Went up with W. and another chap with waggon and 6 horse (or mule) team with a load of ammunition. Dumped that and returned by a wide detour through another village (bashed) picking up a load of stuff to take back. I was able to take a fresh interest in the city after last night’s lecture. The walls and moat are more attractive when you know that on innumerable occasions the besieged poured molten lead on the heads of the besiegers floundering below. We were able to just distinguish a fragment of a mural painting on one of the ruined walls which the lecturer had mentioned, and so forth. He had remarked on the opulence of its vegetation; how the buildings were all to be seen surrounded by trees and gardens. One can see the blasted and blackened remains of trees and shrubs, half buried in the debris on all sides, and there is something about them sadder even than the broken buildings. A blown-up cemetery isn’t a pretty sight either. As my little mules knee was still stiff I took in his stead a mad mare which is quite unmanageable in stables, but an excellent animal in harness, and the pair went splendidly. I must confess to some particularly asinine familiarities with my little donk this afternoon. His only retaliation was to lavishly lick my hand, being it appears, partial to the machine oil I had been smearing on my metal work. Usage soon reduces for one the essential weirdness of mules, so that now when occasionally I handle a horse I marvel at the insignificance of his ears and the brevity of his head. Mules are, as a rule, fast walkers and easy to sit at the trot. When you want them to go you say “allons donc”.
Went to an interesting lecture at the Y.M.C.A. Hut tonight, on the town of Ypres. An Irish Y.M.C.A. official who mixed in a spice of humour that often brought the house down. He emphasised the fact that we have been fighting in Flanders in the teens of each century, with one exception, from the very early times and always for the same purpose – to prevent the coast getting in the control of a powerful adversary; also the fact that the Belgians aren’t really a nation but a modern attempt to nationalise a number of stray fragments mongrelised by constant wars. Moreover, as in all invaded countries, the better off people have removed themselves.
We now exercise animals before breakfast. Trumpet!
When you want to do anything to a touchy animal which he is likely to resent, you commence by putting what is called a “twitch” on his lip, i.e. a stout stick with a loop of cord or leather on one end, the loop being slipped over his upper lip and twisted up tight by the handle. When his lip is pinched up into a bulb he is practically helpless, losing interest in everything in the world except lip which he eyes askance in pained suspense until released.
Much amused at the Villian. His leave is due, but of course, he’s unfinancial and hasn’t a single article of equipment approaching decency. He is impatiently awaiting the result of cable to N.Z. for funds. He invents all sorts of explanations, forgetting that they are at variance with his utterances yesterday. His present difficulty is a hat, the punctured and shapeless article now gracing his summit being a sight to behold. As he has an incurable habit of losing everything no one is anxious to loan him one.
Got a chap to cut my wig and feeling light-headed. The gramophone has departed and not too soon – even Kathleen Mavoureen (sung by a woman) palls after frequent repetitions. I now fully believe that we are going to move out soon for the simple reason that they are now protecting the huts with earth ramparts and going on with the roofs of the stables, which by a now familiar military anomaly, are sure indications that we are soon to leave the quarters thus completed.
My touchy mule has gone clean berserk. Before they removed the frost nails, he kicked a large piece of steak out of the rump of the nearest horse, it is now in the sick lines; and today he has lamed my other donk whose knee is swelling visibly. I’m hanged if I know what to do with him. Has also returned to his nipping practices and eliminated small bits of skin from the necks of his neighbours.
Up at 4.30. to the guns on a waggon loaded with bursters (concrete slabs to protect dugouts from detonating shells on the outside) which, as our vehicle had no tail board, kept sliding off the back and me hopping up and down salvaging them and knocking skin off. The Abomination of Desolation and the ruined town looked particularly dismal today and decomposing horses in lurid-looking pools aren’t attractive. Well – the mud on my strides has dried nice and crisp; got the damp sox hanging over the candle and washed feet in water already used by half a dozen others.
In the waning light the result of military operations was scarce noticeable. The fine spell had brought the grass on and one could feel almost like a peacetime traveller. A stream that is a very glum affair by day, was catching the last of the light, the clumps of scraggy trees concealed their war-gashes and the hideous holes in the building went un-noticed in dark silhouettes against the tinted sky. We have had with us lately the sort of man I like and can get on with – a middle-aged ex-navy man, with a dark moustached visage and keen glittering eyes. His language and outlook generally are quite astounding. Once, when limber gunner, he deprived undetected all the neighbour tommy batteries of their gear. He is “Brigham” Young.
We have the gramophone in our hut tonight, under the superintendence of the Villian, whose redeeming point is his fondness for music. He has been very lively during the past few days, but the dulcet sounds have soothed the savage breast.
Pay day. Plenty of paper currency of the Republic of France flying about. Our tucker has been very good of late; ham and mashed spud for dinner today. Our new canteen right on a busy road is flourishing. Now we are able to get baths and changes so often we are hardly worried with “passengers”. There is a phonograph going in the next hut – somehow phonographs and all kinds of entertainments here strike me as incongruous.
Writing has the great advantage that the sale of your work doesn’t deprive you of it. A painter or sculptor has the chagrin of seeing his off-spring adopted by another. The Musician has a similar advantage over the artist or sculptor.
7. p.m. Colonel inspected the camp and found fault with everything, particularly the harness; harness is my bete noir; I simply can’t clean it. When I am home I am thinking of acquiring a set of army harness and hanging it up on a tree to rust and rot whilst I walk jeering below.
Did I tell you about the “hermit mule” that stood like a statute near the guns at Passchendaele? The gunners used to occasionally cadge a feed for him, perhaps one in two days, yet he hung out there for a long time, his ultimate fate being unknown to me, save that he was never hit by the shells. I heard the other day of a chap being lost in the mud up there, thrown from his horse, those who saw him being unable either to save him or find his body afterwards. Old hands have told me that having seen part of that stunt I’ve seen things at the worst they have been or are likely ever to be.