Ways and By-Ways of a Singing Kiwi with the N.Z. Divisional Entertainers in France
Chapter VII. — Germany
Arriving back at Beauvois-Fontaine just a week before Christmas, we found the place practically deserted, the Division having marched to Germany through Belgium, by way of Verviers, a small town near the border which gave them a great reception, hailing their entry with banners proclaiming them the "Saviours of Belgium."
We waited the arrival of those of our company who had gone to England, but the stragglers who did come brought word that the big majority had no intention of returning, and were then attending sick parades at the various hospitals in Blighty and hoping for the best.
When, ultimately, it became evident that the last conscientious performer had arrived, arrangements were finalised, and all that was left of us—twenty in all, under Lt. Shayle Gardiner—proceeded to join the Division, per horse-box. Anyway that was better than marching, as the Division had done, and at least there was clean straw, and room to get down on the floor: both comfortable considerations when one remembers now our discomfort in leaving Germany.
Queue outside Divisional Theatre
See Page 111
At Mons, while souveniring German hats and other equipment from a train drawn up opposite ours, I was mortified to look up and find our train gone, leaving me quite alone with my souvenirs.
I spotted a German Red Cross train draw in to the station not very long afterwards, and as it was going my way, I waited until no one was looking, before secreting myself aboard, on the top of a big pile of first-aid bandages, and other gear in the van. As showing how badly off the Germans were for supplies, those first-aid field dressings were made of dried green moss, instead of lint or cotton-wool.
They might not have been the best field dressings, but they made a very good bed.
That night was Christmas Eve, and when I woke on Xmas Day it was snowing hard, and I couldn't make out where I was until it dawned on me slowly.
I lay quite still and out of sight, listening to the conversation of a couple of German soldiers who had entered the van, and began to wonder what kind of a reception I would get when I tried to explain my presence there. However, while trying to make myself understood, we pulled into the station at Aachen, and to my great content, there were some of our chaps having a spruce-up under a pump on the platform.
I did not hesitate, but made one dive for the door and out of the van, my pockets bulging page 122still more, for I had added a few of those field dressings to the collection I had made at Mons.
We had Christmas dinner in the horse truck that afternoon, and though it was restricted to a hash of bully-beef and cheese heated up on a brazier, it was marvellous.
Detraining at Opladen, just outside Cologne, we were detailed to proceed to Leichlingen, where one of our Wellington battalions was quartered, and here, at the Gasthof den Golden Sternen, an hotel run by Herr and Frau Meiss, not forgetting their three beautiful daughters, we put on a series of short pierrot programmes, in conjunction with our cinema, in a small hall incorporated in the hotel.
Our billet was some quarter of a mile away along a snow-covered road from the hotel where we showed, and we all slept on the floor of one room in a large empty house: that is, officially we slept there, but in reality it was not long before most of us had found more comfortable beds. With the exchange at forty marks to the pound, instead of the par rate of twenty marks to the pound, we were able to spread ourselves quite a bit on our pay, though had we been there a couple of years later, we would have needed a hand-cart to take away the change of an English pound note. Lt. Shayle Gardiner was detailed as a guide to the Diggers sight-seeing in Cologne, and so the responsibility for the show devolved upon me.
We were given the services of a three-ton lorry, and performed mostly in Y.M.C.A.'s and in halls attached to hotels in some dozen little towns round Cologne.page 123
Divisional Headquarters were at Wiesdorf, and there we gave performances at the Kaiser-saal, and later at the 88th Feild Ambulance (Tommy) Rest Station.
Wiesdorf is the home of the big chemical firm of "Bayers," makers of the famous aspirin tablets, and they have tremendously big works there, with their own Fire Brigade and Ambulance stations.
I remember counting up to twenty-seven huge chimney stacks at the works, and then gave it up as a bad job. We were billeted in the model village of Leverkusen, built on the plan of Cadbury's, Bournville, in England. Some of the other towns and villages we showed in round Cologne were: Mulheim, Deutz, Kalk, Immagrath, Dunwald, Delbruck, Neukirchen, Gladback, Bensberg, and Langenfeld, at all of which places sections of our New Zealand Division were quartered.
