I was very premature about the migration of the swallows, who are yet with us in large numbers. It seems very hard to explain things to you folk at home. One correspondent wonders that a cookhouse should be “in reach of enemy bombs”. Most of France and England is, and any cookhouse for troops at the front is in reach of enemy shells – each side has hundreds of guns with a range of 8 to 20 miles and more. Its pot luck. “In the line” means roughly, anywhere within half-a-dozen miles of the front line trenches.
“Stables” was curtailed by an order for ammunition, so after a hurried early tea, we set forth up to the guns. When we were passing Havrincourt Wood, the sun, piercing a dun cloud, threw a lurid light over all. In the midst of this, planes came reconnoitring in brazen fashion, slowly circling above the woods and battery-sprinkled fields. The hail of machine gun bullets and crackle of anti-aircraft that greeted them was terrific – yet so far as appeared to us none was hit.
A sparkling trot to the dump, reached as darkness fell. Having no implement to open the boxes, we resorted to the expedient of crashing them on the ground and letting the weight of the shells burst them; loaded up and away, amid a deluge of rain. Whop! Bang! Whop! Bang! Was something falling off? “Too right”, it was – one of the iron doors had fallen open and the slides and drawers of shells had fallen out all along the road. We pulled up, groped back in the darkness and, hugging to our sodden bosoms and ponderous and muddied jetsam staggered cursing up and down.
I wonder if, when the war ends, the French will rebuild all these villages after the old fashioned style or whether they will adopt the more modern? If the latter, there will be a curious belt of modernism across the country.
“Brigham” is with us again and the air is full of strange oaths. The only habitable buildings now are the tin sheds, shacks and bivvies, erected by us, used by the Hun, now re-used by us and well peppered by both. When you take possession you feel that they are too impossibly filthy, but after a rough scrape out and the addition of some of your own dirt, you begin to feel quite at home.
The camp was in habited when we arrived – by two young kittens – and near one of the huts is a large effigy of the Madonna and Child, of painted wood.
An occasional big shell whines overhead thru’ the wind and the rain and explodes with a dull thud in the distance – an eerie sound! Yes, an eerie sound followed the first a shell, rather closer than one cares about, then the drone of Hun air-planes, which commenced to lay their over-fertilized eggs around the district.
There was a terrific argument in the hut this morning – the subject was – how many fish shops Sanford has at Karangahape Road! (There goes the trumpet).
I have read my letters with a joy only overcast by the sad case of my neighbour – whose only letter was a back-edged one telling of the sudden death of his only sister. He is a great rough chap and read it with round oaths – and streaming eyes.
Another move. We have just had lunch at fresh (not literally) wagon lines and have taken up residence in some old and very dirty “Nissen” huts about 3 miles in advance of our last lines.
The scarcity of cigarettes is becoming acute otherwise we are doing well enough. I often wonder what is happening to my squashed finger – I put a dollop of ointment on it, hermetically sealed it up in strong adhesive plaster and there is stays.
Our trip this afternoon was not without excitement when, at one corner, we were greeted with a bevy of shells. We didn’t take long in leaving the road making a dash across country. Saw one poor chap being carried off afterwards. A persistent horse is trying to eat my stationary.
Have adopted the dressing gown system – my own idea, i.e. remove outer clothes, don greatcoat, get under horse-blanket and use residue of gear as pillow, footwarmer etc. Had a short talk to the Poet and the Hunter whilst on picquet. They have a bereaved look, not that I was very kind to them. You should have seen us rush the once despised ‘buckshee’ cigarette issue today. Any port in a storm. Passed today corpse of young soldier just killed. No sign of injury. Clothes thick with dust and face same colour – all like a wooden carving. Killed by shock.
My new horses are nice animals, one inclined to kick, the other faultless. Some of the famished drivers broke into the cook house last night and ate a leg of mutton and there is a deuce of a shindy about it this morning (not intended as a pun). Near the guns is a great dark wood Havrincourt.
