THIRTEEN YEARS AFTER
Sixth of a series of articles on the Old Front
WILL R. BIRD
LEAVING Arras via Ste. Catherine, I passed the concrete shell of a flour mill that was designed as a modern affair to be operated by electricity. It is situated beside the River Scarpe, and after a disastrous fire has never been repaired. A little farther on, across the road from it. the French are building a windmill.
(Going up the steep hill, passing a lone Nissen hut on the right, you have a view of the wide fields beyond, the landmarks you remember.
Old cellars are visible among the grass along the way, and after a time you can see old trenches on the right. Roclincourt is in the hollow on the right, a new brick village with a very conspicuous church.
Ecurie is on the left, and looks quite imposing on the high ground. It is difficult to realize that you are back on the battlefields. There are no signs of trenches in the village.
After passing Arras Road Cemetery, you can see two of the nine elms which give the next cemetery its name, along with the stubs of the destroyed trees. The caretaker maintained, however, that they were not elms at all. The Nine Elms Cemetery is in a hollow.
All along the road the fields are muddy after having yielded their crop of beets, and in them on the left I saw many men wandering in an aimless manner. Watching, I saw that each had a long iron bar which he carefully thrust down at different spots. Three of them had laid their bars down and were digging. I went over and found that they were mostly Poles, engaged by the French Government to make a final search of the war zone. They get paid so much for each body they find, and so are very careful in their work. One put his bar down and grunted with satisfaction. He dug carefully, going down less than three feet before he uncovered two bodies, badly decomposed. One was a German, the other a poilu. They were close together, had been buried in the same shell hole, and the German still wore his equipment. It was interesting to see how eagerly the Pole searched their clothing for money, and his absolute indifference to such a job. No wonder the French do not care to do it themselves. It is a horrible task. The Poles told me they had found as many as 300 bodies in a week.
Les Tilleuls Crossroads. How many Canadians must remember the traffic man in his refuge there in front of the Memorial to Canadian artillerymen. There are no traces of sandbags now, and the memorial has neat surroundings. Going over into Thelus, I looked in vain for signs of war.
Farbus and Willerval looked like progressive towns in the distance, but I
went back to the main road and over to
Zivy Crater—a unique memorial, walled like a cup with a cross on the bottom. The rim is beautiful, with a fine hedge encircling all, and on the stone are the names of forty-eight men of the 2nd Canadian Division.
The gardener showed me the old trenches and barbed wire just outside the crater, and stated that there the Poles had found sixty bodies in one field. One hundred yards away there was a shaftlike opening that seemed to go away down to a tunnel, and the gardener said there were three such places in the vicinity and he had been told that they led back to Arras. The German trenches were mostly erased. Litchfield Crater is another such memorial; and then, looking over the open, one glimpses the first stretch of war ground, land left as it was in T8.
I went on into Neuville St Vaast, which was rather dirtylooking in the damp mist that had risen. The church seemed the main feature of the place. Beer signs were plentiful, and long-haired dogs slunk about. Altogether, the village was not inviting. But it is far better than when we saw it in wartime —a ghoulish underground, with dead buried in all directions, a welter of ruins, rat-ridden, clammy, foul, with here and there a decent dugout. In 1918 all that was left of the village above ground was a pile of stones that had been the church.
The Sacred Zone At Vimy
'OING back to the ArrasLens Road, I continued on to the long, tree-lined road that leads to Vimy Memorial. It is far beyond our old front line, almost over the Ridge, and in between it and Litchfield Crater the war ground begins. A man stood at the memorial entrance, looking at an old war map that had lists of familiar trench names beginning with A and B, such as Amber, Armor. Anniversary, Anchor, and Bees, Bull, and so on. He said that the 2nd Division captured sixty German prisoners in one dugout at Thelus, and that the name, Les Tilleuls, was derived from two American basswood trees that had stood on the comer. He said that on the comer to the left of the memorial, in a house cellar, the War Graves people had found fifty dead Germans, and that the Canadian colonel who had caused them to be stowed there had visited France and told about doing it.
The road on Vimy is lined with maples, but they are mostly Norway maples from Holland, though some Canadian ones have been planted, too. Two hundred yards in, you cross the old German third line, and then there is another deep trench running over the ridge toward Vimy town.
