THIRTEEN YEARS AFTER
Lieven—“This is Gouay Servins”—Aux Ritz corner—the caves at Maison Blanche—La Targette, and the woman who searched alone
WILL R. BIRD
IT WAS another dull morning when we went into Lieven, but the town made one forget the weather. It is bright, new, modem as a French town can be, with splendid shop fronts, electric signs, handsome buildings; and I had to consult my map a long time before I could be sure I was on the same street where we had billeted in the winter of '17-'18.
We had stayed there in the cellars, on a wide street with the buildings half shattered by shell fire. Going along the centre of the street, the only path through debris, one had to watch carefully to make sure he did not pass his underground abide. Some old shot» had a mass of old things in them, and more than one had improvised ‘‘signs” set up by the boys. Often you met a soldier [xirading solemnly in a tall silk hat or wearing a black coat and white gloves. There was one front that had barbed wire across it and signs warned all to keep away as the place was mined.
From Lieven we went up jxist the nibble heaps of Cité du Moulin to places on the outskirts of Lens. After a long time, walking back and forth, I judged that a fine shoe shop was over the cellar where I had shivered myself to sleep in December. '17. Going in, 1 made enquiries. The proprietor was a most gentlemanly fellow. He took me down the cellarway, and in a moment 1 found the comer we had occupied. The shop was built on the old walls, and the ledge around was untouched. The candle drippings were still on the brick.
I recollected that we had just returned after going out as a working party when a big shell demolished an entire building front just across the way from us. A billiard hall stands there teday. All the start is nicely paved.
I wandered all over Lieven, then followed, as nearly as 1 could, the route of Cow Trench. Chalky upheavals in the
waste land just outside the town were clearly the marks of trenches, but I could not be sure of my direction. I went to the railway embankment and tried to find the place we had used as a passage, hung with blankets on both sides, also the s|X)t on top where Ambrose Herron and I lay nearly all one night, trying to s¡x)t a German machine-gun jx)st on their side of the railway. Just after we left, one of our own whizzbangs struck on the rails where we had lain.
I went on into Cité St. Edouard, Cité St. Laurent. Cité St. Emile, and back to Cité St. Théodore. I well remembered that part as having concrete dugouts and cellars and passages under the streets. With another chap, 1 had gone through one of them until we were in close contact with a German machine-gun post. It was there, too, that we had a splendid stove and a supply of coal in our particular chamber, and all went out on a ration party and were led into a water hole. Coming back, we stripjxecl and hung our wet clothes on wires. As they steamed, Lieutenant Wilson came down. “The orders.” he said, “are not to take your Ixxits off. We may be called any time.” “Very gexxl, sir,” we said, sitting up in our blankets and gazing respectfully through the haze that hovered over socks and trousers.
It is now a place of small, neat homes; and a one-armed soldier became voluble about Verdun when I tried to get some information about old surroundings.
Rambling about. I recalled the old “Minnie” house, a concrete dugout under a house cellar, and patrols there with Sergeant Ferguson.
Coming back to L.ieven again. I discovered that some
sort of a baby showr was in progress. The Square was a mass of low-wheeled prams, and if all the infants there were natives of the town it is certain that the district is doing well in providing a new army.
Making Money by Doing Nothing
VW’E WENT back to Angres, and there studied the W village until I remembered every detail of the spot through which the light railway used to run. During the war Angres was little more than a conglomeration of brick heaps. I recalled that a comer of brick like a post was so near the track that you could touch it, and a long stick reached out from it like a pump handle. On that side of the track there was not a house near that had a roof on it, and mostly the walls were but squares, with all the centre gone. On the right a few’ roofs remained, their rafters only, without tiles, looking like a crazy latticew’ork. Today the track runs on the same roadbed and the ruined buildings are all restored, but beyond them and in the fields there are many half ruins and old cellars. Angres has more traces of war than any other village in that zone.
We went along the road to Grenay, a scattered village with a roomy boulevard, a modem dance hall, and a sports field. Passing the Maroc British Cemetery, we went into Bully Grenay, which has gardens that reminded one of Belgium. There wrere many wooden huts about, relics of the w'ar. and countless children and dogs. A sad-faced army mule looked over a brick wall and seemed dreaming of the good old days when he had hauled an ammunition limber.
