Some Lighter Phases of Trench Life
A Canadian Artist at the Front
Driver H. W. Cooper
EDITOR S Note.—H. W. Cooper will be remembered by readers of MACLEAN’S. Before the war he contributed 7tiany splc7idid sketches to this magazine He has been at the front for nearly two years and has put many of his impressions into permanent form. His admirable sketches a.re done on thin paper with no better support than his knee atid no better light than a flickering candle or lajnp. They are veritable masterpieces.
SO many writers who have endeavored to give the outside world a picture of war have dealt with the obvious sides—the horrors and the heroics of war —that perhaps, for a change, it might be well to forget all that and tell something of the lighter side of soldiering on the Western front. There is a lighter side. Man’s sense of humor stays with him even through months of carnage and suffering and diabolic discomforts and so occasionally a thread of comedy weaves itself into the dull and tragic pattern of modern war.
First of all I want to pay my respects to our English comrades. They are not, because of certain unusual characteris-
tics, getting their full share of credit. I have often seen translations of German orders, taken from officer prisoners, in which Fritz is warned to take great care because, when the British mean to “bring off” anything, they put the Canadians there. This is all wrong. I guess the German divisions in Flanders these days are being warned the same way against the Australians, the Scots, the Irish and the South Africans —whoever they may happen to be against. Personally I have always thought that the Australians have had the hardest luck in getting into the warmest corners.
But, of course, one must allow for the English tendency, as far as their papers go at least, to make much of everyone but themselves. You read of the stalwart Canadians, the brave Anzacs, the gallant New Zealanders, the irresistible Scottish —and then casually, and somewhere a long way from the headlines, you gather that the troops of the mother country were also present. Reading carefully between the lines one can make out that they did the bulk of the work, too—if the casualty lists mean anything.
The English are a peculiar peopleSee how proudly they take the names their enemies tack on them and make them into bouquets. The finest compliment you can pay any of the first British expeditionary force is to say:
“Well, you were an old contemptible, eh?”
And Tommy will grin and say:
“Ho, yuss, we was a contemptible little harmy onct.”
And strafe! It has become a byword. It threatens to completely supersede the time-honored, good old Saxon “damn.”
I) UT I promised something on the light order so I’ll tell a little story now about gas bags, otherwise officially known as “helmet anti-gas P. II.” It is carried in a small satchel and to be without it at any point in the forward area is a serious offence. Now, the helmet itself is of flannelette soaked in some solution, and it is fairly heavy. Troops having business behind the lines where there is practically no danger from gns will sometimes substitute something lighter, even stuff-
ing the satchel with newspapers; which, if discovered, is a fearful offence.
One day a big, fat, brass-hatted general went out on a solitary reconnoitre and to his huge consternation discovered that he had come out without his gas helmet. He did not want to go back so, spotting a motorcycle despatch rider coming along the road, he stopped him and relieved him of his satchel, giving him a note to get another at headquarters. The despatch rider handed it over with considerable reluctance, but orders are orders.
The general pounded along quite relieved until he found that he was getting into the region where a gas helmet might come in handy and then it occurred to him that he wasn’t quite certain how to put the thing on. Luck was with him again. He came across a young lieutenant, stand-
ing outside a billet, without his helmet. So he proceeded to “bawl him out,” as we say in the army.
“I wonder, sir, if you even know how to put one on,” he concluded.
“Yes, sir,” said the lieutenant.
“Well, let me see you put this one on,” said the crafty senior officer, offering his
So the lieutenant took the satchel, hauled out the waterproof envelope, stuck in his hand and displayed to the watching general—one pair of ancient and odorous socks!
I remember also an event that occurred farther up the line. There had
been snow on the ground for over a fortnight and, when a night raid was ordered, the Ordnance people were asked for white smocks. An ordnance officer went to the nearest town and walked into the first small dry goods store to buy “nighties,” large size. Being a little uncertain in his French, he asked for something that he shouldn’t have. At any rate the wrong article was delivered and you can imagine the howls of delight that went up along the line when the “camouflage” stuff was handed out in the trenches— and each hulking, muddy soldier got a short, sleeveless garment, trimmed with blue ribbon!
