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Authors: Ronald; Gurner

Pass Guard at Ypres






Pass Guard at Ypres

A Novel

Ronald Gurner




Why should you, living in a world now free,

Read of dead evil things of long ago?

If men fought thus, why, what is it to you?

If from the distance hands are stretched, and low

Faint cries of those that fell and those that slew

Find utterance, because they haunt me so,

Telling of agonies you never knew—

What, then, of that? Yet, of your charity,

I ask you, bear you with me, for to me

Ypres rises mystic in the sunset glow,

The Menin Road winds where the waters flow,

And those strange ghosts that ever come and go

Speak to me sometimes, when the waves beat slow,

Their voices mingled with a Sussex sea.

AGHAM, 1929.


It looked a bit rough, thought Freddy Mann, as he lit another cigarette and
absent-mindedly fingered the identity disk which hung about his neck. The sea was
getting up, and the wind was freshening. What would it be like to be at sea if it
was rough? He had never been to sea before, and he was rather afraid that he might
be sick. He would rather not be sick in front of his men; he didn't suppose
really that it mattered much, but, as Harry and others at Aldershot had often told
him, it was sometimes little things that just made the difference in the
men's respect. He didn't think though, on the whole, that he had much
to fear on that score. He looked at his platoon, some reclining, packs off, at the
side of the quay, some, like Sergeant Mitchell, walking idly up and down. Jolly good
platoon, his platoon. He'd had them from the first, and after five
months' training he knew them pretty well. Raw enough they'd all been
when they first found themselves together in the huts at Witley—himself
straight up from his father's little shop at Edenhurst, and the men drafted
post-haste from London into the newly formed division, still with civvy hats, boots
and great-coats, fit prey for the few Regular N.C.O.s, sergeant-majors and others,
to whom had been entrusted, under Colonel Townroe and a handful
of “pukka” officers, the task of licking them into shape. Little
enough they could do then; there wasn't a better platoon in
“K.1” now. They'd had some times together, by Jove! Incidents
came into his mind as he sat, a little apart, looking sometimes at them, sometimes
at other broken lines of khaki stretching along the quay, and from time to time at
the transport in the distance, which they would board at six o'clock. That
strange review of January, that winter's morning when their battalion had
marched out from Witley, not too well protected against the driving snow, to
assemble with other columns which poured across hills and along muddy roads, and
wait half-numbed until a car appeared, drove without stopping through the centre of
the divisions and left them to disperse; that other review when, as they marched
past, Kitchener had stood at the salute, and they had seen in the flesh the leader
whose name was already almost legendary; the move in March, when they had marched as
a battalion for the first time, fully equipped, from Witley into Aldershot; the
three days' training scheme in the early days of spring, when the men had
barns for billets, grumbled about their rations, and thought it fun; route marches,
field-cooking practice upon the slope by Frensham Pond, field days that grew in
scope and intensity as March gave place to April, night operations, musketry courses
at Ash Ranges, and day by day the steady routine of Badajos Barracks—he and
his platoon had had time through this to know each other well enough. He'd
miss this life, he rather thought. Better this than the dull round in his
father's little shop at Edenhurst; better, too,
companionship of Harry, “Robbie,” Toler, Bill and
“Sammy” in the company mess than the little country circle in which
his father, mother and sisters moved. He'd miss the weekly show at the
Hippodrome, and the return to the little quartermaster's house at Badajos and
drinks at midnight, the teas at Buzzacott's, the fortnightly leave to Town,
where, with the dashing Mare or Copeland, he had packed very considerably more into
the few hours at his disposal before rejoining the crowded 10.50 at Waterloo than
during any previous stay of long or short duration at his aunt's at Peckham.
Five months of it—but perhaps, after all, those five months were long enough;
they were impatient now, officers and men, in the company, the battalion, and the
whole division; they wanted to get there. They got more and more irritated when some
grizzled old cynic like Kennedy, “A” Company Commander, growled that
they'd have plenty of it before they'd finished. They talked
interminably about the news from the Front, Neuve Chapelle, the gas attack on Ypres.
As delay followed delay and the company had been keyed up for departure only for
rumours to prove false once more, they wondered whether they were to be kept there
in Aldershot for three years or the duration; and then, just when impatience was
turning to resentment, there had come quite suddenly the renewed excitement in the
orderly room, the meticulous inspections of kit and barracks, the hectic visits to
Field Stores, the three days' final leave, the march through a starry night
in May from Badajos to Farnborough—training was over and they were for it
now, and they were glad. It wasn't, indeed,
exactly the
sort of way in which it was to be expected that soldiers should sally forth to war:
there should have been a march with bands playing and colours flying, through
streets thronged with cheering crowds, and embraces and fond farewells at stations
hung with flags. But many things, as Freddy Mann knew already, in this war were
strange: he rather thought that previously a company hadn't been drawn up
just before entrainment, and a black-looking object composed of gauze and cotton
wool carefully issued to every officer and man, with instructions for its use
quietly given out by a level-voiced Colonel in the R.A.M.C., who finished by
remarking in the same even, passionless tones in which he had already spoken that
“loss of this respirator, or even a few minutes' delay in its
adjustment, may result in instant death.” That was new to all, but to him
other things were new as well: this sea crossing, for example. They would soon be
there now—just this few hours' wait at Southampton, then the night
voyage across. Well, he was ready for it, but what would it all be like? He looked
at his respirator, and fingered the handle of his pistol. What sort of a crossing
would it be—and what would it be like on the other side?