We found the people very badly off for foodstuffs, and well-dressed men would meet all the troop trains, offering cigars for tins of bully-beef, or Machonachie rations. I'm afraid some of them were often duped when they paid high prices for what looked like, and were sold for, tins of butter; but which, on being opened, turned out to be not butter, but Machonachie rations.
We noted many examples of the well-known German astuteness for providing substitutes to wanted materials.
Most of the linings for men's clothes, and indeed some of their underclothing, was made of paper, while with the scarcity of leather, page 124almost all boots and shoes were soled and heeled with wood.
There was no rubber for bicycle or motor tyres, the wheels of the former having a steel band supported by innumerable small springs round the rims.
It is quite reasonable that such adepts in the matter of subtle substitution, who were able to produce sausage roll without sausages, may very well be suspected as the cowardly perpetrators of clear soup.
They might even prove to be the synthetic originals of the war-time soldiers who, if they'd had some ham could have had ham and eggs, if only they'd had the eggs.
Such a bounteous situation would not be likely to incur heartburn, let alone heart-burnings, to the all-consuming, or little-consuming, sturmtruppen of Hitler's post-war regime.
There was an almost complete absence of motor traffic owing to the lack of tyres, and when our long columns of heavy Daimler lorries moved in, you might have knocked the eyes of the staring population (probably they were motor traders) off with the proverbial stick.
The housewives, at whose homes we secured billets, were fearful of our arrival, as Ludendorff, in an army order, had warned his troops not to allow themselves to be captured by the New Zealanders, who were coloured men and cannibals. Evidently he had heard something of the old-time Maoris, and had used it to frighten his men.
Anyway, whatever the cause, the women-folk were a bit dubious about us, until, it being Christmas time, we opened up our Xmas par-page 125cels, containing all the good things the German people had lacked for over three years, and shared everything with them and their families.
When we took the kiddies on our knees and handed out slices of those richly-iced cakes, slabs of chocolate, dried fruits, etc., the change in the tone of our reception was most marked, and ever after that we had the pleasure of feeling almost welcome.
The poor creatures had subsisted for months, and probably years, on the barest of meals, composed mainly of a potato mash which they were glad to throw out when they could get something better, exclaiming "Ach, das ist nicht gut essen," and certainly "it was not good eating," after so long a time with little else. To give an idea of how they longed for sweets, our canteens sold more chocolate in Germany in three months than they did in almost three years in France.
We offered our landlady, Frau Schuboth, of Mulheim, a box containing six pieces of ordinary coloured soap, from which she was delighted to take only one piece, and when told they were all for her, she could scarcely believe it; each cake would have cost her the equivalent of 5/-: that is, ten marks for a sixpenny cake of soap. A French refugee, M. Leon Grimbert, who had returned to Beauvois-Fontaine while we were there, told us that the German army, too, were very short of soap; and wherever they were quartered, they could always be detected when the wind blew from that direction.
The German civil population had been told, no doubt to keep up their morale, that "England ist kaput," but our sumptuous supplies of so page 126many of the desired delicacies of life, to say nothing of the aforementioned Daimler lorry column, convinced them that "England was far from being finished."
They could scarcely believe that we had came twenty thousand kilometres to help England, or that we had never been trained for the army as all German youths were. We had to explain that "England ist nicht schweinhund," but was, in fact, a good mother to Australia, New Zealand, and all the rest of the Empire.
Nor did they understand that they had lost the war.
Had they not negotiated an armistice, mutually agreed upon by all the belligerents, and signed in a railway carriage in Belgium?
Surely, if we had won the war, we would have insisted in signing peace in Berlin, with a display of our full powers, and a parade of the pick of our best troops. They showed us photographs of their returning armies being feted all the way back, with flowers strewn in their paths, garlands round their necks, and more flowers down the barrels of their rifles, as though they had been victorious. They were to receive a very rude shock later, of course, when the terms of the Versailles Treaty became known. It seems certain, however, that the last war was not finished off properly, and that Berlin should have been the final goal of the Allied armies; for it is only force that is recognised in Germany, where any meekness is taken for weakness.