Stopping there a while in an estaminet, I talked with a chap and found he had an amazing way of getting funds
He had married a widow who had several children. The father had been killed in the war and the family was destitute, so the chap claimed that the children were “pupils of the country,” and while they remained with him he and the mother were allowed so much money per child. If they went to work this money was withheld, so he was keeping a boy of eighteen at home doing nothing in order to get the pension.
We returned to Aix Noulette, which is but another “war” village—corrugated iron galore, gardens, children and dogs, with four sloppy estaminets and several enormous women. I went to see the old gun pit, and it is just the same as it was during the war. The wreckage of the gun has gone, but the chalk cavity with its high bank is exactly as it was. All who marched by that embankment will remember seeing the sixteen-inch gun that exploded there and killed so many of its crew.
Sains-en-Gohelle was our next stop, and we looked at the old dugout entrances along the road bank. The timbers have been taken away, but we risked going into some of them just to see what could be found. A big war sign points “To Herein and Barlin.”
We went to Herein Copigny. The village looks exactly as it did in wartime, as if not a building had been added or taken away. After getting my bearings from the old church, I found my way to familiar places. There was the shop where we bought silk handkerchiefs and aprons to send home—souvenirs, madame always assured us, worked by the “daughters of France.”
Madame was just as fat and moist as when I last saw her, and seemed to have on the same dress and the same black shoes. She was very genial until we showed no desire to leave more money with her, then suddenly became busy.
In war time there seemed to be more mixed traffic in that town than elsewhere. Once we sat in an estaminet for an hour and counted wagons from eighteen different units passing. All veterans will remember the transport of some British division that had as its distinctive sign a stork standing on one leg. A lorry of that kind was halted outside the estaminet when a wearylooking Tommy appeared, bowed with a “leave” pack. “’Ullo, myte,” said the lorry driver, “when’s the war going to te over?” The footslogger pointed a thumb at the lorry sign. “When that ruddy bird puts ’is foot dahn,” he grunted, and passed on.
The old château looked desolate, and that favorite of all cafés there, the Estaminet de la Place, where one could always find a fullthroated chorus, was closed, the shutters tight. The park without a single horse in it, added to the “deserted” aspect. We came by the cross-eyed farm—remember where the windows in the wall had crooked frames, and one could always buy French bread, no matter what orders were posted?—and went along the Vimy road and up that long, winding hill that was a heartbreaker if ever there was one in France.
At the top the view was wonderful. Barlin was to the right, and Hersin Copigny seemed nestled in the hollow as if huddled there for eternity. All colors were in the picture —red roofs, green ones, white walls and dark ones, grey roads and grassy fields and yellow-leaved trees, and in the distance the stacks of Bruay smudged the horizon.
The old Repos de
Voyageur was just as ancient looking at the top of the hill. A wizened old dame looked out as we passed, but she was not the one who usually stood in the doorway and wiped her nose on her sleeve as we trudged by, breathless, and glad to be up the hill. Then those other old houses, with the sign. Hermant Cresson, Débitant, at the crossroads, seemingly in a wilderness. No other vehicle was in sight, and four crows flapped heavily over the fields. One seemed miles away from anywhere, but ahead, in order from left to right, were Petit Gouy and Grand Servins.
We passed countless muddy fields that would mire one. and at last were in Grand Servins. A sign placed by army authorities was still on the side of a building: “Q. 25. B. O. 8. Southern limit of Bussing Point. N. Limit 1,500 yards.”
YYZE WANDERED to where an old chap was filling W his pipe and talked with him, and he was pleased to meet a Canadian. It developed that he was the village smith, and, though not a mighty man. he had amassed many shekels during the strenuous days. Lowering his voice confidentially, he told me that he had bought many, many boxes of good British horseshoes from thirsty battery men for the sum of twenty-five francs, an investment that netted huge returns.
An old white house, spattered with dirt, I remembered as a cookhouse for a 5th Brigade unit, and in a comer was the farm where they used to water their horses, despite the maledictions of the fanner who wished them to use the green, slimed duck pond that now looked just as impossible as it did in war days. A big army sign read “To Gouy Servins,” and just beyond was a bare field where the Y. M. C. A. tent used to be.
