But I fancy the young officer with me would have been greatly disconcerted at such an action. The English are not given to such demonstrations. But the Canadians would have understood, I know.
Since that time the reports have brought great news of these Canadian troops, of their courage, of the loss of almost all their officers in the fighting at Neuve Chapelle. But that sunny morning, when I saw them in the north of France, they were untouched by battle or sudden death. Their faces were eager, intent, earnest. They had come a long distance and now they had arrived. And what next?
Into this scene of war unexpectedly obtruded itself a bit of peace. A great cart came down a side road, drawn by two white oxen with heavy wooden yokes. Piled high in the cart were sugar beets. Some thrifty peasant was salvaging what was left of his crop. The sight of the oxen reminded me that I had seen very few horses.
“They are farther back,” said the officer, “Of course, as you know, for the last two or three months it has been impossible to use the cavalry at all.”
Then he told me a curious thing. He said that during the long winter wait the cavalry horses got much out of condition. The side roads were thick with mud and the main roads were being reserved for transports. Adequate exercises for the cavalry seemed impossible. One detachment discovered what it considered a bright solution, and sent to England for beagle hounds. Morning after morning the men rode after the hounds over the flat fields of France. It was a welcome distraction and it kept the horses in working trim.
But the French objected. They said their country was at war, was being devastated by an alien army. They considered riding to hounds, no matter for What purpose, an indecorous, almost an inhuman, thing to do under the circumstances. So the hounds were sent back to England, and the cavalry horses are now exercised in dejected strings along side roads.
As we went north the firing increased in intensity. More English batteries were at work; the German response was insistent.
We were approaching Ypres, this time from the English side, and the great artillery duel of late February was in progress.
The country was slightly rolling. Its unevenness permitted more activity along our road. Batteries were drawn up at rest in the fields here and there. In one place a dozen food kitchens in the road were cooking the midday meal, the khaki-clad cooks frequently smoking as they worked.
Ahead of this loomed two hills. They rose abruptly, treeless and precipitous. On the one nearest to the German lines was a ruined tower.
“The tower,” said the officer, “would have been a charming place for luncheon. But the hill has been shelled steadily for several days. I have no idea why the Germans are shelling it. There is nobody there.”