Thirteen Years After
XIII—Mercatel and Le Sars—Bapaume still has its war ruins—Courcelette and the sugar refinery of bitter memory
WILL R. BIRD
ON A frosty morning we left Arras via Ronville and the Arras-Bapaume road. Old war ruins are here and there along the way until you reach the Beaurains British Cemetery. It was an early hour and few people were moving. The ground was frozen hard and little iced pools glinted in the first sunshine. Beaurains is a small village that seems put together like building blocks, all facing inward. We crossed the light railway, passed a water tank, Nissen huts, a long huge barn, and saw the steeple of a white church over on the right.
This was Mercatel, and a troop of children w'ere on their way to school. A woman was hanging clothes on a line, an unusual thing, for always they are spread on the grass regardless of ducks, geese and dogs. The road became smœther, and on lx>th sides were long straight lines of young trees. In a field beside the road a farmer was harrowing, and near him another leaned on a root cache and ate a huge sandwich, holding it with one hand and catching the debris with the other.
S(x>n we were in Boiry, a street of straggled houses seemingly proud of a wixxien bicycle shop. Half a dozen men had congregated there as if it were a café, and boys outside gazed at the window display as if it were something rare. ‘VI la Bergère. Estaminet.” We entered gladly to have a coffee, and madame had a gcxxl fire going. We asked her if she had been there before the war.
‘‘No, merci, no,” she said. ‘T came from a good town, Mericourt."
We talked longer with her. and presently she divulged that she had lxvn sent far back of the lines by the Germans. Her husband was killed during the war and there were no children, so she considered herself lucky to marry this fanner who also had a small café. He was younger than she. she said, but only in years. The war had aged him, as he was a prisoner for two years, after having enlisted at the age of sixteen.
Like Western Canada
STEAM was rising from a small brook as we went on, and trees had beautiful frosty coverings. Several houses had not opened their shutters, and horses in a field were blowing cloudy breaths. We sjxd along to Boyelles. A huge barn jutted out like a comer of the village, and there is a railway embankment on the right. Each house has a big yard, and in the centre of the village there is a field of sugar beets.
Seeders and farm implements of every kind are stored in the oix*n. and grain was stowed to the limit of a great iron shed that only had ends and a roof, no side walls.
Leaving the village, one meets a scene that reminds one of the prairies of Western Canada. On the left all that is visible is rolling ground, seeded fields, a vast sloj^e
that gradually rises to a crest and leaves one with the impression that there is nothing but bare fields beyond. Those great farm stretches are on the right as well, but a steeple is on the horizon, and then a farm looms up at the crossroads leading to Hamelincourt, and soon you see another on the left skyline.
And now teams are in these great fields. We go up a long grade and are in a territory where all seem engrossed in seeding. Six teams are in one square, two seeders and four harrows, and two of the drivers are women. The horses plod steadily, huge percherons with enormous harness, driven by one rein. Near the road three women and a man are huddled over some task, and each one is eating from a wedge of bread held in the left hand. Apparently these folk leave without breakfast in order to reach their land in time to do a day’s work.
A wood appears on the left, and the skyline holds an assortment of windmills, stacks, steeples and chimneys. We reach Ervillers, with many old tree stumps among the
fine young trees that line the road. Advertisements familiar in Canada are numerous, typewriters and sewing machines having the widest displays. One wonders who, in that district, would use typewriters. There is much display of grey concrete and yellow brick trimmings on the houses, and then you see a hedge with a corner trimmed cleverly so that a long-necked horse projects, going at full speed, a most unusual decoration. We had turned left from the village and trees begin to appear, lining the edges of the fields, while three great stubs are in a hollow, shrapnel-scarred veterans. Some fields are grassed and at last we see a huge pasture in which a herd of black and white cattle are feeding.
Behagnies appears, and the first object one notices in the town is an ancient pump, a monstrous affair set in a brick casing, no doubt much used by soldiers. It is a scattered little town, with many wooden huts among the brick buildings, with trees and a concrete water tank. A cemetery outside the village is bordered with a thin hedge, through which the white stones show in an eerie manner. There are still more trees, and the country gets more hilly, while a sunken road leads off on the left like a wide trench. Nine stately trees, which survived the devastating gun fire, stand in review in a hollow.