At La Folie Farm there is a maze of shell craters, and barbed wire is strewn around. La Folie Wood is new grown and quite dense, with a few old stubs in it. One holds an unexploded shell, and there is a stonewalled well in a thick bunch of bushes. Among the trees one starts countless rabbits, and trips continually on old wire and debris. The place has never been thoroughly searched, yet much German booty was found there years after the war. Looking over the dugouts still visible, I wondered how we could possibly have overlooked all the things that have been found since.
Passing some pillbox ruins and the position of a German whizzbang battery—just 400 yards from our old front line—I went on to the famous concrete trenches and dugouts. after first looking at the cross erected in memory of the dead of the 3rd Division.
At the trenches I was thrilled beyond
words. It was stunning, unreal. There I was. with scarcely an effort, back in the old line during that winter of 1916-17. There are the saps and posts, the trenches we used, exact in all detail; the craters wired as they were, and German posts on the other side. Never had 1 dreamed that the restored trenches were the actual ones that we of the 7th Brigade knew' so well. After looking them over I was allowed in the "sacred zone,” to explore all that area.
It is wonderful, marvellous. Visitors have been confined to the paths leading to the concrete trenches. Day and night, month in and month out, a guard is there, with gun and dog, to protect that zone of a few miles, for there are vandals who would steal the very headstones from the graves in order to say they had a souvenir of Vimy.
Everything is untouched. You walk among the high weeds and grass and find all the old trenches, and it is easy to follow our old front line all the way from the “Twins” and “Ross Street” to the flanks of the 4th Division front. Old wire and rivetting and rotting duckwalks are there, and in the craters you can find all sorts of things. I w'ent down into Albany and found stick bombs galore, Stokes, steel helmets, Mills rifle grenades, a “toffee apple,” the handle of a stretcher. Going along the craters, I remembered an old sniping post near the Birkin group and probed around there. Within fifteen minutes I had uncovered the big steel plate, still in position.
There is a wonderful guide at the trenches—Gunner George H. Stubbs, who has been at Vimy since 1921. It is he who is largely responsible for Grange Tunnel being restored, as he found the old entrance and explored it. He has also located many other dugouts, has found all the material on display at the museum, and can tell you many strange tales of his findings over the Ridge.
There is no trouble in following the entire crater line.
Only one has been levelled in all the lot, and that was done as the road to the memorial was constructed. You can go along all the old trenches and easily trace your wray back to the Quarry line and the dugouts there. It is quite easy to go down into several of them; and quite dangerous, for the French, gathering wood, have thoughtlessly taken out the braces at the entrance and are working inward instead of taking out the timbers at the bottom.
They are all smelly, horrible places, and absolutely impossible now. Goodman, Chassery,
Devon Crater, Vernon, Grange,
Duffield, Durand, Common,
Patricia, Longfellow, Broadmarsh. Lasalle—all those old names surge back as you tramp along the old ways, and it is easy to picture again the file of dark figures going in to take over the posts for night duty. How we stamped along those frozen duckwalks, swathed in greatcoats, jerkins, crowned with Balaclava caps under the steel bouncers, old socks in lieu of mittens, rifles bandaged in sandbags. Standing there on post, you could hear Fritz coughing and pounding his arms and chest to get warm; and who can forget the streak of sparks into the night, the dazzling whiteness of the flares? I tried to find the entrance to the old dugout near the Patricia post, but could not.
The entrance to Grange tunnel has souvenirs embedded in the concrete bombs and shells and bayonets. They had to be so fixed, as visitors would steal anything left loose. The stairway goes down thirty-eight feet, then you turn right. An old sign at a branch to the left says “Forward To P Line.” At the right another reads, “Exit To P 76.” You go on past two rooms and begin to see names on the walls. “Pte. H. D. MacRae, 52nd Batt. From 119th, Massey, Algoma,” was the first one I saw. An old air pipe is underfoot, and mess tins, bully tins. There are spots blackened by candles set on the ledges, and protruding parts rubbed smcx)th by passing soldiers. “R. I. P. In Memory of the R. C. R.s who fell at Vimy,” is next. “E. B. Eaves” is the name beside it. Another room has a soldier’s face carved on the wall, a very artistic effort.
