Tuesday, 30th October (1917)

You must understand that to get to our guns one travels over about 4 miles of devastated country, all one mess of military activity and large gun emplacements.  They bellow at you from every quarter.  The mules are done up and have to be kicked and tortured into most impossible morasses, where as often as not they collapse.  You crawl on top of them and with hideous difficulty unload them – the load you may be lucky enough to save by planting in on a dead horse or a stump, but sometimes it is lost in the mud, to startle and surprise some Belgian ploughman of the golden era “apres la guerre”.*  The donk is then encouraged to make a mighty effort and with a succession of mad plunges usually wins through to the next island, where you muddily re-load him.

This carried me roughly within a few days of our welcome move off.  On one day I was three times covered with mud from the explosion of shells, one of which landed with a big hunk of something on my tin hat, which thus saved me a nasty whack.  The sound of these explosions is ear-splitting, but I can bear with the din of war much better than I had expected.  It’s a peculiar thing that I felt less funky the first time I was under fire than the subsequent times.  The most nerve-testing thing of all is to lie in bed and have bombs dropping around you in the dark.  High above is the insistent and menacing drone of the ‘Fritz’ (which has an entirely different sound to our own planes) and then in twos and threes the bombs come screaming down, hitting the earth with a vicious thump as they burst.  Each one sounds as if it is making straight for you.  The night before we moved out about a dozen of our animals were killed by one, two pieces of it going through the top of the tent I was in.

One of the saddest features of the war is to see poor beasts killed and being killed in all directions, but it’s not so sad as to see the dead and injured men carried past.  Though of course, I have not been in the front lines where the infantry are, I have in those 3 or 4 days of packing seen most of the chief features of war other than infantry work.  Aeroplanes in thousands – dropping bombs, attacking one another; attacking observation balloons, from which the occupants promptly descend in parachutes; and have seen them executing all sorts of hair raising manoeuvres.  We used to have to pass a very ticklish cross road, called “blood and guts corner” which Frizt shells systematically.  One day when coming home a shell struck so near that I thought it was all up, but thank God it was a ‘dud’.  (I believe you had something to do with making it one).  It buried itself in a tree-trunk a few feet away, making a little red-hot cave in the wood; was talking to some Tommies and when it happened we all ducked, scared stiff, but when it didn’t explode, we burst out laughing, relief.  Yesterday we got up in the small hours and after various in the mud found ourselves in column of route on the main road.  After about 12 or 13 miles trek we arrived at some sort of half-way house where we are billeted in a big barn with about 3 feet depth of straw to lie on.  No difference is made for Sunday whatsoever in the field.  We have to work all day and every day alike.  Our hours extend with breaks for meals from dawn to dark and one has little time or opportunity either to write letters, attend to his toilet, mend his clothes, or anything else.  Cigarettes and tobacco are issued to us free and we have now been issued with long jackboots for winter wear.  As I have said before, the mud, especially where there are horses, is indescribable, but it has one big thing to its credit, the number of lives it has saved in deadening the effect of shells.  It was pleasant to again see trees that had not been killed and blasted and a bit of country where the shell-holes were not as thick as bubbles in a porridge pot.  All along our route were innumerable shacks put up apparently by refugees from shattered towns and called ‘Villa’ this that and the other; each with a few cigarettes and chocolates in the window to attract the ubiquitous Tommy.  I had a cup of coffee in one.  The good dame in the farm house here sells us coffee also.  It was amusing to see her, this morning wiping her kiddies faces with a none too clean moistened rag.  The French country folk are not fastidious.  This place is quite close to an aerodrome and two or three times a day dozens of planes like a mob of gigantic mosquitoes come swarming up just above our heads, roaring like railway trains under full steam.  It’s a fine sight and they are wonderful machines.  The new tri-planes are the most agile of all and seem to be more at home upside down than right way up.  Truly an amazing business this soldiering.  I’m getting to know these chaps better and some of them are friendly and good sorts.  They are sprawled all around me now in the straw smoking, reading, writing, eating and drinking, singing or whistling, as if they hadn’t a care in the world, as indeed many of them have not.

