By Greg Clark, July 25, 1936
There are two pilgrimages on Vimy Ridge this week. The one is ours; a few thousand middle-aged veterans returning to the scene of an old war.
The other pilgrimage is from the skies: the 58,000 young men, forever young, who died. It is not likely they would be absent when the British King tears down the bunting from the great memorial to their memory and in their honor.
There is pathos in our pilgrimage. No vestige remains of the ruin we made in our time. The healing hand of the years has made us all strangers in the land. Trees fifteen years old wave along bright, smooth roads, trees unaware, unmarred. On the site of villages and towns as desolate as Baffin Land when we knew this Vimy Ridge, there grow pretty and trim little villages of white and red. They sell picture post cards of how it all used to look. But now, to us, these pictures are hard to believe.
Pathos in us, to see us in our buses and cars, seeking, questing: tramping on foot, over grain fields and beet fields where, according to all our senses and very good maps, here used to be dreadful excavations we called home for two, three years of our best lives. Why, these strong young men toiling in the grain fields on Vimy’s slope were yet unborn when we harvested this slope long years ago.
No vestige remains, except a few museum pieces, carefully preserved; smelling, as it were, of camphor and as little like the real thing as a stuffed deer is like a living one.
So forgive me if I tell you of what I saw and found last evening, as I walked out of Arras northerly, looking for one spot, only one spot, where once I was a man. On the distant crest of Vimy loomed the silhouette of the shrouded memorial, which is soon to be unveiled by the King. On highways coiling with traffic, I walked towards Lens, and looked in vain for Madagascar Dump with its vast untidy piles of munitions. In vain for La Targette or the Nine Elms or Thelus. It was like going into the backyard to find an old tin can; but I cannot find it, so thick are all the old fashioned flowers.
Twilight; dusk; darkness; night enfolded and when I had, by taking a sideroad and a lane and a path and finally a field’s edge, come to the place where the third Canadian division had, in its time, swept up this slope like sea wave on the sand, I sat down to look into the darkness and divest myself, if possible, of this unnerving sense of pathos.
It is here you may leave me. If you do not believe in the mystical or the ghostly.
For ghosts, I do believe, exist; but only in our own hearts.
At first, I saw an aurora; an uncertain radiance like the northern lights. Presently, sound was added and I seemed to hear a hum of countless voices, laughter and a mouth organ, singing and cheers.
The Other Pilgrimage
It was the Other Pilgrimage. Out of the sky they came thudding and striding, like troops marching at ease, hordes of them, infantry, all arms, gunners in their cross bandoliers, all ranks. And they spread over the slope of Vimy, from Carency to Arras, lighting watch fires, setting up bivvies, all higgledy piggledy, just as it used to be. With shouts they went seeking comrades amidst the braziers. With joy and clumsy leaping, they encountered their friends. Crowds and knots gathered, moved this way and that. And as I watched the ghostly multitude of the Other Pilgrimage, some of the pathos began to leave me. In dream, an hour is only an instant: but after the whole high slope had flowered to one vast sea of fires and countless moving forms, I got up from the fence where I was seated and walked into the great bivouac. The bivouac in which they were the real and I was the shadow.
At first I sought friends: Muirhead, Abbey, Cutsey Smith, Butson, any of them. It would be fine to know where Abbey went to: what far continent of infinity he surveyed. Fine to see Muirhead and discover what rank the good Lord had given him. He would doubtless be a general by now, I thought.
But amongst the countless happy warriors, with ruddy faces shining in the watch fires, I saw no friends. At first I feared to look at them, since I might see wounds or scars. But there were no wounds; and such is the nonsense of dreams, I noticed that every soldier wore flowers: some in his cap, some on his breast; others, with nosegays of little bright flowers even on their backs, or pinned to their legs. One carried a bright spray of forget me-nots before his eyes, and as he walked, amidst the jibes of his comrades, he kept peeping from behind the flowers, as if to see his way.
They paid no attention to me; I was afraid they could not see me. So I asked directions of them, and they answered me politely and without curiosity. They were all young: I have gray hair by my ears. When they answered me, they clicked their young heels together and stood straight. Another dream hour, I walked and wandered amongst the watch fires, saw the rough boots sticking out of the bivvies, the old way; heard the old familiar taunts and shouts: saw more than one crown and anchor board laid out on the grass; heard many a song, even some of the rowdy ones whose words I had forgotten.
Finally, I came to a brazier where five young men were grouped, some red and some green and some blue patches on their shoulders. They were arguing. I stood for a moment and then asked if I might join their fire. They made way with pleasure.
