29th December (1917)

One of our horses came down so heavily as to break a leg and have to be shot.  The difficulty is got over by putting what are called “frost nails” in the animals shoes and ours are being done now.  These are small wedge-shaped steel plugs screwed into either side of each shoe.  Even my sure-footed pair were performing a kind of mulish mazurks on the way to water.

Talk about lacrymatory gas!  We have a supply (purloined railway sleepers) of very green pine-wood and every half hour or so, when the fire is replenished, our eyes, noses, and lungs have to undergo an ordeal that out to render us proof against anything ‘Jerry’ may have in store for us.  In spite of its various discomforts, the life we have been leading lately is a lazy and monotonous one.  I was quite envying some infantry that I saw drilling today in the snow.  At this game one grows very like an animal and one’s chief pleasure is eating.  The older hands are most of them very taciturn (except for expletives) and unresponsive to the casual remark.  Whereas the songs of the Boer War (Soldiers of the Queen etc) were painfully jingoistic, those of this war ignore the whole business.  Here are some:

Tipperary – Coming Hom – and When you Come Home (Maudlin).  On the Telephone – Take me Back to Blighty – (light and cheerful) I like that Girl – Down in the Valley – Charlotte the Harlot – (all unprintable) Come to the Army (i.e. Salvation Army) etc. etc.  Evidence that when the situation is deadly serious jingoism goes by the board.

We read the peace proposals by the various belligerents with avidity, the very sound of the word peace is electrifying.  Sometimes we abandon all hope of it ever coming and lugubriously discuss the dread possibility of being here for the rest of our naturals.

Footnote:  In World War II bad taste reached its apotheosis in such absurdities as We are the Men – The Army, the Navy and the Air-Force – etc. an exception being Hitler, I’ve got my eyes on you – to the tune of Colonel Bogey.  [Note – this footnote is included in Lincoln’s typescript]

28th December (1917)

Last night Fritz made things pretty merry with bombing planes, and has been over again today reconnoitring, the clear weather with all buildings etc. standing sharply out of the sunlit snow being probably ideal for aerial photography.  Our ‘archibalds’ filled the sky with little artificial clouds and some of the shell cases fell whistling down in unpleasant proximity.  The main object of their fire seems to be to keep the enemy at a great altitude and minimise the value of his information.  One of our shrapnel shells burst into a lovely smoke-ring which hung about in the sky for about a minute.  I have seen the same thing much closer from the mouth of a big cannon.

6.30. p.m.  It has grown ‘wonderous cold’ and we are debating whether to sacrifice the length of duckboard, used as a boot-scraper and threshold to our tent, for additional firing.  However, a good feed, supplemented by a tin of sausage from the canteen followed by rum issue heated up with a hunk of butterscotch in lieu of sugar, have put a better complexion on matters, and the duckboard motion has been lost for the time being.

The rising and setting of the sun over the snow-covered country is attended with a certain sad, almost tragic beauty.

nlnzimage 1-2 013024-G

[Image: Snow covered battlefields near Hooge, Belgium. Photograph taken on 1 January 1918, by Henry Armytage Sanders.  National Library of New Zealand, Ref. 1/2-013024-G]

27th December (1917)

One of my donks is of brownish colour and is quite well mannered, but its mate, a brunette (if that word can be used of a male, though in its propensities this donk is quite distinctly female) is a very flighty beast and so touchy about the head that I can never put on its bridle or nosebag in the usual way, but have to untie one side, first slip the leather round its neck, and then tighten up.  At first I thought this was no end of a nuisance, but now do it mechanically.  He also dives under the rope and stands on the wrong side of it and every now and then gets scared and, like the Prisoner of Chillon, breaks his chain with one bound.  All these bad qualities are balanced by the fact that he can pull like a son of a gun – you never get a donk without some deficiencies.

W’s on the other hand, are large clumsy specimens with clumpy feet and they were sliding about all over the road, with in places was like glass with the effect of traffic over the snow – in fact I saw a Tommy skating on it quite gracefully in his boots.  One of our drivers was up with a waggon yesterday and got wounded in the foot; he is now the envy of all.  Of a few casualties that have occurred in other batteries in this place, two are men I knew fairly well; both killed.

