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.
[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.”]