Biefvillers shows, a village on the right. Then, at a comer, there is a small square of yew trees surrounding some monument. Now there is a change of scenery. There are hedges and rows of trees, and small groves are everywhere in the fields. Many wooden huts appear, and we are in Sapignies.
War Ruins In Bapaume
TT IS but a short step farther into
Bapaume. Bapaume was a fearful wreck when last I saw it in T8, but now it has, at first glance, the appearance of many other new French towns. But stop a moment and you’ll see how unlike the others it really is. War ruins are everywhere, and the longer you wander about the town the more you find. Here and there are stretches without old shrapnel-scarred walls and wall-less cellars, but they are few. You can even find old machine-gun posts and the debris of war if you look carefully. Peace has partially restored the place, but an old Frenchwoman outside one of the wooden huts complained bitterly that it could never be “her Bapaume” again. She said it was originally one of the finest of French towns, with an atmosphere of the sixteenth century, and a Hôtel de Ville that was the admiration of every one. She was in the wooden hut. she said, because never could she quite decide to spend the rest of her days in a place so crucified by war.
We went out of Bapaume by the Albeit road, and after crossing the railway saw
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many more old cellars and craters, and barbed wire in rolls and much corrugated iron. Then a brickworks on the right was passed, and one huge lone tree like a solemn witness to all that had occurred in war time. A concrete emplacement in a field drew our attention. It. was almost intact, with two-foot walls. All about that area you can see the remnants of old trenches, craters and battery positions "war ground” in every sense of the word.
On the left there are many villages. Thilloy, Ligny and La Barque being very near. On the right is an expanse of seeded fields, with here and there an old strongjxunt still protruding.
We entered Warlencourt. a village of many colors, as painted concrete and yellow' brick help to relieve the monotony of new red. Byrrd and "Vin” signs abound and there are many cafés. But on either side of the main street are gaps, cellars, bits of brick walls, old ruins lying untouched. At one gap long rows of manure heaps in a field beyond looked extremely like hastily-formed parapets, and several revolving scarecrows seemed to lx? soldiers looking anxiously for orders.
On the left we pass Warlencourt Cemetery, and then the famous Butte of Warlencourt, a steep-sided mound which was soaked in blood in war days. A cross stands at its summit, fifty feet alx>ve ground level. That butte is an ancient burial ground, and there used to lxthree crosses on it, two in honor of the 1 iurharn Light Infantry who fell in November, '16, and one erected to the memory of the Sachs Infantry Regiment 179, Germans who capt ured the mound. It was a strange coincidence that the Durhams should attack it and capture it when the same battalion of Germans were in occupation. A number of shattered tree stubs lead away from the spot as if they had lined some roadway. Where an old water tank was at the close of the war is now a turnip field, and on the left a crater remains unfilled.
Another wide field and we are in lx* Sars, spick and span with painted concrete, new brick and new tiles. Yellow and blue form the decorations, with here and there a concrete fence or footway. Sometimes wide barnd(x>rs ojjen on the sidewalk, and people on f;x>t must walk into the street to avoid a team of mules which stand partly outside. The church spire of Pys seems very near on our right, and beyond it the red roofs of Miraumont gleam in the sunlight.
Millions of New Trees
V\ 7E PASS a windmill mounted on a V * water tank, a very yellow villa and a long barn. Many of the farms in this region have immense buildings, as if they were government institutions, and we pass one now, larger than three ordinary establishments. with seven men at work in the great inner yard. It is all ojx*n fields on the left, fertile ground, in great green squares or newly harrowed brown earth. And all this way the road is lined with young trees, all set exactly in rows. France must have planted, or transplanted, millions of these trees.
We see a sort of ditch with old dugout entrances in its banks, and then there is an area of war ground on the left, a criss-cross of old trenches and many shell craters.