We invaded the old “tobac” shop, but mademoiselle had been long gone—married to an English sergeant and doing well. Her brother was there, a one-armed chap, who, like
all French veterans with whom I have talked, liad done his bit at Verdun. He was a very decent sort and proud to show his medals. The family had a very warm spot for Canadians, and soon we learned the reason. In wartime they had only one horse to do the farm work with, and it had some foot trouble during the busy season. A 2nd Division battery was in the village, and they “loaned” a horse each day to the old farmer, though how he drove a
Canadian animal will remain a mystery to me. He was going out with a huge grey Percheron as we drove on. driving the beast with one rein while he barked a continual string of French commands.
“This is Gouy Servins.” The army lettering stared down at us. and along the houses were the old billet numbers. One read “20 Men 20 Horses.” The old water hole looked the same as in T7, and the three ducks were, I am sure, direct descendants of the trio that graced those green waters then.
There are houses in Gouy Servins that must have had their mud walls dried shortly after the Flood. They have thatched roofs and great heavy doors with curious iron hinges, and the tiled floors are uneven and as chilly as a new sergeant-major. Yet in the most of those homes you will be given a bowl of coffee and asked to sit by the fire, and they will tell you how much they loved the Canadian soldats. There were, of course, many reasons for their doing so. An old chap in a queer smock told me that he smoked nothing but Canadian tobacco during '17, and his g(xxl wife told me of the chocolate the soldiers fed her grandchildren. To hear them tell it almost brings a lump to one's throat as one thinks of the greatheartedness of those rough lads who billeted there in the rat-haunted stables and lofts of Gouy Servins.
We went back again past the alder swamp above Souchez that was the sugar factory site, the scene of bloody fighting in T5; through Souchez, and along to Cabaret Rouge, from whose trenches the French carted a load of corpses each evening. Twice they took that stronghold from the Germans at the point of the bayonet, and twice they were driven from the welter of blood and mud that remained; then the Germans were ousted a third time, never to return. Now it is a British cemetery, a great kite-shaped affair, with many, many Canadian graves.
Dugouts Look the Same
GO ALONG Zouave Valley and you can read the old trenches on the side of Vimy as if you were lking at a map. The old crisscross of white is plainly marked in most places, old cuts in that hill of death that will survive many years yet. On the opposite side of the road from Cabaret Rouge an English veteran has a small hut converted into a lunchrcxim which he has dubbed “The Better ’Ole,” and both his goods and his prices are high-class. Keep on going by the crossroads, and where the 2nd Engineers’ dump used to be is now an estaminet, with carts and horses always waiting outside. Where the salvage dump was is a brasserie.
How many veterans remember where the tent at La Targette tliat housed the picture show was located, and the night the airman from Mont St. Eloi crashed outside, missing the tent by inches? His grave is there in the cemetery, and there is a windmill where the tent used to be. And do you remember the “Y” hut on the Mont St. E*oi road? It is gone, and is a field piled with what icoks like pressed straw. One nigtit Fritz shelled tliat spot witn a "rubber” gun, and put a limber up one of those trees near by.
At the old Ritz Comer we got a girl from the eslammet to let us into what they have named “Manhal Retains Lacyrinth.” The story goes that General Petain used the ciialk caves there as his headquarters in
T5, and after the Grange tunnel was reopened at Vimy and visitors began to swarm there, the thrifty ones at the corner opened up the chalk caves and called them “Canadian dugouts.” They made money. Y'ou can see all the Grange tunnel and the front line there for nothing, but it costs you a few francs to look at the “Canadian dugouts ’ at La Targette. It’s worth the price, however, to those who were in those draughty, smelly depths in wartime. They look just the same today, and the entrance is much better.
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Unfortunately, the owners have not insisted that no one should mar the walls with inscriptions, and all the names carved during the war period have been lost in a mess of French and foreign names.
We went on to Maison Blanche. The German cemetery there is a sight that halts one. Forty thousand black crosses are in that great sea of black, and more are being added. A number of stone memorials are there, some erected and some lying as they were left. A gardener told me that they had moved the main one in from Douai; that the Germans had erected it in that town during the war and when the French went to move it they were badly startled by finding a shell hidden in the column. But after an investigation they found that it was nothing more dangerous than a plan of the memorial which a methodical engineer had placed there for safe keeping.