And if the women were inclined to be friendly towards us, we received no such recognition from their menfolk, though, of course, it page 127was hardly to be expected that they would go exactly wild over us at that time.
At one of the first billets we slept in, we got into conversation with two soldiers in the next room, one of whom arrogantly asserted his expert use of the flammenwerfer (flame-thrower) at the Somme in Sept., 1916, while the other had been in the line opposite us in Armentieres in 1916. I suppose they were decent enough chaps, and had only been doing their duty, as our chaps had; but I remember I didn't sleep too well that night, though the door was fairly well barricaded.
Being now in charge of our show, I was able to arrange things now and then so as to be able to slip into Cologne, where on one occasion I heard a very fine performance of the "Messiah," with a splendidly-trained choir and an outstanding bass soloist in Julius Gless, who stood right out above the other artists.
I was quite familiar with the whole work, having sung the tenor role on occasions previously, and it was a great joy to hear Handel's masterpiece again.
At the Cologne Opera Haus, I was lucky enough to attend performances of "Thannhauser" and Beethoven's only opera,"Fidelio."
I knew all the Wagner music, and quite a lot of "Fidelio," having played most of it in my brass band and orchestral days.
To see these German operas actually presented in Germany, was, as may be gauged from my previous remarks on the subject, a great treat to me. The theatre etiquette of those large German audiences was an eye-opener, for, not-page 128withstanding the fact that they are practically brought up on opera, therefore knowing the music off by heart, there was not a sound from the commencement of the overture until the curtain fell at the end of the act, when the applause was unrestrained.
One complaint often heard re Covent Garden is that you may, as like as not, have the galling experience of sitting near someone who, having become familiar with the principal airs of the opera being performed, insists on "airing" or sharing his knowledge, or on shouting "Bravo!" just when the tenor is sitting squarely on his high C. Such things are not done in Germany where, owing mainly to State aid, the people are brought up on opera, though who teaches them to sit so quiet, I never found out.
I shall always remember a stupid thing I did one night I was going to a performance in Cologne. It was just about 6 p.m., and I suddenly realised I needed a shave, so I popped into a barber's near the opera house. It was just on closing time, and while I lay back in the chair, with a wide expanse of neck fully exposed, thinking of nothing in particular, I suddenly heard the German barber, who was vigorously stropping his razor, and looking at me with a face like the proverbial "meat-axe," call out to his boy to "shut the door."
A favourite excursion from Cologne was to go by electric train to Bonn, where Beethoven's birth-place still stands, and there to gaze in reverence in the very room where the great master was born, and to see his old harpsichord and many of his original manuscripts.
Though we had no permission to move outside our own allotted area, three of us. took the risk, and had a very happy day in the old fortress town of Coblenz, 80 miles down the beautiful Rhine.
It was mid-winter, and snow lay everywhere, as the train wound its way, for the most part, along the banks of the great river to the lovely old-world city. In our Boy Scout-like hats we were mistaken for Americans, whose sector it was, by an old hotel-keeper at whose dining-room we presented ourselves. The Yanks had a different method of feeding their troops to ours, in that, instead of employing army cooks, they issued the rations to certain hotels who prepared the meals for the troops, and when we enquired how much we owed for the dinner provided, the old German looked at our hats and said: "Sie ist Amerikan?" to which we could hardly do other than reply "Ja," whereupon we were politely informed that it was "Nichts." I have a fancy the old proprietor had his doubts about us, all the same, and he very probably wondered why it was we did not know that all meals were free to soldiers in that area.page 130
At the Knights of Columbus Club, the Yanks were most hospitable to us, and we lacked for nothing that day.
While in the small town of Mulheim, near Cologne, our 2nd Brigade Commandant, General Young, gave a dinner to the Prince of Wales, who blew along quite unattended, in a car, that evening.
