15th November (1917)

Today is sunny and we have been riding bare-back exercising our animals, which usually entails a certain amount of fun.  Yesterday a huge hairy and hideous ‘donk’ (the redoubtable Irish Hunter of whom more anon) broke away and in the throes of temporary freedom gave us an exhibition of riderless or spontaneous buck-jumping.  A quaint type of farm waggon is often seen here, 3 wheels only (the small one in front on a turntable) the horse being hooked on to a swingletree and driven with one long thin rein.  He is apparently guided by voice.  Other waggons have one lone rough beam fixed underneath and protruding in front, and in no case are they backable (to invent a word); not very convenient, but very picturesque, with curved sides.  I went and got mine and W’s washing this evening.  The farm folk who do it appear to be Flemish and don’t understand French any better than English, but one of them, a bright and rather handsome girl of about twenty, has learned not only to speak but to read English very passably during the war.  She is a great sport and knows all the boys by name.  It is the custom now for every farm to keep a sort of open house where soldiers congregate in the evenings and are provided with beer or coffee.  Tonight père who is evidently a bootmaker (inter alia) was mending boots, mère was darning soldiers’ socks.  The kiddies were delighted when I learnt a little chanson of theirs and sang it back to them.

“Allons mes amis, Il est midi”.

Got a P.C. from R today; he is at the base camp in France and expects to move up shortly.  J. is with him and they seem to be having a royal time with some French friends they have acquired.

13th November (1917)

In the evening went to the neighbouring town with a Scotch chap named Guthrie who was amusing company.  We had a meal, a few drinks, smoked cigars and back.  Whom should I see lined up for breakfast after stables was over?  An unshaven and not so tidy as usual personage – W.  He had got out of the D.A.C.* in which he had been put on the night we were separated and he arrived last night, actually passing the night in this barn without knowing I was in it, and “here we are again”, comrades in arms.

This evening we wetted our reunion with canteen beer and hunted out a farmer’s wife willing to wash our dirty clothes.  W. had been on similar work to myself but with a much more easy-going crowd – no shave every day – clean buttons etc. as it is with us.  Is it not amazing that there should be no uniformity of hours of work and of discipline throughout the army, but that in each unit it should depend on the whim and caprice of the man in charge and so, like Equity in the middle ages, be as variable as the size of not the “Chancellors” but the O.C.’s foot**.

* “Divisional Ammunition Column”, ** “Officer Commanding”.

10th November 1917

(Near Haazebruk [Hazebrouck]).  We have trekked about another 10 miles and are again in billets (I am in a barn perched up on a stack of dried peas).  We have been here about three days and seem to be going to stay for awhile for a rest, though we are on duty practically the whole time.  Horses are of course, like the poor, always with us and always a nuisance.  The farm buildings are very picturesque and differ from the English ones, being built higher with very sloping roofs, usually thatched neatly over ruddy tiles.  We can’t keep free from “passengers”.  I am already very much a martyr and less inclined to bless the Duke of Argyle than to curse the beasts that necessitate the “scratching posts”; in any case one per mile would be quite useless, you need one every five yards.  The walls of most of the buildings are of mud, which sets very hard, plastered on laths between stout oak beams.  Every small town and village has a large and often handsome church or cathedral and there are shrines of various design all over the countryside.  This part of France is a land of ponds.  There are very few streams and I haven’t seen a river worth the name, but every field has its pond surrounded with stunted pollard trees, and the farm houses and buildings are invariably situated near one or more of these ponds.  At them we perform all our ablutions and as they are muddy and dirty holes you can imagine what it’s like, groping about their slimy margins on these early autumn mornings.  “No bon” as the men say.  The leaves have not yet all fallen and in some parts the long rows of graceful trees are very beautiful.  The country about here is highly cultivated.  The root crops are stacked in large pyramids, the sides of which are packed up with straw kept in place with sods.  Beans and peas seem to be grown as well as the usual cereals.  There are practically no fences, the large fields being cultivated right up to the roadside, where there is usually a bank, or a ditch.  Had great fund poking around the town of Haazebruck in the dark, going into shops, estaminets etc. and buying, pocketing, eating and smoking all the useless and unnecessary things I could think of.  A night out.  Also great fun talking or trying to talk to the various Madames, Messieurs, and Mademoiselles in the shops; one of them, who told me she had been a schoolmistress went into shrieks of laughter over my attempts.

Reveille is at 6 a.m.  Stables at 6.30.  Breakfast about 7.45.  Parade 9.  Lunch about 12.  Parade 2.  Tea 4. or 5.  Picquet about once a week.  The mud is everywhere but one gets used to almost anything and a percentage of mud on one’s person and in one’s food doesn’t seem to do any harm.  All the institutions of an army in barracks are carried on in the field, but under greatly altered conditions – your horses are in lines tied up to ropes and stretched between the wheels of vehicles – instead of huts you have if you are lucky, billets in barns and the like, or if you are nearer the firing line you crawl to sleep under pieces of more or less leaky tarpaulin stretched over a low wall of sandbags, or a few pieces of timber.  It is almost an impossibility to keep one’s feet dry even for a few hours.  Instead of a majestic personage in a well-built and orderly store, the Quartermaster is a mere sergeant in a muddy and muddled tent.  The saddler, bootmaker etc. fare similarly.  The canteen is a hardened individual surrounded by a heterogeneous heap in a fowlhouse, a pig-sty, or a hole in the ground whence he hands you your high-priced merchandise.  And so the game goes on.  On each level sit, squat, sprawl or kneel, men, writing, gambling, exchanging repartee; candles flicker from makeshift brackets and stands (mine is the back of a blacking brush the handle of which is stuck into a crack, others use, against orders, inverted tin lids) and from every available nail, rack, rafter and rope depend their garments and belongings.  They are now arguing about the spelling and pronunciation of the word ‘wagon’ or ‘waggon’ – the wags.

You would like to sleep here.  Everything that you enjoy, cobwebs and their weavers everywhere, bugs, lady-birds, and other varieties of insect life, and a nice cool draught.  Of course there aren’t devastated cities everywhere, but in the (in every sense) blasted town through which I used to ride it was curious to see how the debris had been turned to military use.  On what appears to be the utter ruin of a house you’ll see the symbol of Y.M.C.A and on closer inspection will notice a packing-case door in it and will know that somewhere in the bowels of the rubbish heap is a cup of coffee and a cigarette and will dismount from your jaded ‘donk’ and partake.  Other heaps bear other legends and in what was once a city of civilians, a city of un-civil-‘uns is now ‘carrying on’.  You soon lose all nervousness about the explosives you have to handle and get very aggrieved if some ‘sub’ in charge of an ammunition dump takes it into his head to enforce the order against smoking in the camp.  You capsize a heap of H.E. shells so they clatter with resounding thwacks down upon their touchy fellows and you only swear at the bother of picking them up again.  You are delayed for an hour under fire by a stubborn and dead-beat donk’s refusal to negotiate a shell-hole; you go berserk, tweak its nose, kick him in the jaw (it isn’t a question of cruelty to animals but of serving guns) but you don’t bother at all about the shells that drop in the neighbourhood – that comes later on when you have done your work and have time to think.  One can never realise strange conditions of life without actually experiencing them and so I have found almost everything different in appearance, in dimensions, in detail and in assemble from what I had anticipated.

I must say that rough as the men mostly are I find a lot to admire and envy them for – a cheerfulness under any conditions, great loyalty to our cause beneath all their sarcasm and expletives – hardihood and boldness and a capacity to “stick it”.