The raid was entirely successful. But many a garment was trimmed with scarlet as well as blue before the end of the
WE Canadians take a lot of enjoyment out of our contact with the people. When we were along the lines in France, our rest periods in billet always yielded fresh sources of amazement and amusement. The French are truly remarkable. There was, for instance, the godmother habit. Nearly every “poilu” had a godmother, a woman or girl somewhere who took a personal interest in him, sent him socks and tobacco and candy, and even looked after him when he was on furlough. I used to pick up La Vie Parisienne and scan the two
back pages which were always crammed with advertisements reading something like this:
“Two young artillery officers, young, amiable and lonely, seek marraines (godmothers), young, lively and sympathetic. Box So and So.”
Sometimes they made funny reading. Desperate “filleuls,” who had not succeeded in finding marraines would evolve something novel, such as, “Help! Help! Marraines, here is one young and handsome dying of ennui!”
While on trek one time we camped outside a fairly big town and, being near pay day, I tramped in to get a decent meal. I found a good place. Enter two young flappers, very pretty and chic, escorting a lunkish, stupid-looking poilu of the country yokel class. They took a table nearby and the girls ordered dinner. From the conversation I learned that he was their filleul (godson) and that the
girls were seeing him for the first time. I fell into conversation with a Frenchman at my table and he told me that he had two daughters at home who were clubbing their pocket money and sending stuff to a filleul they had never seen—and hoped never to see in the Chasseurs D’Afrique!
It was a common joke among the poilns that the Canadians should settle down in France. “Every man will have four wives,” they used to tell us.
WHEN I came over to France I was a transport staff sergeant with the field ambulance. As we came through a town where we disembarked, en route for the station, a little boy about six or seven ran out from the side of the street. So I pulled up my mount and he insisted on giving me the little wooden sword he had been playing soldier with. “To kill the Boches with, sir,” he explained. The bitterness in France runs very deep.
The French youngsters, especially those who hawk stuff around the camp lines, are very quick at picking up English— and they have acquired a most remarkable vocabulary. It is astonishing to hear the jargon of’slang and profanity that these youngsters, perhaps unwittingly, pour ¿út—lads of four or five with the choicest Whitechapel oaths and imprecations. And it is not only the youngsters. I’m going down the road to a little estaminet when I have finished this and I am willing to hazard a month’s pay that the pretty little dark-eyed girl in there will greet me with: “Good evening, how the hell are you?” And she will only mean to be polite.
After the war, tourists who come through these parts will be surprised.
THE Canadian army, in the past at least, had a reputation for disregard of discipline.
But now we are trying to be very much like the old Imperial peacetime service. We get a heap of cleaning, polishing and saluting.
The Australians now don’t seem to bother so much about form.
They do everything after their own fashion, very effectively, too, and without the friction and unnecessary fuss which sometimes distinguishes us. They stick together like leeches, too.
Once up in Flanders there was a general routine order that mules or horses should not proceed along any road more than two abreast. I was taking a convoy up to an advanced dressing station and got into the road just behind an Anzac bunch that were taking a lot of remounts, mules mainly, up to their lines— four abreast and all over the shop. It was a very narrow road. A nice little staff “ossifer,” with a red band on his cap, came along and met the procession. To say that he was annoyed would be a very mild statement of the case.
“W’hoever is in charge here?” he demanded, warmly.
By and by one of the Anzacs, in shirtsleeves, too, intimated that he was in charge. The staff officer proceeded to reprimand him roundly, demanding to know if he didn’t understand that mules could not be taken four abreast. The Anzac regarded him calmly for a moment. Then he asked:
“Say, Willy, who the blankety-blank’s doin’ this job—you or me?”
The procession went on four abreast still and everyone laughing. Even the
mules joined in with their celebrated Hallelujah Chorus together with their justly famous imitation of a hundred lumberjacks sawing wood against time. The officer just faded down the road.
T T is surprising how things fall into A routine here. Even in the midst of the heaviest kind of work, with the shells popping all around, the interest one takes is not in big advances or what Fritz is doing or in the passing of a friend. All that has become the every-day
thing. One’s interest becomes centered in what to the outsider would seem mere trivialities — the keeping of a regular supply in one's ’bacca box, for instance.
Here is a case in point. In the corner of the barn as I write this there is an old, tired man using a line of red hot, bloodcurdling profanity at a small tabby kitten which is refusing to partake of some fresh milk that the old ’un has managed to collect somewhere around the place at the cost of much trouble to himself. It is not his kitten—he dislikes the whole breed —but it belongs to a chum who is on leave and has left it to the care of old George. The old ’un, by the way, is much too old to be on this war job. He’s about 54 and strong and hearty, of course, with two boys also in service along here somewhere. I asked him once why he joined. “Well,” he said, “the old woman was dead, and when the boys joined up I got so dashed lonesome.” He’s English, of course, but his home is in London, Ontario.
