THIRTEEN YEARS AFTER
WILL R. BIRD
Sloppy Oppy—Skulls and sheep bones—Welcome to a German— Feuchy, Blangy and Tilloy—Etrun, and the bread that had a price
OPPY IS SLOPPY.” That is a common saying among the British now in the Arras zone, and the word "sloppy" is very descriptive. The houses have no gardens or trees or walks in front, but are right on the sidewalks or where the walks should be. All the streets are a mess of chalky clay and water, and barn doors open on them, spreading straw and filth. Corrugated iron, red and rusty, is used conspicuously, and the village looks as if its inhabitants were making a "civil resistance” against anything orderly or clean.
The W(xxl seemed a haunt for crows, as hundreds were circling it, but when we got there we found it a shelter for rabbits. Scores of them were about, and in among the tangles were old shell craters, old saps, and machine-gun posts. There are many signs of war. One of the inhabitants who was slopping through the mud with a sack of grain on his back told me they had dug up more dead in the fields about Oppy than in any of its neighboring villages, and he mentioned an inquisitive English tourist who was out a few years ago and who probed about all battlefields.
The good man saw bones, even skulls, peeping from the brush of the Wood. Horrified, he got his taxi driver to take him back to Arras to demand an investigation.
It was a short one. The bones and skulls had originally belonged to sheep, and a careless butcher liad taken an easy way of getting rid of them.
Standing there in Oppy fields, great expanses of soft mud sown with winter wheat and newly harrowed, and with all the villages
separated, it is hard to understand why the fighting in that locality was always fierce. Perhaps it is because two old sunken roads afforded good cover for raiding parties and attacks. One can come from Bailleul-sire-Berthoult wi hout being much exposed. Many men did come that way.
Oppy was a strong part of the German reserve line until April 9, 1917, and during the time Jerry was there he occupied the railway cutting outside Bailleul and con-
structed an elaborate dugout system half its length. Electric lighting was installed, and the cellars were stocked with choice wines. Even ladies were invited to the place, and when the hard-boiled Canucks took possession they found a wealth of dainty feminine garments. One apartment was richly furnished even to a grand piano, probably the headquarters of a corps commander. The bridge over the cutting was never destroyed, and countless troops used it in wartime. Searching the place, I found only a few signs of old dugout entrances, but shrapnel scars are visible on the bridge.
The Lonesomest Section
GAVRELLE is the next village along the road. It is as noted in a way as Oppy, but is not so sloppy. War ground abounds there, old craters and bits of trenches, but the farmers are gradually clearing away all traces. It is a town of old women. I counted sixteen in sight at doorways, in gardens, and on the road. The memorial is quite elaborate, and so is a shrine at a corner. They have a very grand Mairie and several fine houses. On the whole, it seems a most wide-awake village and enterprising. Many advertisements were on walls and fences, and everyone seemed busy. Near by, a threshing outfit was working in the open in true Western Canadian style, with the exception that the bands of the sheaves had to be cut by hand. A red-faced woman, strongly built as a man, stood on the thresher and adroitly caught the sheaves and slashed the binding. She used a huge-bladed knife in a way that would surprise a Gurkha.
The trenches that are still traceable were the German ones that ran from Oppy. We wandered around them, and chased a red weasel over the grass. The artillery used to strafe those trenches all the time, and one day the machine guns assisted and were shooting short. It is on record that a certain subaltern at once wired to Captain Stephen of the 50th Battalion and asked what he should do as he was in the front line trench. He received one word in reply: “Duck.”
After leaving Gavrelle we crossed an open tract of wide, fenceless fields, barren of living creatures. It was utterly forlorn. Only brown hawks and crows were stirring. No pigeons even were in that territory, and not a car passed or met us on the road. It is the most lonesome section I have encountered in France. Then we came to a demarcation stone, and, shortly afterward, three big gun pits were sudden reminders of war. The Scottish Division memorial was the next object to break the landscape, and it is most unique, built of big rough stones, each stone bearing the name of a battalion. The stone tower is a sturdy Scottish erection and the corner stones have the Scottish thistle carved on them.
Pont du Jour Cemetery is next, then the village of Athies is close by on the left. Then comes Blangy and the Feuchy area.
