THIRTEEN YEARS AFTER
Lens and Arras have been rebuilt; (Canadians are still "bons soldats;" queer visitors inspire odd tales
WILL R. BIRD
ARMISTICE MORNING, and the bugles at the Menin Gate. It is not as impressive as I thought it would be, as all the ceremony is scheduled for six o’clock in the evening and not many have thought about the eleven o’clock signal. It is a damp, heavy morning, and all the people seem affected by the weather, so I have small regrets as we leave Ypres on our way to Arras.
We go via Kemmel, where the driver must make a stop. While there, an old woman comes along the street and hears me mention Canada. She stops and tells us her history. She was the postmistress of Kemmel before the war, and when the soldiers came made much money in the egg-andchip business. She also did washing for the boys, but not, as they thought, at her home. She had no coal with which to heid water, and so her daughter would take the clothing to a village where the military had a coal dump and the civilians profited by the surreptitious list* of it.
This process of money-making continued until T8. when the Germans swarmed over Kemmel and all that arca. The daughter was away with the washing, or rather returning with it. when a patrof*of the enemy came racing across the fields and trapped her. "Ah." they said, "you do the soldiers’ washing. Very well, you can do ours.” And from then until after the armistice that girl was attached to the unit as regimental washerwoman.
In the meantime, her mother had heard the machine guns close at hand and had taken alarm. She went out of her house to have a look about, saw the men in grey, and ran just as she was without ever going back into the house. They shot at her, but she escaped w hen several of the soldiers in the village were unable to do so. She did not get any word from her daughter, and did not know what had liappened to her. After the war she went back to Kemmel and stayed in hopeful waiting, and, to her great joy, the daughter returned. A Scotch sergeant in the village was greatly attracted by the girl’s story*, and finally he married her. They now have a fine brotxl of
children and the Scot is prospering in his adopted land.
This man had a brother who served many long hard months at Ypres. and was always obsessed with a premonition that he would be buried there. When the war ended he joyfully went home. Two years ago he had saved enough money to make a pilgrimage along the old w*ar fronts and came to Kemmel. From there he set out to see Ypres. Whether or not it was the excitement at again seeing the town that had held such horror, he was overcome at the Lille Gate and dropped dead there. He was buried in the Ypres cemetery', fulfilling his long dread.
We came by Ploegsteert and crossed into France at Le Bizet, where an old woman serves eggs and chips as in war time and can tell you endless stories about the soldiers. Leaving there, we sped on into Armentières. The town was a big surprise. Its buildings are all very' new and the shops were city-like. The main square was really impressive.
We seemed, after the sameness of the Salient towns, to have entered another world. Every place had a flag flying, all the population seemed in holiday attire. Such a contrast, the faces, to those we had left. Everyone seemed cheerful, happy, responsive.
Armistice Day at Armentieres
AT TOP of Messines I had had a last look back at the Salient, and it seemed as if the light mists hanging about the low places were really phantoms; as if. in that drab landscape. Last Post were forever re-echoing. There is a dreadful, solemn depression that engulfs one. a something about that enormous graveyard of countless dead that grips one and changes him. You see it in the faces of the inhabitants. All year long they see people coming to visit the dead; all year they work their ground with careful touch, never knowing when they will uncover a corpse or a live shell. It has made them the dour, dead-eyed race they are.
The youth of that land, sensing that feeling, are unconsciously combatting it. You see it in their foolish, loud-voiced night orgies, their drinking and hoarse shouting. They are but trying to defy that hovering something that is over every acre of the Salient. One farmer near Zillebeke had plowed his field for six successive years without removing more than a few odd shells. In the seventh year a small stake protruded. He tried to pull it up but could not, dug down—and discovered an airplane. It was there under ground as it had crashed, the pilot and observer still in place. They had been completely buried, by tremendous shell fire.
