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A Minstrel in France
Chapter 26

SO, at last, I turned back toward the road, and very slowly, with bowed head and shoulders, feelings all at once very old, I walked back toward the Bapaume highway. I was still silent, and when we reached the road again, and the waiting cars, I turned, and looked back, long and sorrowfully, at that tiny hill, and the grave it sheltered. Godfrey and Hogge and Adam, Johnson and the soldiers of our party, followed my gaze. But we looked in silence ; not one of us had a word to say. There are moments, as I suppose we have all had to learn, that are beyond words and speech.

And then at last we stepped back into the cars and resumed our journey on the Bapaume road. We started slowly, and I looked back until a turn in the road hid that field with its mounds and its crosses, and that tiny cemetery on the wee hill. So I said good-bye to my boy again, for a little while.

Our road was by way of Poizieres, and this part of our journey took us through an area of fearful desolation. It was the country that was most bitterly fought over in the summer-long battle of the Somme in 1916, when the new armies of Britain had their baptism of fire and sounded the knell of doom for the Hun. It was then he learned that Britain had had time, after all, to train troops who man for man, outmatched his best.

Here war had passed like a consuming flame, leaving no living thing in its path. The trees were mown down, clean to the ground. The very earth was blasted out of all semblance to its normal kindly look. The scene was like a picture of Hell from Dante's Inferno ; there is nothing upon this earth that may be compared with it. Death and pain and agony had ruined this whole countryside, once so smiling and fair to see.

After we had driven for a space we came to something that lay by the roadside that was a fitting occupant of such a spot. It was like the skeleton of some giant creature of a prehistoric age, incredibly savage even in its stark, unlovely death. It might have been the frame of some vast, metallic tumble bug, that, crawling ominously along this road of death, had come into the path of a Colossus, and been stepped upon, and then kicked aside from the road to die.

"That's what's left of one of our first tanks," said Godfrey. "We used them first in this battle of the Somme, you remember. And that must have been one of the' very earliest ones. They've been improved and perfected since that time."

"How came it to belike this?" I asked, gazing at it curiously.

"A direct hit from a big German shell—a lucky hit, of course. That's about the only thing that could put even one of the first tanks out of action that way. Ordinary shells from field pieces, machine-gun fire, that sort of thing, made no impression on the tanks. But, of course------"

I could see for myself. The in'ards of the monster had been pretty thoroughly knocked out. Well, that tank had done its bit, I have no doubt. And, since its heyday, the brain of Mars has spawned so many new ideas that this vast creature would have been obsolete, and ready for the scrap heap, even had the Hun not put it there before its time.

At the Butte de Marlincourt, one of the most bitterly contested bits of the battlefield, we passed a huge mine crater, and I made an inspection of it. It was like the crater of an old volcano, a huge old mountain with a hole in its centre. Here were elaborate dugouts, too, and many graves.

Soon we came to Bapaume. Bapaume was one of the objectives the British failed to reach in the action of 1916. But early in 1917 the Germans, seeing they had come to the end of their tether there, retreated, and gave the town up. But what a town they left! Bapaume was nearly as complete a ruin as Arras and Albert. And it had not been wrecked by shell-fire. The Hun had done the work in cold blood. The houses had been wrecked by human hands. Pictures still hung crazily upon the walls. Grates were falling out of fireplaces. Beds stood on end. Tables and chairs were wantonly smashed and there was black rum everywhere.

We drove on then to a small town where the skirling of pipes heralded our coming. It was the headquarters of General------— and the------th Division. Highlanders came flocking around to greet us warmly, and they all begged me to sing to them. But the officer in command called them to attention.

"Men," he said. "Harry Lauder comes to us fresh from the saddest mission of his life. We have no right to expect him to sing for us to-day, but if it is God's will that he should, nothing could give us greater pleasure."

My heart was very heavy within me, and never, even on the night when I went back to the Shaftesbury Theatre, have I felt less like singing. But I saw the warm sympathy on the face of the boys. "If you'll take me as I am," I told them, "I will try to sing for you. I will do my best, anyway. When a man is killed, or a battalion is killed, or a regiment is killed, the war goes on just the same. And if it is possible for you to fight with broken ranks, I'll try to sing for you with a broken heart."

And so I did, and, although God knows it must have been a feeble effort, the lads gave me a beautiful reception. I sang my older songs for them— the songs my own laddie had loved.

They gave us tea after I had sung for them, with chocolate eclairs as a rare treat! We were surprised to get such fare upon the battlefield, but it was a welcome surprise.

We turned back from Bapaume, travelling along another road on the return journey. And on the way we met about two hundred German prisoners, the first we had seen in any numbers. They were working on the road, under guard of British soldiers. They looked sleek and well-fed, and they were not working very hard, certainly. Yet I thought there was something about their expression like that of neglected animals. I got out of the car and spoke to an intelligent-looking little chap, perhaps about twenty-five years old—a sergeant. He looked rather suspicious when I spoke to him, but he saluted smartly, and stood at attention while we talked, and he gave me ready and civil answers.

"You speak English?" I asked. "Fluently?"

"Yes, sir!"

"How do you like being a prisoner?"

"I don't like it. It's very degrading."

"Your companions look pretty happy. Any complaints?"

"No, sir! None!"

"What are the Germans fighting for? What do you hope to gain?"

"The freedom of the seas!"

"But you had that before the war broke out! "

"We haven't got it now."

I laughed at that.

"Certainly not," I said. "Give us credit for doing something! But how are you going to get it again?"

"Our submarines will get it for us."

"Still," I said, "you must be fighting for something else, too?"

"No," he said, doggedly. "Just for the freedom of the seas."

I couldn't resist telling him a bit of news that the censor was keeping very carefully from his fellow-Germans at home.

"We sank seven of your submarines last week," I said.

He probably didn't believe that. But his face paled a bit, and his lips puckered, and he scowled. Then, as I turned away, he whipped his hand to his forehead in a stiff salute, but I felt that it was not the most gracious salute I had ever seen. Still, I didn't blame him much.

Captain Godfrey meant to show us another village that day.

"Rather an interesting spot," he said. "They differ, these French villages. They're not all alike, by any means."

Then, before long, he began to look puzzled. And finally he called a halt.

"It ought to be right here," he said. "It was, not so long ago."

But there was no village. The Hun had passed that way. And the village for which Godfrey was seeking had been utterly wiped off the face of the earth! Not a trace of it remained. Where men and women and little children had lived and worked and played in quiet happiness the abominable desolation that is the work of the Hun had come. There was nothing to show that they or their village had ever been.

The Hun knows no mercy.


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