On the 26th of July we handed over at Estaires to an Indian Field Ambulance and trekked to Ferme Roussel, three miles north of Merville, all three Divisional Field Ambulances going as one column, and next day went through the wood by St. Venant to Berguette, arriving at midnight with “Macfarlane’s lantern” full overhead. Here the unit entrained and travelled by Calais, Abbeville, Amiens and Corbie to Mericourt-Ribemont, where we encamped in a field near the communal boundary.
The Highland Division (the first Scottish troops the district had seen) was now in Picardy, right among the French, taking over the Labyrinth from them ; a sector where that lying jade Rumour had it that cows, pigs and poultry were kept in the trenches, and that these trenches (laid out as market gardens) were twenty-five feet deep – a sufficiently interesting yarn manufactured by the humorous poilu for the credulous stranger to put in his pipe and smoke!
Mericourt was rather a pretty village – we were to know it better next year in July – but, owing to heat, wood and water, flies and mosquitoes abounded, interfering unduly with feeding and sleeping.
My own billet was in the house of the village “bobby”, the local garde-champêtre, a very worthy old man with a very deaf wife and, in addition, with one of the best wells of the village in his little brick-paved front yard. Thus it comes to me again that one day from my bedroom window on the second floor I saw a party of French Territorials straggling past, dusty and footsore, too tired even to chant “La Madelon,” or the famous :
Tu n’as pas ton pareil”
One thirsty soul, suddenly espying my landlord’s pump, promptly broke the ranks and made for it with his empty water-bottle, an example which those behind him immediately followed, resulting in a general break-up of the column, and very nearly of the pump as well. Seeing what had happened, the officer commanding shrugged his shoulders with great nonchalance, sat down under a convenient tree and lit a cigarette ; being joined there at intervals by such of his men as had slaked their thirst. After half an hour he gave a perfunctory order to fall in, and started off with those of his command who saw fit to follow him ; but fully one-third of them, having taken off their boots and incontinently fallen asleep by the roadside, stayed behind, setting out later as the spirit moved them by twos and threes. It was an easy-going performance, and fitted in well with the sleepy, sultry, summer afternoon.
A week later we trekked some seven kilometres north to Warloy-Baillon, and took over the Hôpital-Hospice from the 16/16 French Field Ambulance, who had been there for nine months; a genial, kindly lot of officers and men, between whom and our fellows there was the most hearty fraternisation. Their O.C. was a true son of the Midi, a big, burly, black-bearded, merry-hearted man, with a fine bass voice which he used in song to great effect after our conjoint dinner in the hospital that evening. “It’s a long way to Tipperary’ was then still bulking as the characteristic British war-song in the minds of our allies, and the great ambition of our French confrères was to get air and words thoroughly and correctly off by heart ; so we had to sing and re-sing the wretched effusion and coach their pronunciation of the chorus till a late hour. When their unit left next morning, after exchanging a tricolour for a Union Jack, every mother’s son of them was shouting it ; and they marched tunefully enough down the village street, with the British fag waving at their head, and all of us giving them a hearty send off.
That evening, too, by invitation, we attended a concert given by the local French troops in the Cercle des Sous-officiers at the hall adjoining the Hôtel des Voyageurs in the main street, a hall where we were to have many cheery functions of our own in the next five months. The performance included violin solos, songs serious and comic, conjuring entertainments and ventriloquism ; while a very good orchestra, conducted by a Parisian professional, rose to its greatest heights in the concluding rendering of “The Marseillaise” and “God Save the King.”
A luncheon next afternoon with the Commandant of the neighbouring village of Vadencourt and a dozen or so of his officers, under a rose-trellised shelter in the garden of the château there, finished off the international courtesies, and the rest of the French troops in the district departed the following day, leaving us to settle down in Warloy to our work as a Divisional Rest Station ; the 3rd H.F.A. functioning as Main Dressing Station at the neighbouring village of Millencourt, while the 2/1st H.F.A., at Esbart, some kilometres nearer Amiens, supplied personnel to the Advanced Dressing Station at Authuille, outside Albert. This A.D.S. was in the cowshed of a much battered farm, on the slope of a hill down towards the Ancre ; but, pit-propped and with the roof and walls well sand-bagged, it was ultimately made fairly safe. In the vicinity of Authuille, at Aveluy, were many good French shelters cut deep into the solid chalk ; and some erotically artistic souls amongst the poilus had left typically Gallic evidence of their powers of carving on this appropriately soft medium.