Armentières does not call it Armistice Day but The Victory. They had their band out and paraded to the memorial, where they laid a wealth of beautiful wreaths in memory of their fallen; then they returned to the cafés and had a glorious time in celebration of victory over the foe. A dozen girls were in
gay costume, red. white and blue, the colors of France, and cne wore a kilt and sporran. I asked who she was, and there was a shout. “Mademoiselle from Armentières.” they yelled at me, and all had a drink in her honor.
In that half hour I shed all effects of the Salient. Here was the cheer and fun we all had back of the lines in France. These people were unchanged. To them a Canadian is still a bon soldai, and they were eager to do anything to assist me. I left there glad, warmed with their spirit, tingling. It was wonderful to be back again.
As we went along we saw that every small village was celebrating the day, that all had laid wreaths at their memorials, that each place had its girls in gay rigouts. We were shouted at, waved to, and in two or three place*simply had to slow down and shake hands with a score and be taken into the estaminet for further celebrating. It was a touch of that first Armistice Day.
Finally we arrived at Neuve Chapelle. Three things are there which at once arrest the eye.
The first is the “Christ of the Trenches.” Thousands upon thousands of the French go there every year to see it arid marvel. When the enemy came, the line was at such an angle that a crucifix was at the comer of a trench. Gunfire dislodged the figure and it dropped into the bay. All trace of the shrine was shot away, but the figure in the trench survived. It was handed over with trench stores each relief, always entered as,
“One crucifix, G. S. Pattem.”
At the close of the war it was still there, minus legs and one arm, but the rest of it. especially the face, unharmed. Today it is at a new shrine, at the feet of a new figure on a new cross.
Across the road is a lone cross, with a soldier’s name. Enquiring at the estaminet, I found that it had been erected by an English lady. Her son was killed at the crossroads, and buried there hastily. Surviving comrades could not find the grave, though the lady herself came to France with them and did all in her power. She offered $500 to the gardener or soldier who could locate the body, and for weeks they dug everywhere in that vicinity, and failed in their search. She then erected the cross. The old man returned to the crossroads and rebuilt his café. I íe was planting his garden in the spring when he found the son. He knew nothing of the circumstances, and only reported it to the Commission in the regular way. The soldier was placed in one of the cemeteries, and no reward was paid the old man, for which he still grieves.
Strangely, the original cross has been left there.
Beside it is the famous Indian Memorial, erected in honor of
the Indian troops who died there in thousands, largely through the severity of a French winter. It is a high wall, circular, fronted by a tall column with a star at the top. and flanked by two tigers. It is an unusual thing, different from all others.
Bethune and Festubert
VXTE STOPPED again in Bethune, in the square, with ** all the buildings gay with flags and colors, banks and stores most prosperous looking, the shop windows displaying first-class goods. In the centre of the square is the belfry only of the old church. All the rest was knocked down by shelling. Signs around it forbade parking near it. A park in another part of the town is splendidly arranged
with flower plots, lawns, young trees, walks and seats in four great sections. The surrounding buildings are all of most modem type, with white walls or white strips on dark walls and in bungalow style. There were a number of donkey carts about, women selling flowers and vegetables, and on the sidewalks were racks of clothing offered for sale. The Banque du Nord is a fine building, until you see the Palais de Justice, which is really the pride of Bethune. Behind it. alone in a field, stands the min of the previous structure.
We passed along a new road and over a new bridge across the canal and were in Essars, a scattered village. A demarcation stone is near there; then we were by IxTouret Cemetery, which has a remarkable two-story front, and where the bugler sounds Last Post each evening.
Festubert. so well known to the First Division, is not much to visit now -a straggling small village, with a church the main feature and the usual French memorial. There were a great many children about, and the homes were jxxir, with many wooden after-the-war huts still in use. It is all a flat, muddy country with no break in the landscape, an uninspiring place. I had great difficulty in locating the old battle jiositions of May, '15, as no one seemed to know the road La Quinque Rue. I saw a ruined pillbox and enquired at the farmhouse near by. The old man came out and talked volubly, as he thought I was an agent sent to repair his plow which had gone wrong.
