The old billeting area back of Vimy—Mont St. Eloi’s “General” welcomes the prodigal—Villers au Bois, and a sad tale of music in the trees

WILL R. BIRD June 1 1932


The old billeting area back of Vimy—Mont St. Eloi’s “General” welcomes the prodigal—Villers au Bois, and a sad tale of music in the trees

WILL R. BIRD June 1 1932


The old billeting area back of Vimy—Mont St. Eloi’s “General” welcomes the prodigal—Villers au Bois, and a sad tale of music in the trees


KISSING plays a big part in the life of France. They say there is a big thrill in a French girl’s embrace, but from what I’ve witnessed I don’t think one would encore such a performance with the male, especially if he be a weathered rustic with wiry mustaches. At any rate, I resisted most strenuously the advances of an excited farmer at Villers au Bois. There he was in the old Tabac shop, looking the same as he did when last I saw him in T8, when 1 had given him a sack of tobacco and said gixxi-by. We always allied him the “General,” and the title seemed to jilease him, and he was always ready to aid us in any way, to get us hot water for shaving, eggs and chijxs, French bread which we were forbidden to buy, and anything else we wanted. 1 called his name when 1 saw him and sluxik his hand till he remembered me, and then I had to go on the defensive. The General was overjoyed. He almost wejit. He rattled out names of boys I’ve never seen since T9, talked of old times we had in his barn on our chicken-wire bunks, of the triji wire we set for an officer and dozens of

other things. And all the while he wanted to buy me drinks. It was difficult to escajie him an hour later.

It’s the same in all the old billeting area back of Vimy. You are home again if you were there in war time. The jieople greet you as warmly as if you were one of their own, and on every luind you face reminders of those great days. It’s different from any other area.

To me it’s the prettiest part of France I know. There are all kinds of villages and every kind of scenery, but I’ve not seen anything to equal the vista as you go down into Gauchin-Legal or kxik back from the hills near Houdain. And it’s a territory where you find all as it was before. You see the old trenches at Vimy, the tunnels and old dugouts, but those bring different memories. In the old billeting area you see the houses and old yards and barns and gardens and, yes, even the middens, as they were; the same old clock and jiictures and crockery in the estaminets, the same old madames to hand you a glass of lieer, more wrinkled now and fatter but just as kind as ever. And on the walls of the homes and in the barns you find hundreds of ruimes, carved and written, of lxiys long since buried along the lines or vanished since the war. And in every home, in every village, memory brings back to you different pictures and different stories.

Here it was that go;xi old sergeant .... Remember the night the C. M. R. officer ... ?

I'he Party at Ecoivres

'VT'OU leave Arras by way of Anzin with its straggling houses, past Nissen huts and a French memorial, and out into the open where many old stubs are still standing with shrapnel still buried in them. Dugout entrances are along the bank on the left, but grain stacks dot the fields which the trenches crossed. The café at the crossroads is restored, and there’s a wide open field where the aerodrome used to be.

We went down the hill toward Mont St. Eloi, the old towers seeming exactly as they were in war time and the side hill with its grassy shelves strangely vacant. Those “steps” on the hill were filled with huts when last I saw them, and there we nearly froze to death during the winter of T6-T7. We turned down into Ecoivres, past the cemetery and around the old walls into the village.

There’s not a new brick that I could see, or an additional one fallen down. The old château looks as grim and grey as if it still contained staff officers, and the backyards are as

dirty as in war time. Just where the water tank used to be there are signs still on the wall. ‘‘Railway Rd.” ‘‘All Waste Lengthens The War.” “What Have You Salved Today?” “To Mont St. Eloi.”

An old farmer came out as we stood there and soon we were invited in for coffee, and his old wife cackled with tales of the bons soldats who came to her to buy bread. A military police had been stationed near the water tank to see that no one tampered with it and to spot Canadians from Mont St. Eloi who bought bread from the farmers. He got “bombed” one night with frozen turnips, and then a shell came over and blew him against the stone wall.

The small railway bed is still there, and the shell crater is by the comer. Farther over, the ruins of the barn that was partly destroyed are just as they were. Five Imperial soldiers were killed by the shelling that wrecked it, and five horses were found dead in the ruins. The town major never stayed at the château. He was “windy” and feared that Fritz might register on such a target, so he moved to a little house at the end of the village. Madame there remembered him well, as she is sure there are still a number of francs due her.

We went into the “store” where it was always possible to pay double for anything you wanted, and the same old girl came to serve us. We chatted with her and asked the price of her chocolate and matches now, and we could see that she understood our meaning. They profiteered in that store and in another estaminet until a canteen was established in the village.

We couldn’t get into the château, but I remember the Imanáis there on working parties, digging second cellars, bombproof places, for the officers billeted there.

The farmer was proud as he told us that the water across the road tested the best in that locality, and how the three motors they installed could not pump the spring dry. All the old posts and concrete foundations of the water station are still there "A La Source Haitecour Peugnet.”

The sign is still over the door.