No cigarettes to be had. Obtained two wicked looking cigars which I now contemplate. If I don’t smoke them soon they’ll be broken or wet, and if I do – ? Gradually making the acquaintance of my horses; sturdy, nice and quiet to groom. Mother asks whether “donks” are “really donkeys or only mules” – what do you say?
We have been watering at a ruined village where the remains of the church bear date 1577. It is built of brick, so they must have known how to bake good hard ones and make good mortar in those days. Every village has been razed, the trees all torn and battered (several fell down today when it blew hard) and the countryside is broken with trenches, shell-holes, barbed wire and all sorts of litter and abandoned material. Cultivation having been long at a standstill, the only thing of the fields is rough grass, thistle and weeds. In fact there is a ghastly weal right across the face of France, which only peace and time will remove. The bravest of all men are the German machine-gunners who stay behind and face certain death trying to stop our advance whilst the main forces retire. You find them in odd corners, dead beside their shattered weapons.
[Image: New Zealand soldiers with a light trench mortar gun transported by a mule-drawn cart in order to provide greater mobility for the Division’s forces in France. Photograph taken 8 September 1918 by Henry Armytage Sanders. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington. Ref: 1/2-013579-G]
[Image: Shows horses pulling a sixty pounder gun through the captured French village of Bertincourt during World War I. A damaged building on the roadside has the name ‘Bertincourt’ painted on it. Photograph taken 8 September 1918 by Henry Armytage Sanders. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington. Ref: 1/2-013580-G]
At 6.a.m. this morning, “Boot, saddle, to horse, and away” as Browning has it – and we have been going hard ever since, shifting the guns forward about 2 miles and carrying up to them loads of ammunition.
Now hard on the Hinderberg line. Saw a desperate attempt to down one of our balloons thwarted by ‘archies’ – not that their shooting was any good. Traversed rather dreary country dotted with dead horses and men and battered villages.
After Midnight: A very strenuous day – After tea we were called out to shift the gun position once more. Got there whilst still daylight, and then made two heavy journeys to and from the old to the new. Came most of the way back in pitch darkness at a trot, reloaded at the dump, and after struggling about in the dark unharnessing and feeding our horses, got to our billets sometime after midnight. Toil, sweat, sore in the seat, knuckles barked with handling the shells, tempers strained to breaking point – and so the advance goes on. I wager that an advance is every bit as much a tax on men and animals as any retreat.
[Image: Second Battle of Bapaume. Dead German soldiers in a sunken lane near Moislains, 6 September 1918. IWM (Q 7044)]
Grazing our animals; the Hunter in his element, able to make his meal entirely off rubbish – bark, weeds and leaves alive and dead. I don’t believe he is a real mule – he’s a cross between a giraffe, a camel and that old horse Browning’s Childe Roland came across in the desert. Friend Fowler and I are watching a gap in an old trench thro’ which the neddies* make desperate attempts to break out, whereat we arise in wrath, and whack them over their noses with lumps of wood – loud snorts and a precipitate retreat.
Poet has a sore back, so shall have to ride the Hunter for a few days – it will be like a Katzenjammer Castle**. A change is to be made in the arrangement of our teams and tomorrow I shall be a horseman – muleteer no more – my colossi will belong to another, and the Poet will no longer groan beneath the bulk of a poetaster. A field (or dor) mouse has just paid me a call; he had his bright eyes and clean light brown fur – ran right up to me in the grass, took one terrified glance, and bolted. He saw the Poet – the smallest of beasts confronted by one of the greatest.
During the day there have been grand cloud effects. One mighty group of castellated clouds reached out from the horizon like the great white hand of God preparing to seize the mad world and fling it into the abyss.
* Neddy, a child’s word for a donkey (British usage), or a horse, especially a racehorse (Australian). Plural is neddies.
** Katzenjammer Castle was a type of fun-house commonly seen in amusement parks from the 1890s through to the 1910s.
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.