Madame Fouquière sat in the sunshine outside the main estaminet at Watten, and
beamed as she looked on her domain. Her smile, like her figure, was expansive; well
it might be, for the greater part of what she surveyed was directly or indirectly
hers. The old man, working at the manure heap across the road, battered straw hat
upon his head, was her father; the children just in front of her were her younger
son's and daughter's offspring; the estaminet itself was hers, as were
the little houses that lined the lane to the left of where she sat, the barns and
sheds directly opposite, the geese and chickens that wandered in the garden plot and
upon the highway, the dog that basked beside her, the cows that chewed the cud
lazily in the field beyond the line of poplar trees, the yoked dog-team which was
drawing a small heavily laden cart home along the
the fields round the cross roads in the middle distance,
and the farm upon the hillside, now made over to her son-in-law, where her daughter
lived. Without question, next to the Mayor, Madame Fouquière was the lady of
chief estate in Watten, and as for the Mayor himself—“La, la,”
Madame Fouquière would say, “he is rich now, for the English pay him
well for billets, but in himself that Beaugard is of little import, and his farm is
small; but
as for me—
—what if my man is dead? Mayor he may be, that Beaugard, but
what would you have, Beaugard or
Fouquière?” Few in Watten or elsewhere were to be found to dispute her
claim, and the reign of Madame Fouquière was peaceful. This was as it should
be, for peace abode in Watten. For fifty years Madame Fouquière had known the
little commune, and it was now in all essentials as it had been in those early days
when traces of the invader were beginning to disappear, and northern agricultural
France awoke to find herself free and turned herself to her work and her content
again. Even now, after nine months of war, the peace of Watten was almost
undisturbed, and there was but little change. The men had gone,
indeed—Jacques, Madame's son-in-law, her nephews Pierre and Rupert,
and many others, leaving but those such as her lazy old father,
ce vieux ça, Père
Hamblin, and the women to guard the
farms and tend the crops. Always now there was that mutter on the horizon to the
east, sometimes swelling to a sudden roar, and at night the dancing lights and
flashes in the heavens; and the soldiers passed through week by week, French at
first, her own countrymen, with their blue and red uniforms, who waved so cheerily
and kissed so gallantly and paid so very little; then British, or perhaps Canadian,
but all alike to her, clad in that strange khaki, marching always so neatly, leaving
her barns and estaminet always so clean, paying always so much, happy there in
Watten, yet always, it seemed, wishing so to take the road towards the east. These
things indeed were new, but the rest remained; the Forêt
d'Eperlecques, stretching
its green and shady length to
greet the midday heat along the hills, the stream eddying lazily between the banks
and the moss-covered arches of the little bridge at the bottom of the road, Watten
itself, the home of her and hers for generations, which
le bon
not forgetting those flowers and lighted candles which stood ever
before his Mother's image in church and on the wayside shrine, had so far
spared. Ah well, if prayers and candles could avail, with Jacques and her men away
and les salles Boches just beyond those hills, there was need indeed for both. He
would spare them still, and grant to those away a safe return. In the meantime one
takes things as they come: her daughters will work and her grandsons,
les gamins,
and Yvonne, until the time shall come for her
to bear her Jacques his child, and
ce vieux
her father,
he above all shall work, for all his laziness, but it is not for her to till the
fields, or tend the cattle, while there are these others round: for her the
estaminet, the letting of the barns, the watching of that baggage in the kitchen and
of Beaugard, rogue of rogues, who would keep her money as he does the money of those
others, were she not there week by week outside the door when the officer came to
pay. And for the rest, on these afternoons of early summer, when others were about
their business—as it was well that they should be, and she would see to it
that they were—the chair before the door, and the knitting, and the talk to
the officer who happened, as one so often happened, to be sitting by her side; as
this officer, for example, this quiet one, who with the others had lived for a week
in her estaminet, and who would go,
he thought, tomorrow.
she had named him from
the first, and she called him now
mon Bébé
openly, a name which suited him and which he did not seem to mind. They had been
very young, some of the officers who had stayed with her as they passed through
Watten, and these who had now come, who called themselves “K.1” and
knew nothing of war, were for the most part younger still, but even of them he was
the youngest. Why, did he even shave? she wondered, for he was almost like a girl to
look at, not tall, not broad or strong, and his cheeks and face still pink and
white, though browner now than when he came. Here he was as usual, the day's
route march over, polishing the leather belt which his servant had already made so
clean, smoking what these English called a fag, listening from time to time to the
sound of the guns which she knew well, but which was still strange to him, wondering
whether they were nearer or farther away and whether they were ours or theirs. How
they were funny, these English soldiers, who had come, it seemed, almost from the
nursery to the war; but they marched well, and their men obeyed them, and, like
those others who had passed before, they wanted to go forward to the east; which
Madame was glad to see, for already some had passed, coming into Watten by the other
road, who had not wanted to return, and had told her things about the trenches which
as yet these officers, even the great dark Harree, could scarcely know.
like the others, wanted to be up and
gone; he had just said so: he would not sit there, quiet, telling her about his home
and England, and his friend, one Muriel, after that afternoon.

