Thirteen Years After
Valenciennes and Mons revisited—Journey's end and the last shot—Conclusion
WILL R. BIRD
THE route to Mons is a pretty drive but reveals few traces of the war.
The old places are very quaint and the villages are clean, while in each one you can hear stories more vivid than any fiction. A few ruins are by the way as you leave Cambrai, before you reach the big château. Then, after passing the memorial, there are a few more shellmarked walls and cellars and a château in the wood on the left. The road goes between tall trees, and here and there are picturesque homes with old white walls and hedges along the fields, everything speaking of days of peace instead of war.
Iwvy has some ruins and its memorial, and some walls bear shrapnel scars that cannot be obliterated, but on the whole it would be a pretty village were it not for the large factory near more ruins. Beyond that there are rows of houses in blocks, as if a child had arranged them. At one old home that had a faded Débitant sign I halted to chat with the old lady, who was as round as an apple and as redcheeked as one. She told me that during all the long years of the war she and her old husband planted their garden over a cache that contained all their treasures, including chinaware
and even her husband’s Sunday shoes, which surely would be in poor condition when they were resurrected.
“Ah, yes,” said madame, “but even so it was better than letting the Germans have them.” Then she told me that there were many others in the village who had buried all their most precious belongings, and that not one hiding place was discovered.
It made me think of the story I heard at Mametz. They say there, and stoutly adhere to the story, that the mayor o? Mametz buried all his wine in his garden and that in spite of all the shelling and trench digging he found it as he had left it, with not a bottle damaged.
Douchy. the next village, has many advertisements, and old, low-roofed houses close together, and a big château. Going over the railroadi, you see a large mound on the left that looks as if it had a war history.
Then you reach Lescant.
Three calls we made there, and were finally rewarded. One old dame
showed me a small, black-backed diary that she has kept since T4. On the front page is a name, Lce.-Cpl. Henry Tull, but no number or reference to his unit. There are but three entries in it. They read:
“We’ll call this Monday, but I’m not sure. Jim was killed last night, shot in the back near some bushes. We buried him. That’s six from the section.”
“Tuesday. The sergeant died at noon. He was hit in both legs. We haven’t had much sleep.”
"Wednesday, ft is tough enough. Half the company is gone. There must be over a hundred dead Germans in front of our hedge. They were killed yesterday morning. We’ve had no orders all day. Pinkey may go.”
There is a long black scrawl from the last word as if the indelible pencil had been too wet. The old lady was given the little book by a German who was billeted at her home. She treasures it, and probably has shown it to many British visitors.
Across the canal there is a wood on the left, more old houses, and some huge slag heaps appear. Now you can see black and white cattle in the pastures, and horses, and there are flocks of geese and ducks. It»is a prosperous farm country, with many coal mines along the way. There are some nice orchards, and then we reach tram lines and are in La Sentinelle, with much new concrete in evidence before
we go over the canal and into Valenciennes, scene of one of the Fourth Division’s victories.
REMEMBER the old smashed station (here, and ail the • ruins near it, and barricades and barbed wire? It's all so different that you hardly realize where you are. The station is a grand building now, and the old front that faced the square has been rebuilt in modern fashion. There are many tine stores with great plate glass fronts, and a maze of electric signs. The hotels are flashy and there are many cinemas and fine restaurants. Life is very gay in the city and the streets seem crowded with soldiers. The barracks lcx)k as they did in T8. Up by the doctor’s office on the street leading out of the city toward Mons the houses have been rebuilt exactly as they were, and others repaired, so that there does not seem to be much change. All those who followed the 4th Division through the city will remember the skeleton wired there, with an old musket beside it, and the legend above, “Out Since Mons.”
Many of the old most damaged streets seem to have been transformed into boulevards, but in the back areas all are the same. All the comer by the canal crossing has been rebuilt, and there is a large shop where the crude “comfort station” used to be.
One strange custom of France bothers many tourists. At noon all places close. Every store and bank and office locks its doors, and the town or city has its noonday meal. A roll and a cup of coffee suffice for a French breakfast and
the Frenchman from the table midday. So all business is put by until the inner man is satisfied.
