At the Front With the Princess Pats
GEORGE EUSTACE PEARSON
EDITOR’S NOTE.—The writer of this graphic article on conditions at the front was formerly a member of the editorial staff of the MacLean Publishing Company and a contributor to MACLEAN’S MAGAZINE. He was one of the first to enlist when the call for volunteers came. Mr. Pearson’s article deals exclusively with the experiences of the “Princess Pats,” the first Canadian regiment to reach the front. For military reasons all references to places and descriptions which might indicate the possible location of the regiment are eliminated.
THE Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry is a modern White Company, roving on that same soil that held its predecessor so many centuries ago. It is a reincarnation of the old spirit, but stirred this time to a nobler end and errand. A far cry from Black Simon and Big John with their bows of yew and ash to those who now lead the “Pats.” But its aims only have altered ; the spirit remains the same. And Sir Nigel with his lady’s glove at helmet was never keener for the onslaught than those upon whom his mantle has settled to-day.
Now, Tommie likes nothing so much as being on the move; he cares not how he goes, nor why, nor where, provided always, of course, that he is not retiring; hence the frequent changes of camp of the Patricia’s were invariably greeted with glad acclaim. Their camp history was much that of the Canadian contingent proper, up until they camped at Winchester where they lay alongside of and made further acquaintance with some of the regular regiments. There, in those sunken lanes, worn deep by the feet of centuries of patient toilers and sturdy men-of-arms, they renewed the spirit of their sires. And in the city those ancien#
archways and venerable flags, that once resounded to the clanging arms of Cæsar’s legionaries and Alfred’s later Thanes, now echoed and re-echoed to the shouts of “Tipperary” and the creak of modern war equipment.
Rumor is a capricious dame and feeds on herself. At one and the same time, the Patricia’s if all accounts going were to be believed, were going to return to Canada against a possible invasion there, were going to India, Egypt, Bermuda, Malta, the Gib, France, Belgium and the Kiel Canal. But finally, after four months of sticky mud and wet misery, four months of useless fret and wasted fire, came the great announcement, “Active Service”— where, no one asked nor cared. The word ran like wildfire through the ranks. Old “Sweats” became for the nonce patient with greener soldiers, old enemies called a halt on wordy war. With the serving out of live ammunition, identification tags and emergency rations, there stole over the camp that sublime peace that knows no words. Fatigue, usually to be avoided like unto a plague, became a pleasure in the sure knowledge that this was no ordinary camp breaking, but the precursor of camp in a gloriously muddy trench.
Nor could the discomfort of an all-night trip in an almost open cattle boat in a pouring rain mar their quiet content as they approached the land of action. Disembarkation was followed by a short night march which brought them to their temporary camp, which, wetly reminiscent of England as it was, and short as the night rations of grub and blankets were, they welcomed as part of the great game.
Instead of the dreaded wait, another night saw them once more en route and correspondingly happy. As they moved down through the streets of the ancient French seaport, at which the landing had been made, to the entraining point all re-
serve was thrown aside and a welldisciplined pandemonium—if such be possible—broke loose. The pipers endeavored to make themselves heard and give expression to the bottled up yeast fermenting in their Scottish bosoms. All in vain ; the men would be heard—and were. Mile after mile slipped away from under their feet. They chanted, sang and whooped for sheer joy. The wolves were out. Blood was in the air and the eager whelps were straining at their leashes. The Patricia’s had struck the scent. It made one’s blood tingle.
After the strenuous labor of juggling their impedimenta aboard the train, the men piled in at their side door and with pipe and story settled themselves down to the long journey ahead. At last the dim lights of strange and famous cities gave way to the misty dawn that showed quiet villages, deserted except for some frantically waving women and their little broods; silent harbingers of war these.
Once more we were on the march and the Patricia’s swung out into the winter night, this time through silent villages and country roads bordered by gaunt and leafless poplars that reared themselves wraith-like in the light of a watery moon that shone through the mist-ridden air. No sounds were heard as they swung on, save the muffled cadence of their feet and the desultory booming of distant guns. The dawn found them billeted at a straggling village in which the warm-hearted natives had sat up all night awaiting their arrival with open doors and steaming coffee. Deep beds of straw in tile-thatched stable lofts replaced the muddy tents of other camps. Here, like the villages, they quickly fell into the ordinary routine of the day’s work, despite the continual sound of that ominous firing and all that it presaged. Here all light pleasures were pushed aside in preparation for the hour of trial. Neither the village cabaret nor the smil-
ing “jeune filles” could hold more than the moment’s notice of these men who, be it said, have remembered Lord Kitchener’s advice. * * *
Three Weeks Later.