26th December 1917

Boxing Day, but there isn’t much boxing going on, pugilistic or otherwise.  A quantity of snow has fallen during the night and there have been showers of snow and sleet (little crisp nubbly chunks of it) today.  The ground is two or three inches thick with it and the roofs of all the tents and buildings are covered, the whole panorama of intense whiteness glistening in the winter’s sun.  So many batteries are bivouacked hereabouts that our trumpeters have adopted a distinctive prelude of a few notes before each call, so that we won’t respond to the calls of neighbouring batteries.  Ours is the tune “Apres la guerre fini.”

7 p.m. The gamblers’ shibboleths are growing more and more monosyllabic and in one game seem to be confined to “sit” “flip” “bust”.  Nothing is more extraordinary than the wastefulness of the average young New Zealander; and a contrast to the Tommy – witness the salvage of horse-liver, reported the other day!

Our bombardment has reached such an intensity that it sounds like one continuous roll of thunder.  We speculate as to its object; whether it heralds a great attack by us, or only a raid, or whether it is to repel an enemy attack, or is only a “straff”.

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[Image: Snowy conditions along the road at New Zealand headquarters, Chateau Segard, near Dickebusch, Belgium, during World War I. Photograph taken 27 December 1917 by Henry Armytage Sanders. National Library of New Zealand, Ref. 10×8-1809-G]

Xmas Day (1917)

Here it is at last.  A curious sort of Yuletide for us.  It has been raining and snowing and the ground is horribly sloppy and greasy.  Last night was fairly quiet save for a number of revellers who have skinned the canteen out of beer.  We had a flash breakfast of fried steak, bacon and mashed spuds and are now getting up an appetite for the great event.

A right royal spread, the festival lasting from 2 to 4 p.m. fed on turkey and ham with several kinds of vegetables, sauces, stuffing etc., followed by hot duff, stewed fruit and custard; plenty of French wine and beer, cigarettes, cigars, nuts, muscatels etc.  Various toasts and a few humorous speeches were followed by an impromptu smoke concert.  Some of the items were most funny.  The Padre sang “Somerset” starting off egregiously out of tune, but the crowning effort was that of a negro visitor from the West Indies, who piped “Darling I am growing old” in a weedy childish treble.  After it all we were rushed through with watering and feeding the dismal donks, during which I saw our West Indian guest and a bibulous bombardier careering up and down the slushy paddocks in a bareback Derby.  We are now in our tent drinking beer and bellowing choruses.  We had the snow after all and the ground was white when we came out from our feasting.  I must confess to a very replete feeling about the “bhingy” for some hours after that dinner.  The revellers are now all sleeping peacefully; only W. and I sit up writing, with candles balanced in uneasy attitudes, the only sounds being the distant boom of the heavies (busy, alas, even on this night), the muffled choruses of distant wassailers and the hissing of stray snowflakes on our tin chimney.  We should feel thankful that we are not in action or up in the trenches and shell holes with the poor old infantry.

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Image: New Zealand soldiers at the counter of an army canteen in France during World War One, eating pieces of Christmas cake and drinking coffee distributed free by the New Zealand YMCA on Christmas Day, 1917. Behind the counter, one soldier is handing out what looks to be chocolate (or a cigar) from a box labelled “Fry’s Chocolate cakes”. Photograph by Henry Armytage Sanders.  National Library, ref. 10×8-1764-G.