Valenciennes seemed, like the rest, a deserted place at noon. And there, too, they have the same parking regulations as in Arras and Albert and Amiens. On one day the cars all park on the left side of the streets: the next day they park on the right. This system gives the merchants an even break, and there is no confusion.
In more than one place in the city you can see old German signs. One is very near the barracks, and reads, Understan. It points to one of the old shelters used during air raids, and such signs were very common as we got through into his territory in late ’18. After passing a few old Nissen huts you are out on the main highway and seeing many pretty hornbeam hedges, with new and old buildings intermingled and considerable construction in progress. Jail trees line the way again, and under
them the old whitewashed walls seem more picturesque.
Onnaing looks very old. with many long white walls. It is a village of walls, and three-fourths of them are painted white. There are a few army huts still in use, and the church and post office seem the principal buildings.
I heard a strange story in an estaminet there. During the war a carrier pigeon was brought into an old lady’s house by her pet cat. The bird had been dead for some time, and had not been killed by the cat. A German saw the cat go in with her booty and in five minutes the poor old woman was arrested as a spy. There was no message on the pigeon, and later it was proved to be a bird that had been loosed by mistake, yet the Frenchwoman received weeks of persecution and was closely watched during the rest of the German occupation.
Quarouble has much new concrete to contrast with its white walls, and there we were halted by a guard on the road who waved a red Hag. We thought of Russia or road construction, but there was no hint of either, and as we slowed the official waved us on in a most violent manner. We passed many factories and slag heaps, and black smoke wreathed the sky. There was much more traffic and many signs of increased activity. We knew we must be near the frontier.
AT THE first barrier we were let by quite easily, though we could see that those entering France were being closely examined. Bicycles, carts, cars and trams were in a jam, and there was much gesticulating and shouting. Bread seemed cheaper on the Belgian side, as all coming over were carrying from one to three loaves.
A truck with a load of chicory was halted in our path and the driver ordered to unload every basket for inspection. This seemed an impossible barrier, but as soon as it was known that a Canadian wanted to pass we were given the right of way. “Canada” seems to have the same magic it had in many places in wartime.
Quievrain is a very quaint old town. We were told many queer stories of German doings in each place that we called. One old dame with a respectable chin whisker told me that the Germans were harsh with those who in any way opposed them, but were lenient with those who were willing to obey all orders. She then told me in whispers that she had a French spy in her house for seven days. ■ He was dressed as a farm laborer, and more than once ate in the kitchen when Germans were seated there. She had been in dread that he would be discovered, but he seemed quite successful in avoiding all suspicion. It seemed a town of lumbering carts, gigantic three-wheeled affairs, with drivers seated on one of the horses.
At the second barrier we were stopped by a Belgian with a dismal set of features. After much muttering to himsell and probing all our belongings with his dirty fingers, he ordered us on, and looked disgusted as if we had cheated him. The streets twist and turn in every way until you see the spire of Thulin on the left. It looks a very pretty town in the distance, but the villages are now' so close together that you seem in one continuous street, and you’re in Boussu before you know it.
It is quaint and clean. On every street we saw a woman scrubbing a walk or washing window's that already looked spotless. Every doorknob and latch glistened, and there were white curtains in every window'. There are many advertisements of shops in Mons all along the way, and a great many road signs. No one need get lost in Belgium.
Hornu has too many slag heaps to have any claim on beauty and there is too much building going on. Wasmuel continues the story, with flashes of new' concrete among the white walls, and flaring advertisements on every shop end. It continues a long street, and there is scarcely room for a shepherd to take his flock across the road.
Quaregnon is old and quaint and clean. Cars of coal that lumber by at the railway crossing are all whitewashed, and a man told me that they do this so that no coal can be removed in transit without leaving proof of its being taken.
At last we were in Jemappes.
Many ruins were there when last I saw it, but not one remains. It seems a much larger town than in T8, with many new homes. I found the house where a bunch of us got a feed on the Saturday night when we marched in, tired, footsore and hungry, and found that no rations had arrived. The old man still lives there and seemed to become reinvigoiated in every joint when I told him of that night we had visited him.