Blangy and Feuchy
rT'IIEY used to call the Feuchy area the “Belgian zone” in wartime, for there were flooded grounds that old Heinie could not cross, and the main item in the day’s routine was the matter of keeping under cover. Both sides played a hide-and-seek game among old cellars and trenches, and neither party was ever quite sure where the other was established. All old soldiers remember the Blangy corner, where signs cautioned against heavy loads on the Blangy bridge. It is a very different corner today. The signs have gone and a unique church of concrete overlooks it, with a hall alongside that serves for dancing and other recreations.
Blangy château is rebuilt and looks prosperous, and the flour mill is busy. The taxi driver I had for the day informed me that a few years ago he had a German officer as a customer. The German had his bride with him, and was anxious to show her a home in Blangy beside the château. The driver took them there, and to his amazement the French housewife greeted the officer like a long-lost son, and kissed the bride and took both in for refreshments. It was very evident that the German had stayed at the home in war days, and had conducted himself as a gentleman.
All this Feuchy area, Blangy and its bridge and hollows, were well known to the 1st Brigade. Each battalion had its turn in the line, in support and in reserve, during the spring of 1918.
Go around the corner to the right, travelling away from Arras, and you see a new château, not a rebuilt one. There are a few huts and many market gardens, then another château that is rebuilt and which has splendid grounds, lawns and flower plots, and fine walks under the trees.
Then we come to the old railway bridge with the army legend in big black letters, “What Have You Salved Today?”
There are many old dugout entrances to be traced along the embankment, and the ruins of a recently shattered pillbox are piled there. On the other side of the embankment there is a sort of opening, and workers near it told me that the French used it as an entrance to the underground beneath the embankment, which they had to fill in with concrete and stone in order to prevent the roadbed from further sinking. Along that stretch the embankment has become a track worthy of a roller coaster at an amusement park.
Athies is built of new brick. You see very few huts, and the temporary buildings erected just after the war are squat brick houses with whitewashed walls. Only a few of them remain. There is a pretty villa, then a cemetery,
two Nissen huts, and a brick church with a stalwart rooster on the spire. The memorial looks very new, and then you are crossing the level to where the Griffith flour mills are operating as they did in pre-war days. It is all low ground about the canal and the railway embankment is high.
Keep on and soon you are in Feuchy, the finest town in many respects in the entire Arras area. It has a town planner, and his work is in evidence. There are no two homes alike in the village—such a contrast from other places—and no rough brickwork is permitted. The streets are wide and clean. The big estaminet on the corner is a fine roomy one with a very fancy front, and across the little Place is the British cemetery. It is in a sort of corner and on high ground, and the gardener told me that an enormous German dugout was under the very entrance and required a
great deal of filling in. Even now, thirteen years after, you can find seven places near the village where the land is caving in because of old underground tunnels.
The memorial is very nice, in a clean area before the Mairie, which is a very fine building, quite the best of its kind in any village in Pas-de-Calais. There is much low ground in the rear, a boggy area of tall grass, and with many tall trees about. All along the street the homes are of different design, with nice gateways, walks, and quaint corners. Feuchy people are very proud of their village.
Going on to Fampoux, you see many old rough corners that tell of trenches and dugout entrances, and on the right the tall trees are mirrored in long stretches of water. The 2nd Battalion had many rough hours in the trenches at Fampoux, and could no doubt identify many of the old dugouts. If you go beyond the village you will see more ponds, and many wild duck will rise at your approach.
A French Friend
MONCHY is on the. skyline, as if it were on a mountain, and the canal becomes a wide thread of silver. Fampoux has many good houses, of good size and with nice fronts and gardens. Many have whitewashed walls or painted concrete decorations, but clustered stacks very near the village do not help the picture. Here and there are cellars and old wall ends, and down in the valley you see four old walls standing desolate, with an old emplacement in the rear.
We turned right at the Gavrelle road and went past a pretty concrete home and on to a fine station with “Roeux Pas de Calais” painted across it in large letters. A barrier prevents you crossing the railway and if you cannot read French you will wait a long time for the gatemnn to raise it. For the barrier is down all the time, and a sign tells you to press a button and ring the Ix-ll if you want to cross over.
