Long and strenuous day. Up at 3.30. with a party of about 18 men up to the front to salvage ammunition and a blown-up gun. We rode in the ghostly moonlight through the well-remembered ruined city (Ypres) which in that dim light and encrusted with frost looked like an old ruin. From the town we then made off towards the lines through three or four miles of country more topsy turvy with shell holes than ever. There isn’t a blade of grass nor any kind of verdure; every tree is dead and blasted and not more than 5 yards spare between shell-holes. This, mind you, prevails over a track of country I don’t know how wide, but several miles deep; as if some misguided giant with a broken shovel had dug up the whole country-side haphazard and kicked over everything standing during the process. There wasn’t much firing but in the air things were very merry. During most of the day the sky was filled with planes and there were plenty of scraps. A hardish day’s work carrying shells over a tract of rough country.
Near where I was working is the remains of a wood, looking not unlike a patch of charred-out bush in the backblocks of N.Z. All water is now frozen 5 or 6 inches thick and would easily support a horse. The wooden roads that are made all over the place are frighteningly slippery and we had to wrap up the feet of one mule in socks, making him look like a cross between a donkey and an elephant. I saw a remarkable instance of the accuracy of Fritz’s shooting in the case of a sector of a road which had been destroyed, the shell holes being planted evenly and accurately, alternating from one side of the road to the other.
Cold weather renders gas shells innocuous, as the liquid chlorine etc. will not vaporise, but when it grows warmer again becomes active and dangerous. Everywhere are traces of bitter fighting – twisted barb-wire, smashed dugouts, trenches, ‘pill-boxes’ etc. and dotted here and there over the devastation a sprinkling of disabled tanks, one of them cocked at an impossible angle gazing disconsolately at the sky.
[Image: Aerial oblique view of Ypres showing the ruins of the city, sourced from Imperial War Museum, Catalogue Number Q 29795]
[Image: German Blockhouses, sourced from Canadian War Museum]
The night is clear cold and luminous, with Jupiter glittering in the East and his amorous consort glowing in the West, as on several former occasions. Today Fritz has been visible at high altitudes having pot shots at our balloons with ‘time’ high explosive, his favourite anti-aircraft weapon. They burst in ragged little puffs of black smoke and are appropriately known as “Woolly Bears.” Tonight soon after dusk he bombed the neighbourhood very heavily and put the wind up us.
The waltzing of the waggy-eared ones at exercise this morning was dithyrambic, but lacked the true Grecian elegance, very few of them having the frost nails in yet. As a result of the cold weather on chronic sore throats two of the boys in our tent have lost their voices, and speak in husky whispers; but they are great sports and almost every evening, but special request, they honour us with a short duet, “Down where the Swannee River Flows” the melody being just discernible through intermittent wheezes. Picket last night was rather a freezer, but we had plenty to occupy the time in collecting the hay-nets as soon as they were emptied (if you don’t, the animals munch up half the string of which the nets are made and spoil them), catching straying donks, and endeavouring to straighten their covers, which they also eat and tear about into fantastic shapes.
[Image: New Zealand artillerymen in action, 1st of January 1918, The Butte, Belgium. Photograph taken by Henry Armytage Sanders. National Library, Ref. 10×8-1806-G]
It hardly seems like New Year’s Day. The cold discourages one from taking off one’s underwear in search of what I for one am beginning to consider the real enemy, and consequently their ranks get replenished even unto distraction [i.e., lice]. Last night had several rude awakenings, the work of a brass and bibulous band which had watched and wassailed up for the coming of the new year, when they burst forth into the most astonishing set of selections. No unit of that band, especially the drummer, intended to be overlooked, but was prepared if necessary, to introduce a sonorous passage of his own to emphasise his standpoint. The leading cornet reached notes of an altitude hitherto unknown and the tout ensemble was such as requires the pen of Christopher North.
I have just heard of the death in action of W. E. Moore, a well-known Auckland Solicitor. He had distinguished himself as a soldier and been decorated for bravery, and he once paid me the compliment of saying he would like to have me in his office.
[Image of William Ernest Moore, sourced from the Auckland Museum online cenotaph]