Going to and from Authuille the wayfarer had to pass through Albert, desolate and destroyed, with its war-famous statue of the Virgin hanging head downwards at an acute angle from the top of the church tower. Viewed from a distance, it looked like the head and neck of some huge long-billed bird – a much magnified heron or stork. The church itself Notre Dame de Brebières – was renowned in pre-war times for its miraculous statue of Our Lady, which had now been removed elsewhere for safety. This Statue, according to une tradition immémoriale, had been discovered in the second half of the XIIth century by a shepherd pasturing his sheep near the Ville d’Ancre, as Albert then was known. He noticed that one of his sheep kept continually nibbling at a certain tuft of grass without searching elsewhere for pasture, and although he called it and sent his dogs to bring it back, it was in vain. Becoming impatient the shepherd hit the tuft of grass with his crook, when, to his great surprise, he heard a voice saying, “Hold, shepherd! Thou woundest me!” Drawing back his crook he found it stained with blood, and, his anger leaving him, he stood stupefied while the stick slipped from his hand. Coming to himself again he knelt and dug gently into the earth at the spot whence the voice had come, and discovered a statue of the Virgin Mother with the Child in her arms and bearing on her forehead a wound caused by his stroke. This is the legend of the discovery of the miraculous Statue.
On the tale getting abroad, several of the larger and more powerful towns tried in turn to have it removed from its site near the Ville d’Ancre. But the horses attached to the various chariots, on which it was placed, refused, in every instance, and in spite of shouts and blows, to move a step, and a temporary shrine was erected to house it. Later, one horse was yoked to a cart wherein once more the Statue was laid, and, headed for Albert, without any driver, drew it thither with ease. The desire of Providence being thus definitely ascertained, in Albert the Statue had remained for nearly six hundred years until the German advance sent it to seek another sanctuary.
Although we did not know it when we arrived there, we were to be in Warloy for five months ; and as this was by far our longest stay in one place during the whole of our wanderings in France, it is of Warloy and its kindly inhabitants that most of us found time to acquire a wealth of pleasant memories. Life here was typical of that spent in many French villages ; so it may be excusable to give it in some detail, for it was the average life of any British Field Ambulance in such surroundings.
“War-loy” we cheerfully called it, taking it as spelt, and with no attempt to accommodate ourselves to French ideas thereanent. Hence the senile jest of an aged inhabitant of over four-score years that he had been born and had lived all his life in the place yet had never known how to pronounce its name properly until les Ecossais had arrived! But Warloy-Baillon, to give it its full title (as like many other French villages it was a combination of two communes), had a pre-war population of about eight hundred souls, mostly cultivateurs, although there were also several brasseries and a small weaving factory. It consisted of two parallel streets, the Senlis-Amiens road running through the main Street of Warloy, and the Rue de Baillon lying down in a dip of the ground towards the neighbouring village of Baizieux on the hill beyond while between the two larger Streets ran a number of intersecting smaller ones.
The Hôpital-Hospice, a gift to the village from one of its sons who had acquired wealth, was a large, modern two-storey building, used before the war both as a cottage hospital and as a hospice for the aged poor of the district. The French civilian nursing staff consisted of three religieuses, the Mother Superior and two nuns, Seur Andrée and Sour Marie, who were put on our ration strength and stayed on in residence, readily giving us their skilled and kindly help in our work. In the orchard behind, we ran up some canvas where the ground sloped down to the old church and to the village school ; and the schoolrooms there and a small farm building beside the hospital were also used for divisional sick and the inevitable scabies ward. The men were billeted in the old school in the Rue D’Harponville while further up the same street the officers’ mess was established in a disused and somewhat dilapidated villa, the summer residence in happier times of an Amiens citizen; the transport lines being at the Senlis end of the village.
Near the mare contaminée – for so the village pond was very justly placarded – on the Amiens road, stood a little building where the venerable village fire-engine – with its courtesy title of la pompe d’incendie on a board above the entrance – was stored ; and by a trap-door therefrom one descended a series of steps leading into the large caves that ran under the village. It was said that, in days of yore, a passage ran straight to Harponville, some four kilometres distant, where also were similar caves ; but this passage – if it ever existed – was now blocked. A visit below with electric torches showed a series of chambers cut in the chalk and opening off the main tunnel; some for human inhabitants, and some for cattle or horses, as was evidenced by the hewed out mangers and feeding troughs to be seen. A deep well- now fallen in – had been dug, and there were good ventilating shafts.