Here and there old iron stakes protrude, some festooned yet with black wire. We go by a café on a corner and then enter the wide open spaces. On the left there is not a building or tree, only the distant spire of Fiers breaks the monotony, and it is much the same on the right except that many farmers are at work, getting more numerous until I count ten of them in a few acres near Destremont Farm.
Memorial At Courcelette
COURCELETTE! It seemed but a small village as we strxxl and gazed over its roofs from the higher ground at the old sugar refinery. The refinery ruin projects in full view of the road, but mostly it has been covered by the building of a most modern establishment, owned by the present mayor of Courcelette. The ruin shows itself between the great barn and water tower. We went to the Canadian Memorial which is on the right just before the village— lxiautiful ground with a brown hedge surrounding it. The memorial itself is but another of those stones such as centre the grounds at Hill (>2 and at Passchendaele, most disappointing to the usual conception of a memorial.
We went down the slojxi into the village. The church is very new, and the memorial of the French is near by. The houses also l;x>k quite new, and here and there you see old cellars and low ruins. There are three very large barns in the village, and the Mairie is almost hidden by them. I went into a blue-painted café bearing a huge sign, “Tabac— Cabine Téléphonique."
Madame greeted us warmly and was quite eager to talk. She is an “original” of Courcelette, and told us of her life there during eighteen months of German occupation, and of seeing a German officer kick his men on parade. The British shells came very near and the Germans were remarkably adept at taking cover. After the people came back to the ruins of Courcelette and started rebuilding they found many German dead in the cellars where they had been crushed by the barrage preceding its capture.
We went outside and found a road leading toward Regina Trench. Going along it a distance into the old sunken road, we soon came to men shovelling earth on a winter cache of vegetables. In their digging they were very near the road bank and they had uncovered two German helmets, German long boots, mess tins, equipment, and a few bones. They did not mind, they said, as long as there were no shells or bombs. Never did they plow or harrow, they told us, but they uncovered some debris of war. We found a section of rough ground, seemingly an old trench, and, judging from my map. a part of old Kenora trench. There was not a trace of Regina, or Hessian, or Fabeck Graben or Zollem.
We wandered away over toward Thiepval in our search of a trace of Desire Trench, and found none or any war signs near Moquet Farm. On the soft ground it was a long, tiresome tramp, and there was not a trace of old trenches as a reward. Only those with very vivid memories could nowpoint out the exact lines that were assaulted during those terrible autumn days of T6.
The Germans still talk of “the blood bath of the Somme,” and all veterans agree that for terrific shell fire among conditions of mud and w'ater in terrible weather, the battle of the Somme was only exceeded in dreadfulness by the battle of Passchendaele. For every Victoria Cross awarded there, a hundred w'ere equally well won.
Valley of The Dead
COURCELETTE Cemetery gleams white in the distance as you leave the Sugar Factory, and the blurred whiteness of two others are seen beyond. All through the Somme one passes countless cemeteries, British, French and German, until it seems a great valley of the dead.
Long open fields, and then we halted beside the Tank Memorial, four miniature tanks at the foot of a shaft. It is beside Pozières, a straggling village with many wooden huts, small houses, and a few big farm homes. Villa Victoria is the name of the only expansive front we saw. Just outside the village, on the site of the old windmill of Pozières, is a memorial of the Australians, and there is a monument erected in memory of some of the King’s Royal Rifles. Contalmaison looms on the left, and Thiepval seems near on the right. Pozières British Cemetery is beside the road, and is a beautiful square of double columns, a splendid structure.
Now-, over on the right, is Ovillers, in T8 but a mass of brick dust and chalk, pow'dered wreckage with nothing definite in its midst. It appears now' as a pretty village, blending with the greens of its slopes, w'ith long white rows of fence posts extending from the rear like white streamers; and the cemetery farther on is a shining square of whiteness.
“War ground” is plentiful. You see old gun positions and parts of trenches, and rough contours are frequent as you look over Mash and Blighty valleys. Left and right, these old craters and trench holes become more plentiful, and then you are at La Boisselle in the very heart of the wartom area. It is a tiny village. A few heroic ones have tried to reclaim that wilderness, but only the main street and another lane or so have resulted. All else are craters.