After he understood me. however, I discovered I had just the guide needed. He was one of the very few originals of that part, and he told me that the younger generation did mit know of l.a Quinque Rue. as the name was not used now. He Uxik me to the place and showed me the very sjxit the Canadians occupied, now a muddy beetroot field. The road, or rue, is not much used and is a muddy track across back country. The farmhouse near the “Orchard” is rebuilt, but on a different site. The Orchard itself has been replanted on the same ground, all young trees tied to jxiles, the whole protected by a high wire fence. Standing there beside the old man, with a view of endless muddy fields and a few farmers at work with their carts, it was hard to realize that at that spot the Canadians had fought so desperately to gain small objectives.
While looking over the Orchard and the surrounding area I remembered a very graphic description of the scene given me by an ex13th veteran who is now a gardener in the Salient. He is a veteran of the South African war, and served between times as a Northwest
Mounted Police. Joining the 13th. he was quickly made a sergeant, and was at Festubert in that capacity. During their first night of occupation he and a sentry observed two dark figures coming directly toward their post. Crouched low. they waited until the men were beside them, when they presented rifle muzzles. There was an instant surrender and they found they had bagged a German captain and his batman who had mistaken their way at the front trench. The captured officer had been a barber in New York City and could talk very gixxl English. He was deeply incensed over such a ridiculous capture, and on the way back attempted a get-away but was killed, as well as his toowilling servant, before they got far.
Country Districts Rehabilitated
PROGRESSING along that open flat country of continuous muddy fields, we reached Givenchy, passing only four houses on the way and the biggest goat 1 have ever seen. The church at Givenchy is oddly placed at the triangle of roads, and on one comer there is a memorial to the West Lancashire Division. Back of it are a number of low mounds, the old redoubts that figured in the '15 fighting in which the Canadian First Division engaged. A number of wooden huts are still used as residences, and the women of Givenchy are evidently unused to visitors. They stood in groups and watched me prowl around the old position marked “Duck’s Bill" on the army map. and asked many questions when 1 invaded the only estaminet. A house near the memorial is a rather elaborate building, and an inscription on it states that it is in remembrance of the City of Liverpool; so I take it that Liverpool assisted in the rebuilding of Givenchy.
1 heard strange stories in the estaminet. They told me that, after the war, the War Graves people were searching for bodies near the church when a fine limousine drove up and a German officer got out. He went to the man in charge and told him that he had hurriedly buried a considerable number of bodies in a circular trench, and offered to locate it. His offer was gladly accepted, and ninety bodies were recovered from the trench. While the digging was in progress, a number of civilians were found. They had been killed by shell fire and all placed in one huge grave.
Loos Largely Restored
GOING over the canal into Cuinchy, the “war” bridge is still used. The French began to build one soon after the war, but funds were exhausted before the approaches were completed, and it has remained in that state ever since. Efforts are now being made to have the job finished this winter and thus furnish employment in that district.
A short visit to Di Basséewas next on the programme. It is a progressive-looking place, with many fine buildings and a huge modern plant dealing with extracts from coal. Returning, we passed through Auchy des Mines, then came to the mine craters of Hulloch, very rough ground apparently untouched since the war. Old barbed wire and wire stakes lay around with other debris.
I journeyed on to Loos. It was a sickening place when last I saw it, an indescribable welter
of ruin, but now it has been largely restored. The mines are working once more and the houses are rebuilt, the square looking quite modem with the regular French memorial in place. New fences are around, and many white walls, neat tenements, gardens even, and playing children. Yet something of the old Loos lingers. It is indefinable but it is there. Dx>k at the great slag heaps, the embankment, the corrugated iron so freely in use. the goats in the barren spaces, atid you feel all you sense as you clamber up the chalky slopes above into the old craters, a scene of desola-
tion. Those gaping chalk sores remain, great pits and clefts and gullies, scattered with debris, tufted with dwarf bushes and weeds, discolored, dreadful, with cheap black-papered huts on the roadside and all waste in the rear. I wandered about it and felt as if I were back in '18 when last I saw it; and when 1 looked back my last view was of a scraggly goat silhouetted on the skyline, and he seemed typical of Dx)s.