The local story was that these sous-terrains had been used as refuges for man and beast when the Spaniards, centuries back – one informant said in 1200, and he was obviously wrong, but we had neither knowledge nor reference books wherewith to confute him – had over-run the country. On one visit we found some parts of a human skeleton in one of the chambers at a depth of about a foot below the accumulated debris of the floor ; a discovery that aroused the keen interest of Monsieur le Maire, as possibly throwing some light on a bygone and unsolved local tragedy.
Life in Warloy was uneventful, and, many of us thought, even monotonous and dull although in later years and more stirring times we often enough looked back with a mighty longing to the quiet days spent there. The surrounding country was prettily wooded in parts, and gently undulating. The greatest excitement was a trip with patients for the special hospitals (eye, ear, throat, etc. ) to Amiens, then fairly normal, busy, and cheerful, with its glorious old cathedral, and quaint, picturesque, narrow side streets. But shopping could be done there, books could be bought, and a good dinner was always obtainable at the Hôtel du Rhin or the Ecu D’Or – best of all, perhaps, at the establishment of Josephine, alias “Hurricane Jane” the tempestuous, whirlwind lady of the oyster shop in the Rue des Corps nuds suns teste “the street of the headless naked bodies” as most of the inhabitants interpret it.
What the legend was from which this somewhat dirty little side lane took its name I never, in war time, could find out. Even the learned archéviste of the Hotel de Ville of Amiens cannot throw much light on the matter. In a letter to a friend of mine who, later on, kindly made enquiry on the subject, he wrote : “It is not surprising that you have not found any book reference concerning la rue des Corps nuds sans teste, as no such reference exists. One is reduced to conjecture, and first one thinks that the true spelling is rue des Cornus sans teste. Personally, I have found two documents containing the name ; one, rue des Cornus sans teste, in 1809, and the other, rue du Cornu sans tête, in 1848. The spelling, corps nuds sans teste (the present sign), would thus seem to be a modern invention which nothing justifies ; for if there had been, even in the last century, any sign or sculpture of any kind representing naked bodies without heads in this street, we should have known of it. It is, then, probable that there formerly existed in this street, which is adjacent to the ancient rampart, some cabaret of evil notoriety, having for its sign the horns of a stag (the emblem of deceived husbands) as exists in other towns, whence the name of cornus sans teste. Unfortunately, no trace of such a sign exists in the old records. Recently, another reading has been proposed, viz., la rue Cornu sans tette. In old French, as in the patois of Picardy, this word tette signifies a breast, a nipple, a teat of an animal. In this case, the sign would have represented a cow without teats, that is to say, an Ox. This would have been a rebus, and one knows that such things are very frequent in Picardy: witness that of l’homme auax trois visages of the Passage Gossant, which has not yet been completely explained.” So there (even after the persistent efforts of a skilled local antiquary ) the matter rests-in obscurity ; and we can quite appropriately quote the old Scots rhyming conundrum :
As I lookit owre my father’s castle wa’
I saw a body stan ‘in’,
I took aff his heid and I drank his bleed,
An’ I left his body stan ‘in’.
For the answer to that was “A bottle!” Suitable is it not? – to the °`cabaret of evil notoriety,” unless, alas! at this unsavoury “howffy” it was a case of butt, leather jack and flagon.
But, be all that as it may, if you booked a seat in Josephine ‘s little restaurant, with its pile of oyster shells outside the door, and were willing to face up to a fairly long wait when you turned up to claim it, you were certain of a well-cooked meal ; enlivened by the furious bustling about of the hostess bringing in the various dishes, collecting multitudinous orders and shouting them volubly down the steep little twisting stair to the cook below – exhortations, recriminations and explanations being delivered, exchanged and received in rapid and vigorous French. It is said she came from the south as a maidservant, took over the business, ran it successfully, made a small fortune, and out of it installed her aged parents in a comfortable house in Amiens. And yet her charges were by no means immoderate, and her fare always good.