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Thirteen Years After
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shell holes, gullies, rifts in the earth, barren in spots of anything that grows.
To the right a gate bears a large sign, Fermez La Porte S. V. P. Going through it and over the slippery chalk soil, you reach the lips of an enormous crater. While we stood there, a carload of tourists came. They were gazing all about them, remarking on the condition of the village ground, but when they reached the crater they stood silent, and went away saying very little. They had got a glimpse of war.
We crossed to the other road, went over it and out to the other huge crater. All about it, desolation extends like a terrible w'ound. In smaller craters we saw much refuse of war, and then in a shell hole probed at a leather end and found it to be an entire equipment. Near by was a water bottle and a bayonet scabbard. A steel helmet, jagged by a shrapnel cut, showed where a rotting ground sheet held long German boots. Wandering around, we saw countless other relics, as if the place had never been visited. Below the village there is a memorial to the Tyneside Irish and Tyneside Scottish. They were in that vicinity when those craters were blown July 1, T(5, and the great battle of the Somme commenced.
Many Tourists Visit Albert
GOING on, Sausage Valley looks peaceful enough, with three horses feeding in its pasturage. On the right is Usna Hill, and on the left Tara Hill, so well known to Canadians. An open, featureless field extends where the horse lines used to be, and there were grain stacks on the site of the old “Y.” The hills are a rich, dark green, and all that outskirt of Albert is most verdant looking.
Bapaume Post Cemetery is passed, and then we are entering Albert, mecca once for many weary battalions. There are huts even in the town, and long tenements. We cross the railway and soon are among new buildings of blue and grey and yellow borders, new concrete and daring signs. It is all very modem, and the garage man who supplied us with “essence” tells us that Albert sees a multitude of tourists. Here and there we spot old ruins, but the Grande Place and its Hotel de Ville are most imposing. The cathedral and its new Virgin are very grand, and the station and its surroundings are modem in every detail. Albert appeared to me a very lively energetic town, eager for business. At the left near the station, where the river shows itself, there is much war wreckage. Just
^emg 3 steadX reader of your magazine and one of the boys of the Third Brigade, I have travelled with Will Bird over the old front lines as if I were there with him.
Above is a snap of the German airplane in which the Fourteenth Battalion machine gun was found. The trench in front of the plane was known as Lecklie Ave. Jock or Frank Allan of the 16th’s bombers may remember the taking of this snap.—J. Prowse, Nanaimo. B.C.
outside in that direction all seems as it was, but on the whole the tourist must be impressed.
We had lunch at the café, .4 Tout Va Bien, and were served an excellent meal. At the next table was an ex-sergeant of Army Transport, and he entertained us with stories of war days. One of the drivers had come to grief with a load of hay. It had toppled over into a very deep and dirty ditch, and the man was badly worried about j what his sergeant would say. "Never mind.” our new friend had said to the man, “I’ll j help you with it and there’s no need to tell ! him.” “Yer blinkin’ right,” said the shaky ! one. “ ’E was on top the load.”
One of those passenger cars marked for j eight horses or forty men had arrived at a railhead with fifty men who had been playing sardines in its interior all that bumpy day. A sergeant-major was unloading them. “Come along,” he bellowed. “We can’t wait all night.” “All right,” came a voice from the depths. “Tyke the top off this ruddy cage an’ we’ll fly out like sparrers.”
Our friend told us that over near Trônes Wood a German was found digging industriously about a year after the war. He claimed that a pay officer of his regiment had been buried alive there by a big shell, and that the man had five watches in his pockets, as well as the battalion pay in a leather satchel. He was rather rudely advised to stop digging.
Editor’s Note—This is the thirteenth of Mr. Bird’s series of articles. In his next article he will describe Martinpuich, Fiers, \ Thiepval, Miraumonl, Beaucourt, Bucquoy and other towns and villages in the Somme area.