An English Deserter
TENS was a sharp contrast. It is the cleanest place in ■*—' all that mining area, very modem even to a lastminute filling station, and its mine offices would be a credit to any American city. Its streets are very clean and wide and well-paved, its homes have fronts separating them from the street, often with trees or shrubs planted tastefully, and its buffet affords the finest meal one can get in all the region.
I wandered over to Cité du Moulin, a section of long tenement houses, of spacious yards without a blade of grass to be seen, with a church, and a large square, and more grounds evenly levelled, raked, clean but barren of any growth. From a far comer one could see a few poor huts in the rear, and from one a woman came, a consumptivelooking, furtive creature, munching a crust of bread, wolfing
it as she hurried along, the first weird human I had seen in France.
Immediately south of Lens were the Lens-Arras Road craters, nowonly a series of gardens of whitish soil which seems strangely fertile. A savage dog forbade my entry into a small field that seemed to have depressions caused by shells.
Dusk had fallen as I wandered about, and all I^ns was soon aglow with lights. An old Frenchman regarded me curiously and suggested that it was no place for "sleep-
walkers.” I joked with him. and shortly he was confiding that he himself could not sleep as he had high hopes of winning big money in the Irish Sweepstakes. He had a ticket and had but lately discovered the magic of it. Its numbers, added, totalled his age exactly, and what surer omen could a man wish?
I íe invited me to see his home, and it appeared to be a neat brick house. Going inside, I found that it was built on very substantial concrete, a German gun emplacement covering exactly his old cellar. No rancor was in his talk as he told me of all that had been done to the Lens mines by the enemy before quitting them, and he was not in the least a soured man. His daughters gave me coffee and we silt around chatting like old friends. It was a striking contrast to the atmosphere of the Salient, a change that warmed me to France. They spun countless stories of how they had found things when they returned to Lens, of all the bombs and shells left in the cellars, and then switched to jovial accounts of their football team.
All those mining towns have their football teams. The Frenchman, since the war. has learned the game, has developed it, until it is safe to say that within ten years Great Britain will be sorely taxed to uphold her supremacy in the pastime. I>ens has an entry in the league, and, in keeping with other teams of like calibre, imports one or two expert English players in order to keep up the morale of the local talent. The man wfio had been there the previous summer is now one of England's stars. He was paid a good salary and all expenses, and Lens was quite satisfied. Immense crowds attend their games. And they all buy tickets for the club pool on goals scored. Each game sees winnings of 5,000 or 6.000 francs distributed among the holders of the winning tickets, according to the basis agreed upon by the promoters.
They told me a strange story of an English deserter. He left his battalion near Loos and hid some place back of the mining area until he induced refugees from Lens to adopt him. Bysheer luck he w-as never detected, and when they returned to Lens he came with them and worked there in the mines. He was with them from 1917 until last year, and in all that time he never saw a member of his battalion or a single old comrade or had a letter from home. In an English paper he saw his name included among the missing from his home town, and decided that his desertion had not been marked as such, and took the chance of going back. He managed to get across the Channel by joining week-end travellers and saying he had lost his ticket. The odd thing about it all is that he never sent word back to Lens, nor has he returned.
After a most pleasant evening I was whirled through the night over Vimv slopes again, past Thelus crossroads and into the District of Arras.
nPIJE last time I was in Arras the place was like a haunted house. It was night, and every footfall seemed to re-echo in a weird manner. No lights showed anywhere. Buildings with the roof gone, gaunt ribs without
tiles, homes with great gaps in
the wall, with windowless holes like black eye sockets, leered over the streets. The rattle of an ammunition wagon on a far street was alarming, and all the time you expected to hear the scream of a big shell, its
slamming explosion, and a fresh fall of brick. As'you went
along the narrow side streets a dark figure would often emerge, a withered crone or an old Frenchman, and scuttle with a click-clack of sabots to another doorway, to vanish there as suddenly as they had appeared. People lived in cellars, away down in the bowels of Arras, and in her caves were many troops.
