Letters from France
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Title: Letters from France
Author: C. E. W. Bean
Release Date: May 14, 2006 [eBook #18390]
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Letters from France
C. E. W. BEAN
War Correspondent for the Commonwealth of Australia
WITH A MAP AND EIGHT PLATES
CASSELL AND COMPANY, LTD
London, New York, Toronto and Melbourne
To those other Australians who fell in the Sharpest Action theirForce has known, on July 19, 1916, before Fromelles, these Memories of aGreater, but not a Braver, Battle are herewith Dedicated
These letters are in no sense a history—except that they contain thetruth. They were written at the time and within close range of theevents they describe. Half of the fighting, including the brave attackbefore Fromelles, is left untouched on, for these pages do not attemptto narrate the full story of the Australian Imperial Force in France.They were written to depict the surroundings in which, and the spiritwith which, that history has been made; first in the quiet green Flemishlowlands, then with a swift, sudden plunge into the grim, reeking, nakeddesolation of the Somme. The record of the A.I.F., and its nowhistorical units in their full action, will be painted upon thatbackground some day. If these letters convey some reflection of thespirit which fought at Pozières, their object is well fulfilled. Theauthor's profits are devoted to the fund for nursing back to usefulcitizenship Australians blinded or maimed in the war.
C. E. W. Bean.
|1.||A Padre who said the Right Thing||1|
|2.||To the Front||7|
|3.||The First Impression—A Country with Eyes||14|
|4.||The Road to Lille||21|
|8.||The Coming Struggle: Our Task||49|
|9.||In a Forest of France||57|
|11.||The Great Battle Begins||71|
|12.||The British—Fricourt and La Boiselle||77|
|13.||The Dug-outs of Fricourt||86|
|16.||An Abysm of Desolation||111|
|18.||The Green Country||123|
|20.||The New Fighting||136|
|24.||How the Australians were Relieved||168|
|25.||On Leave to a New England||175|
|26.||The New Entry||181|
|27.||A Hard Time||189|
|28.||The Winter of 1916||197|
|29.||As in the World's Dawn||203|
|30.||The Grass Bank||209|
|31.||In the Mud of Le Barque||218|
|32.||The New Draft||223|
|33.||Why He is not "The Anzac"||229|
LIST OF PLATES
|Australians Watching the Bombardment of Pozières||Frontispiece|
|"Talking with the Kiddies in the Street"||12|
|"An Occasional Broken Tree-Trunk"||16|
|No Man's Land||16|
|Along the Road to Lille||26|
|The Trenches here have to be Built Above the Ground in Breastwork||30|
|A Main Street of Pozières||112|
|The Church Pozières||112|
|The Windmill of Pozières||140|
|The Barely Recognisable Remains of a Trench||140|
|The Tumbled Heap of Bricks and Timber which the World Knows as Mouquet Farm||160|
|"Past the Mud-Heaps Scraped by the Road Gangs"||160|
LETTERS FROM FRANCE
A PADRE WHO SAID THE RIGHT THING
France, April 8th, 1916.
The sun glared from a Mediterranean sky and from the surface of theMediterranean sea. The liner heaved easily to a slow swell. In the waistof the ship a densely packed crowd of sunburnt faces upturned towards aspeaker who leaned over the rail of the promenade deck above. Beside thespeaker was a slight figure with three long rows of ribbons across theleft breast. Every man in the Australian Imperial Force is as proud ofthose ribbons as the leader who wears them so modestly.
Australian ships had been moving through those waters for days. Highover one's head, as one listened to that speaker, there sawed thewireless aerial backwards and forwards across the silver sky. Onlyyesterday that aerial had[Pg 2] intercepted a stammering signal from far, faraway over the brim of the world. "S.O.S.," it ran, "S.O.S." Therefollowed half inarticulate fragments of a latitude. That evening aboutsundown we ran into the shreds of some ocean conversation about boats'crews, and about someone who was still absent—just that broken fragmentin the buzz of the wireless conversation which runs around the world. Abig Australian transport, we knew, was some twelve hours away from usupon the waters. Could it be about her that these personages of theocean were calling one to another? Days afterwards we heard that it hadnot been an Australian or any other transport.