We went into the estaminet and asked madame if she remembered the night we had a birthday party for the “girl” of the house. Mademoiselle didn’t belong there and she wasn’t as young as she used to be, but we had the party just the same, for one of the boys had a cake in a parcel and why shouldn’t there be a party? Incredible, the old sweats will say, that any boy ever donated a cake from his parcel. Yes, but there’d been a bottle of some mysterious louse chaser in the parcel not corked tightly enough, and the cake had a strange flavor. There were no evil after effects from it, however, the two who got sick had mixed beer and vin blanc. On the wall, beside the old church, war lettering catches the eye of all who go by. “It Is The Duty Of Every Man To Save As Much As He Is Able.”

We went up the steep little hill to Mont St. Eloi. Many a night we had blundered home in the dark to our huts on the hillside. Just at the St. Eloi road there used to be a platform, for watering carts I think, and there one could see plainly the Very lights rising and falling at Vimy.

We went to visit the doctor. He was as courteous as ever,

and glad to talk of the Canadians. One of his laughters is married to an English major and living in Enr.and. He told us of the staff officers who used his home ai a billet, of the airmen who came to visit in the evenings, of the sick lads who had been given No. 9’s and “duty,” and had come to him, suffering from real ailments. He had his opinions of many of those who filled medical officer uniforms. Strangely, he said the most common complaint he had to handle was toothache, and he told us he had extracted a bushel of teeth for Canadian Tommies. He told us of a Canadian who married a girl of Ecoivres and took her home with him, and of some others who should have married girls there, at Mont St. Eloi and Villers au Bois. It is no unusual thing to hear a boy at the village schools called “Canada,” or “Jimmy,” or “Joe,” as Canadians used the word. And in some of the back areas you see the browns of the Indians, black-hued boys where the African labor battalions were, and lads of yellow hue and funny eyes where the Chinks had their tents and billets.

Mont St. Eloi was adopted by Hamilton, Ontario, and every school child in the village knows it and will point out the placque to you that is in the Mairie at the top of the hill. Hamilton provided 102,000 francs for the poor of the village. The doctor has entertained noted persons. King George and the Prince of Wales have called on him, and the Prince of Wales w'ent up to the old towers and tried to climb the wrong one. There is only one you can go up. And in May,

T5, Marshal Petain was decorated, made a Commander of the Legion of Honor, in the doctor’s parlor. There’s a Nissen hut still in the doctor’s garden, but he has filled in the trenches that were there. In his cellar you can see the huge timbers installed as reinforcements, and all the cables and w'ires left as they were when the signallers finally withdrew. It was their headquarters for a long, long time.

Seventeen civilians were killed at Mont St. Eloi, and

twenty-five soldiers. We saw the white house that used to be the town major’s billet, and a new brick front on the side of the home where the shell entered and killed Canadians while the Prince of Wales was in the village. Fressin Warnier. The sign is still up at the estaminet where they had the piano, and the officers always wanted possession and the girls could speak English. One of those girls married an English sergeant. The house where they sold silk handkerchiefs and aprons is exactly the same, with the same little bell to tinkle as you go in; and we went up the winding little street on the right to the little café where they used to sell beer at one franc per bottle, but you had to sit on the steps to drink it. There never was room enough inside.

I went to a house just off the main road where lived a lady whom I had almost forgotten. We knew her as “Hairy Legs,” and she sometimes would sell us eggs and chips. One of our lads happened there one early morning in T8, when the village did quite a business in the way of refreshments and our good friend had omitted to don her stockings. 11er legs were bowed, and so hairy as to be literally furred. Thereafter she had no other name with us, and soon forgot to resent it.

She stared at me blankly as I asked for coffee, then I mentioned the old name. She smiled and gave us warm welcome, and said she had not heard the words in years. All the while she talked and said she wished the old days back again. On a wall is a card in English of which she is proud. It is marked “The Creed of a Lincoln Man,” and reads: “Hear all and say naught. Sup all and pay naught. And if you do aught for naught, do it for yourself.” Old Hairy Legs actually had tears in her eyes as we left, and followed us to the road to see us off.

Chateau de la Haie

N THE wood below, where the railway troops used to be, there isn’t a sign of their occupation, but up in the village there are Nissen huts that were put there after the war. We went over behind Berthonaval Farm, which is unchanged, and the Ridge seemed farther away than it did in war days. Berthonaval W(xxl is dark green and luxuriant; as pleasant, no doubt, in summer as ever it was.

On a first visit to Château de la Haie the girl at the porter’s hut wouldn’t let us enter the long driveway, but I went back later and secured permission from the old lady who is caretaker during the winter months to wander about and take pictures.

As the grounds are all shaded by tall trees, making time exposures necessary, I was not enthused as regards pictures, but it was great to walk again in those glades and open spaces to the rear where we liad the various huts that were called “camps.”

