Old memories are revived as the author sits in a war' time estaminet and talks with “Madame" who remembers—and weeps

WILL R. BIRD February 15 1932


Old memories are revived as the author sits in a war' time estaminet and talks with “Madame" who remembers—and weeps

WILL R. BIRD February 15 1932




Old memories are revived as the author sits in a war' time estaminet and talks with “Madame" who remembers—and weeps

AT WULVERGHEM, just on the outskirts, a small boy was speaking in English, so I stopped to chat with him and to discover who he was. His father was a Canadian, and I met him. He had married a Belgian girl, and, from what I gathered, her father had established him very snugly, giving him a good farm and home and all that is necessary to make a comfortable living in Belgium. The Canadian had taught his children, three of them, to speak English. I met his wife, a very good-looking woman, and she spoke perfect English. They used it in their conversation always, though her parents spoke only French.

He told me that he had been with the 26th Battalion at the attack on Sanctuary Wood. He said they had found six wounded Germans in a dugout. An unwounded man liad stayed with them, looking after them. He told about being at the Palmer Baths below Neuve Eglise when Fritz started shell ing a sausage balloon that was aloft quite near. One of the first shells whistled in between the bath-house and another building and exploded, demolishing the unoccupied place. Another shell followed the first one. In three seconds the road leading up to Neuve Eglise was a race track for more than fifty naked men. Very few stopped to snatch up a shirt or towel. He told me that other veterans of the first division said that the Germans used to have civilians in the front line over at Birthday Farm; that they liad been seen pointing out landmarks to the enemy. He seemed very anxious to talk about Canada but would not tell the name of his home town, and so I left him to his mangels.

Going on toward Kemmel by way of Daylight Comer and Lindenhoek, it was all a marvellous landscape. All the farms seemed very' prosperous. Great fat cattle fed in the pastures. Flocks of white poultry and special pens for them were everywhere. Crows flapped in the distance, going toward Mont Kemmel. Pigeons wheeled in groups of twenty or thirty, and, back of every barn, a dozen huge pigs rooted in the soft black earth. Mont Kemmel is prettier than any painting. It is a perfect harmony of color. Greens, golds, browns, crimsons, all the tints of autumn are there in the leafy woods that mantle the hillside and cover every' sign of war. The shading, in the long afternoon shadows, is beyond words.

Kemmel itself is picturesque, by far the finest village I have encountered. It is very clean, a place of hedges and gardens and neat tiled walks. There is a park with pretty lawns and pools and rustic bridges, and a cosy hotel with a

row of palms in tubs outside. The square is a beautiful lawn with trees set all around it in splendid taste, and there is a pavilion at one end. A huge château and well-kept grounds and stables add to the lure of the place, and every tourist must linger longer in Kemmel than elsewhere. The château, they told me, belongs to a man who made a fortune in fertilizer.

Seige Farm and Mont Kemmel

T WENT down the road to Seige Farm, to that sector where the 25th Battalion had its breaking-in. La Laiterie Cemetery on the Kemmel-Vierstraat Road is ample proof that they were there. It seems that half the graves there are of fallen men from the 5th Brigade. There is no trace of war that I could find in that district. Where the old line ran is a plowed field, and there are many trees about, a most pleasant countryside. Petit Bois is a dark green in the late afternoon, and there are no marks of where Turner Town or Halifax Heights used to be.

I tried to go to Seige Farm, but the farmer there was very sullen, and the gardener advised me that he did not care for Canadians. It seems there was something about a white horse being used on certain days to make a number of turns across the field, just a small strip of plowing, then another horse would be used. The shelling of the enemy was very accurate, and so someone got suspicious of the farmer and he was taken away—never to return. At least that is the story’ that was told to me, and the present farmer certainly acts as if it were true.

During the second trip of the 25th Battalion to the line, the enemy mined the front trench and wiped out a platoon of “B” company, my brother being among the number. But reinforcements were rushed up and the enemy did not gain any ground by his work. Seige Farm was used as the battalion reserve and Shatter House was on the V. C. Road.

