“What has happened to your friends, the French?” asked my editor the other morning.
He tossed across to me the newspapers containing the dispatches of France’s demands in respect to submarines. France was “rattling the sabre,” they said; the new “mailed fist in Europe.”
The last place I saw action was at Cambrai, the end of September, 1918.
We were lying in the Marcoing Line. Through the mist of dawn the towers and spires of Cambrai stood up before us a mile away – our goal, our proud objective.
It was as if we were in High Park, advancing on Toronto. A meadow valley lay between. A few advance troops were plodding across, like workers bent cityward at break of day. But over our heads swept an endless succession of wheezy shells which thumped and crashed on to the edge of the misty city ahead of us. And far and near the air pulsed and jiggled and hissed with machine gun fire, ours and his.
In the sky the first aeroplanes were greeting the sun. They circled and slowly swooped earthward, peering, seeking, bursting off their machine-guns occasionally, or dropping bombs on to stealthy Germans scuttling through the streets of Cambrai. As I lay, belly tight to earth, I watched these airy ships; for in one of them, I knew, was a small brother of mine, wearing a white and scarlet helmet that I would recognize if ….
And while I lay there, aching my eyes against the misty dawn, I beheld a strange vision.
The towers and roots of Cambrai faded, and I saw instead a queer, walled town the name of which was Camaracum, and it was one of the cities of a people named the Norvil.
It seemed to be a scene from the very long ago, for the walls were heavy and crude, and the people moving about them were clad in rough and primitive garments.
A procession approached the city of Camaracum: soldiers in short kilts and sandals, armed with spears and shields, and after a great advance of these soldiers into the walled city came men on horses, one of whom was the emperor of Rome, visiting the outposts of his empire.
That scene fades: and now I see groups of rough, savage men swarming at the walls of Camaracum. These are the Franks, barbarians from the north. The time is 445 Anno Domini. And after a brief struggle the Roman garrison is driven from Camaracum: and Clodion, chieftain of the Franks, makes it his city.
Along time passes, for I see Camaracum greatly changed. A spire rises from within its walls. And into it rides a cavalcade of men in armor with banners, at the head of whom rides Charlemagne, Charles the Great, emperor of Rome. The thing is about the year 800 A.D., and Charlemagne makes the city or Camaracum one of his bulwarks against the heathen Magyars and marauders from the north and east.
Then down the Scheldt and the rivers from the seas come ghostly craft, the long ships of the Norsemen, fierce pirates who slay and destroy wherever their long ships will carry them. And they come, in the year 870 A.D., to this same walled city of Camaracum and burn it, sack it and destroy it.
But it rises again, its castles and spires and strong walls. And the vision shows it, all through the twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, being stormed and captured, burned and sacked by the factions of various bishops. For Camaracum, since the fifth century of our Lord, has been a bishop’s see.
The vision moves swiftly. It is the year 1595 A.D., and the Spaniards are besieging’ the castled city of Camaracum. Charles the Fifth fortifies it with a great citadel.
The years fly. in 1793 It is the Austrians laying vain siege to this ancient city. And in 1793 the revolution comes: the mob, in the name of liberty, equality and fraternity, destroys the old cathedral, burns castles and palaces, and ruin descends still again upon Camaracum.
At last it is the years 1815 to 1818, Napoleon has just fled, and Camaracum, the city of the Nervil, the city of the Caesars, the outpost of Charlemagne’s empire, is headquarters for three years of the British army of occupation under Wellington in France!
Indeed, you have guessed it, reader.
Camaracum is Cambrai. Cambrai, as it lay before us in the hands of the Germans, is the Camaracum of old, that ancient and embattled city.
As we crouched there in the dawn the destroying shells were simply renewing a destruction already as old as history. The long ships of the Norsemen and the strange ships in the sky which I so tenderly watched were of one purpose.
My men, tense beside me in the trench, were plying an ancient trade: Roman, Frank, Viking, Goth, Magyar, Spaniard, Austrian – all had, through the thousands of years, lay thus with grim faces turned upon Camaracum.
And Cambrai is one of the lesser historical cities in France.
So I said to my editor:
“It is a thousand years since William of Normandy brought an invading army against our forefathers.
“But in France they have known war and the sack and pillage through unbroken centuries.
“If I do not agree with their militaristic policy, I can at least wholly sympathize with their caution.”
And I can still see the pillar of black smoke that rose vastly out of Camaracum as the Huns of 1918 fled before us into the north.
Editor’s Note: The Washington Naval Conference was held between November 1921 and February 1922., which resulted in the Washington Naval Treaty. The goal was to prevent an arms race by limiting naval construction. The British wanted the abolition of the submarine, but the French opposed. The conference ended without an agreement to restrict submarines.