THE CANADIAN ARMY AS I SAW IT
AN ADDRESS BY REV. DR. JOHN NEIL
Before the Empire Club of Canada, Toronto,
April 8, 1918
MR. PRESIDENT AND GENTLEMEN, Last September I was asked by the Military Service Board of the Presbyterian Church to go overseas, to convey greetings to the chaplains and the men. Almost the first person I met on the boat was Bishop Richardson, who was on the same mission on behalf of the Anglican Church. We went together from Liverpool to London; we stayed at the same hotel for a day or two; and we were to have gone to Scotland together, but I had an attack of bronchitis and so that poor man had to go alone into the northern country where there are so many Presbyterians. We went to France together, and I think, to my benefit, we formed a friendship which I hope will be lifelong. He knows he received a little Presbyterianism from me, and I am not sure that I have got rid of the little Anglicanism he gave me.
At the chaplains' headquarters we met Colonel (formerly Canon) Almond of Montreal and Col. Beatty, who was a Presbyterian minister at Cobourg. We placed ourselves under their orders, and we were to visit certain camps in England until December 15th, then we were to go to Scotland, and then over to France for nine days.
I had the pleasure of visiting hospitals at Stepford, Witley, Bramshott, and a number of others, and of speaking
At the time of this address the Rev. Dr. Neil, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, had just returned from an extended visit to Great Britain and France, where he saw the Canadian forces in training and at the Front.
to a great many men. I do not attach as much importance to the parade service as some do, because the men are compelled to attend, and it is not altogether a compliment to the preacher. What I did appreciate were the services in the Y.M.C.A: huts; I had four or five of them in Witley.
You go into a hall holding 400 or 500 people. You find all smoking-every blessed one of them-and then a number playing cards or other games. As soon as the service begins, they drop the cards and gather around, and I cannot remember more than one or two leaving the room, in any service I held, before or while I spoke; and I never in my life addressed any number of men anywhere who were more enthusiastic, sympathetic, or ready to receive the message I had to give them. My main message was this: a greeting from the home--and Oh, how they loved to hear from the home. Having traveled in Canada, east and west, about 11,000 miles since last June I was able to tell them something about the towns from which they had come, and they were eager to hear everything of that -kind. Then I greeted them from the church--the Bishop and myself did not represent either Anglican or Presbyterian, but our greetings were from every branch of the church. Then we gave a greeting from the country; and after the election I was able to speak with a great deal more confidence than I did before. I found that ninety per cent. of them were exceedingly anxious, and if the the result had been different, they would have interpreted, whether justly or not, that the country was not standing behind them.
On the second of February we went over to France. It is not an easy thing getting into France; I wish the Germans had as much difficulty as I had. A friend of mine on the boat said that if he had his way I would never get there, because I would catch pneumonia and come back dead; but when I returned he admitted that I looked better than before I started. If we had not been representing the whole church we could not have gone to France, as they are getting stricter constantly on that point. The Bishop remarked that he thought half of the thirty millions of people in England had put their stamp on his passport; and the same number put it on mine. It is a curiosity which I will keep all my life. The boat on which we sailed across the Channel was filled with soldiers. We wore life-belts, and as mine had been worn by several hundreds of people before, I felt that I was in more danger from germs than even from German submarines. We had airplanes over us, destroyers on either side of us, and in about two hours we reached Boulogne. We were met by a number of friends--Major Beatty, Bishop DePencier and Major Sheppard of Montreal. We had supper. I had supposed the water there would be so bad that it would be as much as one's life was worth to drink it, so that there would be some excuse for drinking something else; but I found that they treated it as they do in Toronto, so that it was just the same as Toronto water.
We drove 75 miles to the Canadian. Corps Headquarters. I had been told that I must buy a trench coat, and rubber boots that would hold three pairs of socks; but the weather was delightful, such as we have here in early September, with only a little rain, so my trench coat was a white elephant. Two huts had been built for officers, one for the dining and smoking room and the other where we slept, and I had very comfortable quarters all the time we were there, with comfortable beds, and I never slept better in my life.
On Sunday we both addressed meetings in the morning, afternoon and evening, and afterwards had dinner with Sir Arthur Currie, General of the Canadian Corps. On my left hand sat a very delightful looking gentleman, dressed as an officer, his age being about 35, and when I asked him, "Are you a Canadian?" he replied, "No, I was born in England." Then Col. Greer, Senior Chaplain of the Corps Headquarters, leaned over to me and said, "This is Prince Arthur of Connaught." He said his sister had been five years in Canada, and had a good many Canadian expressions. I remarked that if she had all the Canadian slang she would have a large vocabulary. I found that the Prince was one of the most popular men in the whole British army; he is one of those simple, direct men you like to meet.