You now reach forked w'ays; tunnels right, centre, and left. Original signs are still there. “To Rear. To Front. 42nd B. H. Q.” On the w'all are the names of two American deserters who joined up with the Canadians. The passage to the left leads to battalion headquarters, and in it the old bunks still sag, the washstand and basin still survive, and a rum jar is in the comer. On the wall you read, “Major Colter, Lt. Abbott, Lt. Jamieson, Lt. J. T. Kay, 52nd Battalion.” You wander on to a messroom, to the brigade office, w’hich is reached by the centre passage, and then go back to the museum.
It contains a most interesting collection that Stubbs has
gathered—German gas alarm bells, a German drum found near La Folie Farm, a foil and mask found in a German dugout near the Wood, gas masks, helmets, mess tins, rifles, haversacks. Very lights, pistols, German trench signs, a fixed rifle they had set near Broadmarsh, a G phone for listening underground, trench knives, gun cotton, bottles with candles in them, just as when they were found. All the collection is protected by a wire netting as this is the only way in which the relics could be retained. Guides go around with visitors,
and there are thousands and thousands of them. On wet. chilly November days I have seen five and six carloads at a time, many of them women, swarming down the wet trenches, going down into the tunnels. Vimy is the greatest showplace on the Western Front. There is nothing else like it in the world.
The tunnel branches again, a passage leading to Neuville St. Vaast. and one goes left twenty-five yards to a communication trench. At the sloi>e a shell is still in position as it w'as found. It had come through from the bottom of a shell crater until it protruded into the tunnel, but it did not explode. The charge has been removed and the shell replaced in its old position. More names decorate the w'alls:
“J. L. Snyder, 49th Batt. E. A. Jones, Woodstock, N.B., R.C.R.s. Hello, Canada. Hello, East Yorks. Good-by Canada. What about the City of Smoke, good old Manchester?” There is a carved kiltie in good shape, and a memorial plate in honor of the dead of the 42nd R.H.C. More names. Roy Harper, 60th Battalion. J. Nicholls, 1st C.M.R.s. R. D. Taylor, P.P.C.L.I., then a lengthy inscription well carved: “In Memory of Private Whitehead, 42nd R.H.C., who fell at Vimy. One of the U. S. gallant boys w'ho died for Canada. A. G. Gordon, 52nd Batt., Prince Albert, Sask.”
Another old sign has many messages. “To Zouave Valley Dressing Station; To Bde Hdqtrs., To Batt H. Q., Old Boot Street.” At right a passage leads away dowm to a mine shaft that was to go under the German trench. You may go down if you wish. On the left a tunnel leads to Souchez.
At the walls near this junction there are some splendid examples of carving. A badge of the R. C. R.s is the best of the lot, the “V. R. I.” being exquisite. There is a memorial to the Princess Pats, and another in memory of the 2nd C. M. R.s. “A. A. Parks, Saint John, N.B., May 9, 1917. James Burton. R. C. R.s. Still alive and kicking. J. Auchincloss. Untouched by w'hizzbangs as yet. W. E. Ashley, 222nd Batt. C. Robinson, D.C.M. fool. Killarney, Manitoba.” The R. C. R. badge is by R. L. Jollymore. Strangely, as they cleaned the saps at the opening to Grange tunnel, they found a body under the debris. It w'as easily identified by means of a pocketbook and metal discs, and was that of James Burton who had been “alive and kicking.” There is a cookhouse next along the tunnel, and the company headquarters used by some battalion during the Vimy attack. In it are shells, rifles, helmets and Lewis guns found on the Ridge. In the chalk corner is carved a German Iron Cross. The exit is at Duffield and Grange craters, and Stokes and an armor-piercing shell are embedded at the entrance. Near by is the wreckage of an airplane that crashed at Hill 140.
