A beautiful, bright, and breezy day. After getting acclimatised, one imagines that on a day like this the temperature is as high as it would be at this season in N.Z. The way to disprove this is, as I have just experienced, to eat half a can (or tin) of tinned (or canned) peaches – they freeze your gizzard. Prolonged ululations, intended to represent the air of “Annie Laurie” are emanating from boozed tommies in the adjacent canteen. Big wet clouds which emit an occasional dash of hail or rain. Fritz threw a few shells about last night; they went squealing overhead and landed a mile away. One young fellow got over twenty letters. He read them in less time than I did my half dozen and burnt them forthwith. I was amazed. I value my letters and read them several times as they are a connecting link with that un-warlike world to which I would return.
Congenial job, digging drain through the slush round the cookhouse.
Amongst our mules is one gigantic affair about 6 ft. high (actually about 17 hands) who goes by the name of “the Poet”. As he is given to kicking I take it that his vein is satire. “Brigham” returned tonight to go on leave, hurling his tin hat on the floor by way of greeting. Who should also turn up but R. [Roche] down from the guns at last. He looks well enough though he has had a disgusting time, some of the details of his experience nearly making me sick – living for weeks in a dug-out into which various portions of long-dead Huns protruded.
More ‘buckshee’ parcels today. We were lined up like a lot of kids at a bazaar round the Corporal’s bunk receiving handfuls of this, that and the other. One group had a huge sack of heterogeneous rubbish, sweets, chocolates, pills, tobacco, chewing gum, soup, coca and whatnot and after a long and noisy effort to effect a partition they ended by each filling his hat and pockets and abandoning the balance.
R’s feet are still a fertile field of humour. His Major (now killed) went to no trouble to get him a large enough pair of jack-boots when his others wore out; eventually returning with a huge pair and the remark “Well, R. you have most extraordinary feet.”
An amusing incident of today, a civilian cab laden with Tommy officers. We rushed out and yelled “cab sir, cab sir”, to the huge delight of the two drivers on the box, but to the consternation of the officers, who looked at one another dubiously and cast stern glances in our direction.
We have started making things merry at early morning exercise by going at spanking trot along roads, and watering at the finish. The idea is to get the animals warmed up so that they will drink more.
Two phenomena today – (1) A carriage and pair, and (2) two ladies (Belgian) in black, going to Church.
Have just been reading about the sector taken over from the French, where there are towns still inhabited, hills and woods and all sorts of attractions. Am indulging in a long thin cigar and small bottle of “Bass” to celebrate the half-holiday. The personnel of this battery has altered tremendously since I joined it; men are always going out and coming in. Some striking signals went up from the front lines tonight. Strings of bright lights shooing into the sky in luminous arcs and curves. Don’t know what they portend.
I wonder if you realise what an immense business it is to keep the roads here – there must be many thousands of men and many hundreds of steam rollers etc. constantly at work. Or imagine the amount of fodder, harnesses and general attention needed by hundreds of batteries, A.S.C. mounted troops etc. Even a mule by the time it is got here is valued at about £75 and (we are told) as three times the monetary value of a man. The innumerable railways and countless motor vehicles must present an even greater problem of upkeep. The whole thing is gigantic. A laughter episode has interrupted me. The curly boy, who spent the earliest part of the evening tossing other sporting gentry for their rum issue and winning was telling a humorous story and going into such convulsions of laughter that his listeners took it up con amore and ad nauseam. This threw him into hysterics. They only calmed down when he was actually sick.
[Image: Mule-drawn column of the Royal Artillery passing through Poperinghe towards the front, 22 February 1918, IWM (Q 10271)]
Detailed to take Rocinante away to the sick lines, the Sergeant Major declaring that it gave him gut-ache whenever he looked at him. He lumbered along in complete indifference to his fate.
Out first thing this morning to get some mangy-looking horse clipped. Whilst waiting our turn we went in and got coffee from the inhabitants. There were a couple of bright young girls of about 15 or 16 who spoke Flemish, French and English, the last quite well. They had learnt it from the soldiers during the war. They used bad English swears with innocent faces, no knowing the meaning. Madam was cheerfully chopping up leeks, not washed, on a very dirty table. One of the horses I took was a Rocinante, even prior to his shave, but afterwards he was the limit. He has a lop ear, flat clumping feet and is lame in one leg; add to this that you could hang your hat on any of his corners, wallowing along beside me like an unseaworthy ship. The one I rode was a sturdy, determined-looking, half-draught, who just plugged along huge-hoofed and purposeful, loudly grinding his teeth. Found later to my astonishment that “he” was a mare. Got back and had an immense feed of spuds flavoured with a bit of skin someone had put among ‘em to look like meat. Topped off with rum issue and now feel quite comfortable. (There drat me if I haven’t singed my socks again).
My mules continue to act with eccentricity. Yesterday I mended a hole in their stable floor with two loads of bricks, which I packed down nice and firm, and then went away for a few moments with a feeling of satisfaction. The moment my back was turned they fell to, like a pair of dogs at a rabbit burrow, and scuttled out the whole result of my labours in a few seconds. The madder one gets hung up every night with one hind leg on each side of the dividing rope. This is high up, about level with his shoulder, but he takes high-angle pot-shots at his new enemy on the other side and eventually kicks right over and so gets hung up. His old enemy is still in hospital. In my absence today W. intrepidly attempted to put his cover on, with spectacular results.
[Image – Veterinary Surgeon examining a mule at No 4 Base Remount Depot in Boulogne, 15 February 1918, IWM Q 8531]
6 p.m. Whenever there is clear weather, like today, aerial and other activity revives. Up go more balloons. Fritz takes pot shots at them, aeroplanes buzz about, Archies bark, and the guns spark up. Last night I could hear the machine guns rattling and see the big star-shells, or S.O.S. signals flaming in the sky along the line. Dawn broke in a gentle pink deluge directly behind the front itself and it was indeed difficult to believe that this gigantic madness was going on in its midst. You must understand there are no country lanes here – there may have been at one time, but now everything is militarised – metalled roads with ditches of mud on each side and the land between them thick with camps, stables, etc. all dreadfully ugly.
[Image – Two observer officers in the basket of a kite balloon. Note the telephones, map rest, parachute and parachute harness. Photograph taken in Gosnay, 2 May 1918. IWM (Q 12028)]
A clear night with a young moon descending along the path of the sun. I have to pass the night in an empty iron hut and do 4 ½ hours picket in the small hours. The big guns have been barking today. A batch of reinforcements including many who, we thought, had become permanent instructors at Ewshot, so there has been a combing out of the “die-hards” or “Anzacs” as the Villian ironically calls them. Curiously the old faces keep popping up, in all sorts of places and under all sorts of conditions, you keep scratching your head wondering where on earth it was that I came across that chap.