Then, after much searching, I found the yard in which wre were sitting next morning, in beautiful sunshine
with the church bells ringing and two little girls playing with us, when the order came for us to put on “battle order” and fall in for an attack on Mons. Attack on Mons! Thirteen years after I can still experience the feelings of those first moments after we received the order. To live forty-eight hours longer meant that we would survive the war. and yet . . .
We went, crossing a deep water-filled trench by using a stretcher as a bridge, plodding on, every man silent and seething with emotion.
From Jemappes I traced even’ yard over which we advanced that Sunday afternoon. The Princess Pats had fought their way in close to the town, and I remember
seeing the Segard brewery inches deep in beer through leakage from vats that shrapnel had damaged. The little outbuilding where Jones and Mills were killed is still there, but the old lady who, in that shell fire, watched us from her back door, has gone.
Mons an Education Centre
MONS is a fine town. It’s a good place to spend an evening, with plenty of music and dancing and gay cafés, and yet there are few places that rate such a high average of education. The people of Mons pride themselves on their education, and have at least seven colleges. Many
of the shops have been enlarged and have had new fronts installed.
At the Grande Place there is a café run by an English veteran, and many of the people speak English. The Hôtel de Ville looks as it did, but now you go under the old covered way to visit a fine war museum in the rear. The ponderous lock at the front and the monkey on guard are just the same, and inside the entrance there are three tablets. One is in honor of the men and officers of the Fifth Royal Irish Lancers. A second states:
“Mons was recaptured by the Canadian Corps on the 11th of November, 1918. After fifty months of German occupation freedom was restored to the city. Here was fired the last shot of the Great War.”
The third tablet is a huge thing with an inscription about the army of the United States. It is an amazing thing to lind an American memorial there, and explains to some extent why some Americans tell in hotels in Brussels that their troops captured Mons.
I saw the house where Sonny Dick had the girl who was covered with warts, and the place where Kennedy hung a crude “smallpox” sign on the front door as soon as he discovered that the mademoiselle who lived there had a warm heart for Canadian soldats.
Memories of Mons
DURING that last night of war, as we began to work our way into Mons through gardens and alleys, old “Muddy” Gallagher was one of those in advance patrol proceeding through a cabbage patch. Nearer the houses we had plenty to take our attention, but after the machine-gun posts were cleared we tried to get in touch with our flanking parties. Gallagher and Kennedy had vanished. Had they been captured? Filled with apprehension, Sambro Brown and 1 worked over near a wall and saw light from a cellar window. We crawled closer, and heard a humming as from a huge beehive. Getting bolder, we rose and rapped at. the door. It was opened at once, and there, seated among at least ten ladies, was Gallagher. He had the prettiest girl of the 1(H on his knees, but another had her arms around his neck. They surrounded him completely, had disarmed him and taken his equipment and tin hat and gas mask, and were admiring his bony knees and hairy legs.
All these and many other memories came back as I explored the town. It took me all afternoon to locate the home of the old couple who had taken me in that armistice morning, and where I had slept, or tried to sleep, until a young German crept out of the closet of my room. He had hidden there as we rushed the town and was scared as badly as a man could be -a chap of not more than eighteen years. The old folks were dead, and strangers in the house knew nothing of Mons in war days.
Down at the restaurant of the “Three Cats,” not ven' far from the “Red Hand” which all soldiers knew, I got splendid meals and heard many yams of tilings that happened in late ’18. Aftenvard, outside. I was approached by a man who had sat in the comer, a light-haired, quiet fellow, who calmly informed me that he was a German and that he had been in Raismes Forest as we fought our way through it. He was a find. He talked good English and was very well read. Till midnight we sat and talked, and my dominant impression was that he was one more German veteran who was quite satisfied with the results of the war.
There is little more to tell. When going back. I looked in at Le Cateau, a pretty little village among the hills. There they have many stories to tell you of British soldiers w'ho escaped to the big wood near by, the Forêt de Mormal.
and there avoided capture for many weary w'eeks. One widow', Madame Belmont-Gobert, of Bertry, hid one fugitive in a cupboard in her home and kept him there from ’14 to the finish of the war, with Germans billeted in her house most of the time. To my way of thinking, the man must have suffered more than if he had been taken prisoner. I saw his photo, and he was an aged man when the war ended, a ghost of his former self. In the British war museum you may see the cupboard, and it tells you the story better than words. It is not high enough for a man to stand upright, and one-half the meagre space was shelved. Yet he lived there and kept his reason, and today madame wears a British decoration for her part in the Great War. On the w:all of the Hôtel de Ville you may read the names of the citizens of Le Cateau w’ho were shot by the Germans, and among the list I noticed that one lot of seven had been shot for keeping pigeons.
