What with nocturnal revellers last night and Fritz starting to shell before dawn, got precious little sleep. Today has been characterised by aerial episodes. The first bit of excitement was when Fritz put up a remarkable barrage of H.E. at a high altitude against a homing squadron of our planes, but failed, as far as we could see, to get any.
Soon after that, a distant balloon of his was converted into a tower of black smoke by a cheeky little speck representing one of H.M’s cloud-dwellers. This afternoon a Hun “sausage” balloon came floating vagrantly over us, but again through hundreds of archibalds made practice with it and machine guns rattled on all sides, it continued to float on till lost to sight.
The storm is now on us with a great gust of wind and a roar of rain, electric lightening being turned on free, gratis and for nothing. Curious in the intervals between the thunder-fits to hear the guns taking up the tune.
The gramophone has just “put the wind up us” by emitting a long dreary preliminary wail just like one of Fritz’s big shells coming over.
Who, by the way, was the man (Lourd I think) who used to do grotesque drawings of horses stampeding towards some miserable little human? The other night on picquet I had to hay-up the animals at midnight and was vividly reminded of his work – a sea of groping necks, flattened ears, and grotesquely protruding lips – and me squished in the middle, kicking wherever there was space for my boot, trying to tie the hay-nets to the picket rope, whilst half a dozen big jaws jerked it this way and that.
Back for my washing – had a fearsome palaver in rusty French with the old dame, who had mislaid several garments and swore I’d never left them.
Very heavy showers – mud simply astonishing! Each man brings several pounds of it into the bivvy on his boots. You use the word “battle” often. The actions are better described by the slang “stunt” and simply indicate that one section has awakened from a dormant to a bellicose state. You hear “the cooks took part in one battle” – everyone within 5 or more miles of the front line does – the enemy may shell and bomb any where within 20 miles of the front and at times back areas are more dangerous than the trenches. Everything is on far too big a scale to be a battle.
“Omnis Gallia in tres partes divisa est”* I’m in one of them but don’t know which.
The day has been variegated, concluding at tea time with a prodigious clap of tonerre and orgasmic downpours of hail and rain. Afternoon’s very hard work cutting chaff with a hand machine and getting the dust and grit of it into every portion of my anatomy.
Whilst I was grooming Rangatira this morning he deliberately kicked me. I replied with interest into his cast iron ribs. I couldn’t help being amused at the way he took his gruel; he didn’t flinch a muscle or attempt to escape. Anyhow you can’t hurt him – he’s invulnerable – bites the noses and necks of his neighbours and scoffs at their inadequate retaliations. I’m certain that the shells and bombs that have done for my other two mules, have hit him and bounced off, leaving merely rough, leathery, bloodless abrasions, which I cannot account for in any other way. The poor wounded “female frenzy” shows no signs of recovering yet, rolls on her wound and prances about in a most demented manner when you go near her. I have lately been using her in place of a spirited little chap who works with a will and whose only defect is that his head is so enormous that he is unable to carry it high and occasionally stumbles on the end of his own nose.
Moles continue to burrow around and under our bivvies and scuttle out heaps of fine earth in all sorts of unexpected places, sometimes right over some luckless slumberer’s head.
* “All of Gaul is divided into three parts”, from Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic War.
[Image: Lincoln Lee, crayon sketch dated 11 July 1918 of windmill, with note “nearly 200 years old”]
Out grazing graminivores or herbivores. Plenty of tanks to be seen in these parts – all shapes, sizes and sexes. There’s a slump in balloons just now in this sector: as we were finishing lunch a crackle of machine guns brought us out to view one broken adrift and gaily ascending into the cloudy sky. A few moments later I saw in the distance the unmistakable column of smoke where another had been fired.
The canteen is much in evidence today. Big keg of (rather watery) English beer – cigars (of a kind) – sweetened condensed milk (fermenting) – biscuits and golden syrup. Have already spent a small fortune. The cigars were a failure – if you smoke them they become hostile.
I have about a dozen letters to write. What shall I do about it? If I plead as excuse the exhausting nature of this magnum opus, this history of the war by one who went there – “they’ll never believe me” – (Drat that gramophone!)
Now, you might suggest, this evening is the time to make a start, cold and showery and uninviting – but did not I promise myself to take my washing and find a blanchisseuse on the first evening of the kind (Damn that gramophone.)
A bombardier has just been in to see if I could guide a party up to that forward gun position tonight – oh, no my dear sir, me no compree.
Found my blanchisseuse. Met old army acquaintance and imbibed two leaky cigarette tins of vin blanc and so the evening has passed and letters remain unwritten.
[Image: Infantry practising an attack behind a smoke screen and a tank. Photograph taken at Sautricourt, 12 July 1918. IWM (Q 9819)]
Last night’s experience was a curious mixture of the tedious, the comical and the thrilling. Some of our guns are in advance of the others, i.e,. the firing battery is split up, and it was to the advanced position we had to go. Leaving camp at a little after seven with an ammunition wagon ahead of us, carrying an N.C.O. supposed to know the way, we started out towards the lines. As we proceeded, the shell holes in and near the roads grew more numerous, some of them enormous craters made by the heaviest guns, until we at about 9 p.m. reached the rear part of the battery situated near a village. Here we had to wait to let it grow darker. Whilst we waited we saw the road we had recently travelled being handsomely shelled and a couple of vehicles, nearly caught by it, turn tail and bolt. We then drove up through the village, which had been pounded to pieces and reminded one a bit of Ypres.
By this time, a few gas shells had landed not far away and projectiles of a more noisy nature. We halted for some time in a sunken road whilst the N.C.O. reconnoitred. At last he returned with the tidings that we were on the wrong road. Back to the battered village. The flashes from our artillery and the glare of the Hun’s multitudinous flares, rockets and star-shells helped in showing the pitfalls in the road. At the village our N.C.O. was put on the right road and we battled on once more, seeing nothing but the dark mass of the G.S. wagon ahead and shattered trunks and limbs of a famous wood (Gomecourt) which has changed hands again and again during the war. Indistinct forms of infantrymen and machine gunners moving about their trenches often gave us warning of shell holes to be avoided and telephone wires to duck under. So we proceeded until it seemed we were extremely near the front line. Rifle bullets whizzed by occasionally and a machine gun did a little spurt here and there. Then we stumbled into a trench cut through the road, and over it with a bang. Then we pulled up with a jerk. The wagon ahead had fouled a wire entanglement across the road. A machine gun officer started to make sarcastic remarks. If it hadn’t been for the wire we would probably have been addressed in German in another 5 or 10 minutes.
Rain has now reduce the dust to a super-mud like half-cooked welsh rarebit. Stick! This evening out of a clear sky Fritz dropped hundreds of ineffectual shells, right onto one of our balloons. In a trice a couple of parachutes left the latter; just in time too, for with incendiary or “tracer” bullets he set it aflame with pausing in his career and made off. As one of the chaps said, “If we’re fighting fellows with a nerve like that, its no wonder the (adjective) war has gone on so long”.
The village is seething with dusty troops looking for alcoholic refreshment and finding solace in two-up, crown and anchor and the rest of it, not forgetting the “good old game of House.” The little medical orderly who used to hop around the hut in Ypres and run the gaming business is in this bivvy.