Since the Patricia’s first left that quiet village many things have happened. They have been through the fiery furnace, into which they went as a mass of rough metal of untried men and have come out the finely tempered steel of a cohesive fighting unit. The bell that from Winchester’s old cathedral each noon tolls its daily dirge for the souls of departed warriors by land and sea has tolled for them.
Since that first night we have made many marches but always have been within sound of the guns. For two days we marched, circling and coming with each Hour closer to the deep volume of the sound. The first day’s trek took us through a country but little disturbed, to outward appearance at least, by the war. It was quite evident that something was afoot but there were no evidences of war’s destruction. The uneven cobble stones of the road called forth many execrations from the tired men with their heavy packs. Everywhere we met groups of playing children, who, stopping for the moment to gaze at us, and catching sight of our badges, would break away shouting and, pounding on closed doors with tiny fists, would squeal: “Maman, Maman, ce sont les Canadiens!” Ever and anon there passed convoys of transports, empty and full, returning from and going to the sound of the guns, English, French and Belgian. The former were usually immense auto goods vans with an occasional admixture of wagons, the latter nondescript assemblages of two, three and four-wheeled carts drawn by a great variety of quadrupeds, varying from donkeys to massive Percherons. The handsome Frenchmen, striding along beside their loads, dressed in voluminous upturned blue coats with baggy red pantaloons, invariably showed their white teeth in a cheerful smile as they shouted greetings to us. And always there were the Red Cross vans, noiseless and easy, going slowly south.
At the roadside groups of Belgium soldiers stood aside from their road work, uniformed except for the addition of wooden shoes. The little fellows usually drew themselves to attention and one
could hear the subdued murmur of the chorused words, “Kan-ada,” as we passed.
The first night’s billet brought us into the fringe of the earlier German invasion. On the outskirts of a popular city, which must perforce be nameless, a long line of deserted and water-filled trenches over-
looked a muddy turnip field. It contained all that was mortal of three hundred of “Ours” who had given their lives in gaining these same trenches. The belfry of a beautiful church, commanding as it did the whole countryside below it, had housed the machine guns that had meted out their fate. Here the Germans had come and gone three times as the tide of invasion had rolled back and forth. Here we met our first spies, one of whom was in a peasant woman’s garb. But we passed on before their ultimate fate was settled.
The stories we heard at our various billets varied, as they have since, of German methods. This man or woman was left unmolested by some unwelcome but courteous German; that one robbed and outraged. It all depended apparently upon the individual German soldier and the manner of the householder toward him. One astonishing fact we noticed, was the commonplace way in which the peasants continued about their ordinary duty, the work of the crops, and even to the minute detail of hedge trimming. Evidently no fear here of a German return.
The next day was a repetition of the first except that there was more activity apparent as we neared the firing line. Also there were more evidences of destructive war. Nameless cities and hamlets that, always famous, have lately gained immortality in a night, came and went. As the day aged we began to pass rest camps, “dug-outs” and abandoned villages, that swarmed with “Terriers”
and regulars, amongst all of whom our presence had an electrifying effect. Shouts of “Good Old Canada,” “Pat’s Pets” and so forth were bandied up and down the line of march.
The early afternoon saw us bivouacked in a muddy field, the sheltering hedges of which we sought against the presence of hostile aeroplanes while we waited for darkness and the trenches, for, from this time on, in consideration of our close proximity to the actual theatre of operations, all movements had to be made after nightfall to avoid enemy reconnaissances. But even here we were treated to one of the most spectacular sights that even this, the most spectacular of wars, affords. From out of the hazy distance appeared a school of enemy aeroplanes, about a dozen. As they approached our nearby artillery opened fire and for fifteen minutes the planes manoeuvred up and down, this side and that, seeking a safe lane of approach, whilst all about them on both sides, over and under them, burst our shrapnel in so lively a fire that the planes were half hidden by smoke. They were soon forced to withdraw.
As night fell quiet-voiced orders were given and, amidst perfect silence, the regiment formed up for its march to its maiden adventure. And here we were treated to our first sight of the German star shells which shot up from the vicinity of their trenches, breaking directly over the suspected area of our territory, illuminating the whole of it within one hundred yards brightly and semi-brightly over a much larger area. They resembled nothing so much as huge sky rockets, except that, as they broke, they took on a duller, yellow coloring and the form of a star.