On Monday we had a meeting with all the chaplains, both Protestant and Catholic, and then we started to view the battlefields. Sir Arthur Currie told us that he was anxious for us to see everything that could be seen, and he placed a motor-car at our disposal. Major Kilpatrick, son of the Knox College professor, was my companion. He took me to Vimy Ridge, where there is not a square yard of earth that has not been churned up with shells. He showed me a German dug-out, with concrete steps; there were no Germans in it-at least not living ones. Further on we found a number of our men who were on guard in one of their dug-outs; their quarters were not very comfortable, but much more so than when the weather was raining and disagreeable. Then we went on to the very edge of Vimy Ridge, and we went into an observation point where men were viewing the other side through long-range glasses. The Ridge itself has quite a descent into the valley, which is, perhaps, three miles wide. They pointed out Merincourt; just before us was the village of Vimy, and Little Vimy near it. Away to the left was the town of Lens, the most of which was in possession of the Germans. Away at the other side there was a gradual slope, and they pointed out the first and second line trenches of our own men, and then away beyond that we saw where the German trenches were. It was very interesting to me to stand there where our men had done such magnificent work and gained such a victory.
The next day we visited the dressing station, where the wounded are taken after a battle. We started for the foremost dressing station, but were misdirected, and got within 1,100 yards of Lens, which we could see away at a distance. It was a dangerous place, as I saw shells bursting within 200 yards, and I thought there was danger, but I was not going to let an Anglican Bishop know that a Presbyterian was afraid, so I did not say anything, nor did he. At Souchez Valley there were men working, and they were shelled by the Germans. I would not say how near we were to those shells; we determined we would not say until Dr. Chown, the Superintendent of the Methodist Church, would say how near he was, and then we would get ours a little nearer!
Next day we went over the Somme battlefield. The magnificent Cathedral was in ruins, only broken pillars and parts of the wall standing; the railway station not far away was also in ruins. All over that region we found the towns in ruins, the only intimation that there had been towns there being the notices posted up giving their names. At Baupaume we went into a cemetery originally belonging to the French, where a magnificent monument had been erected to the memory of the men who had fallen in the war of 1870, and about twenty feet from it there was a German monument to the memory of their men. We were shown some empty graves, and were assured that the Germans had opened the coffins and removed the lead from them.
We passed through Peronne, where the Germans had put up a notice, "Don't weep, but laugh." Then we went on to what is called the "great crater." It was found by the Australians, who blew up the Germans in that place. It is about 160 feet in diameter and 50 feet deep. The Germans had been encamped there, and the Australians were away on the height beyond, and had dug a channel underneath in which they had put powerful explosives and blown up the place. It must have been a great surprise to the Germans; a friend of mine said they were all "up in the air" about it.
At Albert we saw the great tower and the "leaning Virgin"-an image some 12 feet high, which is leaning over horizontally on the injured tower, which is still standing. There is a legend that when that image falls the war will cease; and it was said that two women who had been making a good deal of money out of the war were seen one morning strengthening the supports of the image--they did not want it to fall just yet.
Although the ground was torn up, the roads were splendid, thanks to the great work of our fellow-citizen, Col. Mackendrick, who has already addressed you.
The next day we went into Belgium, and stood upon the ruins of the Cathedral at Ypres, the most impressive ruin that I saw. The magnificent Cloth Hall, on the opposite side of the street, was also in ruins. Across the valley we could see, in the dim distance, Passchendaele, where the greatest and most terrible fight up to this last offensive, took place.
We had luncheon at the hospital on our return. I went into the cemetery there, and the first grave I saw there was that of Gen. Mercer, one of the bravest, truest, noblest and most Christian men that has ever gone from Canada. I think you will all agree with that. They told me story after story of the magnificent conduct of that good man, and of his influence over his soldiers and his courage on the field of battle. When we returned we visited Sir Arthur Currie, and had tea with Gen. Horn, a Scotchman from Caithness, to whom of course my heart warmed. We met there the General of the Anglican British chaplains, Bishop Gwynne, and also Gen. Symes, who is chaplain of the non-Anglicans, and we had an opportunity of meeting a great many of those men. We spent Sunday in addressing various meetings.