In our village itself we mixed freely in the daily life of the inhabitants. The local doctor was on military service, and the care of the civilian sick fell into the willing hands of the ambulance we were locum tenentes for an unknown brother of the craft. Every morning there was a dispensary for those who could attend as out-patients for tooth extractions, minor surgery and medical advice ; while the afternoons, when the convoy for the Casualty Clearing Station had gone and hospital work was slack till the evening rush again, were devoted by many of the officers to visiting the sick in their homes. AIl such work was, of course, gratuitous but they were an independent folk and très reconnaissants ; So many a payment in kind was given in the shape of poultry, eggs, fruit and butter, to refuse which would have put us for ever beyond the pale of their esteem.
And the types of invalid were much the same as with us. There was par exemple, the old lady who was très nerveuse avec beaucoup de gaz – ‘”nervish wind” we call it in Scotland. She remained très gaseuse and in varying States of inflation I – dear old Zeppelin! I till we trekked elsewhere, and left her to the carminatives of our successors.
Our only Irish officer, who talked French fluently with a slight Tipperary accent, dealt chiefly with the out-patient department ; and by his unfailing joie de vivre inspired a confidence that to us, his somewhat jealous friends, was phenomenal. For the first month his directions to all patients commenced with a stereotyped and stentorian “I’l est necessaire pour vous”‘ ; and a coldness ensued for some days between him and our interpreter, who, wishing to be kind and vet evidently suffering, had pointed out that this expression was neither idiomatic nor used by even the older writers. Our colleague then grudgingly adopted – after getting a second opinion from a brother officer learned in the language – il vous faut, followed by the infinitive. Still, when a trembling female with a finger on a decayed molar asked him mumblingly “arracher la dent,” he was ready of tongue, Strong of wrist, and gallant of mien. Moreover, did he not, with an attachment to principle that was entirely admirable, invariably most address in the soothing accents every female from fifteen to seventy as “ma pauvre petite?”
Then there was the aged agriculturist with a Potts’ fracture. He was not my patient, but I saw him occasionally in friendly consultation, what time our surgeon was otherwise occupied. However, as the weather was warm and a glass of good wine always forthcoming at these visits, the surgeon consulted with fair regularity, and my opportunities were few. Poor old cultivateur! Overcome with much unaccustomed professional attention, he used to kiss our hands at the end of each seance! But he ended with a useful leg.
I do not think that any Picard can justly laugh at our island climate, as we so often find done in French literature. In “Twenty Years After” the musketeers when in London said, “Let us take a turn about town! Let us imbibe a little fog!” And Porthos, gigantic and gallant gourmand, added, “Yes, that will be a change for us from beer.” But in Picardy, to speak truth fearlessly as it should be spoken, we found the climate as thick as across the water and the beer much thinner. Even “Le Petit Parisien” an unbiased witness which circulated freely amongst us, described the district in a feuilleton as “un pays très agricole òu il pleut beaucoup,” and we found the weather part of the statement most damnably true!
Now, if anyone a year before had told me that one mirk midnight, twelve months later, I should have been trudging through the mud down a back street in a picturesque and insanitary French village, my light, a three parts worn out1 fr. 50 electric lamp, my companion an excited peasant (whose one plaintive and constant remark was “Mais depêchez-vous, Monsieur!’). and my errand under the auspices of Lucina – then to that man I should have said “C’est un cauchemar!” But I depechied, all the same, and it was a fine baby, la petite Suzanne. (I trust she is now as well and thriving as she was when, two months subsequently, I, at the request of maman, kissed the infant goodbye. It was a tearful parting, and in the confusion maman kissed me. Que voules vous? Cest l’habitude du pays! And, grâce à Dieu, I dodged kissing the father, who wished to share in the compliments!
When we passed from labour to refreshment, we broached (sans cérémonies, as my still excited host put it) an excellent bottle of St. Julien ; and over it la belle-mère waxed confidential, giving the births, deaths and other medical memorabilia of her married career. She roused in time the spirit of competition in her commère (kimmer of our Franco-Scottish past) who beat her at the post, after a ding-dong race of tongues, by two infants and three dangerous illnesses. Monsieur, overcome with paternity – it was his first experience – nearly brought bad luck on the house by thoughtlessly lighting a third candle and I assisted the old ladies to rub in the wickedness especially on an occasion like this when it behoved us all to keep the auspices favourable – of trifling in this way with the popular beliefs of Picardy. He described himself, with an abandon of gesture, as being désolé ; and I think he felt it, for he was of the large-bodied and simple-minded type. Then, after much interchange of felicitations, into the darkness and the mud again, with the big guns booming in the distance, and the occasional gleam of the star shells as “merry dancers”‘
The Lucina department grew and multiplied. Rumour had it that chariots, filled with matrons in the straw thereof, were arriving from neighbouring villages under cover of night ; and this rumour we, the regular practitioners, ultimately traced to the Transport Officer, who held himself horsily aloof from general practice. But, in any case, it so happened one night that we needed an important piece of the obstetrician ‘s armamentarium, which, nom d’un petit bonhomme! is not in the Mobilisation Table, nor yet in the Field Medical Panniers!
