Thirteen Years After
XVIII—Douai and Denain—Story of an expanding mule—Canadians still remembered
WILL R. BIRD
WE LEFT Arras by the Route Nationale leading through Gavrelle and Brebières, and stopped at the latter village. The local estaminet is very clean, and there you find veterans who fought in the war, and those who lived under German rule and can tell you many stories of what happened during those long years. One chap told me of seeing an explosion in German horse lines one night in '17. One of our airmen dropped the bomb, and killed eighteen horses and six transport men.
In Brebières 1 saw a signboard that seemed to hint of war days. One side proclaimed the fact that beer was for sale within, but if you take the board down and look at the other side you will see German lettering, an inscription regarding bomb stores. We stopixxl to chat with a farmer at the end of the village, a palefaced fellow who had been seized by the Germans and made to work for them. He told about digging trenches and handling stores, of all kinds of work even to assisting in planting anti-tank mines in the Canal du Nord region. In the records of the Canadian Engineers there is mention of 245 of these mines being discovered and destroyed. Only one of our tanks fell victim to such a device.
Men of the 8th Imperial Division claim that they were the first to enter Douai, but Canadians are certain that their first Brigade holds the honors. The road in is without beauty. Homes straggle along as if there had t>een a half-hearted attempt at establishing a village, and there are many barns, considerable corrugated iron and many dogs and bedraggled fowl by the way. But you forget all this once you are in the city, for Douai itself is most quaint and interesting.
Douai and Its Booby Traps
T REMEMBER passing through on my way to "Blighty" in November T8.
There had been many stories of the areas the Germans occupied throughout the war, and I had come by way of Valenciennes and Denain. so went on to Douai. People were swarming back to the city. The Germans had forced them to evacuate, and now' they wrere returning and were in desperate circumstances. Their homes had not been destroyed but looted. All they had treasured had been taken. Furniture had been removed, the houses stripped. Pictures and mirrors had been smashed, clocks thrown to the floor, china shattered, dexirs kicked off their hinges.
The Engineers had found the place full of bextby traps, explosives ready to be detonated by the opening of a d(x>r, the taking of a German helmet, the working of a pump handle. Yet, in spite of all preparation, there were very, very few injured by the traps; in nearly every instance they were detected. The shops liad all been looted. The doors stood open and goods were strewn about the floor, even in the street. 1 saw an armload of fine laces lying in a mudhole, men’s shirts and collars being trampled underfoot. At a drugstore some vandal had deliberately smashed a shelf-load of bottles containing all kinds of mixtures, and the reek was horrible. Several of the merchants had returned and were trying to restore order. They talked most bitterly of their enemies, and declared that during all the occupation they had treated the invader most courteously. One entire block of buildings on the Rue de Paris had been burned, but the Hôtel de Ville was spared. A soldier was on guard there. The Germans had taken nearly everything that was movable, then had had to abandon a pile of loot that stood ready near the door. It was the same in the cathedral. Loot was heaped in readiness.
The systematic looting wras carried on in all the villages in the Douai and Denain area. Every house and shop was stripped. Yet these people had all treated the Germans very fairly, had given them all they asked for.
Across the Grande Place were stretched many banners, and the same kind were in all the towns. Vive les Canadiens. "Long Live Our Liberators.” “Glory to the Heroes.” One
old chap had a square of cardboard placed in a window that was broken, and on it had printed in scrawling letters: Bon Canada. Perhaps a soldier had done it for him. Our men were assisting all, helping every one in the city. I had no rations that day and there was no place at which one could buy a meal, so I used the regular soldier’s method— went bumming at a cook kitchen. It belonged to some Imperial outfit, and the cooks were generous, but I didn't get anything there. I never asked. Seated around the cooks, on old boxes, boards, bricks, anything, were at least fifteen children, and every one had a bowl of mulligan. In the background were a dozen soldiers, men who had given their dinners that those kiddies might be fed.
F'ew Traces of War
DOUAI is quaint and old, and picturesque. There are very few traces of war. Here and there a shell-shattered wall reminds you of thirteen years ago, but that is all. I saw only two heaps of German concrete. A German cemetery was in the town, and a fine memorial was erected, but the citizens had everything removed. The cemetery was moved to Maison Blanche, near Arras, and the Memorial went with it.