About nine o'clock, our orchestra, which played during the course of the dinner, was packing up prior to retiring, when the Prince sent out his gold cigarette case, and asked that we continue to play a little longer. In the case were the very best De Reszkes, and our chaps got down on them for souvenirs.
Our Staff-Captain, Stuart McDonald, with whom I used to run in the harriers in pre-war days, said we had better put some back, as he couldn't return the case to His Royal Highness empty.
So the boys filled it up with Trumpeters and Ruby Queens, issue cigarettes to the troops.
"Teddy" was greatly tickled, and came out, all smiles, to ask if we would play his favourite tune, which was: "She'll tell you what you're to do dear, when you look in her eyes," which was from "Going Up," a musical play then showing at the Gaiety Theatre, London. We regretted not having the music, whereupon he amazed us all by pulling out a copy of the song from beneath his tunic.
Can it be surprising that such consummate ease as a "Mixer," as he possessed, endeared the young Heir Apparent to all who came in contact with him, and laid the foundation to that page 131tremendous popularity he achieved on his voyage round the Empire in 1920.
It is surely not too much to say that no more popular king ever ascended a throne, and it seems absolutely incredible that a reign that started so auspiciously, and promised so much, should be blighted and broken off so suddenly, and in the inglorious manner now so well known to us all.
Our popular ex-king will know many moments of joy and sorrow in his lone journey from now to the grave; but there must be one moment of time he will never be able to efface from his memory, and that, in my humble opinion, was when he sailed from England in the dead of night without a friend, and landed in France alone, unhonoured and unsung.
Poor "Teddy," fate certainly dealt him a shabby hand, and I feel we all must regret that he ever allowed the circumstances to arise when he should be called on to make such a tremendous decision, and that when it had to be made, he found himself unable to make that sacrifice in the service of his country in peace that he had made in war, and so uphold all the dearest hopes of his illustrious great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, his grand-father King Edward the Seventh, and his well-beloved parents, King George V. and Queen Mary, all of whom lived to expect much from the young Prince David as he was known at home. It is because we expected so much that we were hurt so deeply, and we may count ourselves fortunate that the vacant throne has been filled so well.page 132
After such a serious outpouring it may be as well to limber up with an amusing reminiscence which occurred when we were being photographed on-stage at Kalk.
The German photographer made many unsuccessful attempts to get his flashlight apparatus to function, until we all got very tired of hanging around, when Nation suddenly called out: "Shake it up, Fritz, no wonder you lost the war!"
We all thought this remark tolerably funny, though the sullen looks we got were black enough to suggest an immediate cancellation of the armistice terms.
I'm afraid the Germans were angered on very many occasions, as when, disregarding all notices that only a limited number of us were allowed to travel on the trams, all and sundry would proceed to clamber aboard, in spite of the irate conductor's protests. All windows and doors of trams and trains were generally kept tightly closed, and you would often see a Digger write with his finger on the breath-frosted (if one may use such a term) panes: "Got mituns, "or"Gott strafe England."
It is not difficult to imagine how the populace must have resented such insults, which, it must be admitted, even under the circumstances, were very cheeky.
The chivalrous gesture of rising to give a seat to a lady was not generally understood in Cologne in 1919, and very often an over-sized male would have to be instructed as to his mistake in accepting the vacated place.page 133
No, I don't think we were too popular with the ruling sex in Deutschland, as the Germans term their own country, but there could be no mistake that their womenfolk were very sorry to see us go.
"Cupboard love," you may say, and perhaps they were going to miss the little extras we were able to provide; but there was something more than that, for when the time actually came for us to depart, whole families were to be seen in the streets, all with their handkerchiefs out, though they were used for other purposes than merely waving us goodbye. I believe they really softened towards us when they saw that, far from acting discourteously towards them, we, on the contrary, showed them every respect; and, what was more than anything, were kind to the children.