The Quartermaster, interrupted in his evening bridge, wearily suggested trying Ordnance, but curtly refused the ambassadorship. And yet it was necessary to act! Therefore in a motor ambulance wagon to the neighbouring medical unit at Esbart. Did they keep a “Simpson’s, long, pair, one? Hélas, non! But (happy thought!) they had heard of a retired French medical practitioner who, fallen heir to a paternal brasserie, had shown his commonsense by abandoning medicine and brewing beer “and very doubtful stuff at that” -i n the vicinity. To him, then, post-haste at midnight to rouse him from his slumbers and recall his pre-beer days!
A long parley through shuttered windows with his good lady, ultimately ended in our admittance ; although, misunderstanding our design, she insisted that under no circumstances could monsieur go out as he was a sufferer from la bronchite. Bearded, stout, asthmatic yet amiable, he at last descended, with all his kindly soul in his “Qu’y-a-t-il pour votre service?” The case is explained. A Simpson’s, long, pair, one? “Mais non, monsieur! Mieux que ça! Tarnie! Did we in our country know of this immortal ?” Duly assuring him that all true Scots obstetricians grovelled at this shrine, we left with a highly rusted museumesque antique – a candidate for the steriliser.
Cælum non animum mutant! Il n’y-a rien de nouveau sous le soleil!
Through broken nights and weary days
Lucina! Still we hymn thy praise!
It was 2am before we – three of us, for it was teamwork- sat down to the first bottle of sweet champagne, in the company of the father of la petite Jacqueline, the two grandfathers, the two grandmothers, some cousins and other parents, and the sage-femme. It was somewhat later still when we got to the château where we were billeted and wakened our totally unsympathetic brother officers to tell them the glad news about France’s new inhabitant. There are some souls in whom the spirit of romance is as dead as Queen Anne.
But we did not specialise. There were many other cases, e.g., the stout female agriculturist with “trench feet” contracted amongst wet turnips : it was she who gave me, as a souvenir of her recovery, the large celluloid pin-cushion which now adorns my dressing-table. And remember vividly, too, the child with la gorme, which fear is patois, and anyhow is a scabby business at best, most properly treated by a large boracic-starch poultice all over the head. The nature of the case was obscured for some days by the mother misinterpreting my minute instructions in French as to the making of such things. I rather think, looking back on it all, that she must have put some glue in it.
There were two outstanding personalities in the village whom we shall always remember – M. le Maire and M. l’ Instituteur. The former was a thin, active old gentleman with white Dundreary whiskers, a retired business man from the neighbouring town of Albert, who was indefatigable in his efforts to serve his commune and our troops. Nothing was a trouble to him : in all business relations he showed an unfailing courtesy and kindness, and in a social capacity much hospitality, ably seconded therein by his capable wife. The school master, whose house faced the little village school which we had converted into accommodation for the sick, was also the friend of all ranks ; and he, his wife and daughter will always be gratefully thought of as genuine friends – patient, tactful, helpful and kindly. And there were two special occasions when we saw the mayor and the schoolmaster at their best. One was on the 5th of September, when the first anniversary of the battle of the Marne was celebrated in Warloy by a procession, taken part in by French and British troops, and by school children bearing a large wreath, to the little village cemetery at the east end of the village. Here all the graves of fallen soldiers – each with its little white cross bearing the man’s name, rank and regiment, the black tear of sorrow painted on the upright, and the metal tricolour badge attached – were decorated with small French fags ; and in the midst of these graves M. le Maire and other notables made eloquent speeches on what the battle had meant for France.