Note:  Lieutenant J. R. Byrne, in New Zealand Artillery in the Field, 1914-1918 (Whitcombe and Tombs Limited, 1922, Auckland, p.213), describes Christmas Day for the NZ Artillery thus:

Warning was issued from Divisional Headquarters that all ranks were to be specially prepared for attacks from the enemy on Christmas Day, but nothing of this nature followed, though the infantry sent up an S.O.S. at 2.45 a.m. Batteries at once opened fire, but after fifteen minutes the situation was reported clear, and firing ceased. During the remainder of the day the enemy’s artillery activity was slightly above normal, while the New Zealand batteries contented themselves with firing two concentrations—one at 8 a.m. and another at 5 p.m. Snow fell during the day, just sufficient to lightly cover the ground and give the traditional setting for an Old World Christmas. All did their best to spend the day as suitably as circumstances permitted, and at the waggon lines at any rate the dinners which had been prepared were of a kind and quantity sufficient to tire the appetite of even such trenchermen as sat round the tables that day. The C.R.A. paid brief visits to the waggon lines about mid-day, and spoke a few words to the assembled men.”

Sunday, 23rd December (1917)

I have just lost 2 f. in a bet with the Villain as to whether a recently-shot animal on the roadside was a mule or a horse.  We took a stroll down the road to settle the point and found a party of Tommies burying the flayed and hideous remains.  They had appropriated most of the rump steak and when we arrived were diving gruesomely into its viscera, lugging out huge chunks of liver – “aay choom we’re t’ ‘ave a Xmas dinner after awl”.  It took the bun.

6.30 p.m. On Picquet.  Fritz has been making things rather merry with bombs, the air through moonlight being too hazy for our guns to pick him up, so he is able to fly low.  The chief inconvenience is having to put our lights out when the whistle blows.

You will notice that I always start each instalment of this commentary as if it were nothing but a private letter to you; that’s done partly to discourage the censorious one, who mayhap says to himself, “who am I to come between a man and his lawful spouse”.*  My hair is, you will be displeased to hear, egregiously long and spring-poetic.

[* Note – These introductions have been edited out in the account presented here.  As Lincoln mentioned in his ‘Forward’ to the typescript, “In its original form, this diary, typed direct from my letters to my first wife, was twice its present length.  In the forty five intervening years I have deleted much personal and trivial matter, hoping that in its present form it may prove of general interest.”]

22nd December (1917)

The white incrustation on the trees and roofs has disappeared.  I must tell you of the disaster which happened this morning, to the Villain.  We walk or trot our steeds around a paddock in the great circus or ring, but he of the demi-monde chose to go off in sullen seclusion and parade up and down to a flank.  When first I remarked him in difficulties he was mounted with the ‘ride’ donk pulling in one direction and the ‘lead’ in the other.  In act 2 he came clean over his ‘ride’s’ head in a somersault, appearing to land on his own head and revolve over on his back.  The sudden released ‘lead’ actually sat down on his haunches, like a puppy, with both forelegs held in a supplicating attitude.  He slowly picked himself up, said nothing, and carefully and painfully remounted.

Fritz has woken up sufficiently to lob a few light shells around the countryside behind our lines.  Do you want to know what a Nissen Hut is?  It is one made of curved sheets of iron arched over a floor, dome-wise, with windows of transparent waterproof at each end; very quickly and easily built, and now much in use all over France.  “Heavies”, large guns generally.  “Dinks”, N.Z. Rifle Brigade.  “Toc Emmas”, French mortars.  “Imshi”, get out, clear out.  “Mafeesh”, finish.

Clear frosty sky, guns busy, and Aphrodite low in the West giving the glad eye to Jove high in the East.  I am still in some sense economically disposed and make and burn some amazing candles out of wax that others allow to waste.  You would laugh at our morning ablutions.  We heat up a tin of water and all wash in it, usually scalding ourselves in the process.  I have trained to clean my teeth with one mouthful of water out of my waterbottle; rush outside, with toothbrush in hand duly charged with paste, and distended cheeks, and allow it to dribble out at just the rate to do the job.  Fritz has just been over and blazed at by a dozen barking Archibalds but we take no notice – the gamblers don’t stop.  The gamesters continue to shuffle cards, jingle coin, rustle notes and utter mysterious shibboleths to me quite unintelligible.

eo-0976 Anti-Aircraft Guns

Photograph of Anti-aircraft guns (Archibalds), from the Canadian War Museum collection.