There is a story of that frontage told me by an ex-25th man, of an Imperial battery position to the right of Seige Farm, of Dinky Copse, a small wood to the right of the gunners, and a pig. Fifteen platoon had done its tour at Seige Farm where the plot was laid, and three men were

elected to purloin a choice porker, property of the farmer there. They decided that the best time to take the pig would be when number four platoon took over. “A” Company would then get the credit for the deed. A pen was built in Dinky Copse in which the pig would be placed until needed. Then the “pig men” came from the support line in the dark of night and captured their booty without a single mishap. On their way to the hiding place at Dinky Copse they went past the battenposition and here the porker managed to give feeble protest. No alarm was raised but when the men went to Dinky Copse the next night the pig had vanished. A systematic search was made and they were on the point of quitting when they heard something in an old cellar, the pig, nicely bedded and well-fed. Mister pig had another trip. He was taken up to Shatter House and placed in that cellar and the best accommodations provided.

The next night, with sharpened knives and hot water in dixies, a determined quartet went to Shatter House and there committed cruel murder. There was no squeal, but the enemy somehow developed sympathy for the murdered one, and strafed Shatter House, and one of the killers received an O. K. blighty. All the discarded parts of the pig were placed in a sandbag, and the needed parts in various carriers. The discards were thrown just in the rear of the battery position—and found there by the irate farmer. The gunners paid for the pig. Fourteen platoon had a feast of fresh pork.

It was on that front that the German snipers had different caps. They used black ones when shooting over black sandbags, and had grey ones for grey bags, and so on—a cap to match any parapet. The Germans had stoves in the front trenches to do their cooking, and the crack shots of the 5th Brigade shot away stove pipes and scattered earth from the parapets on all preparations until Otto had to desist from front-line cookery. It was in that Kemmel sector that three scouts of the 24th Battalion saw an enemy patrol. One of the prowlers was about twenty yards from the rest, and the three scouts skilfully cut him off from his fellows and brought him in, a prisoner, without any trouble.

I climbed up Mont Kemmel. When you get among the trees and bushes you discover that they hide many old scars and signs of war. Many traces of the old dugouts and constructed places are there, and a man told me that two years after the war ended, a heavy rain washed dead men from a gully and revealed a cutting full of mangled remains and weapons and equipment.

At the top. one has a view unrivalled in Belgium. Up there, looking over all Flanders and part of France, I remembered Edmund Blunden’s quoting from a book of 1837, entitled “A Saunter in Belgium.”

The traveller looks over the Salient from Hooge, and writes: “Tall spires, peaked roofs, and crowded houses—the bustle and the business of human life in full activity; peaceful homesteads—white villages glistening in the warm sunshine—orchards teeming with golden fruit—and hither and thither the gleam of a piece of water . . .

I spent an entire day on those hills; and I regretted when night obliged me to leave

them, by shrouding the sweet scene below from my view.”

And that is what one sees there at Mont Kemmel. a hundred steeples “bared to view.” One seems to be looking over an entire nation; so many are the towns and villages, the endless red and dark roofs, the miles of cobbled roadway, the bright thread of streams.

An Odd Bathhouse

ZOOMING down from the hill. I found a road leading to Locre, a delightful narrow lane that winds in and out of fairy scenes, past small cottages surrounded by trim hedges, in and out of groves where the trees hang over the roadway. Soon Mont des Cat is looking down on one. and there are long openings of green grass and brown earth, squares of dark trees, hop poles, a grand farm, a shrine in a quiet comer, a demarcation stone; then we are going in to Locre, and a huge building over on the left is a hospice or old man’s home.

Locre is on a hill, with a cemeteryfairly leaping at one from the centre of the town, an ill-kept place spoiling completely all first impressions. Cafes are full of chattering men and women—no one seems at work—and a few buses roar into the grand place and take on a few passengers. There are two small plots of soldiers’ graves on each side of the church, and the few narrow streets wind around in a bewildering manner.

