My second “buckshee” parcel was from the Spinster’s Club and contained amongst various goods an amazing size in cholera belts which will come in either as a spare comforter or for cleaning harness. Church at Y.M.C.A. yesterday – a spirited address from the same little man as before. They have there the tiniest piano I’ve ever seen (set up on top of a packing case) on which the hymns are strummed.
The fireplace is a great success; we make toast, heat water, dry our things and keep warm. The noise of the guns is at times not unlike the banging and rolling about of big tanks in the distance.
Great doings in our tent this evening. We collared another tent from an abandoned camp and put it over our own, so we are under two thicknesses of canvas; obtained also a brazier with a chimney, which we now have going in full swing in the doorway, with the prospect of dry boots and socks – tres bon! Or “trees beans” as some have it. Had a lovely spill off my donk tonight, landing in the mud which, unpleasant in itself, saved me from so much as a bruise. These are the humorous interludes and we all roar with laughter at the unfortunate, except when your own turn comes: you scrape most of the mud off with your jack-knife and proceed with the business of the day.
This afternoon bought an exciting aerial display by a number of the redoubtable gothas sailing serenely over our heads supported by a squad of fast scouting machines at a much higher altitude. The archibalds got busy and plastered the atmosphere with shell-bursts, but the beggars got away without apparent injury. We could see the dropping bombs flashing in the sun. None came near us. Have made a patent tin-candle-sock-drier and am now experimenting with it, its heat is hardly tropical.
The mud is getting quite fantastic in its smell, stickiness and general enormity; watering horses is now one gigantic and confused bog-scramble. Went to church in Y.M.C.A. this morning and bellowed hymns and heard an earnest little chap discourse quite eloquently on one of St. Paul’s epistles. We had W’s cake at lunch and have guzzled most of the blackballs, which are very popular. One chap got a tin of asparagus which we beated up and schlooped down by the yard – it needed condiments and white sauce, which our imaginations had to supply. Managed to get rid of the superfluous balaclavas. Note: the plethora of balaclava caps sent to soldiers was a standing joke.
8 p.m. We have just had the ginger out of the parcel – it went down like a hot toddy. If you good folk will send the stuff what can you expect us to do but enjoy it? You will perhaps be amused to know that every part of your parcels is utilised not excepting the tins and the cloth-wrapping, which either comes in for dishcloths or harness rags. There is actually a farm house here still inhabited, right in the middle of the camp. W. and I had some coffee there today in the now familiar handle-less cups.
W. got a tin of the most scrumptious home-made shortbread and biscuits, so we are having a royal time in this hut. Yesterday and today have been warmer, the ice has thawed and King Mud rules again.
Well, we move up to new positions tomorrow. The frost this morning was intense and the ice on the ponds quite thick. This cold clear weather has the advantage of rendering the ground dry under foot. The trumpet has just blown “Come and get your pay” and there is great rejoicing in the camp.
9.30. p.m. Spent the evening with Campbell at a sort of variety entertainment by some chaps out of Yorkshire regiment. The show was excellent and well put on – had a real good laugh.
Had a mounted inspection by a Major this morning and got half-holiday this afternoon. There was a slight sprinkle of snow, just enough to glitter. These villages are much more squalid and crushed together as it were, than the pretty English ones and there appear to be no neat little gardens and creepers etc. So far France has never appealed to me as a place to live in. There has been a decided improvement in the tucker lately, our canteen profits being partially used for that purpose and we have been getting good porridge and plenty of vegetables in the stew as well as the usual bread, margarine, cheese and jam – “Butter” or jam, both never being issued at once, but one can usually save a bit for the next meal. Do these details interest you? W. is snoring loudly.
[Image: Major General Russell, the New Zealand Commander, accompanied by officers, on a tour of inspection of the billets for the 2nd Canterbury Regiment in the small French village of Quesques. Photo taken 25 October 1917 by Henry Armytage Sanders. National Library, Ref: 1/2-012960-G.]
At the early hour of 5.30 the sun set, Venus in the West and Jupiter in the East, backed by the intermittent flashes of the distant “heavies”. I can’t help feeling that the sky is much nearer here than in N.Z. The gloomier winter conditions give one the impression of being shut down under a big lid, but there is a sort of soft sweet colouring and tinting of the distance that awake one’s atavistic memory of Northern winters. In France proper the estaminets are all “To the (so and so)”, as “Au Lion D’or”, “Au Debit des Boissons” etc., here they are “In the etc.” as in “In Den Old Stein Bier Huis”. There is one about every 100 yards. To revert to the great topic of “Buckshee parcels” these café au lait and other soluble drinks are, I believe, very nice once made, but dashed hard to get made.
[Note – on 3 December 1917 the 1st Otago and 1st Canterbury battalions of the NZ Division attacked German positions at Polderhoek Chateau in the Ypres salient. The attack faced determined German resistance and the Chateau was not taken; some ground was secured and later German counter-attacks were repulsed. NZ forces suffered around 500 casualties, including 130 dead (a bit more than half the 800 effective combatants). The Germans recovered the taken ground some 9 days later. Private Henry James Nicholas received a VC for his actions during the fight. See also Colonel Hugh Stewart, ‘The New Zealand Division 1916-1918’, Whitcombe and Tombs Limited, 1921, pp. 305-314.]
In the dull weather with leaden sky the country is looking sad and gloomy, but it is not un-picturesque, especially the hill-top windmills, which take my fancy greatly. Of course, the whole country-side here, as it is everywhere within a belt of perhaps 10 to 15 miles wide behind the lines, is riddled with military activity and quite abnormal; still one can study something of the remnant of its inhabitants, their abodes and belongings. (Have just drawn my rum issue which we get every other night, and am toping it out of a tin.)
Interesting to recognise here and there someone with whom I have at some place and some time been in camp. There was a white, but not very severe frost this morning and a few flakes of now this evening, the day breaking a little before 7 a.m. and darkness settling in soon after 5 p.m. All indications are for a mild winter. We soldiers look a chap wounded and in England as being in luck’s way and don’t dream of being sorry for him.
Item: I have found that I can dry a damp pair of socks by hanging them above my candle. About a week back I badly burnt a good pair and for penance sat right down and darned up the several huge holes. I scorn the numerous needles in my “housewife” and do everything with a curved sack-needle I have. Once you have pushed its burly blade through the fabric you know that there is plenty of room for the eye and the wool. Put one in the next parcel.
Strange to see small groups of civilians, mostly women, going off to church in their Sunday blacks; one begins to forget that there is such a thing as civil life. The stables here are almost dark inside and it is weird pottering about with the mules in them, grooming, watering and feeding the long-eared mongrels. One of my mules is a quite energetic little fellow; the other is very touchy and troublesome. By the way, when we were up at the lines one of the chaps killed a mole which had been burrowing in our ‘bivvy’ and I found that my conception of that curious little animal was entirely wrong. It was only twice the size of a mouse, almost oblong in shape, covered with fine black fur, blind, with embryonic eyes, pig-faced, and had great bare hands turned sideways for scuttling out the earth.
[Image – A badly damaged windmill that has withstood repeated shelling in World War I France. Photograph taken near Courcelles 31 May 1918 by Henry Armytage Sanders. National Library, Ref: 1/2-013736-G]