I crossed over to the German line. Their trenches are outlined and restored, just as the Canadian line has been. As you reach their underground entrance, a German stretcher is against the trench siçie in a most realistic manner. A large soup carrier is there, too. Inside, over the doorway, is a sw'allow’s nest. Last summer, when there w'ere Continued on page 47
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often 10,000 visitors at Vimy in a single day, the swallow had her young there and raised them without trouble. When the entrance was cleared, a dead German was found at the doorway and a Canadian soldier in the trench. The biggest mystery was in the crater, where Stubbs discovered a private of the First Cheshires. Among the souvenirs embedded in the concrete beside the stairs is a ‘‘whiffer,” a businesslike blackjack that some Otto had ready for Canadian visitors. Down a few steps, you meet the Kaiser. He is there as large as life, encased in German armor used for their machine gunners—a most remarkable figure.
The German shaft goes down for nearly 150 feet, leading by two stairways. Three shafts lead from it to counter mines which the enemy was placing. An air pipe is still in place, the maker’s name visible—Banneberg und Quandt, Berlin. A German Iron Cross is carved on the side of the second stairway, and a horseshoe contains a likeness of the Kaiser, with a star over his head. After coming up to the trench again I wandered around to the German machinegun posts, built of concrete, snugly hidden, and to a “minnie gun” emplacement, with quarters for the crew near by. Looking back into the German lines, one can see the battered ruin of a limber and jumbled wire.
Far over, through the mist, is the church steeple, a water tower, and a windmill of Neuville St. Vaast. I could not see Mont St. Eloi, so thick was the fog, or Berthonaval Wood. All the ‘‘sacred zone” of Vimy is planted with Douglas fir, and the guards have the greatest difficulty in preventing the small trees from being stolen. There are sometimes ten thefts in a single day, so crazed are visitors for ‘‘something from Vimy.” They are warned on all sides, but take no heed. If they were loosed into the area there would be countless accidents, as live bombs, shells, etc., are everywhere. Each day, too, in the farm districts, you see the French digging shells from their fields. Year by year the soil settles or the metal works upward, for always they are finding things which the plow did not touch the previous year. Recently, in Lens, a child found a detonator in an old cellar, played with it, and had its fingers blown off.
Stubbs and I walked all along the front, keeping to the Canadian line. The memorial is over on German ground and could be visited afterward. We could find no trace of Sapper Trench as a beginning, or the Paris Craters.
As we pushed over on the 4th Division front, the ground became much rougher and the shell craters seemed deeper. There is also an abundance of small growth in that territory, many rabbits, and at least one
hundred crows. Grenadier Crater seems as it was in 1917. We looked down at Givenchyen-Gohelle—straggled homes in a hollow. A small wood is directly behind the little village and Stubbs, prowling there last year found a copy of the Montreal Star still in readable condition and containing a long list of the wounded during the Vimy assault. The paper had been carefully folded and tucked into a hiding place.
We walked along the old artillery road used after the Ridge was taken, and the German C. T. back of the Pimple is still traceable. The Sand Pits were alive with rabbits, and numerous signs were posted forbidding anyone to shoot them. I went to the ruin of the 44th Battalion Memorial. The plate has been taken back to Canada and only the frame of the monument remains. From the Pimple one has a fine view over Souchez Valley, and Bovigny Wood looked very green across the hollow. The 2nd Division artillery had guns in that wood on Christmas night, 1916, and could see their shells exploding on the Pimple.
A Fearsome Pit
WE WENT down the slope, overlooking all the ground below and Zouave Valley on the left.
Stopping beside a chalk pit in the side of the hill, I saw a grave in its depths and went down. The cross was erected in memory of a French corporal killed on September 28th, 1915. I looked about. It was a fearsome place. A number of human bones were scattered over the cavity, and live bombs and shells were plentiful. Bully tins, full, and mess tins and old helmets were battered and rusted. An old road runs up the side of the ridge and there were many trench markings. At the valley edge old dugout entrances are still visible, and concrete targets used by artillery and machine gunners are still in place, one still intact. Zouave Valley Cemetery is crowded with Canadian dead.
Souchez is a typical new French town. Its rebuilding was made possible by Kensington, London, England, and the Grande Place is named Kensington Square. The mairie is very modern and sports the town clock. Gardens of purple cabbage and dogs seemed to dominate. Geese were playing in the puddles, and the inevitable corrugated iron was in place behind each house. A flaring gasoline sign contrasted with an ancient cart standing beside it. A waterfall bubbled prettily near some newer houses, and one of the residents informed me that a syndicate had been formed with outside capital to bottle the water that was to be a rival to Vichy and Perrier.
