Camblain l’Abbe, Bruay and Divion—a Madame who remembers—“Oo, la-la, but it was a game”—Bourecq and the Forty-Twa's
WILL R. BIRD
WE WENT back to the Mont St. Eloi road and on toward Camblain l’Abbé. On the right, the wood has grown young trees to cover the old sawmill sites, and all is changed. It was over that wood that the red German plane used to come to drop bombs. On the left there were a few rough mounds where the ammunition dumps used to be. then we passed the château on the right where there were always officers, and the wood across the way which was always full of huts. Now chateau and w<xxl lcxtk deserted, and only the café on the left is as it was. Along the road the big old trees have been cut down, changing the aspect completely.
When you went to Camblain l’Abbé you needed to wear your belt and have your shoulder loose-jointed, for always you had to salute innumerable
officers, the ones who really counted. The château grounds were full of them, and red tabs glistened everywhere. Many gallant old boys fought brave battles in that Château, and won breast-loads of decorations.
You could always get eggs and chips in the village, but it was hard to buy French bread, and nearly every place would sell drink at any hour.
We went into the estaminet that used to house officers, and the same old madame met us. She has run that café for forty-one years, and is as bright as a youngster. Her sabots clattered briskly over the tiles as she came to wait on us. We asked her questions and she was delighted to give information. Yes, she had officers upstairs in her house for almost a year, and the cook kitchen was in her back garden. Oh, yes, the police were always about, for an aerodrome was near, and in the château the officers she had were afraid of the bigger shells. Oo, la-la, but it was a game. They stayed hours on end talking and playing cards, and they went to St. Pol and other places for a day or two of leave. A fine time they had, the officers. There was one who would get drunk and go to sleep, then get up
and walk about. Twice he had fallen down the stairs. The old lady had resented some of her neighbors. They had not all played fair, she said, but had sold liquor at all hours and at all prices. She was honest, la-lala!
On the side of the road there is a cross in memory of a French soldier, and they used to say that he was a lad of sixteen who fell out, exhausted, on a march to Vimy and was shot there by his officer.
We went by the crossroads, always called the “Four Winds,” and on to Cambligneul on the left. It’s another quaint old village with walls newly whitened, not so cramped a place as Villers au Bois. In the estaminet there a man showed me a Black Watch badge he treasured, and he told of an old lady in the village who is still keeping eleven francs and a photo for a 13th boy who went up the line and never returned. He left no address and so she keeps them faithfully, and will not believe that he was killed.
Estree-Cauchie (Extra-Cushy) was our next stop, and the little village is just the same as it looked in T8. We talked with the garage man, first on the left, and he told us he had had a garage there for twenty-five years, and was hoping to get the prize as the first one in Pas-de-Calais. All along the people were friendly, most eager to talk of boys who billetted with them. We saw a collection of sixty-two badges, nearly all Canadian ones, framed neatly and hung on the wall. And at another home they prize a whittled gun, carved by some gunner who was clever with a knife. There are billet signs still on the walls in EstreeCauchie. “3 Officers.” “6 O. R.” “6 horses.” And on the long white walls numberless names and initials are carved or written. It is a quaint old place, with little lanes leading between the houses into green spaces under big trees, and out back in those places there are neat hedges and gardens and little sheds with tools piled in the corners, and the old house roofs, mossed green, slojx; down
until you can reach them. At one arched way into a farm a canteen used to function, but all trace of its position is gone.
An old man there wanted to know about the horses of Canada, were they good stock? He had seen six hitched to an empty G. S. wagon and barely able to haul it. But that was the spring of T7, when there were no rations at times for man or beast up in the fighting areas. A gunner told me that he saw ten horses unable to pull an empty wagon past Le Targette, and that ten men drew the wagon to where it should go. The horses were racks of bones, hardly able to stand, and his battery saw thirty shot near where they were stationed.
Bruay And Divion
OVER the hill from Estree-Cauchie you have one of the finest views in France. Green-wcxxied hills are on the right like the prettier parts of Canada, and a winding road leads down to a valley of enchantment. An old farm is down on the left, surrounded by a moat that gleams like a ring of silver. And the village that winds in and out, curves around the bottom of the hill and wanders out under grand old trees, is like a picture from fairy land. Reds and greens and browns and whites mix with the roofs and walls as if an artist had splashed the colors. The houses are extremely quaint, and a brown rooster on a white wall, shaking a bright red comb, is the final touch needed. Old men and women are out at their gates as s(x>n as strangers are sighted, and they all want to talk at once when they hear the word “Canada.”
Down at the bottom of the hill little paths straggle off under the trees to small stone-walled cottages that hardly seem real. 'Gauchinlegal, if it could be framed, would be a masterpiece. “20fficers,2 N.C.O’s.”
The billet signs are still in place, and there, too, you may find badges in the homes, books from Canada, and old magazines still treasured as Canadian relics, and they tell you all the same tales of joyous times back of the lines, gay songs and pranks, all without harm. You cross a stone bridge just fitted to the picture, go past the old Mairie and many hedgerows. Two little whitewashed cottages are under immense trees on the right, as if sheltered from all wind and storm. A brcx)k goes across the hollow in a series of deep pools, and there are flocks of crows and black and white cattle feeding.