*  It seems likely Lincoln’s observation on the fate of unexploded munitions after the war is a later edit, written in the early 1960s as he prepared the typescript reproduced here.

nlnzimage 1-2 012931-G

[Image – Mule bogged down in mud.  Discarded shells can be seen nearby, with a soldier trying to help the animal.  Photograph taken 20 October 1917 at Kansas Farm near the front line on the Ypres Salient. NZ National Library, 1/2-012931-G.]

[Note – the two entries by Lincoln of 27 and 30 October 1917, are at the end of the New Zealand Division’s involvement in the battle of Passchendaele.  Lincoln was fortunate to have arrived at the front when he did, missing most of what was a fearsome and deadly time for the New Zealand Division.  (As mentioned previously, on 12 October, 843 New Zealand soldiers lost their lives in a disastrous attack on Bellevue Spur, a day recently commemorated in New Zealand and in Belgium).  Just over a week later, on 20 October 1917, the 3rd Canadian Division moved in to relieve the New Zealand infantry.  The New Zealand artillery, however, remained deployed, and supported the Canadians as they continued the Passchendaele battles.  From 1 November the 1st Canadian Divisional Artillery took over the guns manned by the New Zealanders as they stood in their pits – the poor state of the ground made it impossible to move them.  Both brigades of the New Zealand Artillery, and the Divisional Ammunition Column, were then moved into the Watou area.

Lieutenant J. R. Byrne, in New Zealand Artillery in the Field, 1914-1918 (Whitcombe and Tombs Limited, 1922, Auckland, p.197), describes the situation when Lincoln arrived at the front thus:

The position by the 20th [October 1917] was that about two-thirds of the New Zealand Artillery had been got up to the forward positions, where the simultaneous packing of ammunition had provided 800 rounds per 18-pr. and 450 rounds per howitzer. During this period the enemy had persistently shelled the whole area with guns of every calibre up to 11in., the shelling being particularly heavy round Spree Farm, Nos. 5 and 6 Tracks, Kansas Cross, and the whole of the Gravenstafel Spur. He had also systematically searched for battery positions, both forward and rear, and had made a favourite target of the Schuler Galleries, where the New Zealand batteries had their control posts. Night bombing of the waggon lines and rear areas had become systematic, whilst the enemy bombing planes had also begun to come boldly over by day, bombing battery positions and the traffic on the crowded roads.”

Byrne cites a letter from Brigadier-General P. A. Mitchell, C.R.A., 3rd Canadian Division:— “Now that the New Zealand Artillery are leaving my command, I wish to place on record my appreciation of the high standard of efficiency maintained by them while they were assisting to cover the offensive operations of the 3rd Canadian Division. In spite of the difficulties of bad weather, and almost impassable roads, they kept their guns in action and their ammunition dumps filled with a regularity which would have been impossible without a high standard of discipline, energy, and efficiency. I should be glad if you would convey my thanks to all officers, N.C.O.’s, gunners, and drivers of the New Zealand Artillery for their gallant and faithful work in trying circumstances.”]