The church is a spick and span, white-
trimmed building, and the Café de la Mairie a most hospitable inn. It was there that I was shown, through the window, a man who was insane until a shell expired just outside his kitchen, knocking him across the room and almost killing him. But he recovered his sanity and seems perfectly normal. A hot debate on that point followed, as he has married a woman fifteen years older than himself, and that, the majority insisted, was a sign of mental weakness.
The Poles, digging around Souchez, have found over 200 bodies. I asked about the old tunnel entrances there, but no one knew their location. It is estimated that there are twenty-two miles of tunnels under Vimy, and in most places the passages are not blocked. In Grange alone one can go for two miles. The dead about Souchez will never be recovered more than fifty per cent.
They told me at the Café of a Souchez man whose wife had been captured and taken to Lens. He was in the trenches at Souchez and wanted very much to see her. It was in winter and the front was quiet and on a dark night he slipped through the lines and reached the house where she was staying. Peering in the window, he saw her seated on a German’s knee in a loving attitude, so he came back without making himself known. I have read a similar tale in Under Fire, but did not dispute the story.
We went up into Carency, another new place that shouts of new paint and new brick. They were paving the street and the place seemed very busy. No trace was there of the old horse lines and huts we knew in wartime. The station is quite natty, and the church is perched like a watchman on a tower on a slope above the main street.
Carency is peopled largely by folks who did not reside there before the war. They are not interested in anything that happened to that sector in wartime, and their talk is all about the situation of the town. It is a pretty location on the hillside, and there are certainly many modem features about it. The place has been rebuilt by government money. The people seemingly could not have afforded to do so themselves. I saw no signs of poverty.
Notre Dame de Lorette
LEAVING Carency, I went on to Ablain • Saint Nazaire. Every Canadian who was at Vimy must recall the old church there. Its remnant of tower and body of arches was the landmark of that area, and it stands there the same today as in wartime. It does not seem to have lost another stone or to have had a person near it since 1918. The village is but a straggling line of houses and seems sleeping or dead, discouraged. There are no signs of any effort at making the homes attractive, and the great ridge of Notre Dame de Lorette seems to hide it from the rest of the world.
Canadians will remember that famed hill.
I went there in wartime and saw things that made my flesh crawl. It was the same with all who happened there. Hardened as one was to the sights of the battlefield there was something appalling about that hill that made one shiver. There were trenches everywhere, gouging the slopes, a medley of unsightly ditches, the whole littered with debris of every nature. Equipment, broken rifles, rusting bayonets, hundreds of bombs, were scattered over every few yards, and never have I seen so many grinning skulls. They were in the tangled masses of barbed wire, in bombing saps, in puddles of filth, and here and there were rotted uniforms, both blue and field grey, holding more bones together. No one will ever know how many soldiers died on that hill, but their numbers run into tens of thousands.
Now all is changed, but the dead remain. Notre Dame de Lorette is now a huge shrine and cemetery combined. Eighteen thousand graves of known dead are in that two-acre lot, and in the centre is a pyramidal tower, built on a huge square concrete platform and faced with white stone. A staircase of 200 steps, with five platforms on the way, enables one to reach the top, where
there is a lighthouse. The light has a power of 30,000 watts, and a mobile projector turns the cone of beams at the rate of five turns to the minute in a ray of seventy kilometers. Going along the Arras-Bethune road at night, that circling light above you gives one thrills he will not experience elsewhere, for in that hollow between Lorette and Vimy some peculiarity of the contour of the hills deadens all sound. You seem, at night, to be passing through a forbidden land, a desolate area, a place where no man may speak aloud, and the light as it swdngs seems to have almost a whispering voice. In the far distance the memorial is a beautiful thing at night. You see only the tall white column as if it were suspended there, and the long pale fingers of light are like the beacons of remembrance. Under the tower a wide entrance leads into the ossuary. Four-storied groups of eight coffins in oak, tinted in ebony, form the crypt, covering the twenty-five vaults below. Down in that vast chamber there are the remains of 30,000 unknown dead.