The other occasion – one entirely free from sadness was when they attended our St. Andrew’s night supper. We gave them broth, “saut herrin” “biled hens” and a haggis made by the skilled hand of our sergeant-major – with “Auld Kirk” to wash the solids down ; and for their edification our junior officers danced perfervidly (and more or less correctly) our national dances, what time the seniors and our guests discoursed of Marie Stuart and tied tighter old international ties. Monsieur le Maire said, with some emotion, at the close of the function – and I think he spoke truthfully that he had never spent such an evening before. And he called before breakfast next morning to ask for us ; thus at once demonstrating both his extraordinary vitality and his kindness of heart.
And when we are dealing in happy memories, the hall of the Hôtel des Voyageurs will always bulk largely in our minds. When handed over by the French troops, who had used it as the Cercle des Sous-officiers– ”the Non-com’s Club” : a good stage and some rough and ready scenery had been left us ; and here we held regular concerts, largely attended by the troops of the district and by the French civilians. We had an energetic committee who saw to the drawing up of good programmes ; and if anything went wrong, and a concert party failed us, a “free-and-easy” could always be got up by having a singing competition- “1st prize, 10 fr. ; 2nd prize, 7 fr. ; 3rd prize, 3 fr.”–with a bench of referees (against whose decision there was no appeal) sitting critically on the stage, awarding or withholding marks for each solo, and stimulating the unfortunate performers by free, caustic and personal comments when required.
To view a full house from the wings was a great sight. In the somewhat meagrely lamp-lit hall the floor space was packed with a cheery khaki crowd, drawn from all the units in the vicinity; while above, in the rickety gallery -and it was always a mystery why it never came down- were about twice the number of men Board of Trade regulations at home would have allowed, countable, if you had cared for the exercise, by a multitude of an atmosphere of cigarette ends glowing through tobacco smoke so thick you might have cut it with a cheese knife. At the top of some steps from the floor, a side door communicated with the hôtel- a somewhat grandiose name for the old estamin et – -and at the foot of the steps old madame and her handsome daughter presided over a large beer barrel set up on trestles in the hall ; drinks between items on the programme being available to those of the audience who happened to be in funds. The civilian element, mainly composed youngsters, was usually at the back of the hall, and chiefly appreciative of the knock-about comic turns the only part of the performance it could really follow with complete understanding.
On one famous occasion a burly French poilu in his horizon-blue, back to his native village en permission. asked if he and a friend would be allowed to contribute to the pleasure of the evening by a duet on the cor de chasse, the circular go-round-the-body hunting-horn of France. Their offer was, naturally, accepted with gratitude as a highly novel item ; and when, bowing gracefullv, they appeared on the stage they received an ovation. They then walked to a wing and commenced, facing it like pipers, to tune up, with all the apoplectic facial con- tortions peculiar to those who play wind instruments. This, received as a comic effort, drew forth laughter and applause, which the performers, owing to their own noise, fortunately did not hear. I happened to be chairman that night ; and, when they were ready to begin, asked the audience, whatever the result might be, good, bad, or indifferent, to cement the entente cordiale by giving the duet a rousing reception. It certainly got it, and got it on form, for the players were old hands at the game ; and when, again bowing profoundly amidst yells of “encore” they were told that this with us meant “bis” their faces shone with satisfaction. What would their allies les Ecossais desire? And the question being put by me to the assembled troops, they, with an exquisite tact which was purely unintentional – for it was the only French air of which they at that time knew the name demanded with one voice the Marseillaise! Visibly touched by the sentiment of the occasion, the Frenchmen gave us a fine rendering of the air of Rouget de l’Isle’s immortal masterpiece, and left the platform amidst prolonged and tumultuous applause.
Do you remember that night, you fellows who were there and may perchance read this? Or have you forgotten it? It sticks in my memory anyhow : for it fell to my official lot to entertain the hunting-horn heroes to several bottles of more than ordinarily vin ordinaire in the hotel, to smoke black caporal cigarettes with them in the damp little stuffy sideroom, clinking our glasses as we had to trinquer times innumerable over toasts that included the destruction of les sales Boches, the success of the armies, and bonne chance to our noble selves! I learnt their names and those of their respective wives, the story of their simple lives, and the number and sex of their families ; and I communicated, by special request, much of my own domestic history in return. But we parted the best of friends, although next day I suffered from acute dyspepsia. Still it was worth it all; they were braves gars, ces bons Picards, and I enjoyed every minute of their honest, cheery company.