Going on to the big farm across the road, we went in and asked to see the famous caves there. Madame gave us candles and pointed to her kitchen door as if that were as much as could be expected of her. The rest was up to us. We went into the usual French farmyard, crossed into the bam, where a dog tried his best to get at us, walked past a few pigs and cattle and out into the garden, where the lifting of two sheets of corrugated iron revealed a deep cavity. Slippery stone steps led down to deep, dark depths below, a place kept in perfect condition.
ALONG the chalk walls there are some A examples of carving that ought to be preserved. Nearly every name in it is
Canadian. Their number is legion, so I picked out the following ones at random.
“B. S. Stevenson, Ottawa. C. W. Nunn, 52nd Battalion. 719017, C. W. MacArthur, 16th Battalion. S. T. Tambley, Teuton, Manitoba. J. Bowater, 14th R. M. R. 643707, A. R. Mitchell, 15th Battalion. Jas. Brown, Marquette, Manitoba, 28/3/17. A. Betts, 1st Battalion. F. A. Corby, 4th Battalion.”
A man’s head was very well done. So was an emblem of the masonic order, the 48th Highlanders’ badge, and a badge of the 96th Saskatchewan. “C. Robinson, 123rd Battalion,” was another name; and then came a splendid piece of work, a letter box. It was nicely lettered, “TORONTO, FRANCE, 1917. LETTER BOX,” and underneath were the names of the carvers, “802293, W. P. Beckett,” and “799610, T. Mason.” “G. W. Fowler, 129 Wentworth St., Hamilton, Ont.,” was next; then came a 92nd badge, and “86th Machine Gun Battalion.” “887386, A. J. Ambler, Mch. 10/17, and C. E. Eaton, 34th Battalion,” followed. Several persons have taken photographs of these carvings, but there has been no earnest attempt made to save them.
After spending an hour roaming around the passages and high chambers, we went back to the house, getting safely by the vicious dog. Speaking with madame, she told us that several of the finest carvings had already been stolen, that it was impossible to watch everyone.
We went ambling around La Targette again to make sure we had not overlooked anything and to see a memorial on the side of the road that I had thought French. It was a rather curious one, and I discovered it had been erected by Czechoslovakia.
Wto stopped to talk with a lady who sells beer at the left of the road in La Targette, and she told us a most interesting story about a Canadian woman coming to her home two years ago and wishing to search her cellar. Those house cellars were the shelters of gunners who had a battery at La Targette, and the woman said her brother had been there. She probed and peered in all places, and stayed such a tong
time that she was left alone. When her visitor had gone the lady of the house went into the cellar and saw that several bricks had been pried loose, and that there had been a hiding place behind them. What the Canadian woman came for—and got—will never be known.
There is a wide field after Maison Blanche, and several mounds where the old railhead used to be. Four concrete gun positions. British, are next on the left. Then you are back at Ste. Catharines, and on the wall at the bottom of the hill, to the right, huge black letters in war paint demand, “WHAT HAVE YOU SALVED TODAY?”
They tell me that a woman near that comer stayed in a cellar there during all the war years; but that is just a little hard to believe. As I remember the hill, there was not one building left intact, and nearly all were levelled to the ground. But many did spend all four years in Arras, in cellars there. They will tell you some startling
stories of soldiers—buck privates and officers, Canadians, British and Australians —whom they harbored on wild nights when it was storming bad or the Hun was shelling all roads from the city, and you can realize just how tough a time the French wife had to keep the home fires burning. It was bad enough with the bomb raids in England, but Arras . . .
Which reminds me of the two ladies in a bus in London. One was getting her money regular from the War Office, she said.
“A pound a week and no ’usband?” said the other.
“Yes,” said the first one. “It’s ’eaven; strite it is!”
Editor’s Note: This is the eighth of a series of articles by Mr. Bird. In his next article he will lake his readers to Farbus, Thelus, Willerval, Vimy Village, Laurent, Avion, Mericourt, and Fresnoy.