In the estaminet there I met an
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English journalist who was looking for old war ground, and he informed me that he could not find a trench or dugout save at Vimy and Beaumont Hamel. There are many others who say the same thing as they whizz by in motor cars, and anyone who travels as they do over the straight roads will surely not see much. But I thought of him as I left Arras by train and, looking out the car window before reaching the outskirts of Lens, saw in a bank seven yawning dugout entrances with an old post beside one that one day held a gas alarm; and I remembered him as we went on past the chalky cuts at Hill 70 and for fifty yards ran by a trench that is still much as it was in T8, with every bay and traverse in good condition. You can see many things if you take the trouble to go off the beaten track and search.
It is a long way from Ypres to Mons, and when the trip is done your memories and thoughts are so commingled that you hardly know the war is history. You see again the long shadowy files on the duckboards of the Salient, a silhouette of steel helmets and rifle muzzles. You see long strings of mules taking up ammunition, see the flicker of Very lights as you leave Mont St. Eloi for the trenches at the crater line. You see, in fancy, the lorries and traffic of the back areas, sausage balloons, battery positions, trenches at stand-to, the gutted, wired, rat-ridden spaces between the lines, seeing most, of course, that which most impressed you, seared deepest in your brain, whether it were the sleet and shrapnel of Vimy, the blood bath of the Stimme, or the terrible diarrhoea of war that we knew as Passchendaele. And now you see only greens and browns, and vivid new cement and brick farms that glare their newness. The peasant is back on his ground again and war has gone, but the stark stiff newness of everything drives you back, sends you afar into the old billeting areas from Gouy Servins to St. Hilaire.
And you hear things. Muffled, crumping explosions, where French or Flemish are destroying pillboxes, bring back the echo of other days, and in the ensuing stillness you taste again the sensations of the armistice period, when every old sweat went around as if he were listening, unable, all at once, to comprehend the enormous quiet. Gunners
after rabbits in some small wood will sometimes thrill you with a quick succession of shots, and the drone of airplanes overhead brings back the old anxiety as to whether it is one of “ours” or “theirs.”
But you can get the real earfuls in the estaminets and cafés. Here and there are British veterans, many Cockneys, a few Canadians, and they have develojxxl their imaginations so that they can entertain all tourists. They are not alone in their art. You can meet old French farmers who blink at you across the table as they drain their mugs and tell you tales that would daunt a circus showman. I ’ll give you four examples before I ring off, four only of a thousand I’ve heard belonging to the same category.
AT ALBERT I met a small man with a giant’s mustache and the thirst of an empty camel. He told of a dugout he had up at Ypres where the rats wrere so big and fat that they resembled poodle dogs. He trained one to do many tricks, making it so tame that he got a small dog collar for it. It used to cross over NoMan’sLand.and one night came back with a message tied to the collar. After that he corresponded regularly with a pleasant Otto over the way who could write fair English, and swapped badges with him and smoking tobacco. The rat always had jam after making one of the trips. Finally a relief on the enemy side sent Otto away and brought in an outfit of Bavarians who were most slurring and insulting in their initial message. So our rat tamer had a brain wave. He taught his pet one thing only for seven straight days, then sent him over the way with two Mills bombs across his back, tied together. The rat slid them off in the German trench, nipped out the pins and beat it—and the unfriendly ones were blown to the Fatherland.
At Amiens I had a taxi driver who had a fearful scar on his neck. I asked him if it were a war injury, and he said it was. He liad got it while bathing in the canal near La Basse, the result of more German war guilt. Each day he and his chums had a bath in the cooling water, and this time he was attacked by a most ferocious fish which almost severed his head from his body. He said it was commonly known in that sector
that the Germans imported the fish from East Africa, and that they were fiercer than sharks. The British, he said, put explosives into the water, and forty-nine of the monsters floated to the surface. They measured seven feet in length and had a swordlike nose, and their hides made excellent leggings. The British had arrangements under way to bring over a shipment of cobras from India, but the snakes could not survive such a long journey. They were to be led over to the German lines by the Indians and let loose.
