Friday, 12th April (1918)

During the half hour before breakfast we are all about at our ablutions whistling and singing and forgetting about the war.  Birds are singing and hopping about on the now well-budded trees and flowers are popping up in the grass, “ver appetet”.*

Yes, it feels good to be washed and shaved again, to turn up the side of the ‘bivvy’ and let the sun stream in and do up the straw and towels and things.  Riding to water over-took my old friend the stammering Scot (who was so frightfully sea-sick on the Corinthic) and we had a yarn.  It is remarkable how we all get scattered – some in one battery, some in another, some get wounded or sick and go to England or back home and some make a lasting home under the soil of France.  In these few weeks little cemeteries have grown up with their neatly aligned wooden crosses, in the neighbourhood of each dressing station.  “Joan”, espying a soldier taking some water from a most filthy pool in their yard, the soakage from their dunghill, came hurriedly toddling down to stop him, looking for all the world like one of her own old hens and emitting a flow of toothless French, wonderfully like the cackle of excited poultry.  Apparently she,

“Like a lover of camelon, Has grown like that it gazes on”.

Violets and buttercups add to our floral decorations and the buds on the trees are bulging.  It is really praiseworthy how soon the authorities get things organised.  Here now are baths available, the mail service regular, cloth provided and the labour corps in full swing mending and draining the roads.  As Dad put it in his last letter, “We’re in for a big issue” – we will “go on or do down” (Lloyd George).

Aerial activities have been pronounced.  A large observation balloon floats almost overhead, shaped like a monstrous elephant without legs or tail.

* “Anything beyond that spring”

IWM (Q 6510) Troops washing at Robecq, 12 April 1918

[Image: Troops washing at Robecq, 12 April 1918. Imperial War Museums, ref: IWM (Q 6510)]

nlnzimage 1-4 009550-G Soldier's graves WW1 location unknown nd

[Image: A group of soldiers’ graves in World War I. A soldier stands at the wire fence enclosing them. Location unknown. Original photographer is unidentified. Copy negative may have been made by Henry Armytage Sanders.  New Zealand Library, ref: 1/4-009550-G]

11th April (1918)

Just had lunch supplemented with cake and canned fruit from our canteen, which is now making a fresh start in business.  The sun has come through the grey pall out of curiosity to refresh its memory of the earth, but as the guns are opening out he will, I expect, soon retire in disgust.

We have to ride about a mile across country night and morning to water our steeds.  A certain amount of fun is to be got out of that.  The Trumpeter has a great horse that simply won’t walk but prances the whole time, as to the tune of “The Campbells are Coming”; in fact that air comes into your head as soon as you see him.

Some of the peasant women are superb creatures.  One walked past our camp today whilst a sergeant was relieving himself.  He deliberately exposed himself to her.  With no hesitation in her gait or alteration in her friendly smile, she completely ignored him.

Windmills here are not so numerous as in La Belgique.  One ruinous one is quite a land mark, brandishing a threatening but atrophied arm as in a dying malediction of the Kaiser and all his Myrmidons.  What one misses in comparison with English landscape are the snug rose-encumbered  and virginia-creepered cottages, the thick and bosky hedgerows, the cunningly spaced and seemingly self-planted trees, and a sort of “home” feeling one can’t define.

We had an al fresco tub in the evening air.  As I look around me in a benign mood, I spy through the leafless hedges white and unwonted forms following my lead.  Under such circumstances we scrub one another’s backs.  And the guns bang off all around.  I perceive that the very long, straight and branchless boles of most of the trees in France are not due to nature – they are lopped for the wood, as are the hedges, the willows and everything useable.  I am sitting outside our bivvy on an ammunition box.  This small box is a good example of the cost of war.  It holds only two of our 4½ inch 35 lb. shells, is made of thick strong planks, screwed dovetailed together, and at each end is a stout rope handle.  I should estimate its cost at 5/-.  Though they are supposed to be salvaged and used again, 90% are collared, naturally enough, for firewood – countless thousands of them.

Water-pumping stations have to be put up through large districts which, like this, have no effective supply.  We hear that Fritz is pushing on other parts of the Front.  He is certainly making a tremendous and successful-looking effort.  The idiotic papers will talk of “The last stand of the Kaiser” etc.

9th April (1918)

Before 6 a.m. we were breakfasted and away.  Fritz was shelling and shelling hard and certain corners in the route we took were more than lively.  I can’t describe what it is like to be under fire, but it isn’t nice.  A couple of our animals were slightly injured by the fragments which came whistling and whining as with evil intent.  You hear the shells come down with a sort of screaming rush, thud into the soggy fields and there burst with a vicious and metallic Screech.  A geyser of black smoke and mud is vomited into the air, tree-shaped, and the green earth is rent with an ugly ragged hole, charred and blackened at the verge.  That is H.E.  Shrapnel on the other hand burs over-head with a sharp crack, a puff of white smoke and a whistling hail of bullets that rip up the wet surface as herrings rip up the surface of calm water.  Gas lobs with a dull pop; making a small hole whence issues its vile vapour.  An infernal smell of phosphorus, apparently a component of the explosive, greeted us in one place where some shells had just burst, and hung about for almost an hour, for we passed and repassed it several times carting many loads through heavy muck and giving our poor mules the hardest day’s work they’ve had for six months.  It is grim to see the country gradually being devastated and the buildings in the villages showing signs of bombardment, trees just coming into bud or bloom blasted and torn, more and more dead and mutilated animals strewing the fields and roadsides and the fields themselves being cut to pieces by the heavy wheels and deep hoof-marks of cross-country traffic.  ‘Cest la Guerre!  Damn it!’  I have caught and thrown from man to man, hundreds of 35 lb shells and their charges, and my hands are getting like a navvy’s.  A ludicrous element amid all this mess is an everywhere recurring advertisement on iron gates – ‘Druon Lagniez’ is no doubt out of business.  The whole day has been misty.  One could only see a few hundred yards and objects came looming out of the haze in a mysterious fashion, the canopy of fog blocking out the unessentials of their composition, leaving a church spire suspended here and a red tiled roof gleaming there, and, as it were, grouping them.  Another phenomenon was the appearance of the numerous teams; each being surrounded by a cloud of steam from the hot bodies of the animals.  Near by the luckiest old Darby and Joan live.  We see them pottering about together, feeding their pigs or calves, or tapirs for ought I know; as the animals dwell in their dingy recesses and never make themselves either seen or heard.  One of their fowls, however, was not so retiring, and made flagrant attempts to steal my tucker.

