THIS IS A DAY WE'LL NEVER FORGET
We conquered Flanders Fields in three days . •. last time it took four years—A moving account of one of the most poignant episodes of the war
L. S. B. SHAPIRO
Maclean’s War Correspondent
SOMEWHERE in Belgium (By Cable)—This is essentially a sentimental chronicle and yet it encompasses a spectacular feat of arms. It is a travelogue, yet it moves not so much along roads; it journeys mostly in the shadowland between memory and emotion. It is an incident of this war, but it belongs to the generation of the last war. It is the story of a British flying column of tanks that rolled in three fabulous days from the Seine to Brussels and Antwerp; and yet it is the personal chronicle of this correspondent who, though travelling with the tanks, was able to snatch a sentimental pause out of the frantic impatience of the pursuit as we raced through Amiens and Arras and Vimy, and across all those deathless fields of France and Flanders.
Modern war moves in spurts; sometimes it writhes and twists on the same tortured patch of earth for weary, ugly weeks. Then suddenly it takes wing and scampers like a breeze for 100 miles or more. For nearly three months the British and Canadians fought desperately on both sides of the Orne River in Normandy, and we thought longingly upon the day when we might burst the bounds of this treacherous front and move to a land made magic by memories—the Western Front of the last war.
For me the prospect of such an Odyssey was overwhelming, beyond the power of words to describe. I am of that generation of Canadians in whom the Great War conjures neither battle nor history, but only a vast and restless ocean of bittersweet sentiment. The
realities of that war are for me hazy memories of a kindergarten class —of donating a penny from my candy allowance to help feed the starving children of Belgium —of wondering why mv teacher once burst into tears and dismissed us just after she had received an official letterof being handed a flag by my mother and told to hang it from the balcony because the war was over.
When I grew old enough to learn about the war, it had become song and story and drama. It was neither desolate nor tragic. It had developed into a chorus of “My Buddy,” a cartoon by Bairnsfather, a thriller about Billy Bishop, and an evening with “Journey’s End” and “Cavalcade.” Flanders Fields had lost their identity as a stretch of land and had become instead a phrase endowed with the quality of surging emotion. I brought these notions and memories with me to the Normandy beach on D-Day and I stroked them tenderly each time I looked at a military map of the magic land of the Somme and the Meuse.
But such is the speed of modern war when it takes wing that the column of British tanks vyith which I moved raced in a few breathless hours through Amiens, Arras, Vimy, Lens and Tournai, and before 1 could marshal my swirling emotions we were caught up by hysterically cheering crowds in Brussels.
The great experience on which I dreamed so long had come and gone in a flurry of dust and cheers. It was not even a one-day story. The entry into Brussels was the crowning event; the journey over the battlefields was a mere incident along the line of the great advance.
But now, in the glow of victory, the journey can he recorded on the slower pace of the typewriter. The moments I paused along the Amiens-Arrus-Vimy road
can he frozen into words. The side trips to Ypres and Douai and Neuve-Chapelle can he made to yield their full content of sentiment. This then is the story of September 1, 2 and 3 three fabulous days when this careening conflict made confluence with the Great War of our fathers.
Moved With the Tanks
THE battle for France south of the Seine ended officially on Aug. 31, when the Canadians pushed into Rouen. That was the last stage of the wheeling manoeuvre which, like the grand finale of a horse show, brought the Allied Armies from ull parts of the erstwhile battle arena to a prancing pause on the line of the Seine. Then they spilled over the river and dashed north and northeast to their appointed destinations.
The Canadians made for Dieppe, the 51st Highland Division for St. Valery. In both these places they hud engagements of a sentimental nature. The Guards Armored Division —Britain’s crack tank formation— aimed its turreted cannon straight for Amiens and Arras. 1 elected to move with the tanks.
It was a sun-swept Saturday afternoon when my jeep, looking like an impudent roller skate in the midst of the lumbering tanks, moved through NeufchAtel. The town was on fôto with cheering people. 'They tossed flowers, apples and pears at us, sometimes with suspiciously good aim. Along the roadsides north of the town, groups of unhappy Nazis, guarded by mere boys of the FFI, were at work burying I heir dead. At one point three FFI youngsters and a group of French fanners turned from their tasks to wave us Continuod on page 67
This Is a Day Well Never Forget
Continued from page 11
welcome; the five Nazi soldiers, working under guard, apparently did not want to he left out of the holiday atmosphere. They too turned and waved to us!