I feel sure that many of those German people will, remember us sympathetically, for it is a fact that apart from the barrier of the difference in language, our two peoples have quite a lot in common, and much as I like France and its inhabitants, we have actually no blood ties with them as we have with the Germans. It is a thousand pities for all the world that we find it as impossible to accept them as close associates as they do to accept us, for a democratic, sane Germany, in alliance with America and the British Empire, is something to be devoutly prayed for, even though as yet it seems almost impossible of accomplishment.
For even unto these latter days, ruthless dominance is still the be-all and end-all of German diplomacy, and force still the ruling passion of page 134that country, where, as Kipling has remarked (though not about Germany): "A woman is only a woman, but a good cigar is a smoke."
When it came to the finish, I think we too were sorry to part company with our new friends, in spite of our desires to get back to our homes; though the shop window-cards imploring us "Now then, Diggers, take back something to remember Germany by," were a bit galling to those who had plenty to remind us of what their diabolical war had cost us in health: "Ein andenken am den Welt krieg" indeed.
At the final dinner in the hotel at Leich-lingen, everyone stood in silence, while the names of all our departed comrades, who had been with us in the show, were read through, and at 1.30 p.m. on February 4th, after bidding a very sad farewell to the lovely Paula, the sole remaining members of the Divisional Entertainers, some nineteen of us in all, reported at 2nd Brigade H.Q., at Mulheim, and marched in to the main railway station at Cologne, on the first stage of our return journey to our homeland.
We were a curiously silent band that made our way over those snow-covered roads; indeed, the snow was still falling thickly, as with full packs up for the first time for many moons, many of us were glad we were not re-enacting Napoleon's famous retreat from Moscow, though, all unknown to us, conditions were to be bad enough before we set foot in that glorious land which is England.
There were 1,300 New Zealanders in that draft, and the rolling stock allotted proved to be none other than the now all-too-familiar page 135horse-boxes, with their well-known caption "40 Hommes ou 8 Cheveaux."
Why it was that the forty men should evidently have first choice, heaven only knows, for I feel sure it was never intended that so many men, or any at all for that matter, should have to travel through three days and nights in such conveyances, especially under snow. Each truck was issued with a bale of straw, but without a fire of any sort, and with only iron rations, consisting of bully-beef and hard biscuits, conditions on this terrible journey from Cologne to Rouen may well be imagined.
With all our equipment and gear there was only just room for the last man to get down on the floor, and because of the continual snow, the sliding door had to be kept closed. We were left stranded at sidings, often for hours on end, sometimes with nothing better to do than to stroll about for a rest, while inspecting, often, whole trains of beautifully cushioned carriages, lying idle, when we could have so very well made use of them. It was all very galling; but eventually, after passing through such well-known places as Liege, Namur, Charleroi, Arras, Albert, and Amiens, we did arrive at Rouen, where, to cap everything, we were marched to a Tommy rest camp, in which we spent another three days and nights in tents, under snow. During the dreary days spent in that camp we were de-loused, and issued with a complete outfit of underclothing: "One shirt, one singlet, one pair of woollen underpants, two pairs of sox, sign here"; any ex-Digger will be familiar with the page 136way this jingle was rattled off at the quartermaster's store.
Most of us had heavy colds, for the snow was over our boot-tops, and it took us half an hour each morning, sitting on our frozen boots and socks, so as to thaw them sufficiently to make them wearable.
Le Havre was reached on the seventh day after leaving Cologne, and though it was bitterly cold when we arrived there, and many of us had lost our voices, the first meal they served out to us at the Canadian Rest Camp, consisted, unbelievably, of a cold salt herring and an orange.
Remember, I am not relying on my memory for all this, as I still retain all the letters I wrote home at the time. We boarded the little Duchess of Devonshire at noon on the eighth day, but as she did not sail until 10.30 p.m. that night, we just lay out in the roadstead, enjoying as nice a choppy sea as you could imagine.
As there was not room for everyone to get down on the deck, and with many of us decidedly off colour, after so trying a journey on such poor food, it is needless to say that the harbour at Weymouth provided a most welcome sight for those who could still raise their heads sufficiently to take an interest in affairs, after our eleven and a-half hours' crossing of the English Channel.page break