5th September (1918)

No disturbances last night other than another whiff or two of sneezing gas and some stray shelling.  A number of us are now inhabiting a bath house.  I remember you remarking how when a person dies you are at once conscious that there is no one there.  I feel exactly the same when confronted with the dead bodies on the battlefield – it is horrible, but “there’s no on there.”

The weather broke with a mighty thunderstorm, which poured torrents through the shot-riddled roof of our bath-house.  Two of my companions hurriedly disrobed with a view of an extempore shower, but, just as they were stripped, the rain stopped, so they dressed again, expletively.

A Hun airman treated us to another balloon-burning spectacle this afternoon, bagging two, this time, in rapid succession.  The guns were firing during the thunderstorm, but I think old Jupiter Pluvius put up the better showing.

4th September (1918)

Snatching a moment whilst guarding animals grazing in large avenue of what were once beautiful trees, now blasted by shot and shell.  Every now and again branches break away with a crash.  Was preparing last evening to get a little rest, when we were turned out and pushed off in the dark to the guns, keeping each in close touch with the wagon ahead to avoid going astray.  In this way we proceeded a couple of miles and completed our task.  Fiendish stenches assailed our nostrils out of the darkness.  Groups of searchlights prodded their beams purposefully into the lowering sky, following the laboured vibrations of the enemy’s bombing planes, which dropped here and there hovering parachute-flares to light up their objectives, and the guns spoke and flamed.

Luckily got the first shift on picquet but had all sorts of mishaps in the darkness with horses and teams coming in and not knowing where to go.  Also couldn’t find the men to relieve us, so did about two shifts instead of one.  A terrible spectacle by our “stables” – a broken cellar, used as a machine-gun post, full of dead Germans in dreadful attitudes; killed by Mills Bombs as they rushed out.  How fellows can even go through their pockets and pull the rings off their fingers I don’t know.  But they do.

Terrific bombardment by all our artillery.  After tea my cold seemed to suddenly get much worse and I sneezed terrifically, but soon noticed everybody else doing the same.  We were in the tail end of an attack by “sneezing” or “mustard” gas.  Witnessed a remarkable incident this afternoon – a daring attack on two of our balloons.  Almost before he was observed he had brought one down in flames and was going for another.  The balloonists were soon out of both, gracefully sailing about in parachutes.  He missed the second and made off, amid a hail of shells and bullets.

nlnzimage 1-2 013569-G Group of NZ journalists inspect German bunker, 4 Sep 1918

[Image: A group of New Zealand journalists at the entrance of a large German dugout and the scene of recent engagement with New Zealand troops in World War I. The official NZ War Correspondent, Malcolm Ross, stands in the background with William John Geddis, Frederick Pirani, Charles Earle, Robert Mundie Hacket, and Martin Luther Reading standing in front. Photograph taken in Haplincourt 4 September 1918 by Henry Armytage Sanders.  Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington. Ref: 1/2-013569-G]

3rd September (1918)

At midnight was hauled out of bed to take up gas shells.  We eventually reached what we thought to be the dump described to us.  Yelled and howled around for half an hour but not a soul appeared.  Our N.C.O. then rode back to report and after an interminable time reappeared with instructions to load up with H.E.  Got to the guns a little after dawn and just as the barrage was being put up for an attack, the whole half-lit countryside flickering rhythmically to the flashes of hundreds of eighteen-pounders.  Clattered back over the cobble stones of the battered town, reaching camp at about reveille.

About 1.p.m.  Boot and Saddle blew and we hooked in, being told the guns were advancing.  As a precaution I carried my haversack and essentials.  Just as well, as it is now doubtful when we will get the rest of our gear.  The trees by the roadside are riddled with shrapnel and the little shell-holes made by the instantaneous fuses are everywhere.  Dead of both sides are littered about.  Early in our march we witnessed the disastrous effect of a random shell, which had a few moments prior to our arrival hit a team and killed all 6 horses and 2 of the drivers and wounding the third.

Now halted under a tattered avenue in the grounds of a chateau.  Everything is going forward – balloons, big guns, and vehicles of every description.

Our reinforcements are having a lively introduction to warfare – “open slather” as we call it now.  Huge fire burnt in the enemy’s territory all last night and the smoke was visible by day – so he is destroying as he retreats.  I have just seen an aeroplane falling in short spirals like a wounded bird.