From Locre it is not a long run into Bailleul, a place of crowded, brand new buildings and quite a businesslike atmosphere. It seems busier than most of the Belgian towns. The British guns demolished the town after the enemy had occupied it. and made a thorough job of it. I asked at many places for original owners, but could not find any until I met a cemetery caretaker who had been one of the two last men to leave Bailleul before the Germans entered.

He and a helper were at a small canteen when the people

began to leave. Word spread rapidly that the enemy was very near, and the (light was headlong. Shops and homes were left as they were, and down at the Australian stores all was deserted. He and his mate went there and selected all the best breeches, underwear and socks that they could carry. Then the other man paused and eyed the shops. The nearest was a jewellery store, and the window was full of rings, watches, etc. The owner had not even locked the door before he ran. The soldier went inside with a kit bag and filled it with all he could carry—a small fortune-—then they left, and not a half hour too soon. By nightfall Fritz and Otto were having a wonderful time collecting booty. The soldier, with his rings and watches, got away all right and turned them into money, and today is running a small business in France not far from where old Dame Fortune smiled on him.

My friend told me of a couple of stout French girls who made money very rapidly in Bailleul. There were, of course, the usual egg-and-chip places, small gold mines in their way, but these girls had a brighter idea. They opened a “bathhouse.” Any soldier appreciated a chance to have a bath where there was plenty of warm water and soap, and when there was added to it the saving of all labor, well . . .

These girls charged a rather high price, ten francs, but they always had more trade than they could handle. They prepared buckets of soft soap, and had huge soft brushes, somewhat like whitewash brushes. The soldier paid his money and took his place, standing, in a huge but rather shallow tub. He simply stood and kept his gaze on the ceiling. The two girls handled the brushes. They dipped them in the soft soap and applied it, then the cloths and towels were used, and the customer st(x>d forth more thoroughly cleaned than ever he had been at any army bath. The girls were husky, adept at their work, and would have no fooling. Someone told a certain shy young padre that it was a bathhouse and he made no further enquiries. He paid his money and was somewhat astonished at being told to strip in readiness. Not speaking French, he did not understand things until he found himself propelled into the tub and was smothered in soft soap. He struggled manfully but Ins efforts availed him not, and he went forth clean - but somewhat (lustered.

During the time that the submarine peril was at its worst one of those gilded ones in the high places had a brain wave. The result was that up into the fighting areas, where the front-liner was always overfed, came men with paint and brushes, and they smeared strange signs in various places. Many veterans will remember among them: “Eat Less and Save ShipI ing.” One of these artists decorated a wall on the way from Locre to Bailleul, and there the inscription remains.

Goldfish Chateau

"D ACK to Locre and to La Clytte. Passing Mont Rouge. I saw six German dugouts with elaborate concrete entrances still intact on the hillside. La Clytte is a straggling little village of a poorer type. A nun with a long file of children in tow was walking on the road. There were

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Thirteen Years After

Continued from page 13

trees all along the way—in clumps, in the fields, along the ditches, everywhere—more trees than I observed elsewhere.

We came to Halleblast Farm, rebuilt in a grand manner, and then Dickebusch. The latter is a smaller town than I expected, of crowded buildings and a rather handsome church. Two cemeteries are near it. I made enquiries about former residents and found two old crones, but they had only recollections of the Canadians being free spenders and rather noisy. They had no stories to tell.

Leaving there, I roamed out around the lake, going to Vierstraat, which is only a dozen or so new buildings, then back past Segrand Château, which is built entirely of concrete, all towers and jutting comers. No wood has yet been used, and the place is but a grand shell. At the old driveway the keeper’s lodge is the same, a concrete exterior never finished. I crossed over to Bedford House and found that the château there is a ruin, as it was, and I learned that it will not be rebuilt. The owner has got a huge sum in compensation for his grounds being used as a cemetery. Wood cote Farm is rebuilt in splendid style. The Swan Château, however, is another pile of mins. In Belgium the Government helped first the farmers, got them established, and the château owners are last in getting their compensations.