It is a "different” city. Its homes and public buildings seem to have an architecture all their own, and the whole gives one the impression that he is entering a place apart from the rest of the world. The roofs are littered with
are chimneys, and ten-inch brick ridges run from the eaves to each chimney, as if they are dividing lines. Lamp posts are set two feet inside the curb, in places almost in the middle of the sidewalk, yet there is no trouble with traffic. The people are very polite. They bow and smile, and say "After you, monsieur.” In the street the same rules reign. Huge carts lumber along, cars dart here and there, and street cars rumble, yet each one seems more than willing to let the other go first.
The bell tower dominates the city, can be seen from any point, with its four towers on the corners. The street cars move leisurely. They are covered with brilliant advertising and quite comfortable. The streets arc narrow and twist and turn at all angles, while lanes and footways lead into back areas. Immense high shutters cover all the lower windows at night and must have been a boon to the people during the occupation.
The Palais de Justice is a huge wide, low building of plain appearance, situated where five streets lead in at such angles that one cannot see down any of them for more than fifty yards. The Hôtel du Dauphin is a quaint old place with many decorations on the
front, and many of the old shops and estaminets are very picturesque. The Porte de Valenciennes is quite imposing. Its three arched ways, flanked by two towers, seem the entrance to some mighty castle. In the big estaminet close by. I met two old men who had been in Douai during the occupation, and they told me many stories of hardships. No doubt some of them were colored by their bitterness, but one had every reason to believe that much of what they tell is true.
The Grande Place is very clean and well kept. There is a modern Arcade, a hotel, and five very fine new buildings erected in the area that was burned. A square of lampposts enclose the centre of the Place, and it is used by pedestrians only. There are fine shade trees, nice walks and gardens where the River Scarpe comers into the city, splendid vistas that have enthralled many tourists. In the “Park” one finds hedges and lawns and flowers, and wonderful shrubbery, pools, caverns, grassy glades, enchanting footways. In summer it is one huge playground for the children.
Reaping the Whirlwind
TEWARDE is the next village, and it is a small -*-* one. But many German troops billeted there during the war, and in the local estaminet you can hear them tell how at the last they took every horse and pig and fowl, even the goats, took all the farm implements, all the vegetables. The straw from the threshing was all burned, and what grain could not be carried away was thrown into the latrines and ditches. Lewarde will be a long time forgetting the war.
In T8 when I was there, a certain bam was a sightseeing place for all troops that passed by. It had been used as a concert hall by the Germans, and on the walls were three pictures expressing the German mind.
A motto read: “As Ye sow so shall We reap.” The first picture represented an ox drawing a huge wooden plow. A young woman, once beautiful but now broken by labor, was guiding the implement and finding it hard work. The second picture was of an old gnarled peasant sowing a field. Beside him was a little boy. Behind was the village church and a windmill. Both illustrations depicted the despair of the workers; they were laboring for their conquerors. The third picture portrayed a giant Prussian soldier, as repulsive as an animal. Power and strength and cunning had been depicted and, unconsciously, the artist had given a true impression. His soldier had no soul. “Brute” was written into every line.
The Germans looted Lewarde of every stick of furniture and the First Brigade captured a trainload of it, packed and labelled. The placards read: “By Order of the Army Command.”
Auberchicourt is the next village and almost joins Lewarde. There are many bright red-brick cottages, whitewashed walls, new concrete fronts, pretty gardens. It is a very wide-awake little town, with mines and glassworks providing employment for many. In an estaminet I talked with a woman who said she was a girl when the Germans were billeted there, and that she saw one of our soldiers brought back as a prisoner. He had lost his way, she said, and had walked into the German lines. They kept him at her home for several hours awaiting the arrival of some officer, and during the time he conversed with her folk, as he could speak French quite fluently. She said he did not seem afraid of the Germans at all, but answered them defiantly on every subject.
At another house an old man told me about the trick some German soldiers played on one of their officers. He was very frightened of a huge dog that was kept at the back of the house, chained to his kennel. The officer often came home late, and sometimes tipsy, so one dark night they got a length of rojx? and added it to the chain. When the dog rushed at the officer it seemed as if he were loose, and the German ran. firing his revolver. All would have been well had not the big animal surged with such strength that the rope broke, and only the timely arrival of a brother major
saved the runner from disaster had the dog attacked him.