Somewhere in those dazzling seas there was an eye watching for us too,just above the water, and always waiting—waiting—waiting—. It wouldhave been a rich harvest, that crowded deck below one. If the monsterstruck just there he could not fail to kill many with the mereexplosion. But I don't believe a man in the crowd gave it a thought. Thestrong, tanned, clean-shaven faces under the old slouch hats were allgazing up in rapt attention at the speaker. For he was telling them theright thing.
He was not a regular chaplain—there was[Pg 3] no regular padre in that ship,and we were likely to have no church parade until there was discoveredamongst the reinforcement officers one little subaltern who was a padrein Tasmania, but who was going to the front as a fighting man. We hadheard other padres speak to troops on the eve of their plunging into agreat enterprise, when the sermon had made some of us wish that we onlyhad the power and gift to seize that wonderful opportunity as it mightbe seized, and have done with texts and doctrines and speak to the menas men. Every man there had his ideals—he was giving his life, as likeas not, because, however crude the exterior, there was an eye withinwhich saw truly and surely through the mists. And now when they stood onthe brink of the last great sacrifice, could he not seize upon thosetruths—?
But this time we simply stood and wondered. For that slip of a figure inkhaki, high up there with one hand on the stanchion and the othertapping the rail, was telling them a thousand times better than any ofus could ever have put it to himself exactly the things one would havelonged to say.
He told them first, his voice firm with conviction, that God had notpopulated this world with saints, but with ordinary human men; and[Pg 4] thatthey need not fear that, simply because they might not have beenchurchgoers or lived what the world calls religious lives, therefore Godwould desert them in the danger and trials and perhaps the death towhich they went. "If I thought that God wished any man to be torturedeternally," he said, "to be tortured for all time and not to have anyhope of heaven, then I would go down to Hell cheerfully with a smile onmy lips rather than worship such a being. I don't know whether a man mayput it beyond the power of God to help him. But I know this, thatwhether you are bad or good, or religious or not religious, God is withyou all the time trying to help you.
"And what have we to fear now?" he went on, raising his eyes for amoment from the puckered, interested brown foreheads below him andlooking out over the shimmering distant silver of the horizon, as ifaway over there, over the edge of the world, he could read what the nextfew months had in store for them. "We know what we have come for, and weknow that it is right. We have all read of the things which havehappened in Belgium and in France. We know that the Germans invaded apeaceful country and brought these[Pg 5] horrors into it, we know how theytore up treaties like so much paper; how they sank the Lusitania andshowered their bombs on harmless women and children in London and in thevillages of England. We came of our own free wills—we came to say thatthis sort of thing shall not happen in the world so long as we are init. We know that we are doing right, and I tell you that on this missionon which we have come, so long as every man plays the game and plays itcleanly, he need not fear about his religion—for what else is hisreligion than that? Play the game and God will be with you—never fear.
"And what if some of us do pass over before this struggle is ended—whatis there in that? If it were not for the dear ones whom he leaves behindhim, mightn't a man almost pray for a death like that? The newspaperstoo often call us heroes, but we know we are not heroes for having come,and we do not want to be called heroes. We should have been less thanmen if we hadn't."
The rapt, unconscious approval in those weather-scarred upturned facesmade it quite obvious that they were with him in every word. In thosesimple sentences this man was speaking the whole soul of Australia. Helooked up[Pg 6] for a second to the wide sky as clear as his own conscience,and then looked down at them again. "Isn't it the most wonderful thingthat could ever have happened?" he went on. "Didn't everyone of us as aboy long to go about the world as they did in the days of Drake andRaleigh, and didn't it seem almost beyond hope that that adventure wouldever come to us? And isn't that the very thing that has happened? Andhere we are on that great enterprise going out across the world, andwith no thought of gain or conquest, but to help to right a great wrong.What else do we wish except to go straight forward at the enemy—withour dear ones far behind us and God above us, and our friends on eachside of us and only the enemy in front of us—what more do we wish thanthat?"
There were tears in many men's eyes when he finished—and that does notoften happen with Australians. But it happened this time—far out thereon a distant sea. And that was because he had put his finger, just forone moment, straight on to the