On Saturday night we went to the theatre. The play was conducted entirely by men, but I did not know that until I was told, because there were a number dressed as young ladies, and I never saw more handsome young ladies than these men made! They were splendid actors, too, and it was a very delightful and wholesome evening we spent.
After visiting a number of the hospitals we came back to England.
The authorities gave us every opportunity to come in contact with the men who have immortalized themselves and Canada by their courage, determination, marvelous endurance and wonderful initiative. That was the statement made by those who have come in contact with them. I never met more optimistic men than they are; in France I did not hear a pessimistic word. I met men going into the line and others coming out of the line; they were all anxious for the time when the war will cease and they will come home again, but not one of them had a pessimistic word. Another thing about the men is their brotherliness. Oh, those men love one another. I heard many stories of their sacrifices for each other. A colonel told me he went into the trenches and found a young man who had been on guard till he was chilled to the bone, and he was shivering, his teeth chattering; another man, who had been sent to relieve him, was using awful language-which the colonel heard while out of sight of the men-but the man took off his own trench coat, wrapped it around the young man, and said, "Lie down there and stop your shivering and chattering"-and he himself went forward and spent his time on guard without this trench coat. Time and again men have gone over the parapet into No Man's Land to bring back a companion. Thus they have shown that they are willing to sacrifice their lives, not only in the cause of righteousness and truth, but for each other as well.
Another thing--those men don't like to be pitied. I went into a hospital car at Winnipeg before going overseas and there were soldiers coming down to Toronto to get artificial arms and limbs, and I told them of a young fellow who had returned to Saskatchewan blind, and while I was there he was married to the most popular young lady in that Province, and I said, "She is more popular now than she was before." A man who had lost a foot said, "I'd rather be dead than blind, he will have to be led around all his life." I said, "He will, but he has some one to lead him around." He said, "They usually do that, anyhow." Another young fellow told of a man who had come back with both legs gone, and a woman came up to him and said, "Poor fellow, I am so sorry for you, are you married?" He replied, "No, Ma'am, this is the worst that has happened to me yet." I told that story in a number of hospitals.
You may ask, what about the vices to which the men are subjected? Well, unfortunately there is a good deal of profanity amongst them, and I think there is a good deal of gambling, too. You can understand that, and it is unfortunate. One officer was specially addicted to gambling, and his O.C. told him he should stop it. He said, "Now you are going to that other battalion, and you should be careful. I don't mean that you should never gamble and take bets, but don't make a practice of it." He replied, "Well, I'll take a bet with you before I leave." (You will find out later what it was.) He went to the other battalion, the O.C. of which knew his reputation, and he said, "I hope you will not do much gambling here." He made the same remark as to the other O.C. but added, "I'd like to have a bet with you before I stop." "What is it?" "Well, I'll bet $50 that you have two red spots on your back." The O.C. took the bet, bared himself, and there were no spots. So the man said, "I was mistaken, here's the $50." The O.C. sent word to the O.C. of the other battalion, "I cured him, I took $50 from him." To which the first O.C. replied, "That's all right for you, but the bet he made with me was that he would have the shirt off your back before he was there an hour; and that bet was for $100."
It would be wrong and foolish to minimize the great temptations to which those men are subjected, and if the British government could do anything to lessen or remove these, we Canadians wild gratefully appreciate what they do; but we must remember that there never was a government in any age of the world that had heavier burdens than the British government has today, and we should be patient with them and try to understand their difficulties. Now, drunkenness is not the great vice, as far as I can learn. I know that people say, "You preachers don't know what you are talking about; you don't see the worst." Well, I went every place where I could possibly find out about Canadians. I went into a certain hotel in London where Col. Almond said I would meet more Canadians than anywhere else, and I did meet hundreds of them. I would go to a group of them and get in touch with them. All the time I was in England and France I did not see more than a dozen drunk Canadians. I am not saying they were not there; no doubt there were many more, but I did not see them; and it was at Piccadilly Circus that I was-just the place where one would be likely to see them. I am a prohibitionist, and would like to see every drop of liquor swept away, but I want to say there has been a marvelous improvement in Britain. I said to a policeman in London, "You have a hard time, and a great deal to do here," and he said, "Not so much as I had once, my work is chiefly with drunken men, but things were very much worse fifteen years ago. I have seen children going into saloons after school, to take their mothers out who were in there." The hours for sale of drink have been shortened. I understand treating is forbidden now, though I do not know how the law is enforced in regard to that. Other things have been improved as to conditions as far as drink is concerned. I would like to see prohibition in England and Scotland, but there are difficulties in the way, and while temperance people are doing everything in their power, we must be patient.
