PART III. PASSCHENDAELE & WINTER IN FRANCE. “Somewhere in France” 12 October 1917

Embarked on small fast ferry steamers; a medley of all regiments; daylight failed us half way over; interesting in the method of convoy and manoeuvres adopted to ensure safety.  We arrived at Boulogne.  It was too dark to see anything of the city, but the fact that we were at last in France and hearing French spoken around us was in itself sufficiently novel.  We had a stiff and much encumbered march up-hill to a camp on the hill-tops known to old hands as “one blanket camp”.

Awakened at 5 a.m. – At about 10 we moved off and marched after various delays, chest inspections etc., through the outskirts of town, and to our joy found that we were to go to the base in motor lorries instead of marching.  Packed 25 in each and rumbled off on our first journey through France.  The countryside hereabouts is rolling and even hilly, broken by woods with villages lying in the valleys.  The only Frenchies we saw were old men, women and children, with an occasional soldier on leave.  I liked the look of the French country girls who ran along selling us apples and chocolate etc., they seem fresh and healthy.

[The significance of 12 October 1917 for the New Zealand soldiers in France must be acknowledged here.  As Lincoln Lee travelled across the Channel, 843 New Zealand soldiers lost their lives during an attack in the Third Battle of Ypres.  As historian Ian McGibbon writes, “In terms of lives lost in a single day, 12 October 1917 ranks as the most catastrophic in the country’s post-1840 history”.]

11th October (1917)

Folkstone.  (Item: the chap who threw his watch overboard from the Corinthic is here and has since purchased and lost 2 watches in England).

We get up any time and do as we please in this camp – the “woodbines” in charge of it are scared of us and never interfere – we heard one of them say he wouldn’t be on picquet with those wild bastards in camp for any money.  Looked down on to a skating rink where men from almost every corner of the world were whirling round with the Folkstone maidens in the maze of whatever in skating terms corresponds to the waltz – I would suggest a “Scaltz”.  It’s laughable to think that the old forts on the cliffs were designed with a view to repelling French invasion.  Once more I say Au Revoir, both to English soil and to you folk at home.  Keep smiling!

Wednesday (10 October 1917)

Still here.  We don’t know what is delaying us though rumours are as usual not lacking; some say want of transports, others presence of mines broken loose in recent bad weather.  In the town is ample evidence of proximity to France, French names to streets, shops etc. and sometimes public notices printed in French as well as English.  Had quite a successful day.  W. and I made for the motor bus that goes to Dover.  You aren’t allowed more than halfway without a pass.  This took us by a winding road up to the top of the tall chalk cliffs on the East.  Along the top of the cliff at intervals were some round medieval-looking turrets or forts, probably Martello Towers.  When we came to what is called the Barrier an “Ozzy” officer, who had 2 of his men with him, wheedled the guard into letting us through with him, promising our return by next bus.  So we have seen Dover.  You sweep right down into it.  I thought it an enchanting place, bounded by huge chalk cliffs on the highest of which the Castle stands out against the sky.  The cliffs are riddled with forts and loop-holes and things.  In the harbour, which is enclosed with a long mole, were many destroyers and mosquito craft.  It is a small town, but more picturesque than Folkstone and smelling more of the sea.  When we walked along the promenade we attracted quite a lot of embarrassing attention, being the only diggers in the town.  Or probably being two such handsome fellows!  Back at Folkstone we went over a museum, its most interesting feature being a remarkable collection of butterflies and of the various insects that use mimicry as their protection.  The setting of the sun as we came into Folkstone this evening was wonderful – we could see clear over the western cliffs out to the horizon.  There was a large belt of cloud through which old Sol glowed like a Chinese lantern, with one narrow streak of black cloud cutting him clean in half.  As we came down the sun he touched the horizon, which seemed to eat him up at the same rate as we descended.

Tuesday morning (9 October 1917)

(Near Folkestone)  When I wrote the last word above the train stopped with a jerk and we were tumbled out at Gilford station where we had to squat about for an hour, nice and warm, except that the sweat we had got up marching now grew clammy.  Well, we were poked into another train and arrived here at 4 a.m. and eventually got down on the board floors of some tents in a waiting camp or whatever they call it.  We have now had a snack and cleaned up a bit and expect to move off to the ship.  There are Tommies, Ozzys and other troops here as well.  We are all very cheerful, almost hilarious.  The huts we are in are mottled in colour, green and white etc. to baffle aerial observation.  There is a fine Y.M.C.A. here; plenty of stalls, piano, Post Office etc.  Scores of men are writing, eating, drinking, smoking, with the inevitable rag-time pianist at his musical machinations.  Will now conclude, last Blighty instalment of this record of deeds and misdeeds.

Didn’t sail after all but have got leave at about 3 p.m. and I and another chap went into Folkstone and wandered about the big marine promenades.  This is a picturesque town, sloping down to the sea with trees lining the streets, promenades along the top of the cliff – a fine view to the west where the cliffs seems to break abruptly away and a long low coast swerves out sea-ward into the glare of the setting sun.  To the east are high chalky cliffs.  We could see the French coast.  The walks were seething with soldiers, sailors and officers of every race and clime, and many well dressed ladies.  The channel studded over with small craft, mine-sweepers, destroyers and such, showing what numbers guard these coasts, and there were several planes overhead.