The Germans wrecked the mines at Auberchicourt before leaving, and tcx)k everything valuable. They deported all the young men and women, taking them to work on their farms or in the forests, and there paying them worthless paper money. Food was so scarce in the town that the American Red Cross was sending parcels to the people, which the Germans delivered and then confiscated, giving their own black bread and turnip soup in exchange. Many
of the French died during that last year, their strength sapped by lack of nourishment, and all through that area the youth of today look wizened and undersized, and are almost useless as workers. Starved for years, merely kept alive, they are a living memorial of the war.
Our 11th Brigade captured Auberchicourt on October 18, and on the next day Escaudin was taken by the 54th Battalion, while the 1st Division captured Somain,Hornaing. and Helesmos. The 4th Division captured Rouvignies, and, on October '20, Wallers and Haveluy were taken.
Cabbages For Camouflage
DROM Auberchicourt we kept to the left on a smaller road, turned left again and were in Somain. It is a small town, with old and new buildings intermingled, with a swarm of fowl about the streets and dogs in every yard. The people are very friendly, and told me that when Vimy was captured they were so jubilant that ten of their men were fined by the Germans. Some of the German officers had cameras and were friendly with some of the people. I was shown several snapshots of shell holes outside of Douai, of ruins in the city, of massed troops in the Grande Place, and of field manoeuvres at Somain. There is no distinctive building at Somain, no outstanding landmark, but the warm reception one receives makes him glad he stopped.
You next go right and reach Hornaing, another small village with several large barns, bright, cheerful estaminets, and talkative people. They are eager to tell of the days when the Germans ruled them, and of how they often outwitted them in the matter of foodstuffs and drink. One old chap proudly told me that he had wine for two years after the Germans came, having hidden a store of it in a second cellar that the invaders never found. Another told of burying all the valuables of three homes in a certain garden plot. They had a fright when the Germans decided to plant cabbage in it, but overcame all difficulty by offering to do the work themselves, provided they got shares of the vegetables. This was readily agreed to, and the workers never probed very deep.
Haveluy, Wallers and Helesmcs are reached by another side road, and there is little of interest in the villages. That is, there is little to lx* seen. Each has similar brick buildings, houses, and barns, and shops and estaminets, the church and schixtl and Mairie, the town memorial. Here and there are fronts of new concrete, and an occasional gasoline station or new sign lends a modern touch entirely out of keeping with the rest of the village.
But there are many things of interest inside the homes. They can show you many German souvenirs as well as British ones. When our soldiers overran that territory the German was in flight, the war was won. Our men were in high spirits, and the French fugitives had all their sympathy. They gave them fixxl and blankets and lxx>ts and shirts and socks, and in the homes where they were billeted you will find badges and photographs and pocket knives, all kinds of smaller trinkets even to British coins.
In one home I saw a pair of army issue boots that had been re-soled many times before being put away. I saw two army spades, a British bayonet and a waterbottle. Several own German waterbottles and helmets, and if a tourist is in search of souvenirs he could do no better than explore that stretch of country leading back from Douai.
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Escaudain is like the rest of the villages, even to the Byrrh signs and butcher shops. A rug merchant was resting in one of the houses and I was amazed to learn that he had been with the German troops as an interpreter. Evidently he had been careful to remain on friendly terms with the French people, for he was well received at each home. I then made enquiries about German tourists and found that many are coming now to the Douai and Denain area, but these, of course, are net the ones who were there during the war.
Market Day in Denain
DENAIN had many visitors. The mines in the Denain area provide work for many, and the town itself is very interesting. Market day there draws an’immense crowd. When last I saw Denain it was in a deplorable state. German engineers had destroyed the mines with dynamite, and the entrances were strewn with wreckage. Mines were blown in the streets and one immense crater blocked traffic. It was just across the railway on one of the principal streets. Our pioneers were filling in the craters and clearing debris while French police watched over everything. The people apparently had not left the city when the Germans fled, and a Fourth Division man told me of the grand reception that took place at the Church when the Prince of Wales, Sir Arthur Currie, and others were received by the curé. It had been a day of bands playing and flags fluttering, of cheering and march pasts, and saluting, and all the inhabitants were wild with delight. He told of old dames kissing young officers, of girls throwing garlands of flowers over the tin hats of the marching men, of enthusiastic embraces in the Grande Place. Altogether it was a day to be remembered.
