Sunday, 31st March (1918)

(Bertrancourt)  Beaucoup shells last night and other disturbances in the form of large rats galloping over my physiognomy and ear-splitting din of adjacent batteries.  This has been the most curious and uncomfortable Easter I’ve ever spent.  Like the other villages, this still retains a few of its bolder or more phlegmatic inhabitants, who do a trade in cider – a foaming and refreshing beverage.  We now get little or no bread, only army biscuits, but the cooks still contrive to make porridge, stews and rissoles.

8.30.p.m.  In bed with a flimsy canvas cover and lucky to get it.  Had opportunity of watching our battery firing salvoes i.e. all six guns at once.  It scared the deuce out of my hair-brained animals.  Enemy planes often swoop down low to observe positions and then there is much rumpus of Archies and machine guns.  Our new lines (in another orchard) are a mile or two further on.  Also had satisfactory sight of a large drive of Hun prisoners – pretty rough customers; they don’t look as though they had had a rosy time.

1-2 013072-G Column of German prisoners captured by NZers, 31 March 1918

[Image: A column of German prisoners captured by New Zealanders during the second Somme offensive walking down a road near Louvencourt. Photograph taken 31 March 1918 by Henry Armytage Sanders, National Library, New Zealand, Ref: 1/2-013072-G]

[Note – Real-time extracts from the New Zealand Division HQ Unit Diary, Western Front, 1918, are provided by Archives New Zealand on this Twitter feed:  The diary entry for 30 March 1918 states, “The prisoners captured amounted to 250 with 50 machine guns and 1 light minewerfer”.]

Saturday (30 March 1918)

Sitting in my new and temporary home, either a pig-style or a calf house.  A covering of purloined straw on the floor has to some extent allayed the homely stench and some very bad tobacco is helping.  Last night the noise of big guns and of unpleasantly propinquous shells from the irascible Fritz was distracting and shook a thick covering of rust over our recumbent forms.  Apparently the powers considered the position too sultry for wagon lines, hence this afternoon’s move.  At our guns some of the ranges given sounded alarmingly short.

After lunch we packed up and away a mile or two farther on and bivouacked in another dank and leafless orchard near another hill-top village.  My housemate (it just holds two) is a funny little jockey-like individual who is one of the batmen.  En route we passed batteries blazing in good style.  I fancy we must be holding him.  Taken all round things might be a lot worse, excepting the weather.

9.p.m.  Recumbent in pig-style – but the roof leaks and is dripping on the paper – so my words will be brief.  Moreover there is a huge pile of timber and rubbish suspended over my head which may fall, so the best thing to do is to crawl under my wet overcoat and forget both menaces.

IWM Q 8645 60pdr battery in position near Albert, 28 March 1918

[Image: 60-pounder battery of the Royal Garrison Artillery in position near Albert, 28 March 1918 IWM (Q 8645)]

IWM Q 8647 60pdr battery firing near Albert, 28 March 1918

[Image: 60-pounder battery of the Royal Garrison Artillery firing near Albert, 28 March 1918 IWM (Q 8647)]


Friday (29 March 1918)

(Good Friday I think):  It is about noon.  Have been out driving in heavy showers and cold penetrating wind.  There will be more of it this afternoon and we consider ourselves lucky if it isn’t wanted at night.  I want to tell you more about the French towns and villages and this part of the country, but there’s so little time for writing and Heaven knows when we shall be able to post letters – can’t even get tobacco.

There are village pumps, some quite grand affairs, and in the villages are large ponds walled in on 3 sides; apparently common watering places.  Usually a chateau in or near each village, the home of a magnate, and crucifixes which are constructed on tall iron frames and surrounded by quadrangles of fantastically lopped trees, like great gouty hands in their present leafless state.  Many of the refugees met on the trek up here were driving carts filled to the skies with belongings and drawn by diminutive donkeys.  I was amazed to see what they could pull.  It was altogether a singular sight, that of those streams of poor unfortunate people; hatless women with their bundles and their broods; plump, pale, tophatted middle-aged bourgeois; shopkeepers and the like, probably trundling an enormous wheelbarrow piled with the queerest collections; here a hook-nosed dim-sighted taxidermist, with a cargo of musty dusty stuffed foxes which he ought to have been glad to leave behind; there a woman carrying a great fat useless pet dog; a panting girl wheeling her grandfather in a wheelbarrow.  On the other hand, right up here where we are exposed to constant shell fire, a few toothless old gaffers, nosey old crones, are sticking it out.  Today in a village near our battery I saw two women almost coming to blows over some wordy altercation, close to our ammunition dump, which is often shelled and is no healthy locality at any time.

There are some humorous incidents (e.g.) one of our ‘Dinks’ in bibulous and highly hilarious state, bulging with bottles of looted champagne.  The great difficulty everywhere is to get good water – all the wells these folk have been using for generations are labelled by the military with warnings to boil or chlorinate.  (A big gun close by shakes showers of rust off the iron roof of this big old shed all over us every time it fires, and we’ll soon be half buried).  Our canteen man after scouring the country brought back a small supply of the vilest French cigarettes, yet they went off like hot cakes and at an extortionate price.