The “relief” of the trenches is not the least dangerous part of the game and each party had its own adventures on the route to the comparative shelter of their frontage. The all-too-generous supply of mud and water about was bad enough in itself, but the presence of the star shells made it doubly so. Distant shells went unheeded but those falling close by made imperative demand for “bobbin”’; so “bob” the Patricia’s did, flattening out in the muddy mess. Number one company in particular was so unfortunate as to fall heir to a star at a very inconvenient time, to wit, as they stood knee deep in a flooded field. But there was nothing for it, so with many a muttered interjection, down they went as if for a swim in the ice cold lake and none the less quickly for all their
dislike of it. Situations sometimes arise in which neither command nor plea is necessary and this was one of them.
In other parts of the movement the Patricia’s made first acquaintance with the festive sniper, i.e., Germans who had crawled behind our line, there to lie under cover of hedge or ditch, or in sheltered tree-tops and take toll of the unsuspecting men beneath. Apropos of snipers the story goes that a full course of sniping is the field punishment offered to the individual soldier of our friend the enemy for any misdemeanors while on active service. According to the tale, the guilty one is punished with tenriiays’ rations and 500 rounds and given the German command equivalent to “Beat it.” To add insult to injury the poor sniper must needs return his empty 500 to prove that his work was done. A truly German sample of factory efficiency and utilization of waste product. I tell the story for what it is worth.
All that long night the Patricia’s played the game, than which no harder one exists—the waiting one.
The conditions were such that only those who have endured them can have any adequate conception of what they really were. All at least knee deep, some waist deep in a thick, gluey, clayey mud and stagnant, putrid water, they passed the night in the rain unsheltered save by a rare bomb-proof—a bomb-proof in name if not in fact. Betimes they paid their devoirs to the unseen enemy and were repaid in kind. Here and there down that desperate line went the angry pop-pop of intermittent riflefire, like the windy slamming of many doors, occasionally to give way to noisy fusillades as one side or the other became angered at some hit or concentrated their fire on some special movement or the other. And always, at intervals only, for the night work exposes artillery positions, from overhead there came the heavy snap of the shells as they left the big guns, followed by an eerie wail like the wind in a mountain storm, a resonant boom and then—a shower of shrapnel, sometimes o n the trenches of one or theother, sometimes directed at a distant battery. The whole, pale fields of foetid water, ditch-like trenches and mud-
bespattered haggard men lit up in spots now and then by the star shells, showed forth a terrestrial Inferno in
which it seemed impossible for men to live, let alone fight. Their only consolation—and being human a great one it was—was that the Germans were as badly or perhaps worse off than they. The darkness, except at these rare intervals, was of that impenetrable inky quality that arises from a mixture of black night, steaming mist and drizzling rain over a heavily-wooded countryside. Although the moon was supposedly at its full it forgot, or else refused, its function as though a party to that vast conspiracy of darkness.
At last the morning, the “stand to arms” and with it strange sights, but not, as in some places—the good warm sun. As though its benignant influence might cheer, it carefully hides away and sends in its stead more rain. And so it always is in this land—rain, rain, night and day. Sometimes it just drizzles, at others it pours—but never the sun. One wonders if the sun is not the fable to these nations that snow is to the south sea islanders. Men look at one another seeking to descry well known features through the mud.
Soon, as in city factories and country farms, the real business of the day began. A few experimental feelers and the daily artillery duel began, interspersed with sporadic shelling of the trenches; and so continued throughout the day with a heavier and more accurate rifle fire between the opposing trenches than was possible during the night. Many were the freak wounds and narrow escapes. Here a sergeant’s stripe tom off by a splinter of shrapnel; there the handle of an entrenching tool shattered or a pack torn bodily from a man’s shoulder, tearing coat to tatters but leaving the wearer unscathed. One bullet skinned the lip of one man, another passed through the nose of one and instantly killed a soldier a t his side. And so on ad tnfinitum.
And yet with all due respect to Der Kaiser and his wonderful machine and wishing to incur no punishment for lèse majesté, let it be said here that his gunners are rotten. There is no other
word for it. Or at least this description applies to that part of them who held forth opposite the Patricia’s. The noise of the bursting shells, the impact of them as they fell, the presence of flying splinters and gobs of mud was really most terrifying; but their ultimate results— nil, and out of all proportion to the energy expended.
With the dusk the heavier fire ceased but there continued a repetition of the previous night, a desultory rifle and artillery fire, the former at irregular intervals giving way to brisk and lengthy fusillades. Then came the heaviest task of all, the passing of the long night, the baling of water, the constant fight against the sucking mud and the utter weariness of mind and body, unrelieved by the external excitement of the heavy fire of the day. Men became dazed and did their duties in a well-disciplined but automatic manner, not knowing why or how they did them but just doing them.