In the town of Poix the people thronged the streets to see two shows. One was the passage of our tanks, the other a parade along the curb of scores of German officers and men under the guard of downy cheeked hoys carrying rifles slung over their civilian jackets. I have never seen men whose faces betrayed such mental agony as those of these German officers resplendent in their finely cut uniforms. Only a few hours before they were the kingpins of the town; the people tipped their caps to them and stepped out of their way. Now they were prisoners of the same people they had cowed for four years. I lelt these Germans would have much preferred to dic in a formal battle
than to walk along these avenues oí humiliation.
Thirty minutes later the first buildings of Amiens came into view. From here the Canadian Corps had launched the great battle of Aug. 8, 1918, which inaugurated the last Hundred Days. It was easy to see that this town had risen from the ruins. This was not a tj'pical French town such as I’d known since Normandy; there were no stone walls, no clay dwellings sagging with age, no dated architecture. Amiens had the startling newness of neat red brick dwellings, shops with modern window fronts, churches of shiny | granite and sparkling towers.
As we rolled through the town the j sky suddenly clouded over and it began to rain. Nature was conspiring with a popular notion. It seemed fitting that rain should fall in Amiens; I had never seen a picture nor read a story about Amiens in which rain did not provide the atmosphere.
The tanks moved out of Amiens along the Doullens Road; we elected,
for purposes of speed, to take the unused road through Warloy and Mailly. It was a fortunate choice, because we moved through towns that had not yet seen the returning Allies and we were able to taste the full flavor of French relief at our coming. Every farmhouse and village was bedecked with British and French flags. And the people did not merely wave and cheer; they seemed to fling out their hearts to us in fervent ; gestures. They darted out into the j road, almost under our wheels, and stretched out their hands to touch ours I in a fleeting embrace of palms.
We were in a hurry; the forward tanks were already reported well beyond Arras. But in Mailly, halfway ! between Amiens and Arras, we had to ! pause. As we turned the bend in the I road and came into the town, we saw ; the villagers gathered together before the town hall. They wore their Sunday j best and carried armfuls of flowers, j Their eyes and their gestures were imploring; all day they had waited to j see the conquering Allies, and although we were only correspondents in a jeep, we were the Allies. We simply had to ! pause.
In a moment the jeep was overflowI ing with flowers and kisses and tears.
¡ A young woman reached into her basket and brought out a roast chicken.
1 tried hard to decline, because food is I short in these villages, hut she thrust it upon me and implored me to accept it. An old lady said: “I remember the Canadians so well—nearly 30 years ago . . . God bless their sons.”
The remark burned in my mind as we drove out of Mailly “I remember the Canadians so well nearly 30 years ago”— and suddenly I came upon some of these Canadians. They Jay Í beneath these rolling fields now painted by sunset and redolent of rich crops. No war was to be seen anywhere, and i yet in the mind’s eye these fields were invested with rain and mud and men charging into the hot ugliness of battle. Now these fields were marked here and i there by a granite cross dominating the furrows of cabbage and turnips.
A little beyond Mailly I stopped before the stone entrance of a military j cemetery “Donated in Perpetuity by ; the People of France to the People of their Allies ns a Last Resting Place for j their Soldiers who Died Here.” I walked between the rows of rounded granite tombstones. There were Canadians and Australians and Britons I buried here; some had their names inscribed, others, equally honored, were “A soldier of the Royal Irish Rifles, known to God, July t, 1916,” and “A soldier of the 34th Canadian Infantry Battalion, known to God, Sept. 16, 1916.”
'l'anks were now rolling along the ! nearby highway. Their dust, filtered 1 over the flowers covering the graves, and in the gathering evening it appeared as though the ghosts of 1916 were standing by their tombstones and looking upon their sons racing into I battle.
We rushed through cheering villages, their red brick dwellings of modern architecture revealing eloquently that here was once all thunder and rubble and mud. The cemeteries of the last war became more frequent; they descended upon the vision with every turn of the road. And then we moved down a slight incline into Arras.