And now 1 leave Ypres. The Machine Gun Farm is first on my right, and then we come to the Goldfish Château. Every soldier who went up to the Salient must remember it on the Vlamertinghe Road. It stood there as a landmark through all those hard years, miraculously untouched—the Château des Rosiers. For three days in the early part of the war General von Bissing

had his headquarters there, and German prisoners told how he took a great fancy to the place and intended to claim it as his own prize as soon as Germany won the war. He hasn’t put in his claim yet. General French occupied the château as his headquarters during the first battle of Ypres. In 1915 it became Canadian headquarters, and afterward was used as divisional centre. It was within those walls that General French and Foch arrived at their famous decision to hold Ypres “to the last man and the last tin of bully beef.” Every other building about it was destroyed and even the fine avenue of trees was cut down by shells, but the château stood. It was always claimed that the Germans expected finally to conquer Ypres and were saving the château for their use.

Along the old “snake” road, winding, always winding between those tall elms that so many writers have described as poplars. Vlamertinghe Château, a mill, a hop store, and Brandhoek—fire comer—with a red cross still painted on its high brick wall. Red Farm Cemetery is there on the right, and rumor has it that all the men in graves there were killed by one shell. Certainly it is the smallest cemetery in the country’. The inscription on one stone is extraordinary. It is the grave of three Belgian peasants who were killed, and states: “Two civilians and one trunc.” I could not understand it at all and made enquiries. They told me that one of the men had had his head clipped off by the shell. Hence he was not a “civilian” but a “trunc.”

Madame Minnie-haha

ON TO POPERINGHE, good old “Pop,” looking very much the same as in the mad days. The station seems exactly the

same, and I could see only three or four new buildings. There is a memorial to the British soldiers who saved Poperinghe. At Skindles Hotel, Zoe is still serving officers, but not “officers only.” She will now serve an ordinary mortal, and very well. It is a splendid hotel, and she is very proud of her war career. She told me that two of her girls were killed by shell fire on March 21. T8, and that she had to leave Pop that April until the end of the war. It was at lier hostel that the officers of the first and second Canadian divisions gave a farewell dinner to General Lipsett as they were leaving the Salient for the Somme.

There are quite a few British living at Poperinghe. among them some quaint characters. In the morning 1 talked with one very interesting chap who told me terrible stories about the Bluff when the English held it during the winter of T7. At noon I saw him at a house on one of the side streets, surrounded by a flock of children.

On to Hazebrouck, and it took a long time to find myself there, to get back the old impressions I had in war time. It seemed all changed, a different place entirely from what I had pictured it, and it took me quite a time to locate the three estaminets to which we used to go. In the first two there were new faces, strangers, but in the last one there was Madame Minnie-haha, as we used to call her. She stared calmly and waited for my order. I used her soldier's name, tried to introduce myself, but she continued to stare blankly—so many thousands had sat at her tables—until I recalled that one of our chaps. Melville, had cut a lock of her hair, a coil of it, pretending he wanted it as a keepsake. In a moment madame had seated her hefty self and was shedding tears in French fashion.

“Those were good days,” she said. “All big boys, no harm. Now it is nothing but money hard to get.”

I mentioned her daughter, a fine looking girl, made love to by all the soldiers, whom we called “San Fairy Ann.” But San Fairy Ann was gone, married to a French boy and living down near Paris, and already the mother of four future poilus.

The Night Before Passchendaele

SITTING THERE, it was easy to let oneself go and see again that last night there before we went on to Passchendaele, Forty-Twa’s, R. E.’s, artillerymen, a motley crew, all friendly. In a corner an artilleryman was trying desperately to win San Fairy Ann’s appreciation. Beside our table was one at which two old “sweats” were sitting, and their conversation was better than any music hall show. One chap was one of those rare birds who used rhyming names instead of the proper word, and the other was a serious lad on his way from the Salient who wanted to describe all the failures of his “mob.” Beside me sat our own “Old Bill,” and he was in rare form.

There were many songs that night, but I remember particularly one that the boys called the “Salvation Army” song.