After a short wait the gate went up, and we crossed over into Roeux, a long village, with the ruins of the old chemical works an eyesore on the left. There are many other ruins about, and on the right a huge mass blocks the view. On the right-hand side it is all smooth concrete, but on the left side it looks like an old brick wall. It is an enormous pillbox, with large chambers inside and smooth concrete floors, and was used as a storage for bodies when the burial parties cleared that area. It is t< x> large to be blown up and will likely remain there for many years. There is nothing of interest in the village, the buildings being very ordinary and the streets very dirty.
We crossed over by way of Tilloy-lez-MofHaines known only as Tilloy by the soldiers with its memorial as a feature, and went through Beaurains, with its fragments of old walls and cellars and trenches; then passed the old Telegraph Hill sector.
We reached Achicourt, with many old white walls and many army huts and ruins, a strange conglomeration. The first hut is a long roomy one, and was used as a church for the first years. There is a communal cemetery with old
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WMIIS, and other walls near hy that once surrounded homes, and wall ends with shrapnel marks, then a concrete water tower overlooking the village. On a house there is an old army sign, Leeds Road, then there is the usual shop, one that you find in all the region round about. These shops seem to be the groceterias of France.
The church is an odd affair with a squat appearance, a tower like a bam ventilator, and many sharp points like upturned shells. It is painted white and surrounded by a fence of white rails and posts. There is another church, an unusual structure, and I was informed that it is a Protestant one and gathers its congregation from the British gardeners. The Hôtel de Ville and Cosies are fine buildings, a credit to the village. There are many market gardens, and long old houses with white walls. In the archways you can find soldiers’ names galore, British and Canadian, and in one place some fed-up artist has inscribed: "No wonder they call them frogs; this is all a blasted swamp and it rains every day.”
At a café on the right as we left the village, we found the proprietor the warmest friend of the British of any Frenchmen I have met. He liked nothing better than to talk about the way Britain had saved the situation, and he said he had countless friends among both officers and soldiers. I le cannot speak English, yet has a flock of ix)stcards and Christmas cards received from England, and many badges and other souvenirs. On the left there is a lovely villa in a most exquisite setting, back from the road under tall trees and with lawns and shrubbery about it.
Wailly and Dainvilie
V\7’E WENT left and into Agny, and Y V saW a great many ruins. New houses are like strangers among the old ones with their ancient white walls, and the ruins are pitiful. On a comer are old gate posts, and a rubble heap behind them. One min has only the stone steps that led to the house. A big cellar yawns behind them. Three wtxxlen huts in a row. another collection of ruins, and we are on the way to Wailly.
In a field the old brick factory has little left. Across the road is a mound of powdered brick and one old comer of the building. On the right another ruin stands solitary, exposing a big shell hole in the end. and j without a tile on its rafters. Beyond it. i like a sentinel, is a remnant of the old chimney. In the valley on the left are some line old farms, set well in from the road, with long walls ending in small towers and with tall trees as sheltering arms.
Wailly has not cleared its Grand Place, hut left it muddy. The school is a nice building and nvxlem. and there is a new bridge. The old ruins of the other bridge remain exactly as they were, and in the river the inhabitants get immense quantities of cress for the restaurants and hotels of Arras. One old ruin still shows in the line of houses along the square. Make the old hairpin turn around the bridge and you find more ruins as you go into the sunken road that leads to Dainvilie.
In the open we saw many gunners after rabbits, and then the old station with its huge lettering lwks much the same as in war days. Dainvilie itself is a picture, the prettiest in all that sector. From the hill you see nothing but white walls and darkred nx)fs. Long walls and old house sides are all painted white, and the narrow streets make them all seem grouped. It is a clean village, and there are many flowers in the windows and clean curtains, and the quaint alleys and passages are just as intriguing as when we were there in the old days.
It was there that the "Apache,” as we called him, Dave Hamel, performed many of his stunts. He could speak fluent French and pcxir English. He claimed to be an Irishman, bom in Cornwall, Ontario, but
was more likely from the slums of Montreal. He had a strong dislike of work, and nimble wits that enabled him to avoid his turns on various carrying parties. Also, he had a fund of humor that made us tolerate his other shortcomings. Our officer seemed in nervous dread whenever Hamel was around as he never knew what the fellow would do next. It was Hamel who, one dirty night up in Cow Trench, asked wffiat loads we were carrying. "Toffee apples,” came the answer. “Then,” said Hamel, “I wish I had drawm a grape.”