An upgrade, and you pass some large buildings on the right, twist around a quaint street, up and up and up. There’s a church perched on the high side, and long lines of white clothes flapping in the breeze, and then long stone walls. You are at Rebreuve, and you pass the chateau with fine grounds that was an army headquarters in the old days. We stopped beside the road to look into a field, and counted seventeen rabbits within one hundred yards. They were feeding, keeping near their burrows, and in the distance we could see dozens more. We passed a house covered with vines in English fashion, then another church on the hill. It is a land of hills and valleys and winding roads. Old houses with mud walls are there, mud mixed with straw and reinforced by timbers, and the streets are rough cobbled. On the left the view is
wonderful, villages and valleys and white walls and green squares, trees in long lines and red roofs. A bare field shows where the aerodrome used to be, and you see, away in the distance, Narest, a solid block of red.
Bruay appears, another sea of red roots and green ones. In the old triangle there is a French memorial, very dramatic and banked with fresh flowers. We went along the streets and looked at the shop fronts. There are few new names, and the only difference now is that there are many expensive boxes of chocolates on display, embellished with red ribbon, and at the tea room one does not flounder over a batch of officers. The mine still reigns supreme in Bruay life. Miners were coming and going in the streets and coal carts are everywhere. We saw the baths to which we used to come from Divion, and which had girl attendants in those days.
Down the road to Divion. and we passed the long slope on which we waited in a snowstorm to be inspected by Sir Robert Borden. Shivering there a long hour, we waited, and when he came his first words were: “Boys, I’m going back to Canada ...”
Divion has grown. There are many new houses and a few new shops. But all the old places are there. I saw the stable that No. 16 platoon set on fire, singeing all the hens, and the little house past the second corner where some of the company were routed to make room for officers. They
slept in beds, while the men had to go into a stable still reeking of cows that had slept in it the previous night. It was so cold that the men couldn’t sleep, so the next night they had a ladder reared to the roof of the place and a nimble-footed chap went up and with sandbags stuffed the flue. It wasn’t ten minutes before the alarm was given. Madame rushed out, and all the officers, spitting, choking, gasping. Something was wrong, but what? They couldn’t find a ladder, because it was down an old well, and so a batman was hoisted to the eaves. He did well for a yard or so, then slithered down again, knocking over those below
like ninepins, and the frozen ground was hard. In the stable the snores were very loud as an indignant Sam Browner kx)ked in. There were no tracks on frozen mud, so who could catch the culprit? And what smokes worse than coal the miners steal at Bruay? It was an all night affair, and if those poor officers had ever found out who did it, murder would have been done. But they don’t know, not to this day.
We went to the café at Divion where one used to get a shave and a haircut in a barber-shop back room. Three razors they had, two pairs of scissors, and two shaving brushes. One barber was a one-eyed veteran, another a consumptive unfit for the mines or army, and the third was the woman of the place, always carrying a nursing baby.
Then there was the old chap who sold shoe laces at two francs a pair, and to whom Earle Black and I sold a bag of socks for twenty francs. We showed him the top pair, new thick hose, and counted out the others, and how could he know that the ones doubled inside were full of holes and filthy, salvaged ones from an old dugout?
And there was the house where Paddy Flynn slept, who could never wear his false teeth. He always laid them beside his tunic pillow, and one night a rat stole them and went rattling down the wall with them, while Paddy’s wails roused the whole house, and madame had difficulty in restraining him from demolishing the lower story.
Then the home at the other side of the village where the problem remained unsolved. “Pepper” and "Mustard" lived there, and never knew which was the husband of the home. There were two men, on alternate shifts, and as each came home madame stood him in a tub and scrubbed him clean, and they all slept in the same room. I got a picture of the old barn where the guard room was in the loft, and where we shook and shivered as the wind lashed through it. We sfixxl sentry at the foot of a ladder, and an estaminet was near by. The boys backed two old girls in a beer-drinking contest the night the “preacher” went on guard. He was always shocked at the lack of morals exhibited, and the two old dames went out at regular intervals to hx)k at the nxxm. The preacher wouldn’t talk at all the next day.
Divion has a memorial now, and the gardens apjx*ar improved. The church and the old water mill are the same, and the road just as hard to climb as you proceed to (Jalonne Ricouart. There is the long stone wall on the left and trolleys running overhead on cables, then the slag heaps and mines and railhead. Lucky you were if you had enough money to eat in that village as you came off leave, for the prices were high and the officers bx>k possession of the only gtxxl place, the tall brick house on the right.
Up another long hill, under trees, and we were in Cauchy à la Tour, and two things caught the eye. One was an immense heap of straw in the street, almost blocking the way. They were threshing in a barn and simply pitching the straw into the narrow street, let traffic get by as it might. The other thing was a bathtub, set on a sidewalk and fixed to water pipes, with soap in a dish and clothes lying alongside as though we had frightened some timid one away.
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