“The bells of hell go ting-a-ling-a-ling For you but not for me:

And the little devils how they singa-ling a-ling

For you but not for me.

O Death where is thy sting-a-linga-ling,

O Grave thy victor-ee?

The bells of hell go ting-a-ling-a-ling, For you but not for me.”

And another cheerful bit:

“I want to go home, I want to go home, The bullets they whistle, the cannons they roar,

I don’t, want to go to the front anymore.

Take me over the sea, where the Alley man can’t get at me,

Oh, my, I’m too young to die. I want to go home!”

During the lull while throats were being oiled a small figure entered, a forlorn figure, dressed in khaki much too large, and decorated with canteen medals (beer stains)

Apparently the newcomer had not the necessary wherewithal to purchase beer. “I’ll give yer a song, my tes,” he said, looking around. Then he put back his cap, disclosing a very dirty face, and began in a terrible voice.

“She was poor but she was honest, Victim of a rich man’s whim:

For he wooed her and seduced her And she was done wrong by him.

It's the sime the whole world over It’s the poor gits all the blime,

An’ the rich gits all the pleasure,

Isn’t it a bleedin’ shime!”

Somewhere along about the sixth or ninth verse someone offered him a drink, and that, of course, was what was wanted. It was a blessed lull, and during it my complaining old-timer on the right became audible.

”... an’ the b---------y cook.”

“What about yer babbling brook?” asks the rhymer.

‘Tm just reachin’ ’im when the perisher shouts, ‘any more for any more,’ and then tips the bloomin’ dixie. I could ’ave murdered ’im. I could, sprite.”

At this point Old Bill gets vocal, and pulls one of the platoon’s favorites. He rises, looks around solemnly, and orates:

“Today’s my daughter’s wedding day, Ten thousand pounds I’ll give away.”

There are cheers and handclaps. “Good old Bill.”

Another pose.

“On second thoughts I think it best To put it in my old oak chest.”

Groans. “You old blighter, Bill.”

The voice on the right again. “. . . an’ ’im shakin’ in ’is shoes every' time ’e ’ears that rubber gun, an’ mykin’ aht ’e ’as trench fever to git dahn the line ...” “Come on, madame, more beer, compre.” It’s the rhymer again. “Toot sweet, and the tooter the sweeter.”

It’s almost closing time, and in steps a sergeant of the police. Groans. Sighs. Then shouts for beer at the last second. “Allay, madame !”

And madame, looking at the sergeant, says: “ No bon. Fini kapoot. Napoo. Buckoo bier. Vous zigzag.”

A voice: “Some say, ‘Good old sergeant,’ but I say—”

The door is opened, and the patter of rain is heard on the cobbles. “Send hcr down, Davy.” “Roll on. duration.”

But there is no move to go. “One little song, and we’re away,” says someone, and the sergeant, looking outside, seems agreeable. How many times has that song been sung at some time-killing moment?

"Oh. we pushed the damper in; yes, we pushed the damper in,

And the smoke went up the chimney just the same;

So we pulled the damper out; yes, we pulled the damper out,

And the smoke went up the chimneyjust the same.”

The smoke was still going strong after the fifth stanza when the M. P. gets wise that it will continue to do so and gives his orders.

“Après la guerre, old top.” “Good night, sar’gint.”

Then all were filing out except the artilleryman in the corner, who is making a last fervent appeal to San Fairy Ann. He is twisting in his chair, shrugging his shoulders in an attempt to bolster his French. And San Fairy Ann, smiling down at him, asks. “You hitchey-koo?”

All outside. Voices mingling. Calls. Wet darkness. Boots on cobbles. An enquiry of the defeated suitor. “Yer a gunner, chum?” An assenting grunt. “Well, all I kin sye is, yer was shootin’ short, sime as up front.” Then from another quarter, deliciously sarcastic: “Oh, kiss me sar’gint before I go.” What times! What lads!

Editor's Noie: This is the fourth article of Mr. Bird’s series. The fifth article which will follow in an early issue will deal with Armcnlicrcs, Bethune, Givenchy and Lens.