The relief battalion took the place of the Patricia’s that night, the latter wet and mud-soaked, short some of their number, but still indomitable of spirit, stumbled on through the foetid mud. Their destination was a ruined and nameless village a short distance in the rear in which they were to do their time as supports for the brigade ere they moved still further in the rear for a well-earned rest on the reserve line.
Here for three days and nights they lived the life of the dug-out man—that of human bats. In nondescript array they lived between the naked and roofless walls that had once been homes but were now mere mockeries of that name. By day they slept and shaved and washed and cooked, and strove courageously to rid themselves of the accumulated mud. Failing that last they solved the problem as far as great coats were concerned by slicing off in jagged patterns the heavy skirts. The resultant patterns fitted in with their surroundings. Some favored a swallowtail effect, some argued a short cardigan quite au fait. Others claimed that that was decolleté and clung to their mudsoaked skirts.
Like bandits —a cross between cave men and medieval men-at-arms — they appeared. Ragged and dirty and lacking any quantity of water to correct that last they skulked and prowled about seeking stray vegetables to eke out the perennial stew, dodging along the cover of shattered ruins of walls, intent on nothing but their bodily comfort, after so hard a punishment of it. At night those apparently lifeless ruins
vomited out their dwellers, some to seek dug-outs, others to draw rations, something for one to do for all, until the very air hummed with their activities.
It was in this village that we picked up a straggler from another regiment who will be longest remembered by the favored few who saw and heard him than any of the stragglers who have joined us for a day and then gone on. He came strolling down the road, serene and unafraid, nondescript of apparel with turkey bag on his back, glancing now right, now left, as though he were some country visitor but newly arrived in a great metropolis. On closer inspection his uniforrp, or what once had been one, was seen to be in rags, particularly the back of it which had been badly torn by shell fire. To cap it all he wore for head gear an ancient and disreputable square topped black derby. He was from a famous British regiment. His speech was fully as quaint as his clothes and he will never know the keen delight he furnished that small group as he retailed from his peculiar viewpoint his adventures during four troublous months of hard soldiering hereabouts. His description of a certain German charge that he had faced, and incidentally assisted in repulsing, was a masterpiece. “The funniest thing ever seen in m’ life, chaps. Three short blasts on a bugle, ‘Hoch! Hoch! Hoch!’ All down the line like a flock of geese. Then them chaps sung ‘Deutschland über alles’ and on they come.” Here he paused to laugh uproariously. We waited for him to proceed but he would tell no more of that charge, apparently thinking that he had told a lengthy and circumstantial tale.
All that has happened has necessarily brought to the fore many acts of pure and unadulterated heroism from totally unsuspected sources. The situation was so prolific of them as it always is amongst any body of men, that a recital of more than a few striking examples would be out of place here, even at the risk of not doing proper
justice to many doers of great deeds. Under such a category comes the case of Lance-Corporal Fry, diminutive and boyish, fun-loving and irrepressible who, when the shell fire ceased on that
first day, with last deep cannonade from the larger guns, volunteered to go to the support trenches for the badly needed rations and water for his comrades. He stood a moment on the rear parapet, a fair mark, and fell back into the arms of his comrades, mortally wounded. And stretcher-bearer Buller who, exhausted but uncomplaining, calling on his last reserve of strength, carried to the rough dressing station, a mile in the rear and under fire in the early stage of the journey, Capt. Newton who had received his death wound, turned over his charge to the medical officer and then—promptly collapsed in a faint.
And so the Patricia’s in quiet faith, born of experience and resting upon the solid foundation of mutual self-confidence, go forward to whatever the future has in store for them, ready to do their “bit” in no spirit of bravado but of willing sacrifice.
Genius at the Front
Many French authors, poets, and dramatists are serving in the army in various capacities. Henri Bernstein, the dramatist, is serving as a gunner at Fort Havre; Marcel Prévost, the poet and author, is a captain of artillery in the entrenched camp of Paris; Etienne Rey, the writer, and Robert de Fiers, the playwright, are serving at the front, as also is Reynoldo Hahn, the latter as a simple soldier in the trenches in the Argonne.
Marcel Boulanger, the writer, has been taken half-frozen from the trenches near Nancy and placed in a hospital. François de Tessan, the journalist and secretary - general of the French Commis sion to the San Francisco Exposition, was wounded but has recovered and is ready to return to the front.
The N e w York Times points out the improbability of these men attaining any degree of usefulness on the battle - field c ommensurate with the loss which their extinct i o n would meant to literature and art; for, as common soldiers, “they can do no better work than the dullest peasant, and perhaps not as good.”
“To put them on the firing-line reveals the senseless waste which war involves.”