“What’s the argument?” I inquired.
‘We were talking.” said the Green Patch, “about what we would have done if we had lived.”
“If I had lived,” explained the Red Patch, who wore a large spray of flowers on his breast, a lanky boy with bony face, “I would have been a farmer. And nothing else. It is the greatest life of all. I can see it right now. Haying time, and the barley next.
“I can see me, in the hot sun, driving the mower. Three horses in the mower. The sky hot and blue. The fences almost hidden in the long grass and the wheat. I go up this way and then I turn the three horses. Then I come down this way. It would be about five o’clock.
“If I had lived, I would have had a hundred and forty acres and thirty-head of Holstein cattle. I can see them, black and white, coming slowly up the lane from the back pasture. From the mower, I can see them coming up. and I look at them and think, these are my cows.”
“If I Had Lived.”
“There is no life,” said the Red Patch, “as good as farming. Nothing happier, safer, more comfortable. You make good money and set it away in mortgages at seven or six per cent: you work like a man until you are fifty and then move to a town like Guelph. Guelph is what I had in mind, if I had lived. And in the winter, I would have gone on visits to the States. I would attend the big cattle fairs in Chicago.
“No, you can take what you like, but if I had lived, I would have been a farmer.”
The group around the fire listened with grins.
“It may be a comfortable life,” said Green Patch, the best-looking of the boys, “and you may be free of all care and want on the farm; but would you really call it living?”
“Now if I had lived, give me the city. The bright lights, the speed, the excitement. I can see the street I used to live on. A quiet street with trees that used to arch overhead in summer. Mostly red brick houses with white verandas. I knew lots of girls on my street. You could go out and whistle after supper and they would part the curtains and then come running out. In white dresses.
“And just down at the foot of the street were the street cars and you could take her for a long ride. You could go down town and have a soda. If you had any money, you could take her to the vaudeville. Or you could just walk along and look in the store windows.
“In the city there are plenty of jobs for young fellows like us. I could have been a salesman in one of the big stores or my father was thinking of getting me a job in an office. All round you there is business and excitement, and you can look ahead and see the way you will go until you are a manager or an assistant manager. There is no life for a young man like the city, with all its opportunities and chances. On the farm, you may get no rain or something goes wrong, or prices fall…”
“Never,” said the young farmer. “People must always eat.”
“At any rate,” said Green Patch, with passion, “in a city, there is always something doing; always another job if the one you have doesn’t please you. A city is full of everything. It is the place to have lived. Are you a city man, sir?”
The question was to me, to bring me into the debate.
“Yes,” I said. “But excuse me, boys. I take it you are here on a special pilgrimage, like myself. Do you keep touch with the world much?”
“Oh, no,” they said. “We think about it – a great deal, but we don’t get much opportunity of coming back like this. And we are just here for a little while, until the unveiling. Then we have to go.”
“You,” I hesitated, “don’t keep track of what is going on in the world?”
“We have more important things to do,” explained young Green Patch.
“You see, sir,” said the Blue Patch, whose whole head was crowned with flowers, “we all have our appointed tasks. Where we are now, it is like the world, with its various continents and climes, and we are scattered all over it. But at times like this, when the world remembers us, we are allowed to come back. It is good fun to get together, a reunion like this. But we have much more absorbing interests.
“Pardon me,” I asked, “but what are the flowers you are all wearing?”
“Where we were wounded, we wear flowers,” explained Blue Patch, “With these uniforms, they look a little funny, but they insisted we wear our old uniforms to the unveiling.”
“And what would you have done, if you had lived?” I asked Blue Patch, who was older than the others. A man of twenty-six or seven.
“I am a school teacher,” explained Blue Patch. “I would have continued in that profession, sir. It is the finest profession on earth, I believe. My ambition was to become a master in a collegiate or even in a big private school. I can think of nothing nobler than leading young people into the full glory of life and understanding.”
“The noblest,” I agreed.
“The way Canada must be now,” said the young school master, with a tender expression, with no more war, no more oppression or tyranny, it must be wonderful for youth. The one regret I had, when I left the world, was that I did not live to see the full flower of our sacrifice. To think of all those millions of youngsters, free forever and ever of the fear of war and cruelty and oppression, able at last to devote themselves to the highest ideals of life, to work for something else than miserable and vicious gain…”
“When I was living,” he continued after a breathless pause, “there still lingered some traces of the older order of things. But I am happy to think that I and my comrades here, and all these thousands on this hillside to-night were instruments in setting the world free, at last, from the narrow, selfish and greedy instincts of humanity.”