Warwick (now a gunner) is up with the guns in the thick of the slather.  I caught sight of his old dial bristling with ginger whiskers as I drove past.

We all smoke innumerable cigarettes.  The infernal things are so handy, especially when you are driving and can’t fumble about with loose tobacco; light the next one from the butt of the last.

IWM (Q 10877) Battle of Estaires. German shell bursting in distance, 10 April 1918

[Image: Battle of Estaires. German shell bursting in distance. A British 18pdr battery in the open in the background, near Bethune, 10th April 1918. IWM (Q 10877).  Note Bethune is not in the sector the NZ Division was deployed, but the image nevertheless captures what Lincoln describes about the ‘tree-shaped’ plume from shell-fire, and was photographed the day after this diary entry.]

8th April (1918)

Though it is now only 9.30. I seem to have already spent a long day.  I awoke at about 2 a.m. to the sound of an intense bombardment, mingled with the bursts of Fritz’s replies.  Out at 4.30. and away with an empty stomach on our usual trip, a little after sunrise.  We saw all varieties of shell-bursts making havoc of the countryside; especially at the guns, where some of our animals have been killed.  You can bet your boots we lost no time in heaving out the ammunition and away.

The fields are completely free from live stock, which are housed.  I hate harnessing up in the dark.  The beastly stuff gets twisted the wrong way and you find that you are putting it on your neighbour’s animal.

IWM Q 7853 Horses of a British ammunition limber killed by a German shell, 7 April 1918

[Image: Horses of a British ammunition limber killed by a German shell near Mailly-Maillet, 7 April 1918 IWM (Q 7853)]

Sunday, 7th April (1918)

I crawled through a barbed wire fence and stole two buckets of water from the pond of those ingrate French females.  Luckily I was unobserved, or they might have done the Orpheus act on me.  Across country the laden wagons biting deep into the soggy turf made heavy work for the poor beasts.  Though the villages are all embowered with trees and orchards and hedges are beginning to bloom, the intervening country is treeless, hedgeless, fenceless, cultivated and diversified with squares and oblongs of ploughed land, young crops and meadows.  The sky is now clear and star-set, gun-flashes flutter about the horizon and an odd shell whirrs overhead.

Saturday, 6th April (1918)

Today was the first accompanied by evidences of spring, in the song of various birds and the sight of spring flowers.  Up long before dawn – I wrote you a letter to the carol of a speckly-winged Jenny Wren (the prettiest little creature imaginable, slightly larger than our native wren but with a no more entrancing note) and the chirp of a brown hedge-sparrow, and the new melody of a fine green glossy little chap, possibly a green linnet.  The booming of a few distant guns supply the base.

At watering we invaded a paddock with a pond in it and were violently and garrulously attacked by two women who with much clamour reiterated their own great need for the water and, though we brazened it out for that occasion, we were forced to abandon the idea of continuing the practice.  It seemed petty, seeing that any moment the Huns may blown them and theirs to glory and we are the only people to stop it.  This afternoon up at the guns and the most noticeable thing was to see where the Hun had been bombarding a village and missing it by a couple of hundred yards – a field on the outskirts being simply pock-marked with shell holes.  And shell-holes with their blackened brims look more offensive in green fields than in the Abomination of Desolation [i.e., Passchendaele].  I have just drawn water from one of the public wells on the road side – it was so deep one would expect it to leak through into N.Z.

IWM Q 10863 Artillerymen resting near Boues, 5 April 1918

[Image: Artillerymen resting in a copse near Boues, 5 April 1918.  IWM (Q 10863)]

1st, 3rd, 5th April (1918)

The difference in our condition in fine and in foul weather is inestimable; in fine we can keep dry and warm; ride, eat and sleep in comparative comfort and forget our worries and fatigues; in foul all is miserable, mucky and discouraging.  That is why I harp on it too often.  The intermittent flashes of the guns leaping into the air luridly light up the country-side and the gloomy sky.  “Nothing can harm me – I have dined”.  We have had a morning at home, stables and harness cleaning, preceded by a parade before the Colonel, who gave us a good humoured “sallying up” for being lax about saluting etc.

The weather is typically vernal, Aprilian – warmish with intermittent showers and sunshine.  One finds the immense value of strong teeth when hard biscuits form an important item of fare.  I’ve just crunched up four of them.

I may remark that for trying the temper, getting dressed and packing one’s swag in a low and dripping bivvy or tent is the worst thing.

nlnzimage 1-2 013077-G New Zealand battery in action on the Somme, 1 April 1918

[Image: A New Zealand battery in action on the Somme, near Mailly-Maillet during World War I. Shows two artillery guns with their gun crews and a stack of artillery shells. Photograph taken 1 April 1918 by Henry Armytage Sanders.  National Library, New Zealand.  Ref: 1/2-013077-G]