About seventy-five yards from the light tower stands the Basilic, built in Roman Byzantine style, with an exterior altar, a fine example of architecture in perfect harmony with the tower. The interior is decorated with marble memorial slabs, and the windows are beautiful beyond words. I saw that one had been presented by Mrs. Stanley Baldwin.
From the hill one seems to look directly down at the roofs of two almshouses, serving Souchez, donated by the British.
We went back to the main road, with Givenchy Wood on our right. On our left was “King George’s Road,” a road to Lorette which was opened by King George on May 12, 1922. A large sign extols the fact, notwithstanding that the road has degenerated into a path hardly fit for carts and rarely used. We passed a machine-gun post in the wood—crumbling concrete, partly bush covered, beside a road leading to Bully Grenay. There were many houses along the way, but few people stirring.
We passed a huge mine and slag heaps,
then a series of better looking homes, one of which was completely covered by vines, like an English cottage. Many had fences in front and hedges. It seemed incredible that we were approaching that old mining town, Noeux-les-Mines.
Once in the town, I quickly found old billets we had occupied. The woman in charge was not the one we had known, however. She was extremely kind-hearted and, as we had quarters over her estaminet, arranged that we could go downstairs and into a back room without being, seen by passers-by. There we could have all the refreshments we desired at any time.
The buildings along the street contrasted vividly. The old ones were dark and smoky and the new ones still a fiery red. Many were both, having had new tops built in the surviving walls. The huge slag heap behind our old home is covered with green, and seems not to have had another truckload dumped on it. I passed through a curving back alley where I remember seeing some of our lads stealing cabbage from a garden.
A Gallant Sergeant-Major
r"PHE “Three Cats” estaminet, as we called
it, the little one on the left-hand side of the street with the picture of Napoleon on the wall, is unchanged. Napoleon has seven more fly specks on his right cheek and a large one on his first medal, but otherwise looks healthy. Madame slops beer on the counter just as she used to do, and never gives the right change to a stranger, just as she used to do. Seated there, I had but to shut my eyes to hear again the voices of Sambro Brown and Larry Kennedy ordering uncore demi; and then, in fancy, to see the old lads seated there, arguing about what Napoleon would have done in the Great War, and to see Sambro push back after his second vin blanc and sing his coon song about the colored lady who could not understand the different shades of her offspring.
‘Some were black, and some were blacker,
Some were black as a chaw terbacker.
But one was pale, and another part ...”
Women and girls were sluicing doorways, scrubbing with much water at various shop fronts. Big carts lumbered by with loads of coal in sacks, and there were many small donkeys hitched to enormous carts. Only one or two ruins are left unhidden, and the town is not nearly as dirty as it used to be in wartime. It got dark very early, and as the lamps were lighted the place seemed to come to life. Many miners passed along the streets, and all at once the estaminets had many customers. Selecting a large one in the middle of the main street, we went in.
It was easy to get into conversation with some of the men, and soon they were regaling us with their own experiences at different parts of the front. One chap told of seeing a Turco who had as his chief possession a string of twenty-two German ears. Another lad claimed to have been bayoneted seven times in a trench attack and to have lain four hours under the feet of the German garrison before another surge of battle cleared the line and he could get attention. Jumping to his feet, he undid jacket and shirt and showed us the red scars on his body.
Another chap, a brawny fellow with a huge mustache, got greatly interested and all at once rushed out as if he were a fireman. Shortly he returned with a photograph and badges.* It was the picture of a Canadian sergeant-major, a very gallant soldier, his belt blancoed nicely, his swagger stick at the correct angle. The badges were ones he had worn.
“He,” said the Frenchman, “made love to my sister and never came back. Did you know him?”
I declared honestly that I did not.
The fellow subsided and offered us a drink. C'est la guerre,” he grunted. If that particular sergeant-major reads this he should be warned not to return to Noeuxles-Mines.
Editor’s Note: This is the sixth of a series of articles by Mr. Bird. The next installment will tell more about Vimy and describe the new Canadian Vimy Ridge war memorial.