However, the point of it all is this. George has gone to infinite pains over this ungrateful kitten and has allowed himself to get worked up into a condition of tremendous heat. He is declaiming at a rate that would make one think he is bewailing the fall of an Empire. George, for the first time in months, is excited.
Now for the other side of it. Earlier this evening if it had not so happened that I lost my Tmcca box both George and I would have suffered the same fate as a dozen of our fellows, who have “gone.” They were squatting around eating and, as I jnissed my box, George and I started off to look for it. We had just left when Fritz sent a shell over and wiped out the whole party. It was a terrible thing; but George did not express either joy at his own escape or more than a tempered regret at the fate of the rest. He has seen thousands of his fellows go the same way.
And here he is, excited and thoroughly worked up about a pernicketty cat. That’s how it goes. Death and hair-breadth escapes are the ordinary things of life.
Continued on page 74
Some Lighter Phases of Trench Life
Continued from page 48
The kitten is providing some excitement for George.
I HAD intended to keep entirely away from the tragic side of it. But I find that I can’t entirely. I do my sketching at nights on my knee and by the light of a candle or lamp; and my custom is to dash off anything that has especially impressed me during the day. This is the only chance I have. Fortunately I have a photographic memory and can get reasonably close to the truth.
I want to show, first, the remains of a very fine church that I saw to-day. The spire is standing, but a shell hit it some time ago, and the gilded statue of Our Lady, holding in her arms the Christ Child, is hanging downward, pointing to the street. There is a story that when this figure falls, the house of Hohenzollern will fall also, or the war will end, or something or other will happen. Anyway, our engineers have fixed it so that it is not likely to come down for a while yet, but still, it looks very quaint, giving the impression of a spruce tree with a broken top. I am not allowed to send a postal card, because it would have the name of the town on it, so will make a little sketch which will give you a sort of idea of the church tower and the statue.
I was through the other night while Fritz was giving his evening “strafe,’’ and walls and bricks were flying in all directions, and faintly heard through the din come the thin tone of a violin, on which was being played “The End of a Perfect Day.” I listened for a time, and then went on my way. A little later a “whizz-bang” found that house and gathered in eight of the Berkshires, three of them going “all the way west,” and the rest wounded. I couldn’t but wonder where the man was who was playing “The End of a Perfect Day!”
I am sending a sketch also of an incident which shows the real “entente.”
I went through the nearest village of any size a few days ago, and ran into a large bunch of Fritz prisoners. They looked all in. They had been heavily shelled over night, cut off from supplies, and then routed out of their holes by a lot of unpleasant persons with bayonets and bombs, marched about 10 miles in a heavy rain, and altogether they were very unhappy. A little further on I stopped to let another procession pass. It was a child’s funeral—a little girl first, carrying a big cross, then the priest, then the coffin and mourners. The first of these were a poilu and a Tommy. The town had been shelled a day or two before and this was one of the victims. The tiny coffin was carried along by six little girls in white dresses and veils. I expect “Tommy” had been billeted in the house and had been invited to participate in the obsequies. Another evidence of the entente cordiale! The French think a lot of little things like that. I afterwards saw the curé trotting home in the rain, his surplice under his arm and a small boy with the cross tucked under his arm.
'C' IN ALL Y let me tell you of the wide A and joyous smile that went round when the news came that conscription in Canada was an accomplished fact. We don’t exactly want the unwillings here, but we’re human enough to want civilians to taste one or two of the discomforts—
having to submit to strictest discipline, being fined seven days’ pay for a halfminute late on reveille, having to crawl out at 3.30 in winter up to the necks in slush and mud in wet clothes to feed horses, feeling how the warmth of a blanket arouses to full activity those friends who stick closer than a brother, the pilgrims of the night! We don’t wish the comfortable civilian any harm, but, still, he can have some of our privileges!
Of course, we volunteered and would not be denied and some of us knew what we were up against, but since this business has developed to such a size that instead of being sport, it has become as much a public duty as paying taxes, it makes a difference.
The need of reinforcements is pressing. There is hardly a battalion in this division that can show more than 30 of the men they brought overseas twelve months ago, and if this is true of the fourth and third, what about the first and second division?