. Another version is that the conquered nobleman was made prisoner and tied to a post in the market-place, where he remained exposed to the public gaze till he died, and hence the small cross that can be seen near the fastening of the round stone. 

“Yet another story exists, which does not redound to the credit of the ladies of the commune who lived in those far-off days. For it says explicitly that this accursed round stone, then unchained, used to go at night and knock at the doors of husbands whose wives were unfaithful to them. As a large number of households were disturbed in this way, the authorities decided to stop the wandering habits of the stone by chaining it up. Since then the inhabitants of the village sleep in peace. Nowadays one would not be afraid to unchain it, for unfaithful wives are now rare in this countryside, and the stone would have little opportunity of resuming its old occupation .”

Eh bien! A good enough story? And at the end a pretty little compliment to the virtue of the commune Hélas! The worthy schoolmaster’s little manuscript book had been written before the war and while “the accursed round stone” was still chained. When I saw it, it was once again unchained and had been since 1914, probably at the hands of some mischief maker. Left alone and free to resume its old habits, what had happened? Ecoutez! Various French troops had been billeted in the village at the outbreak of war, and one lady had proved – comment dirais-je ? – more popular than virtuous. Whereupon some of the inhabitants, probably of her own sex, had taken the old round stone and laid it by night on her door-step as a delicate and many-centuries-old hint to her to mend her ways. She, and some of her bons amis, naturally annoyed by this advertisement, took the nocturnal visitor and buried it in the back garden. But the other villagers found this out, and, indignant at such an insult to their ancient guardian of morals, went to the Maire, who immediately ordered the offenders to dig it up again and reinstate it on the market-place. One can imagine the scene and the jeers and joy of the local Pharisees ! In the market-place, anyhow, it stood once again, unchained and free to look out for fresh work, a tabloid kirk-session to pillory lights o’ love. And, also once again, I trust the schoolmaster of Gauchin le Gal can now with a clear conscience proclaim the unassailable virtue of the ladies of his commune. Or has he thought it safer to wait for the rechaining of the mauvais galet?

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