I stayed overnight at the city and the next morning saw a transport man in hysterics. He had had a very thirsty mule in tow, and was searching for water. Being thirsty himself he went into an estaminet to make enquiries, and while he was there a trio of Tommies came into view. They had found a cellarful of liquid refreshments and were in merry mood. Among the stock was an amount of German soda water. They despised such “fizz” and decided to give it to the mule. The mule was certainly thirsty, and he imbibed many quarts of the tonic ■before deciding he had had enough. I stayed by to watch results and was rewarded for my waiting. Shortly the mule began to resemble a grotesque balloon, and those who had stood him the drinks began to fear an explosion. While they were arguing about who was to blame, the mule’s caretaker appeared. He stopped, aghast. Then he walked around the animal at a safe distance. He made several circles, going closer each time, and at last timidly felt the mule’s sides. The mule appeared to get bigger, and began to rock as if his footing were not secure. The man took another long look at his steed, then beat it. At noon, when I left, friend mule was still tethered to the post, and half the population of Denain had inspected him, and wondered.
Denain has wider streets than Douai, and the people are a trifle more reserved. At the movie theatre, however, all classes mingle with the ease and gaiety of oneJarge family group. All smoke, and smile at the many notices on the walls prohibiting such a practice. Girls go around during the intermission and sell candy that is unlike anything else on earth. The men wear their caps if they choose, and every one is happy.
At the shops I found a great variety of merchandise, and prices cheap, much cheaper than in Arras or Douai. I made enquiries about it and was told that the nearness of Valenciennes had caused such a circumstance. There are the usual war souvenirs in the shape of pins and cigarette holders, and jack knives, and they told me that many tourists go to Denain. There were
so many stories about what happened in the city in '14 that during the first few years after the war no fewer than seven investigations were conducted.
On Sunday Denain dresses in its finery and the streets are like parades. Couples and trios and quartettes march slowly along, gazing in the shop windows. All shop blinds are raised at nine o'clock on Sunday morning, and the best goods are displayed. By noon half the shops are doing business.
A Cheese Offensive
T3 OUVIGNIES is a nice village, with
^ several fine gardens. Fourth Division men had a gay time with the girls after they had sent Otto and Fritz headlong for Berlin. The people had more flags per house than any other small town—so Fourth Division veterans informed me.
One of the old French farmers told me how he had got rid of a number of German officers. They had come and settled in his house, and one had shot both his cats and his dog. This had infuriated the old fellow, as the cats were all the protection he had against rats. Soon the rodents were under his house, and so he starved himself of cheese in order to place bits in the partitions of the officer’s rooms. Then he pried openings in the comers, and watched his chance to put more bits around the officers’ belongings. Soon the rats were having a merry time with the followers of Von Kluck, so much so that after two weeks of midnight battles they gave up—and moved to other quarters.
All along the road leading into Valenciennes are market gardens and chicken farms, and the district seems prosperous. I stopped to talk with one old man who was feeding the usual flock of white hens, and he told me that the city of lace was one of the best markets in all France.
Wavrechain was the last village I visited on my way to the city, and the only inter-
esting feature l saw there was a gypsy caravan, with the turbanned lady who told fortunes busily engaged in frying hot dogs and selling them for two francs each. After inspecting her outfit I felt sure that one could purchase from her hot dogs of almost any flavor desired.
It is a “different” part of France that stretch which for so long was called German territory. There is not the same atmosphere as in the villages on the Mont St. Eloi side of the Vimy line. The people show more of the effects of the strain of war, and they can describe the German to you with a simple directness that is unusual. They can tell you what to expect from a Brandenburger, a Saxon or a Prussian, how the officers treat their men, and what sort of spenders the soldiers are. In most of the towns they take delight in telling you that none of their girls were won over by the invaders, and it is easy to believe. The younger generation now dancing to radio music from Berlin and eating British chocolate will keep an outsider at arm’s length in a manner that would be astounding to the Canadian veteran. They hold their favors for their own kind.
But it is a part that the traveller will like. Douai is a quaint town and so are all the villages along the way. Denain is dignified. At least one gathers that impression on Sundays, and yet all the folk are hospitable. You miss all the new brick of the war areas, and yet meet more war-worn veterans here than elsewhere; and with it all rides a charming thrill of discovery. You never knowr what German relic you may find, what story you may hear.
Editor’s Note: This is the eighteenth of Mr. Bird’s articles. In the next issue of Maclean's he will conclude his series with a description of Valenciennes and Mons and the intervening territory.