“Although we shall be sorry to go,” he continued, “I shall, anyway. We didn't expect anything of this when we landed last week at——” He stopped. He would not say where they had landed, although she knew quite well. “They told us we should go straight up—”

“To Ypres.”

Freddy Mann turned round with an almost startled expression to Madame.

“How do you know? I haven't told you.”

“Know? It is easy, that, to know,
mon petit.
It is always Ypres. Sometimes La Bassée or Armentières for a time, but always
Ypres. I see them when they go, and just sometimes when they return. You go to Ypres,
It is the lot of all.”

“Well, I don't know that we mind if we do,” as Freddy Mann lit another cigarette. “Interesting sort of place to see; we've heard a lot about it. But it's all the same to us, you know. They said when we got to—”


“Know that, too, do you? Well, anyway, they said then we might be sent to Gallipoli. Glad we've come to France, though. It's the Boche our crowd joined up to fight. Besides—” He looked round. “Places like this are worth coming to. Wonder if there are many of them.”

“It is France,
mon Bébé;

“You ought to have heard Sammy in the Forest this morning. You know Sammy, don't you—that rather tubby chap—fellow that sings, you know. Sings and eats a lot.”


“Well, he fairly let himself go when we had the midday easy. Started spouting poetry and singing like Caruso, till Harry choked him off. Just like Sammy; it doesn't take much to work him up. But it certainly was tophole, you know. The birds singing, and the sunlight coming through the leaves, and the white road and everything so peaceful. Think the men noticed it, too, as well as us.”

He put down his Sam Browne for a few moments in silence, looking down the lane that led away from the high road opposite them.

“Seem almost to have bought this place, you know. The battalion's all over it. We've named bits of it among ourselves. That's Harry's Corner, and there's Toler's Copse, and there where Sammy's platoon is, that's the Zoo. You'll miss us when we've gone.”

“Others will follow. There are always more coming up; they say there is no end to you, the British.”

“Suppose not—we're just beginning to come now. About time. Devil of a time the war's gone on already. Can't last much longer. But I'm glad it's lasted as long as this. Gives a fellow a chance to get out and see a bit of life, you know. We've got across, anyway. Bet half the people in England will never get as far as that. But all our crowd joined up early, that's why we've got out soon. And it's Ypres you think we're going to?”

Madame nodded.

“Ah, well.” Freddy Mann suddenly got up and straightened his tunic. “P'raps you're right. And good luck to it; I shan't mind if it is. Must be off now—time for rations,
and then I've got the post to do. Ypres—don't suppose it'll be quite as peaceful there, I must say. Sammy'll have to find another tune. Funny if you're wrong, Madame, and we don't go there at all. I'll let you know—oh, no, I can't—forgot that, otherwise I would. Can't tell, you know, you may be wrong.”

“It is always Ypres,
mon Bébé.
I have seen it from the beginning—it is always so. First our
then the British, the Canadians, then you again, the British: by different roads perhaps, Steenvoorde, Hazebrouck, La Bassée or Armentières—but always at the end is Ypres.”

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