IWM (Q 8637) French refugees near Bouzincourt

[Image: French refugees with furniture-piled farmcarts moving along the road at Bouzincourt, 26 March 1918. Note two camouflaged 13-pounder anti-aircraft guns on the lorry mountings in the background. Imperial War Museums.  IWM (Q 8637)]

PART IV: To the Somme, Thursday, 28th March 1918

Writing this in a rather dank, leafless and blossomless orchard, where the Hun is making his great attack.  This is the first moment I’ve had since leaving our old camp early Tuesday morning, having had a rough and almost sleepless time since.  Well, we moved out and did a track of about 5 or 6 miles down past the little hills with the windmills; eventually entraining – a battery is given 4 hours to entrain, we did it in under two – a very strenuous affair – and started off about 2 p.m.  We passed through some pretty and interesting country, with farmhouses, trees, chateau etc.  After dark the train got up a higher speed, which it kept till about 4 a.m. and we must have travelled 100 miles and more, and managed a good sleep on iron floors of cattle trucks.  We then found ourselves at a small town (Hangest) in the Somme.  After dragging out our disconsolate donks and harnessing them under all sorts of difficulties we started on a very long trek.

9.p.m.  Since writing the above I’ve been going like a scalded cat.  But to resume: – The trek took all day to long after dark – luckily there’s a full moon – taking through some 20 to 30 miles of very interesting country, several towns including Amiens, and innumerable villages.  One simply froze sitting in the saddle all day, hordes of wretched folk turned out of their homes before the man of war, mostly aged men, women, and children, either carried in bundles, or trundling on wheel-barrows the most treasured of their lares and penates.

The country between the towns and villages, the latter being never more than a mile or so apart, is rolling and highly cultivated, giving the appearance of a patchwork quilt, almost entirely without fences, or hedges.  We eventually ——– (have to get out of bed and go for ammunition – wet and dark!) ———

We eventually (as I said) got into the region of war with guns cracking around us and shells falling here and there.  But what a contrast to the other battle area!  This is open country, fairly well wooded and dotted over with almost intact villages and towns.  How long they will present this appearance I couldn’t say, but here open warfare is being waged.  We bivouacked last night in the open.  Slept on a hay bale, too short, feet projecting.  Up before day-break and after a hasty meal (meals are very hasty and far between) pushed on several miles further to where we now are, in the battle zone.  Our guns are about a mile away – out in the open – and most of today I have been driving to and from them with shells and more shells.  The whole thing is more exciting, more interesting and more strenuous.  There are batteries, big guns, quite near us now, kicking up a fearsome noise, yet one manages to get a bit of sleep.

nzlimage 1-2 013074-G soldiers firing shells near Mailly-Maillet, 1 April 1918

[Image: Soldiers firing shells near Mailly-Maillet, France, 1 April, 1918. Photograph taken by Henry Armytage Sanders. National Library, New Zealand, 1/2-013074-G]

Monday 25th March (1918)

Bustling about with mounted parade, packing and unpacking gear, gas tests, and so forth; haven’t had leisure to bask in the sun.

Our O.C. tells us that a single Scottish division held up 24 Hun divisions and urges us to “go and do likewise”.

IWM Q 8632 Royal Field Artillery passing through Mailly-Maillet to meet the German advance 26 Mar 1918

[Image: A battery of 18-pounder guns of the Royal Field Artillery passing through Mailly-Maillet to meet the German advance, 26 March 1918, IWM (Q 8632)]

23rd March (1918)

After parading this afternoon with all our gear packed, it was announced that we were to move off after midnight, trek some miles and then entrain for the “war” i.e. where (according to our O.C.) “the Bosche is now making his great attack on a 50 mile front.”

22nd March (1918)

Back to camp about 9 p.m. was mightily surprised to find the whole place in a ferment – gun-park full of men, lanterns, gear, fodder, ammunition and all the rest of it.  We had been warned to be ready to move out and there are wild rumours that the Hun has made a big attack further along the line, inflicting severe losses.

Fritz went on steadily shelling back areas throughout Wednesday night and yesterday, varying his attentions with an occasional bomb.

[Note – the German Spring Offensive started on 21 March 1918.  On 22 March the NZ Division was ordered south to the Somme region to help.]

IWM (Q 10779) A wounded soldier of the British 66th Division, 23 March 1918

[Image: A wounded soldier of the British 66th Division helped through the streets of Peronne, after returning from the Battle of St Quentin, part of the Battle of the Somme during the German Spring Offensive, 23 March 1918.  IWM (Q 10779) ]

17th March (1918)

What a jumble of humanity is here.  Chinese labourers, Belgian soldiers, civilians male and female and, of course, all variety of British and Colonials.  The Villian has taken a job as batman to an interpreter – known to the troops as the “interrupter”.

14th March (1918)

A party of about 25 of us set out for some new baths up in the busted city.  It was a long walk.  Reached camp again to go straight on picquet.  Noticed several full grown frogs flopping into a ditch, which I take to be a sign of spring.  Vivent les grenouilles!

Wednesday 13th (March 1918)

During inspection a Fritz plane cut an amazing caper in the sky, giving some elaborate smoke signals that left a huge scroll of white vapour hanging around.  Another incident was meeting under “impossible” conditions an old school-chum, Tom Seddon, as the red hatted olympians stalked majestically passed.  I noticed one of them going through strange facial contortions as he looked from me to W. and from W. to me.  Eventually he sneaked behind and greeted us in undertone to which we muttered our replies.  Our new C.O. also had a word with me.  I got a good “one on to him” when he said my face was familiar, with “Yes, Sir, I’m the man you gave fatigues for not shaving the other day”.  The Villian returned from leave yesterday more pessimistic than ever.  Of the fatigues I referred to I am still ashamed.  Along with that little gambling expert, we had to clean the “Cape Cart” (used for carrying food-stuffs), out of sight we “cleaned” it with water from a shell-hole full of bones from the cookhouse.  Here and there Belgian peasants plough and harrow the farms as though the war was not.  By the way, the school-book type of “the horse with very arched neck, small head and projecting lips” is actuality.  The farm horses here are of that kind.