For, take him the right way – and that was nearly always the way he wanted to take you – the French peasant, in or out of uniform, was a thoroughly good fellow ; and many a happy hour I have spent in conversation with him at his fireside or on the road. Emotional if you like – had he not much to stir his deepest emotions? But open-hearted, witty, laughter-loving and optimistic, a long-suffering jusqu ‘au- boutiste who, even in his darkest hour as a refugee or in retreat, believed rightly in the final victory of his cause and his country. One often heard the careless statement that he was always “on the make” Suppose, for the sake of argument, that the truth of that were granted. Had the man whose all was lost, whose home was in ruins, whose wife and children, mayhap, were in enemy hands, whose land was desolate, not every incentive to be so? Reverse the relative positions and what would our people have done? It is so easy to criticise, and yet so difficult to imagine oneself in the position criticised. Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner. Personally, I have nothing but the kindest recollections of him ; and I owe him – and his wife – much gratitude for many acts of single-minded hospitality. Vive la France! May Fortune ever smile on her! And, whatever alliances go, may the spirit of the old Franco-Scottish alliance remain true and steadfast.
On 29th December, after making innumerable farewell visits and receiving a courteous testimonial on papier timbré from M. le Maire concerning our medical attendance on his people, we left our village and trekked some ten kilometres to Mirvaux, a rather dirty and poverty-stricken place of about 170 inhabitants. Our chief work there – and there was ample scope for it: it was virgin soil – was sanitation. We, according to orders received, renamed the streets ; and, as befitted our Aberdeen origin, did so after the “braif toun of Bon-Accord”’ Soon newly painted signboards pointed out “Market Street” “Union Street’ and “Marischal Street.”‘ Even “Shuttle Lane” was not forgotten, a narrow street where an old hand-loom weaver and his wife carried on business. It was a curious partnership for he made veiling for the headgear of les religieuses, and she (true daughter of Eve) material for the powder-puffs of frailer females. Here, then, you had Holy Church in one corner of the room ; the World, the Flesh and the Devil in the other ; yet able to converse in patois on matters of common interest to both sides, when the clacking of the loom permitted it. And I remember that “Constitution Street” on the ancient principle of lucus a non lucendo, was so named by us because no one’s constitution could have long withstood the infernal smell of it.
And yet Mirvaux was the only place, I think, in our musical history where we got two lady performers to appear on our concert platform – blonde Suzanne, the baker’s daughter, and a girl friend, favouring us one eventful evening with Sous les plits du drapeau as a duet. It was to this air that the famous and illiterate doggerel :
“Après la guerre finee,
Et les Anglais partee,
Toutes les demoiselles vont pleurer” –
was always sung by the troops ; and in sublime and cheerful ignorance we rendered this as a chorus to each verse. The item was a succès fou, and one back benchful of enthusiasts fell through the tarpaulin curtain which walled in the open side of the cartshed concert hall, landing incontinently in the near and moist neighbourhood of the midden, to the uproariously unconcealed joy of those not taking immediate part in the impromptu “extra”
And then for three months followed a series of treks, and much routine work, while the Division had a spell of training in the back areas – to the ancient town of Corbie via Querrieux, on to Pierregot, to Gezainecourt near Doullens, to Ivergny, followed by an eighteen mile march through snow to Aubigny. Here, on 10th March, we took over from the French four huts near the railway station and the hospice in the village, opening as a temporary Casualty Clearing Station under the YVII Corps. A few days later the C.C.S. itself took over, with one section of ours to help; while the rest of the unit moved to Haute Avesnes, doubling up there with a French Field Ambulance, but moving next day down the Arras-St. Pol road to Berles. Here a section took over the Advanced Dressing Station at Auy Rietz, near Neuville St. Vaast, on the south end of the Vimy Ridge, to evacuate wounded from the famous Labyrinth. This post we largely extended and improved, and the sketch plan shews a characteristic type of dug-out suited to R.A.M.C. requirements. It was a freely shelled locality, and the old Territorial Trench leading to it from Brunehaut Farm, near Mareuil, was regularly attended to by enemy gunners. Ambulance cars only came up the Maræuil-Neuville St. Vaast road after night fell, as it was under observation ; and cases reaching the A.D.S. by daylight had to be kept there till dark, the cars being side of Mareuil. parked by day in a sandpit at the roadside on the other Berles was a little place, assez pittoresque, with a fine old château in whose pleasant grounds the nightingale sang with silvery tone in the still summer night. It was our first acquaintance in France with le rossignol, whose reputation, according to Shakespeare, largely depends on his careful avoidance of competition ; for, as every one knows,
The nightingale, if he should sing by day
When every goose is cackling, would be thought
No better a musician than the wren.
