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In the month of May a new type of manhood was filling the old roads behind the front.

View of Combles.
Australians parading for the trenches. See larger image.

I saw them first in the little old town of St.-Pol, where always there was a coming and going of French and English soldiers. It was market-day and the Grande Place (not very grand) was crowded with booths and old ladies in black, and young girls with checkered aprons over their black frocks, and pigs and clucking fowls. Suddenly the people scattered, and there was a rumble and rattle of wheels as the long line of transport wagons came through the square.

"By Jove! . . . Australians!"

There was no mistaking them. They slouch-hats told one at a glance, but without them I should have known. They had a distinctive type of their own, which marked them out from all other soldiers of ours along those roads of war.

View of Combles.
Australians returning from the trenches with their mascot. See larger image.

They were hatchet-faced fellows who came riding through the little old market town; British unmistakably, yet not English, not Irish, nor Scottish, nor Canadian. They looked hard, with the hardness of a boyhood and a breeding away from cities or, at least, away from the softer training of our way of life. They had merry eyes (especially for the girls round the stalls), but resolute, clean-cut mouths, and they rode their horse with an easy grace in the saddle, as though born to riding, and drove their wagons with a recklessness among the little booths that was justified by half an inch between an iron axle and an old woman's table of colored ribbons.

Those clean-shaven, sun-tanned, dust-covered men, who had come out of the hell of the Dardanelles and the burning drought of Egyptian sands, looked wonderfully fresh in France.(1) Youth, keen as steel, with a flash in the eyes, with an utter carelessness of any peril ahead, came riding down the street.

They were glad to be there. Everything was new and good to them (though so old and stale to many of us), and after their adventures in the East they found it splendid to be in a civilized country, with water in the sky and in the fields, with green trees about them, and flowers in the grass, and white people who were friendly.

When they came up in the train from Marseilles they were all at the windows, drinking in the look of the French landscape, and one of their officers told me that again and again he heard the same word spoken by those lands of his.

"It's a good country to fight for. . . . It's like being home again."

At first they felt chilly in France, for the weather had been bad for them during the first weeks in April, when the wind had blow cold and rain-clouds had broken into sharp squalls.

Talking to the men, I saw them shiver a little and heard their teeth chatter, but they said they like a moist climate with a bite in the wind, after tall the blaze and glare of the Egyptian sun.

One of their pleasures in being there was the opportunity of buying sweets! "They can't have too much of them" said one of the officers, and the idea that those hard fellows, whose Homeric fighting qualities had been proved, should be enthusiastic for lollipops seemed to me an amusing touch of character. For tough as they were, and keen as they were, those Australian soldiers were but grown-up children with a wonderful simplicity of youth and the gift for laughter.

I saw them laughing when, for the first time, they tried on the gas-masks which none of us ever left behind when we went near the fighting-line. That horror of war on the western front was new to them.

Poison-gas was not one of the weapons used by the Turks, and the gas-masks seemed a joke to the groups of Australians trying on the headgear in the fields, and changing themselves into obscene specters . . . . But one man watching them gave a shudder and said, "It's a pity such splendid boys should have to risk this foul way of death." They did not hear his words, and we heard their laughter again.

On that first day of their arrival I stood in a courtyard with a young officer whose gray eyes had a fine, clear light, which showed the spirit of the man, and as we talked he pointed out some of the boys who passed in and out of an old barn. One of them had done fine work on the Peninsula, contemptuous of all risks. Another had gone out under heavy fire to bring in a wounded friend . . . . "Oh, they are great lads!" said the captain for the company. "But now they want to get at the Germans and finish the job quickly. Give them a fair chance and they'll go far."

They went far, from that time to the end, and fought with a simple, terrible courage.

They had none of the discipline imposed upon our men by Regular traditions. They were gypsy fellows, with none but the gypsy law in their hearts, intolerant of restraint, with no respect for rank or caste unless it carried strength with it, difficult to handle behind the lines, quick-tempered, foul-mouthed, primitive men, but lovable, human, generous souls when their bayonets were not red with blood. They discipline in battle was the best. They wanted to get to a place ahead. They would fight the devils of hell to get there.

View of Combles.
New Zealanders on the rank to get things from the field canteen. See larger image.

The New-Zealanders followed them, with rosy cheeks like English boys of Kent, and more gentle manners than the other "Anzacs," and the same courage. They went far, too, and set the pace awhile in the last lap. But that, in the summer of '16 was far away.

In those last days of June, before the big battle began, the countryside of the Somme valley was filled with splendor. The mustard seed had spread a yellow carpet in many meadows so that they were Fields of the Cloth of Gold, and clumps of red clover grew like flowers of blood. The hedges about the villages of Picardy were white with elderflower and drenched with scent. It was haymaking time and French women and children were tossing the hay on wooden pitchforks during hot days which came between heavy rains. Our men were marching through that beauty, and were conscious of it, I think, and glad of life.


(1) Dardanelles, etc. -- The Australians and New Zealanders had seen action the year before (1915) in Gallipoli.

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