It was just another French town with a hallowed name and a lot of cafés until we came into the great cobbled square. Suddenly I felt a glow of recognition as though Fd l ved here all my life. I had seen this co ibled square so many times in pictures—Sir Arthur Currie reviewing the Canadian Corps, j Sir Julian Byng taking the salute,
King George V presenting medals the square was alive with these memories.
It was now dark, and from the cafés ringing the square I could hear voices singing “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” and “Keep the Home Pires Burning.
1 stood on the square and listened and my mind was bursting with the overtones of this raucous revelry.
Ina headquarters near Arras I heard the dramatic order issued to the British tank columns: “On Sunday
you will capture Brussels and Antwerp.” The columns had travelled 65 miles in a single day and were now being hurled another 60 miles through the disorganized German lines.
We set out early Sunday morning, and while the tanks raced ahead to Belgium I moved up the Arras-Lens highway a few miles.
There is a turning on this highway which is marked by a plaque, “Monument Commémoratif Canadien.” I made the turning and in a few hundred yards I had traversed in retrospect a ¡ span of nearly 30 years. This was the ! old war. The trenches of the Vimy . Battlefield are here still preserved in all their ugliness, though grass has overgrown some of the shallower ruts, j We passed through wooded areas, young and fragrant with morning dew. And then we came upon the Vimy Memorial, standing magnificently against the skyline.
The Vimy Memorial is not a monu] ment; it is a thought, an emotion. It. is a shrill cry of challenge frozen against a background of sky and Flanders Fields. It is a thing of compassion, of beauty molded out of terror.
I mounted t he steps of the Memorial and looked upon the vista of Flanders. Little ribbons of dust could be seen cutting across the distant countryside; these were made by our tanks now roaming far to the northeast. If wars ; have to he, 1 pondered, perhaps it is merciful that modern weapons have attained immense power. They precipitate desperately cruel battles, hut at least the battles are short and decisive. No longer do men bleed and die in the same shell holes for four years, as they did on the ground where stands the Memorial. Today war is fought, by movement as well as men, and decisions ; are reached quickly on a grand scale.
I n the woods near the hase of the Memorial young Frenchmen of the FFI were patrolling, their rifles at the j ready. They cautioned me against) Germans still prowling in the area, some of them ignorant that the battle had passed them by. But I was loath to leave; over and over again I read the inscriptions and I pondered on the ringing poetry of this architecture. It WHS good to see for myself that the Memorial came through the brief German bombardment of 1940 unscathed, except for slight damage to one of the figures. The world gains by this stroke of fortune, because this Memorial is by far the noblest of the hundreds that dot the ground between Moas and the Menin Gate.
It was late afternoon before I could come away from Vimy. The tank spearhead was many miles ahead— almost into Brussels—and I joined another formation of tanks moving up. Just to the west of Lille a burst of cannon fire spread-eagled the highway and two of our armored cars burst into flame. It was a reminder that ours was a needlelike spearhead driving deep into enemy-held territory, and that our flank protection was precarious. Three tanks sheered olT to engage the German gun; the rest of us moved on. We crossed the Belgian border at dusk and halted in Tournai for the night.
At dawn on Mondav we set out for
Brussels along a roundabout route through Lessines, Grammont and Ninove. The reception was truly hysterical in every town. “Vive les Tommies!” was the popular shout as Belgians lined the roads and flung flowers on the tanks. At Lessines our column was stopped by a German battle group astride the highway. In a few moments our long line of traffic spread over the fields and deployed for action. Within half an hour our attack was organized and a squadron of American Thunderbolts flew overhead to aid the operation.
Here I found the ideal place to report a war. A small café was situated on the roadside from which 1 could not only look at the action through a huge window but could also be served with a fine liquor gin to ease the nervous strain of battle.
“You Come In Triumph”
Mine host was an ageing gentleman who stood behind his bar completely undisturbed by the blaze of a tank gun firing a few yards from his establishment. “You cannot know how we feel,” he said. “We saw the British move up bravely in 1940, and we saw them in retreat a few days later. Thousands of Tommies marched along this road into captivity in May of that year, and it hurt us because we love the British. And now we see you come in triumph. This is a day we shall never forget.”
By the time the fifth round of liquor was served up, the Germans came in on the double to surrender. We moved forward againthis time without incident to Brussels.