I never saw him at Berles, but later, in a wood at Marouil, I caught a glimpse of him in the semi-darkness, and was surprised at his small size. In any case, no connoisseur would give a “blackie” for a dozen of him ; and here again I am on solid ground, with Henley beside me:-
The nightingale has a lyre of gold,
The lark’s is a clarion call,
And the blackbird plays but a boxwood flute
But I love him best of all.
The owner of the château, a tall, stately, old Bourbon aristocrat, condemning all things Napoleonic, was, nevertheless, by force of ironic circumstances, the Maire under a Republican Government. But he dwelt in the past, he and an old retainer of the Caleb Balderstone type, who by day wore a blue baize apron, and in the evening an early nineteenth century claw-hammer. It was a pleasant, rambling old home, a suitable environment for both the old worthies ; and two russet-chinned swallows few in and out of my bedroom window there as soon as dawn broke, twittering and fluttering as they, without let or hindrance, plastered mud on a half made nest under one end of the curtain pole. For who would break his luck by interfering with a swallow?
We left Berles to take over the Main Dressing Station at Ecoivres, a pavé streeted village within a few hundred yards of the base of Mont St. Eloi, on whose summit stood the village of that name crowned by the twin towers of the old abbey- -that well-known land- mark of the campaign, standing out prominently for miles around and in pre-war days a great picnic centre for the inhabitants of Arras. some eight kilometres distant. On one of the towers was a crow’s nest observation post for the gunners ; and an illicit visit by night to the hill showed a magnificent view of the line marked out by starshells and gun-fire. Not a soul was to be seen in the higher part of the village : the cobbled Streets were overgrown with grass, and the solid old Stone houses all badly battered and scarred by shells. The remains of the ancient abbey were surrounded by the ruins of large farm houses, farm buildings and dwellings . but the only tenants were night birds and rats. It reminded one of the lament for the past glories of Walsingham :
Owles do skrike where the sweetest hymnes
Lately were songe,
Toads and vipers holde their nests
Where the palmers did thronge.
On the further side of the wood, east of Mont St. Eloi, lay a large military cemetery, la cimetière de la Motte, containing many hundreds of French and British graves. Some were surrounded with railings of wood or iron ; many had wreaths- one very pretty one was of artificial violets. In several cases the only clue to the man resting there was his name on a slip of paper inside a bottle laid on the grave ; but most were marked by large or small wooden crosses. Frequently one saw a shattered rifle with its muzzle Stuck in the mound of earth ; and on the butt a soldier’s bullet-holed képi or a metal helmet dinted or perforated in a manner tell-tale of how the owner had died. But the cemetery was even then overgrown with weeds and thistles, some of the latter nearly six feet high. I visited it late one evening, and in the gloaming the eerie sadness of it gripped hard. It was a relief to come back again in the darkness through the woods, where the 6th Gordons were bivouacked in tents, shelters, dug-outs and old gun emplacements. Lights were twinkling everywhere, and the place hummed cheerily with the honest old north country accent.
Taking over from the 75th Field Ambulance, we had as so often happened the village school for our hospital accommodation ; and the rest of our work was largely the sanitation of the village. We made a “midden map” of Ecoivres a large scale map of the place with the middens marked by dots of red ink – and that map when finished had a marked attack of roseola. For it must always be remembered that most of the French villages we knew were aggregations of small farm yards, and that the social importance and success of the cultivateur was largely measured by the amount of manure he managed to accumulate. Hence the existence of his natural objection to have it meddled with. And hence his constant joy in that malodorous environment which has been so aptly described as a “quadrilateral smell!”
At this date the square incinerator, made of four sheets of corrugated iron, had deservedly come into – sanitary fashion ; and several of them, carried about from place to place where the need was greatest, did yeoman work in disposing of much accumulated rubbish and filth. In Ecoivres, however, there was one of the finest and most plentiful springs of water that we ever struck in France clear, hard, cool water, which, under the auspices of the R.E., was piped and pumped for years over a large surrounding area.
During the latter part of our stay at Ecoivres we had several parties of a London Field Ambulance up at Aux Rietz A.D.S. for instruction, and on the 13th July we handed it and our headquarters at Ecoivres over to them and moved back to the neighbouring village of Acq, preparatory to trekking south for the Somme.