The old white house at the upper end of Dainvilie had been freshly painted and gleamed very white as we stopped to look at the little grotto and its saint. Just beyond is "Strawberry Villa,” the home of an Irishman who liked Dainvilie so well that he settled there after the war. Then there are the two wooden huts that were there in T8, and soon you are out under the trees and through a field fringed with many stacks.
Next is the passage under the railway, famous with us as the spot where Hamel used to entertain his lady-love, “Goldilocks,” on rainy nights. There are more big trees, and numberless crows about the grain fields, then you are at Warlus, with the old white house on the comer jutting out as if it would bar the way. Straight ahead is the big gate Jhat opens into the château grounds. Turn right and you are in the Grand Place, and it is a grand place. Just before it the houses seem centuries old, with stone walls painted white and low roofs and wide doors with enormous latches and a café with old iron hitching rails outside. The square is filled with fine large trees, and the Mairie is there like a grand château, the only discordant feature being a water tank dose beside it. At the ancient waterhole a small boy shivered as he attended a pony which stood in the water, probably doing time there as some remedy for hoof trouble. Old houses border the way as you go on and finally emerge into a wide open, where magpies flee from your path and more crows rise in clouds.
A Quaint Old Village
TT IS a wide open stretch that leads at
last down into Agnez and Duisans. The approach to the village is hedged with stacks, almost hiding the communal cemetery. Downhill over cobbles and the old church confronts you. Workers are making some repairs. In the old square in front of ¡ it there is a fenced-in yard filled with stone and workmen. On the right, where the old “V” hut still kxlges. there is a memorial around on the under side of the hill.
It is a quaint old village, and two very | large farms enhance the setting. One has a small hell on the roof comer as if at times it were used as a chapel. The second farm is an immense square of high walls with the ; name of the village inscribed in army lettering. There is a hut or so, then the two fine châteaus that were used as headquarters for many officers.
Go up a sunken road overhung by tall trees, past a new villa, over a bridge and railway, and you are in Etrun. Etrun is an old. narrow village with many white walls. Army signs are everywhere. There is a factory to the right and the crows hover very near. Through an opening among
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the small houses you get a vista of manure heaps and women active in spreading the fertilizer. The streets are crooked and quaint. We go over the brook and uphill over bumpy cobbles until we see a Nissen hut close by houses that have dates 1841, 1854 and 1867 proudly displayed.
There, at the house bearing a sign “Gueant-Voisin, Débitant,” we find a good madame who has a host of soldier friends. She has an album full of postcards received from lads she knew, photographs of many, badges, tokens of all kinds. She has a Black Watch banner, and numbers over twenty acquaintances belonging to that regiment. To her, a kilt is a sign of armv perfection.
We went on along a pretty road with a brook on our left, crossed by occasional foot bridges and with a high bank on the right. Soon we reached a wood wired for rabbits, and then we were at Bray, a small, ancient place, with the brook curving about it and high banks all around, a village of narrow lanes and stone houses of an age you cannot reckon. There are only two new houses in the place, and not a trace of Bray Camp or the huts we knew. On one house “Salvage Dump” still points to the left.
We went along the winding road to a big old square of white walls that bears an inscription Halte Repas. There is an army sign on the walls as well, “G.B.D. 5,” whatever that means. It was there that
we used to see many officers, always mounted, coming and going.
Acq is the next stop, and soon w?e find the old yard where various drafts used to be assembled before being marched to St. Eloi and told what was expected of them, what a privilege was theirs to be received by such a famous unit, and all such piffle, falling always on ears already deafened by the ditties of the bullring at Le Havre.
Acq is another quaint old place. There you could usually buy French bread. I’ll never forget the night that Genge and I went there to buy a loaf and were told that madame had none. Our hopes were dashed, as rations that reached the huts of Mont St. Eloi made just one meal per day; and jam and chocolate, the sum total of canteen edibles, did not fill our needs. But madame asked timidly if wThite bread would do. White bread ! We gasped and clung to each other as she toddled out with two loaves of j excellent army issue. Wre bought them and said nothing because many times afterward j we had like favors, but there was nothing to ¡ prevent our minds from dwelling on certain ' quartermaster-captains and their crews and the means they used to procure liquid refreshment.
Editor's Note—This is the tenth of Mr. Bird's series of articles on The Old Front Line. In his next article he will take his readers to Mord. St. Eloi, Villers au Bois and other towns and villages in the former billeting area behind Vimy Ridge.