Travelled some miles and had a rare old time getting the donks into the dip, which was on the principle of a sheep dip. My usually docile donk wouldn’t budge and we had to give him the hiding of his life, while he let out in all directions. The pair, after immersion, put a climax to the operation by jumping the fence round the enclosure, at least 6 ft. high. The traffic was tremendous – troops, mounted and foot – motor cars – motor lorries – waggons – steam rollers – Chinese labourers singing like tin squeakers, and so on. Yet a great portion of it is avoided by the construction of “switch roads” i.e. temporary ways running parallel with the main routes and also known as “avoiding roads”.
Fritz started shelling again soon after our return from exercising. I am satisfied that mules are omnivorous. My chap who ate the snow balls, today partook of army biscuit, bread, a large lump of paper greased with bacon and about half of a small willow tree. He has also taken to smoodging me in a manner quite embarrassing. Today they all had their necks scrubbed with vile-smelling anti-mange mixture, which my fussier donk resented, nearly knocking me and the vet’s assistant out.
The peace talk in the papers is to us an enthralling subject. A number of us are to have our mules dipped. My mules have gone back on me as far as jumping is concerned; with true mulishness they now refuse to jump even the narrowest gutter and I am ignominiously compelled to make all sorts of detours.
The performing mules this morning almost came up to yesterday’s standard. One big horse, after breaking loose and galloping joyously about, conceived a notion to roll in a slushy pool, completely plastering one side of his whole body and face with greenish mud, so that when he turned he gave the impression of being a lightening change artist. And in the field beyond us the old Belgian peasant plodded behind his antidiluvian one-horse plough, oblivious of war and of warriors.
At exercise this morning things were better than a circus. We were moving round in a wide ring when two or three very fresh mules broke away from their owner and galloped about, doing excellent work in the way of buckjumping, kicking up their heels, shying at their bridle-reins. Every now and then one of them, thinking he would find better scope for gymnastics outside, or (as the case might be) inside, the ring, would dash through our cavalcade, letting out with both hind feet as he did so. We then did a bit of hurdling over a fence or sand-bags. The cream of the entertainment, wisely reserved for the end, was provided by the civil servant. Thinking to emulate the spirit shown by some gallants in riding belly-deep through a deep pond, he followed in their rash wake. The beast he was riding got into a hole, the one he was leading refused to proceed and between the two he fell and was submerged in the freezing, muddy, manury mixture.
Life’s little worries! Was, as I thought, oiling the steel of my harnesses, when nearly finished I grew suspicious at the unusual liquidity – looked closer and lo! I had been using water.
Sleep has been a rare commodity recently. Routed out at 4.30. this morning as lead driver in a waggon going up to the guns. A heavy, cold and damp fog prevailed until after noon. Clattered over the cobble through the wrecked city, getting a new fog-impression of it all, and so on up to the Abomination of Desolation. There we made several trips up and down a switchback and much broken plank road, liberally bestrewn on either hand with smashed guns, waggons and dead horses in various stages of unburial and decomposition. Got through without any shelling and likewise with any tucker and so back in a gigantic zigzag, owing to twice taking the wrong road.
[Image, A muddy track through the former battlefield, between Broodseinde and Passchendaele, 11 January 1918, Imperial War Museums, Q 8424]
Thought my shift at picquet last night was never going to end. There’s a fine little poem by Bret Harte about a picquet and a falling star which I can now appreciate. Out exercising where there were broad flat ploughed fields with an old Flemish peasant trudging about them like a Millet.
At sundown the colouring was delicately distributed, the sun looking like a red ball, more like our full moon in smokey weather. Again saw one of our balloons broken adrift and ascending to a great height, dropping its two parachutists and pursued by shells from anti-aircraft guns. The parachutes are pure white and glide gracefully down at what seems to be a very slow pace, but in reality is quick enough to give a nasty jar on alighting. They look like jelly-fish sinking in sunny waters; contrasting with the bright light-brown balloons, which, to carry on the simile, might be the hulls of floating fisher boats.
The canteen is infested with gambling fiends who run Crown and Anchor boards, yelping out a continuous stream of patter. Rather fascinating, watching the throw of the dice and the money going this way and that.
Got the news of the Dardanelles action with the oft-sunk (by journalists) Goeben etc. Doesn’t seem very wonderful to me; we get two boats sunk, sink the small German and the big one gets away and grounds herself, probably to be repaired to have another go. We can’t afford to skite; even on the water, given equal forces, they seem to fight as well as we do.
A mild excitement was the Court Martial of our Trumpeter – a fat jolly chap – for trotting on cobble road, – he got off.
Almost uncomfortably warm – so N.Z. is not the only place where the climate plays tricks. During the forenoon Jerry sent a few H.E. so close that the C.O. thought it advisable to evacuate the stables. We therefore had a quite enjoyable prance around the fields and I again was pleasantly surprised to find what good jumpers my two mules are, an unusual quality in this beast. I haven’t had a chance of trying them at a hurdle, but by the way they go neck and neck over streams and ditches I think they would make a good job of it.
Amusing incidents often occur at mess; some men insist on using shallow plates for things like stew, soup etc., then slither off through mire and slush, try to pass one another on narrow duck-walks and slop their mess in all directions.
Shifting into a Nissen hut. It’s a bit crowded; but a change of neighbours varies the monotony. Three giddy airmen (probably N. Zedders) swooped down on us from nowhere and buzzed around and over our camp like huge mosquitos. One madcap dipped down so as to just shave the top of a telegraph post under which I and others were standing. You should have seen us jump!
8 p.m. Today was pay day and tonight was rum night and the first night we have all been together in the new Camp. We have a huge new canteen with two fireplaces. I spent half an hour there, drying socks at the blaze, making sundry purchases, drinking beer and watching the effects of firelight on the rough semi-bibulous faces and forms of the thronging soldiers. How quickly a camp like this materialises! In a couple of days huts, tents, canteen Q.M stores, smithy, buildings of wood and iron, canvass, tarpaulin and what not, spring up like mushrooms, men take possession of them and the whole is soon a going concern.
A jumbled troublous day; most unsabbatical. Busy shifting camp to a new position nearer our stables. The sun went down through a brilliant slot between an overhanging bulk of drab cloud and the horizon, on which the little hills with their windmills stood out in sharp relief of deep purply-blue against an orange background. I have been indulging in a supper that would stagger you and may possibly stagger me – a hunk of dry bread and some salt bully-beef – opened with a muddy bayonet – washed down with a mouthful of musty water out of my bottle. Today banged into another waggon, interlocking our wheels which were un-interlocked after a spasmodic 4 minutes.
Could I but get an excused duty for a month, a box of colours, a camp stool, gum boots, break-wind with plate-glass window, permit to paint, a few minor commodities, I might be able to supplement this budget with some sketches; but, a yes, I forgot; that would necessitate a larger and stronger green envelope.