The scene on Liberation Day in the capital can only be described as a combination of Mardi gras in New Orleans, New Year’s Eve on Broadway and Barnum and Bailey’s Circus. Every Allied car was mobbed and every man in them suffocated with affection. There was dancing in the streets. Bands played “Tipperary.” Groups of people sang the “Marseillaise” in counterpoint with a jazz version of “We’ll Hang Our Washing On the »Siegfried Line.” A congo line of hysterical people stomped from the Bourse to the Metropole Hotel. The Bruxelloises went completely and utterly mad.
When this cacophonic hysteria showed no signs of abating after three days, 1 fled the city. There were other places to visit with humility and deep emotion.
In Mons, beflagged but quiet, they asked about the Canadians, and I was told over and over again the story of our coming 26 years ago. No, they have not forgotten the Canadians in Mons. And then I drove to Douai and paused to look upon the cobbled street where in 1940 a whole British regiment lay dead in such ordered rows that the bodies might have been mistaken for sleeping soldiers. Then I travelled through Lille to Neuve-Chapelle and Armentieres and finally to Ypres.
Here, in the shadow of the Menin Gate, the last war flooded the mind and made a mist on the eyes. The big square is neat now, and the fields beyond smell sweetly with their autumn crops. But here beneath lie the shattered remains of 58,000 British, Canadian and Australian troops who died in the mud, and, like old soldiers, just faded away. The Gate is their only memorial. No tombstones for these 58,000 because their bodies could not be f >und for burial.
As I stood under the gate and read the inscriptions, an aged Frenchman stopped to shake my hand. “How goes the war?” he asked. “It goes well,” I replied. “We are fighting on German soil.”
The old gentleman smiled a little
smile. “War never goes well,” he said sadly. “Only peace goes well. We of Ypres know that better than most.” He left me standing and wondering on his words under the Menin Gate.
In the Aug. 15 issue Maclean’s Magazine carried an article by Blair Fraser, its Ottawa editor, under the title of “Crisis in Quebec.”
This article has aroused the ire of the Valleyfield City Council, which passed a resolution of protest against some of the references to their city made by Blair Fraser, and sent a copy of the resolution to this magazine.
Following is the resolution—and following also is Blair Fraser’s reply.
WHEREAS this article contains a series of statements and affirmations on the subject of de Salaberry-de-Valleyfield, which are false, erroneous and malicious to the interests of our people;
BE IT RESOLVED that this Council protests energetically to the editors of Maclean’s Magazine and to the author of the said article and seeks to re-establish exactly the facts in regard to the false statements made in the said article, mentioning specially:
1. It is false that Salaberry-deValleyfield is “a tough industrial town.” Federal crime statistics show that the rate of crime here is one of the lowest in Canada.
2. It is false that the taverns of Valleyfield “are not quiet, peaceful resorts.” Our taverns are very well conducted, the regulations and the laws are well observed in them, better than in most of the towns of Ontario.
3. It is false that the police of Valleyfield have acted with partiality against airmen, and that they havç beaten them up; the records of Recorder’s Court prove the contrary, and all the airmen arrested have themselves pleaded guilty to charges lodged against them. Airmen in Valleyfield have been treated on a footing of equality with civilians.
4. The City of de Salaberry-deValleyfield and its population deserve more congratulations than most, of the towns of Ontario for their favorable reception of all the Victory Loan campaigns, all of which have been oversubscribed by a big margin.
5. Hon. Charles G. Power, Minister of Air, stated in a letter dated June 29, 1944, to His Honor the Mayor of Valleyfield, “As 1 have explained to you in the course of our interview, the decision to amalgamate the Navigators’ School at Valleyfield with that at Three Rivers was taken in the month of April last, that is to sav before the unhappy incidents which took place in Valleyfield between military men and civilians.”
THEREFORE demand should consequently he made of Maclean’s Magazine to publish this statement of case in justice to the population of de Salaberry-de-Valleyfield and that demand be made on the citizens of Valleyfield to protest in a fashion they understand.
I have nothing to retract from the statements contained in my article. The first two statements complained of are based on my own personal investigation. The references mentioned in paragraph three are based on stories told me by RCAF and civilian residents of Valleyfield, whose identity I have no intention of disclosing, but who, I believe, were telling the truth. I did not intend to imply, however, that because Valleyfield is a “tough industrial town” it has a high crime rate. — Blair Fraser.