Not a trace of them remains; the grounds are again in perfect condition. The old lady told me that the owner, when she is there in summer, delights in having visitors, and that many come. Often there are Canadian officers and others, and always they take pictures, and madame

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“so likes to be in the photo she has put herself in hundreds.” The old lady told us that madame had more than fifty pictures of the château, taken at various angles, and that she was in every one. It was there in those old grounds that Heinie sometimes tried to bomb us, and the trees gave little shelter. I remember one day that a newcomer was standing about near, I think, Vancouver Camp, when Heinie was over. The lad was very slender in build, with thin legs. His shoulders widened a trifle, and then he had a large head with a mushroom sort of top. The steel hat he wore was of enormous size, and as he paused there in the open in perfect bewilderment one of the crusty veteran sergeants stood there. “That’s it,” he barked, “just stop a bit. If one of them ruddy things ’its you it’ll only drive you in the ground like a blinkin’ carpet tack.”

Villers au Bois

VILLERS AU BOIS was quite the dirtiest little place we saw that day, but it brought back a flood of memories. I suppose there were officers who considered it a horrible place, and many soldiers who had similar thoughts, but they were not of the cult who did six on and six off in the crater posts, and went down to sleep or shiver in clammy, dripping dugouts, with no warm food to put inside them, no chance for dry socks for their feet, or hope of anything but a return to the miserable half-frozen mud they had just quitted. To them, days there were long black and white dominos that you placed end to end, and a village like Villers au Bois was a glimpse of heaven itself when you got there for a six-day spell and could sit beside a stove in the kitchen and toast yourself till you were thawed once more and dare look at your feet. It was, and is, a third-rate little place with dirty, narrow winding streets, and huge walls jumping in front of you, and barns opening on the street, the whole an awful jumble without sanitation or system, but it was a perfect home to us when we came back from Vimy. Our names are yet on the old bam timbers, and the old chap in the Tabac shop was but one of those for whom we had a name and who carries with him the kindest of recollections. There were pay parades and bath parades, and visits to various canteens, waiting in long queues to spend five francs with the thrift of a market woman, each a part and picture of the mosaic of life behind the lines, but none of those bits stand out more vividly than nights by the stoves of Villers au Bois with eggs and chips on the table and monsieur smoking Canadian tobacco beside you.

The people of Villers au Bois had to leave in T4, but they returned in T6 and stayed the rest of the time. “We never were afraid while the Canadians were at Vimy,” they said, and they meant it. The little Tabac home is where the town major slept, and he was usually a decent fellow, never objecting to the hilarity that prevailed on evenings after we were paid. The stout, blackmustached proprietor told me that he had ten boys who could either sing or play some instrument, and they used to gather nightly and entertain his customers for the price of a few beers. He still has a Maple Leaf match box that one of them gave him, and a number of small flags that came with wartime tobacco. Outside his shop are signs telling the distance to Hersin and Servins, and a cemetery signboard, and on the wall behind is another war painting: “Mont St. Eloi. No Lorries.”

We went along to the bam where last I stayed, and found old braces that had helped support our chicken-wire bunks. There was the old spike in a beam on which Ted Bamber caught his shirt—stout army issue—and could not get up or down. It was in that same bam that an R. C. R. officer came enquiring directions. It was pitch black, but he had fumbled his way inside, was half-drunk and had no matches. In the dark many voices offered suggestions, then

passed to personal remarks, and we were all threatened with arrest. It quieted at last when he fumbled his way outside again— only to return half an hour later, in a worse condition than before. The hilarity that ensued was enough to lift the roof, but at last some hero got out of his bunk, got into his boots and led the poor chap back down the road to his billet.

It was at Villers au Bois, too, that the boys caught a goat and tied its legs together and stowed it in the bed of the quarter bloke who always went home drunk. He slept that night in the barn across the way, and the goat had the bed to itself.

There, also, we were once ordered to be in bed, lights out and no noise, at nine thirty each p. m. It was all for the good of the troops, of course, but no one could understand how the officers could yell and sing and have gay times till one o’clock in the morning. The sergeant-major came around carrying his authority on his shoulder, and we all got between the blankets—two of them, and your ground sheet made your bed—and all lights were out.

Softly, about ten p. m., rose the sweet notes of the battalion tenor, singing “Bonnie Mary of Argyle.” If there is an officer of the 42nd who never heard that song, ask for his regimental record. It continued, that song, and others, and then came opposition. Unholy strains came from the barn, where the men were supposed to have been snoring since nine thirty. An officer came to still the harmony. He had dined well and had difficulties in navigation, and the source of the music was baffling. It seemed in the air, as if having no particular source. For a half hour he waited to hear it again, for it liad died wheezily, and as soon as he had gone it was repeated. Four times he returned, each time more mystified, until he got his revolver and the sergeant had to take it from him. And all the while, by the comer beam, was a long rope that raised and lowered the tinny old phonograph we had salvaged at Camblain l’Abbe.

Editor’s Note: This is the twelfth of Mr. Bird’s series of articles on The Old Front. In his next article he will take his readers to Divion, Eslree-Cauchy, Auchy au Bois, Barlin, Lozinghem and other towns and villages in the old billeting area back of Vimy Ridge.