2nd September (1918)

Night’s rest spoilt.  First Fritz came over bombing.  Just got to sleep again when he started to shell us; they came so near that, led by the Irishman, we hopped out and down into a deep dug-out close by.  Of course the shelling then stopped.

First thing this morning took the road through the dead town.  Saw some monster British Howitzers firing; also a number of wounded, waiting on stretchers, and groups of Hun prisoners coming in, some under escort, some not.  Among them some fearful specimens – a half-witted dwarf, and creatures with glasses of extraordinary thickness obscuring purblind eyes.

Have smashed the nail of my index finger by bumping it with a shell.

Can’t make the Hunter out – though as hungry as a —- hunter, he won’t settle down to eat grass, but lunges uneasily about, snatching here a few weeds, there a few leaves from a tree, stopping to gaze drearily at distant objects and stretch his scarred and nubbly hind legs high in the air.  I am convinced that he is very old and suffers from a complexity of complaints, including toothache and rheumatism.  The Poet on the other hand guzzles indiscriminately, licking up the landscape with his long, lyrical lips.  They both turned giraffe this afternoon and browsed from quite high trees.

IWM (Q 11255) Soldier NZ Division takes cover as shell bursts, Grevillers, 25 Aug 1918

[Image: A soldier of the New Zealand Division takes cover behind a small farm building as a German shell-bursts nearby, Grevillers, 25 August 1918. IWM (Q 11255)]

IWM (Q 11502) 8-inch howitzers in action, St. Leger, 29 Aug 1918

[Image: Second Battle of the Somme. Battery of 8-inch howitzers (Royal Garrison Artillery) in action on the roadside at St. Leger. Note dust rising from road as result of concussion of discharge, 29 August 1918.  IWM (Q 11502)]

1st September (1918)

Saw Enormous explosion in far distance, apparently in enemy terrain, either a big dump or a mine – it went on piling and building itself into the sky for quite a minute, eventually assuming the appearance of a volcanic eruption, attaining a height of, I should say, 2000 ft.  Our infantry have pushed on again and this afternoon we moved our guns forward.

My Irish mate O’Shaughnessy, has a peculiar dread of gas and takes all sorts of precautions against it – says he has “no love for the Grave!”  He sees danger in all directions without being cowardly.

6.30.p.m.  A hard afternoon, but an exhilarating and exciting one.  I will try to give you an idea of how field artillery is moved forward in an advance.  The six gun-limbers (2-wheeled vehicles to which the guns are hooked) go up first to the battery; the twelve wagons being kept well in the rear meanwhile, at stated intervals.  At a suitable moment the gun limbers pull the guns out of their pits or emplacements and take them forward to the new positions selected, leave them there and make themselves scarce without more ado.  The few rounds carried by the limbers would have been first thrown out, keeping at intervals of (say) 200 yards and taking a route as much as possible protected from aerial observation.  These all unload their shells at their respective guns and lose no time in getting out of it, as their presence there threatens to betray the battery’s position.  Back to the wagon lines with empty wagons, to replenish them with ammunition brought up by the D.A.C. from the main dumps in rear, which in their turn have been fed by motor lorries or railways.  That is a rough sketch of the operation, but it is the jolting, the banging, the capsizing, and dropping off of loads, the heaving in and out of the heavy shells, the performances of the animals and the moments of peril, that make the business the exciting helter-skelter it is.  We returned by a route right through Bapaume, famous in its hour of destruction if never before.  Not a building intact.  The church in this village (Grevillers) bears date 1564 – it has been left to modern civilisation to smash it to bits.

Got a new tin hat from salvage dump, having driven over my own today and dented it sadly.  Wheel driver also dropped his and flattened it right out.  Those donks of mine!  Today they got so hungry that they ate a quantity of stinging nettles thick with dust.  The Poet is a big coward, but the Hunter doesn’t care a rap for anything.

IWM (Q 78484) Ruins of the church at Grevillers, 3 July 1917

[Image: Ruins of the church at Grevillers, 3 July 1917. IWM (Q 78484)]

IWM (Q 61212) Ruined street looking from church, Grevillers, 3 July 1917

[Image: A ruined street looking down from the church at Grevillers, 3 July 1917. IWM (Q 61212)]