All five of the boys wore proud expressions and glanced at one another affectionately.
“It is too bad,” I suggested, “that you can not see the results of your great sacrifice. Aren’t you allowed even a glimpse of the world you left, even now and then?”
“No,” explained Blue Patch, the school teacher. “They tell us it would distract our attention from greater tasks.”
The fourth young man was a gunner. He had that bunchy look, with his leather bandoliers and stiff cap.
“I’m afraid,” he chuckled, “that if I had lived, I would have been a bum. What I liked best to do was travel around the country. I’ve ridden the rods.”
He looked around us all, half proud, half embarrassed.
“Ridden the rods on freight trains,” he said. “Bummed my way on blind baggages. Tramped the ties, hundred of miles. I’ve slept in flop houses and out in barns and in empty box cars. I’ve often begged dimes in the streets and meals at back doors of houses. It may sound funny, but that’s what I liked.”
Again he cast his eye around us. Only in mine did he detect sympathy.
“If I had lived,” he said, “I was intending to go right back to that kind of thing.”
“That was all very well,” said the school master, “back in the old days. But I bet you wouldn’t have had the courage to do it, in the world the way it is now.”
“What moves me deeply,” I said, “is the beautiful memory you have of the world. It seems so dear to you.”
“It is,” said the farmer boy. “Not that we aren’t very happy where we are, you understand? But the way we feel, we would love to see it, the way it is now. It was lovely when we left. But how lovely it must be now.”
The fifth young man was Light Blue patch. His flowers he carried in his hands and held them before his eyes as if the light of the brazier dazzled him. He was a rugged youth, heavy set, and when he spoke, his accent was Scottish.
“If I had lived,” he said, soberly, “I would have liked to have had some kids. Two boys, I think, and a girl. The boys would be eighteen or so now. I would like to have seen one of them. The oldest one. In my family, the boys take after the fathers.”
“I should have said,” interrupted the farmer, “that I would have some kids around my farm. Those Holstein cows coming up the lane, the ones I could see from the mower when I was mowing, would be driven by a boy. Or maybe a boy and girl.”
“It is fine to have kids,” said the young Scot, holding the flowers before his eyes very close. “I could take them after supper down to the corner to get my tobacco. I could take them to fairs and that sort. My father was a strict man. He always hushed us. I am not that kind, myself. I like the racket of kids in the house.”
“Were you married?” I asked.
“No, but I had my eye on a girl. I was in tending to speak to her after the war.”
“Did you go with her?” asked the farmer, interested.
“I did not have her acquaintance,” said the young Scot. “I composed several letters to her in the trenches but I never posted them. She would be a fine woman now. I have no doubt she has children. I could wish they were mine. Two boys, and a girl. The oldest boy would be eighteen or thereabouts now. He would have sandy hair. I would buy them tartan neckties to their birthdays.”
He pressed the flowers to his eyes.
The others all stared at the fire or raised their eyes to look far off. The school master reached over and pitched the Scottie on the arm.
“You do not ask me about the world?” I said, after the silence.
And with the words, the vision seems to shiver as if struck by an earthquake, the figures so real before me suddenly began to lose color and shape; the watch fire itself began to dim swiftly; a mist swept in a vast wave, across the Vimy slope; the hosts of the Other Pilgrimage faded and vanished; their tumult subsided into a haunted silence.
And in a field in the dark, grizzled, weary, trembling and dreadfully ashamed, I stood all alone.
Editor’s Notes: The Vimy Memorial was completed and dedicated in 1936. The Toronto Star went all out in their coverage, paying the way for multiple staff members (including war veterans, included Greg and Jim). More can be read of the pilgrimage to the site by Canadians, and the vast undertaking that is was, from the link provided. This was huge news at the time, and weeks were devoted to the coverage. This advertisement appeared the same day as this story.
The Greg-Jim Stories did not pause during their trip (this was before common trans-Atlantic air travel, so everyone travelled by ship). Four separate stories of their adventures (2 in Britain, 2 in France) were published on their return as well.
The patches represented the divisions the soldiers belonged to:
- Red Patch: First Canadian Division
- Blue Patch: Second Canadian Division
- Light Blue (or Grey-Blue) Patch: Third Canadian Division
- Green Patch: Fourth Canadian Division
Greg felt embarrassed speaking to the apparitions, because of the state of the world in 1936, with the Great Depression in full swing (the price for the farmer’s food had plummeted, and the “bum” would be a common sight), and peace was not created by the Great War, as international relations were looking ever more troubling in 1936.