PASSCHENDAELE – Saturday, 27 October 1917

From the above it appears that I left off a week ago in the middle of our move up to the front.  Since then mules, mud and murder have been taking up the whole of my time not including the few hours of sleep one gets between Fritz’s fits of bombing and shelling.  I shall have the greatest difficulty in giving you even the slightest idea of what it’s like here and what I have been doing.  After several marches last Sunday night we were all split up in the dark and drafted off to different batteries and ammunition columns.  I got separated from W. and have no idea where he is.  We then shambled along for about an hour in mud often up to our knees; – Never below our boot-tops.  As we have been told, all have to act as drivers.  Well, we crawled into various shake-downs or “bivvies” crowded with men and next day (after an ample bombing over night) awoke to find ourselves in a vast sea of mud indescribable.  Standing in the mud, or out of it, were horse-lines and wagons as far as the eye could see and the huge horseshoe of observation balloons showed that we were right in the middle of the salient (Ypres) now driven into the Hun’s lines.  Our work is to pack, on mules, ammunition up to the guns of our battery; getting out at about 3.30 a.m., saddle up in the dark and rain and mud, leaving camp about 5 a.m.  We get it in turn but never less often than every other day.  On the days off we scrape up the slush around the horse lines and try to scrape the mules themselves – the poor devils are too done up to kick.  The first day I went out (Tuesday last) three of us new chums got separated from the rest and lost, spending most of the day roaming about amongst the maze of mud-covered roads in the theatre of war, getting our first experience of its unspeakable horror, filth and desolation.  A whole city (Ypres) in utter ruin, the city with its much-pronounced name, simply knocked to smithereens.  Not a single building intact – one horrible jumble of bricks, muck, and topsyturvydom.  It is quite impossible to describe it, none of the pictures, photos, or newspaper accounts of conditions on the front can give even the faintest idea of the reality.  One is at first dazed and stupefied and I think that, to such of us as survive it, it will seem like a horrible nightmare, rather than an actual experience.

nlnzimage 1-2 012946-G (web)

[Image: New Zealand artillery firing from shell-holes, Kansas Farm, Ypres Salient, ca 12 Oct 1917, National Library 1/2-012946-G.  This often-published image shows the ‘vast sea of mud indescribable’ Lincoln describes, while faintly in the background can be seen a mule train – presumably taking ammunition to the guns]

Saturday, 20th October (1917)

The farmers are spreading manure in little heaps all over the fields; they collect it during the year in huge pits close to their homes.  They appear to have no idea of sanitation and it is quite difficult to get water safe to drink.  Have been out for an evening stroll, and am just having some so-called beer in an Estaminet – “Au Charrons” – where the good lady knows less English than I do French.  The Tommies’ attempts to speak French to her are simply beautiful.  I reached a crossing in the road where there was a large crucifix standing up against the starry sky in which the new moon was just setting.  In the same quarter two searchlights were playing and an illuminated aeroplane sailing about like a demented planet dropping an occasional star-shell like an incandescent egg.  On the road nearby were rows and rows of dark motor lorries packed with troops.  It all struck me as an extraordinary jumble of past and present, peace and war, earthly and unearthly; a subject for a poem or a picture or a symphony for some daring modern genius.  Madam says she is 60 years old (certainly doesn’t look it) and finds it hard to pick up English at her age.

Friday, October 19th (1917)

Warwick and I took a stroll in the dark to a neighbouring village.  Most of the shopkeepers have converted their establishments into cafes or estaminets; so one looks into a cobbler’s shop and sees tommies scoffing eggs and ham round a table, Mere knitting in a corner, Pere mending shoes and les enfants crawling about the floor.  We went into an estaminet and had some very watery beer and stout and were gratuitously entertained by a squiffy Frenchy who looked like an engine driver and did stepdances and sang tommy songs in French – incongruous sound!  A candle or two seem to be the sole wartime illumination, so we didn’t see much.

7 p.m.  In an estaminet drinking Bock with W.  This town has a large church with the tall pointed spire which seems to be typical of French ecclesiastical architecture – something like a witch’s hat – and a large central square or market-place with a few more or less imposing buildings.  Every few 100 yds. one comes across a crucifix or shrine.  Sundials are to be seen on church fronts and I saw one yesterday accurately indicating the time.  There have been a motley collection of Frenchies in the estaminet tonight not forgetting an extremely garrulous old female who cooks, and who keeps popping in and out of the kitchen and jabbering excitedly.  The cultivation of the fields goes on apace all around.  The crops now growing and being harvested appear to be chiefly sugar-beet – something like mangel-wurzels – and beans.  The soil appears to be light and fertile.  The peasants often use antediluvian farm wagons and implements, wooden harrows etc, but not in every case.  Liquors and food and other commodities are by no means cheap – old hands tell us that they were early in the war.  I remark the absence of oak and other bushy trees.  The French appear to prefer the tall and slender varieties.