I have official reports in regard to venereal diseases that are remarkably good, but you cannot always judge by official reports. You must remember that there are a good many who do not come in contact with the doctors. Official reports give only two, four, six percent of our men affected, and that is remarkably good. In London certain evils are great, and when our men go on leave there as strangers, without homes as the English have--though the people are doing a great deal in that respect -our boys who are brought in contact with those who are evil are no doubt in many cases led astray. But when I came in contact with our men and looked into their faces-men whom I knew, and some I did not, I could not and do not believe that the majority of those men who had been in the trenches one or two years and yet were so strong, had been led astray. Whilst everything should be done to remove that evil, it seems to me that the first thing that you and I are to do is to see that our own country, Canada, is free from these vices. London has nearly as many inhabitants as we have in Canada; yet if we examined all our people, foreigners and others, I wonder if the conditions would be what we would desire? While we are to ask the British Government to do what they can, yet we are to remember the difficulties they have, and our chief duty is to see that our own country is kept clear and pure.
Many influences are brought to bear on the men to help them. The Y.M.C.A. are doing a splendid work; in their huts the men can play games, smoke, hear music, and get the things they need, and the Y.M.C.A. is surrounding them with good, spiritual atmosphere. Then I cannot speak too strongly of the work of the chaplains, many of whom have gone with the men right into the battlefield, and have carried the wounded back, have held dying lads in their arms, and buried many of those who have been slain. Some of the finest men I ever knew are connected with the chaplain service. I attended a conference in France of both Protestant and Catholic chaplains. I may tell you a story in connection with teat. I went into a shoe-shine parlor in Toronto just before going overseas. There a returned soldier gave me his place, as I was, hurried. He told me he had been in the war 18 moths, and was badly wounded, and when I told him what I was going overseas for, he said it was a chaplain, Captain Madden, who carried him out when he was wounded, but as he was blinded at the time, he would not know the chaplain if he saw him, though he would recognize his voice anywhere. I took this young fellow's name and address, and in France I told that story. When I mentioned the name of Capt. Madden, who is a Catholic, there was general applause. After the meeting a man came up to me and said, "I did not hear the address, but I am Captain Madden, and I want to thank you for the story you told." It was a wonderful thing, 4,000 miles away, to have that testimony as to the work of the chaplains.
The spirit of brotherhood among the chaplains is simply wonderful. I could not tell there who was Catholic, Anglican, Presbyterian or Methodist, they all seemed to be so much alike. Father Workman, a Catholic, accompanied us over to France, I said, "Don't you feel a little strange, taking an Anglican Bishop and a Presbyterian over to France?" He replied, "Oh, if I had my way I'd take you farther, I'd take you to Rome!" Let us and the churches stand behind the chaplains, and make them feel that we are interested in them, and that we appreciate their splendid work.
But after all, the greatest influence that has been brought on the men is the home; though I could speak of the splendid work of the nurses and doctors if time allowed. Thank God for the nurses and the work they are doing. When the men get to hospital it means a great deal to them to have those pure, true young women, skilled and sympathetic, ministering to them. Nothing will enable them to realize true womanhood more than that. But how interested the men were when I would speak of the home! I was told that one day a man fished out of his pocket a Montreal street-car ticket, and it was passed around and eagerly scanned; the very fact that it reminded them of Montreal meant a great deal to them. Col. Almond said that one day he was up near one of the big guns that had not a speck of dust on it, and the places that could be made bright were shining. He complimented the man in charge of the gun, and the man said--mark this-"The kitchen range at home is always bright, and I want this gun to be as bright as the kitchen range." I told the boys I hoped they would remember what they had received in the home, and come back unchanged to the homes where loved ones were praying for them.
Let us keep in closest touch with those men; make them realize that we have not forgotten them; that both in the church and the home we are thinking of them and praying for them, and doing everything in our power so that they may receive the right kind of welcome on their return. I do wish that on the boats coming back the men could be treated with all possible courtesy. Col. Hanson, the O.C. in charge of the returning men, addressed them on leaving-an address highly moral in its character and Christian in tone, and he said, "You have done splendid work over here, and we want you to go to Canada in such a way that you will not lose the magnificent reputation you have gained for your splendid work in Vrance." I do think it would be a good thing if no liquor were sold on the boats, especially when they are in the danger zone. It is of vital importance that all the men should have clear intellects, that they should be alert, and be at their best when there is danger of their being torpedoed.