Now all is changed. We came into a glare of lights,
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brilliant shop windows and street lamps, with traffic cops at the comers, and red "Halte” signs. The displays in some windows would do credit to many of our cities, and goods were not low-priced. Toys and Christmas gifts predominated, and many of the former were priced from two to three dollars. Arras is not poor.
At night one could not see a trace of war damage. The station is rebuilt in the grand manner, and in front of it are the headquarters of the War Graves Commission, a fine modem brick building. It is flanked by up-to-date hotels and restaurants.
I put up at the Hotel de. Strasbourg on the Boulevard de Strasbourg, a rather small place when compared to some of the others but with a reputation for good cooking that fills its dining room at every meal hour. And scarcely a day passes but many of its clients are Englishmen who have known it a long time. In the morning I set out to see the city.
Arras is an important place and feels that it is. You notice it whenever you meet any of the officials, and they soon inform you that it is the capital of Pas de Calais, and that it is an old Gallo-Roman city which was in existence lo§g before Christianity was bom.
In the Rue Pasteur and along the Grande Place and Petite Place there are houses with cellars reaching down three and four flights, cellars beneath cellars, dank, dark undergrounds that whisper of the dark ages. It gives one queer thrills to go away down in those passages, and 1 readily believed many of the stories told about them, of the finding of skeletons there, of unwanted members of a family chained there for years. All the city seems undermined, and parts of it are settling. The great caves have tunnels reaching in all directions, to Mont St. Eloi, to Tilloy, to Neuville St. Vaast. Ordinarily visitors are not allowed down them now, and a short inspection was enough for me. In keeping with many of their ideas of sanitation, the city workers are taking the refuse1 and filth just outside the city and pouring it down an entrance to the caves. It will be a strange thing if within ten years there is not an outbreak of some fever in Arras.
Here and there one can see wounds on the old buildings where shrapnel struck, and new bricks fitted into old walls are easily discerned. Very few ruins remain. The City Hall, such a noted min in war time, is now almost ready for its official opening, a fine building costing forty million francs, an exact replica of the original. The cathedral is taking longer. Workers are busy about it and slowly it is assuming its former beauty, but it will be two years before it is finished.
Th# Eglise Saint Jean-Baptiste was opened in 1929, and is in its former style. This was the only church to survive the Revolution, and it was used then as a temple to Goddess Reason. The French Government gave the moneys needed to restore the gabled and arcaded houses of the Grande and Petite Places, but they stipulated they were to be restored in their original Flemish style. For the rest of the city, Newcastle, England, and Senegal gave great assistance.
Going down the Rue d’Amiens I found the Arras British Cemetery'. It is having a wonderful front erected, arches, walls and columns that must cost much money. Near at hand are the old barracks where we stayed in ’18. and I looked to find my name on the wall, but it had been erased as well as all the others that were inscribed there. Further on is a monument to the man who introduced the sugar beet to Northern France. In the Chapel Nôtre Dame des Ardents there is a plate bearing an inscription, a memorial to the Canadian officers and men who fell in the Great War.
It is a quaint city. Its old-fashioned, narrow streets, twisted, and with house drains and dirty gutters, are offensive at first glance; then one feels the lure of the whole surroundings, the age, the mystery', the unknown history of those dark ways. An impressionable person will never forget Arras.
Editor's Note—This is the fifth of a series of articles by Mr. Bird. In the next issue he will take his readers to Thelus, Far bus, Willerval, Neuville St. Vaast, Les Tilleuls Crossroads, La Folie Farm, Souchez and other points well known to all Canadians who served in the Arras section.