Monday night (8 October 1917)

We move off tonight. A totally hideous and disgusting day!  We spent all morning doing gas-drill.  After lunch we went off in rain about 3 miles to gas school, wet as shags, and hot as hell, went through lacrhymatory (much blubber) and chlorine (ugly guggly) gas, to ruination of brass buttons; had a whole lot of senseless orders yelled at us, shoggled off back to camp in harder rain, got there about 5.20pm to be told to parade “fully equipped” at 5.45.  Rebellion – parade a wash-out.  Parade to get issue of rations, clothes, etc. wet queue about ½ mile long – floor of hut strewn with indescribable litter.  Hurrah!  A cruel war!  So long!  Good luck!  Auf —  No, that’s German.

Midnight on train for port – a very hurried departure from Ewshot and a perspiring and rafferty march down to Aldershot about 5 miles where after endless sitting about in gutters and other places we were finally entrained.  In opposite corner sits old Warwick, half asleep.

Sunday (7 October 1917)

We are busy darning socks, altering tunics, collecting gear etc., all excepting the gamblers who sit round one of the tables rattling money and crying out “bust me for a crown!”, “bust me for 6d” as if there were no such thing as drafts either of men or of chill air.  Have been mending puttees as I want to keep the woollen ones as long as possible.

Returned Dombey* to the Y.M.C.A.  The attendant was dumb-founded to find that I had put a paper cover on it, he looked up with admiration and ejaculated, “Well, you’re a gentleman!”.  He said he had a cousin in Nelson, N.Z. and to my astonishment I knew the man well.**

Donald the infuriate and elderly Scot is in great form, being 3 sheets in the wind, and his language is something to listen to.  He believes in simplicity and takes only his boots off when retiring and I must also “prepare to retire” as the drill hath it.

* Likely Dombey and Son, by Charles Dickens.

** Lincoln writes ‘Frank Hornbell’ in the typescript.

6th October (1917)

As nothing was done with the draft, J. and I took our hook at about noon and mooched off munching huge quantities of lollies and salted nuts J. had just had sent to him as a birthday present.  We also ate innumerable black-berries.  We essayed a sketch of a pond, seated on some old palings with our feet deep in mire, when a crowd of young bulls came grumbling and nodding up to us from behind, threatening to bump us into the pond.  After a careful scrutiny they apparently decided that we weren’t worth strafing and moved on.

[Lincoln Lee, sketch of moorland, Ewshot-Hants, 1917.  While not of a pond, this is the final sketch of Lincoln’s we have from the period after he arrived in England, and when he departed for the front.]

Lincoln Lee - Moorland near Ewshot - nd 1917

5th October (1917)

The N.C.O’s who are included in the draft were up before the Colonel today to be told what they already knew, that they would have to drop their stripes in France.  It has come at last.  At the 2 o’clock parade some 300 of us were called out and warned for draft.  We may move off any time, so don’t be surprised if the next letter is from Somewhere in France.  The draft is comprised of a jumble of various reinforcements with a sprinkling of old hands.  One of the old hands was very wild at being sent, as he had been through 3 winter campaigns.  Neither R. nor J. are in it, worse luck, but Warwick is.

4th October (1917)

Am now in Church Hut with J.  We imagine we are going to spend the evening writing and reading, but time will show.  We have been making grotesque attempts to draw all sorts of outlandish things, including ourselves, with much hilarity; then made awful attempts to play a tiny harmonium.  Very funny; fell in with Guard and found 1 man too many.  The Sergt. Instructor got me “snouted” because I made a mess of “port arums” and sent me off back to duty; so am taking a spell off.  The gamblers every evening sit round a table calling out in a varying tones, “bust me for 6d”, “bust me for 3d”, “bust me for a bob” and so on.  I haven’t any idea what game it is – and as regularly as clockwork all are taken by surprise at lights out and grumble about, getting undressed and making their bunks in the dark.  Their facial expressions during play are a study.  Incredible how very few of the men take even the remotest interest in the scenery, men, or manners of the countries in which they find themselves.  Many of them hardly ever move out of the camp and they look back upon Oldham as a sort of Earthly paradise!

A pretty sure indication that we are to move off to France before long was that a handful of men (all the football team) were today transferred from our section to one of the others.  If you want to “swing the lead” here you only need to play a band instrument or play the game – not THE GAME.  The hardcase who resisted my efforts in physical jerks the other day is a character.  He “fell out” with a fatigue party which he didn’t belong to, and when the officer asked him why, cooly replied that he thought it would be better than physical jerks.  The officer, a returned man, only grinned.

[Recreation room at the New Zealand Artillery camp, Ewshot [c 1918], National Library 1/2-014107-G]


[Canteen at the New Zealand Artillery camp, Ewshot [ca 1918], National Library 1/2-014106-G]

Canteen at NZ Artillery camp, Ewshot (c1918) Natlib 1-2-014106-G


2nd October (1917)

THE HAT TRICK (A Military Mystery)

To wit:  At 5 p.m. instead of our being dismissed, the Sergts. were sent off to round up all hands on the Parade ground.  The cooks, gardeners, bootmakers and candlestick makers, the sick, the lame, the weak-sighted, came trapesing in bewildered rows, whilst officers walked around examining the inside lining of our hats – without one word of explanation.  No doubt it was an attempt to identify some man or some hat.  One man suggested that it was to see whether our hats harboured any life.

Blackberries (brambles) only just beginning to fall off, have been very good; also plenty of nuts about.  A large percentage of my hut-mates are inveterate gamblers and I leave them at it when I go out and find them still at it at 10 p.m. and there they sit until lights out – even then they will finish off with the aid of lucifers.  J. ricked his gizzard doing physical jerks and got 2 days light duty.

[Image – NZ Artillery troops on parade, Ewshot Camp, c1918, Royal New Zealand Returned and Services’ Association: New Zealand official negatives, National Library 1/2 014100-G]