A Frenchman near Inchy en Artois told me of the trouble he had, and the terrible fate of his neighbor, in T5. Soldiers came to his well for water in such numbers that they wrecked the windlass, and there was difficulty in getting the pail hoisted. An Indian battery was billeted nearby and they wanted more water. One afternoon the neighbor came over with a splendid wooden wheel, of strange pattern but just the thing to wind up rope. It was soon fixed on the well curb and in active service. Next morning the neighbor’s head was staring at all from a picket fence. It had been neatly severed from his body and placed there as a grim warning. The windlass was missing from the well. My friend made discreet enquiries and was told that the salvaged rope winder was in reality a precious possession of the Indian battery—their soul-saving “prayer wheel.”
Seated in a field in the open spaces beyond Arleux, I talked long with a shepherd who tended a large flock of sheep. He was wearing six overcoats at least, and several scarves, and his features resembled portraits of Tut-Ankh-Amen. He told me that during the war he was close to our lines when he saw the earth move in a mysterious way and soon discovered that the Germans had tunnelled under our trenches and intended to emerge back of our front and overrun the area. He had no chance to get away to give the alarm, and had been mowing. Taking a firm grip on his heavy scythe, he swung heavily as the first squarehead appeared. The head rolled to one side but the body kept on, so sudden was death, and my friend pushed it out of the way as it faltered. Eleven German soldiers met a like fate. They popped out at intervals, were decapitated, and the bodies piled alongside. Then a fat officer slid back after losing his top part, and so the performance ended. Help arrived in time to relieve the shepherd, and he was decorated with several crosses.
Such are the stories the entertaining ones will tell you, but there are others who can give you reliable information about old war areas and show you unusual spots of interest. To the careful observer will come many
rewards, especially in the Somme and Vimy districts, and, one and all, veterans or otherwise, will surely pause a long time on Vimy Ridge at the trenches and tunnels.
The most striking feature perhaps to the thinking man is the width and extent of the battlegrounds. Up at Ypres you can walk in three hours to the deepest part of the Salient, can reach the full extent of all the furious struggles from T4 to T8. Attack and counterattack surged back and forth in that big Salient wheel on such a scale that it gave rise to many stories regarding the capture of certain points. One sketch in a wartime publication showed a disgruntled soldier leading his lorry with brick from a heap of ruins, and he is explaining his job to an enquirer. “We’re movin’ this lot over the ruddy hill,” he is saying, “so that them staff gents can say we’ve made an advance. It’s one of these ’ere Belgian villages.”
Canadians visit the Salient, the Somme and Vimy Ridge, and British veterans always go first to Ypres. The French have Verdun as their main interest, but many go to Nôtre Dame Lorette and then across the valley to Vimy. All talk of the terrific fighting they did, then drift to condemnation of the present state of things and blame all the world for their troubles.
The German veterans gaze moodily down the Menin Road, thinking no doubt how near they were to victory, and yet so far. They stand and dream at Vimy Ridge, and spend hours on end at various spots along the Somme. The German seems a thinker of serious things. I’ve talked with many of them and found them very broadminded in their viewpoints, and I've seen big, grizzled veterans with Iron Cross ribbons under the lapel of their jackets stand at Zonnebeke and Passchendaele and look over the great sweep of black and white grave memorials until tears streamed down their cheeks and they could not speak at all. Then, in the hotels in the evening, when they did talk, they bitterly denounced all things that had come to pass since T8. Such attitudes have given me a closing story.
A party of old crocks used as pioneers was sent to an isolated point during the last days of the war and had no rumors of proceedings until Armistice morning, when the young officer in charge received the all-important message. He at once fell in the party, adjusted his monocle and read the news in very grave and impressive tones. After he had finished there was a heavy silence, then an old Cockney sergeant stepped forward and saluted. “Beg pardon, sir,” he said, “but ’oo’s won?”
Editor's Note: This is the final article of Mr. Bird's series on The Old Front Line.