Thursday (17 October 1917)

The Marquee leaked like billy-o in the night and some of us got very wet.  Novelty in deafening reveille when we played awake by the band.  The ablutionary arrangements beat all.  We skated (literally) down the slope of what recently was a meadow but now is slush, and grouped ourselves around murky ponds, half-covered with green scum.  There we ladled out water and “abluted”.  Seven or eight of us got a shave with an inch of water in the bottom of one mug.  Had breakfast of bully and bread, and hot tea, and later on went for a short route march.  Much amusement when they told us off in threes (instead of 4s) owing to the narrowness of the lanes, so you see I have actually seen the “three ‘um threes” joke come off.  We have passed and seen pass endless columns of ammunition wagons, batteries, “archibalds”; saw an aeroplane being shelled in the far distance, little white puffs of smoke breaking out all around it – heard occasionally the distant rumble of the guns.  Oh!  The mules:  they lope along with their great ears floperty-floperty rhythmically as if they moved them deliberately – weird cross-breeds – many a kick I’ll get from them before I’ve seen their tails for the last time.  Weather clearer.  There was some really canine barking in the marquee last night and I put such a tax on my hanky that this morning I couldn’t look it in the face.  Henceforth I adopt the common or Irish method of emunction merely utilising the mouchoir for finishing touches.  You would be amused to see us having our tucker, squatting on our tin hats on the mud and splashing mess tins full of stew and tea over one another.  All you read about the wonderful busyness for miles behind the lines is quite true, but it is equally impossible to picture it without being here.

17th October (1917)

I am writing this on my knee in a packed horse-truck marked: Hommes 40.  Cheveaux (en long) 8.  So you will guess that we have been up since 4 a.m. and are now really en route for the field of operations.  When we have our packs up you can hardly see us; viz. Oil sheet overcoat and spare clothes rolled, haversack, waterbottle and mess tin, box respirator, P.H. gas helmet, steel-helmet (horrid and heavy), bandolier and 50 rounds of ammunition and sundries.  Items I have not remarked are – Continental edition of Daily Mail delivered at 1½d – we all have slight colds.  These trucks have no seats but also no smell to speak of – all goes well.  The band marched us down to the station and played us aboard with Auld Lang Syne.  It is now moon and we have pulled up at Calais after passing through Boulogne again.  All one can see en passant is a wall of buildings with spires and domes peeping up above the red tile roofs; red tile roofs seem to be general hereabouts and go well with the whitewashed walls of the village dwellings and inns.  Between the two large towns were stretches of charming country.  We have passed through huge camps, quarries of enormous extent, factories of various kinds and seen large numbers of German prisoners at work therein. (1.30. p.m.)  Reached a town called St. Omer, where there are some fine old cathedrals and have passed low-lying country trellised with drains and canals, but highly cultivated.  Low hills surrounded surmounted by windmills, or chateaux, or ruined towers: pollarded trees – not only the osier willow, but many other varieties are lopped, apparently every stick having its value.  Stopped at Haazebruch, which cannot be many miles behind the lines as an observation balloon is visible.  We are eternally passing other trains bearing troops, wounded, etc.  Have just watched an old baker on his round with a large hand-cart under which a big dog harnessed-up does most of the work.  All sorts of troops are to be seen – Indians, Nova Scotians, Tommies, Chows, Japs, Blacks, Frenchies, etc.

Tramped with our swags over the cobbles to a camp about 2 miles away, reaching it after dark.  There we got hot tea and ate some more of our rations.  We are on raised ground and all round the northern horizon are regular flashes like those of a revolving lighthouse – you know what they are!  Every now and then there is a glow in the sky lasting 10 seconds – star shells.  Fancy 300 to 400 miles of that going on on the Western front alone!  Another draft followed up a few hours later to go into the 2nd Brigade (a mobile brigade that dodges about a good deal more than the others) and I must tell you a little incident of yesterday.  They were one man short and the officer asked one of our lot to volunteer.  After a bit a hardcase of a chap mooched out rather sheepishly and, when the officer out of curiosity asked him his reasons for wanting to change, he said it was so that he “wouldn’t have to get up so early tomorrow”.