Inevitably wasted much of the first day, drawing pay, clothes from Ordinance. Then wandered to the Strand and thence to the National Gallery, but most of it is now closed. However, struck up a brief acquaintance with an artist who kindly put me on the track of the kind of collection I wanted to see – viz. modern watercolour and landscape work. He turned out to be George Wither, one of whose pictures is in the Wellington Art Gallery, a pleasant, well preserved man of 60. Following his directions, I discovered in Bond Street, a splendid exhibition of Sir Alfred East’s work, and a fine collection of Brangwyn’s etchings.
Soldiers’ club London, after a long and tedious day. Crossed the Channel in cold drifting mist; could see nothing and were half frozen. Folkstone, and eventually London at about 9pm.
Got aboard 4 am. Company opposite; several types of “Old Bill”, men of 40 to 50 years, hard featured, stolid, enduring. The journey back from the line has given a good history of the fighting – first a slightly damaged area, then an almost clean strip, a broad belt of utter desolation, and, finally, country untouched save for the work of preparation and supply.
Passed some pretty country, the mill, the millwheel and the old rustic bridge by the mill. Country well wooded, trees a blaze of autumn fir, glowing through the still grey dampness. Am put in mind of the magnificent Ode of Meredith’s, “To the Spirit of Earth in Autumn”. A Serg Major had a good supply of tea, sugar and milk, and the exhaust pipe of our engine supplied the boiling water.
8pm. In a large camp near Boulogne.
About dusk we reached Etaples. On arrival at Boulogne we marched, through rain and darkness, up a long hill to this establishment which seems to be near the famous Une Blanket Hill. We certainly received our one blanket, not to mention a passable meal and 1/12 of a bell tent. There seem to be thousands of us going on leave, and this will give an idea of the British Army, being a daily occurrence, year in year out, except on occasions when leave is stopped.
All yesterday morning getting passes and Dr’s certificates (a ridiculous lie “free from vermin” – the Drs’ are sports enough not to inspect a man who, not having had a bath or change night and day for about 6 weeks, must be in a highly pestilent condition). We walk about a mile, then wait for a lift. First lift about 10 to 15 miles – then walk 4 or 5 miles in the slush; another main thoroughfare; another short lift; another tired tramp. Evening comes on apace – 30 miles yet. Happy chance! We stop a lorry – the driver has a brother-in-law in the N.Z. Army, and offers to go out of his way and take us right to the village we want. Another long, bouncing ride, sitting half asleep amid our belongings, petrol tins and lumber, and we reach this camp about 6.30 p.m.
Passed some interesting feudal relics on the journey – ruined castle and moated grange, drawbridge and hoary grass grown battlements, also a lonely lookout tower, hundreds of years old, standing like a sentinel at a bend in the road.
You see I have discovered the day and date. I am in the Y.M.C.A. of a Reception Camp, between 25 miles and 30 miles to the rear of where I last put pencil to paper. I should be too fagged to write, but an unexpected feed has acted as a stimulus and I maintain it by munching ginger-nuts and sipping coca. Where did I leave you? Waiting to go on picquet. Yes, but I never did get that picquet, that is, at the appointed hour. I was dozing on my overcoat when the urgent voice of the B.S.M. aroused us “get up and be ready to leave in half an hour” – 9pm.
Frantic scramble in the rain with clothes, gear, blankets and “bivvy”, then with the horses and harnesses.
The treck was a nightmare of moisture, mire and movement. Interminable halts five miles from nowhere, yelling and scrambling across country, half the column occasionally becoming disconnected from the remainder and lost in the darkness; turnings and returning down dubious and darksome ways – thro’ towns, thro’ everything. At 3.30 am we reached our destination on the outskirts of a town and then I did my picquet. At about 5 am I crawled into the indescribably filthy loft of a house, littered with piles of tiny potatoes; bundles of dried poppies; women’s clothing. On that fearsome floor I made my 3 hours’ bed and slept not a wink.
Two short but lively trips to the guns last night. The Hun was shelling pretty freely so we lost no time about it, finishing just after dark and taking our guerdon in a huge jorum of vegetable stew followed by a rum issue. After the usual fight with the invisible giants, trying to undress, and make a bed, within 2 feet of a very wet tarpaulin, had a good night’s rest.
Having an hour to spare, took a stroll with a tall taciturn Irishman into the village. Did a little gesticulating with a solitary, male civilian inhabitant, who had hidden away and was avidly munching some brown flap-jack stuff he had baked. Pottered about in the looted and dishevelled houses, with pot plants wilting in the front windows, beds overturned and habiliments strewn about the floors.
As I rode to water I was laconically informed that I go on leave tomorrow. Things moving somewhat in the 2 foot high “bivvy”.
Up 4.30 – sleeping fully dressed saves the trouble of putting one’s clothes on in the morning – and continued pursuit of the Hohenzollern. There are small towns of industrial type in every direction, a mile apart.
The intervening land shows signs of cultivation and a quantity of carrots etc. have already been bagged. After a while shelling began and our guns were put into action. In some places the roads and railways have been blown up and it is necessary to make detours. We are now, I should say, between 12 and 15 miles in advance of yesterday’s position. Funny mistake here. A battery firing from cover of a railway embankment. One crew forgot to elevate their gun and plonked a shell right into the embankment just in front of them. Deluge of gravel resulting, but no one hurt.
Erected a cramped and drunken looking bivvy in which we sit on damp earth listening to the shells. Quievy is deserted, but not very badly damaged. The inhabitants seem to have been moved out hurriedly, their furniture and household goods being littered about, tables still spread with meals; broken windows; wine stagnating in glasses; dismantled beds, hats, parasols, etc. littered about the floors or in the wet yards and gardens. Dozens of towns and hundreds of villages must be in the same condition, the Bosche having taken the people with him as he retired.
[Image: Shows a bridge over the river Selle, built by New Zealand engineers in 13 hours under shell fire. An ambulance and mounted troops are crossing the bridge. Photograph taken ca 31 October 1918 by Henry Armytage Sanders. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington. Ref: PA1-f-092-1114. Note: the NZ Division Diary records that the bridge was built 10-11 October by Engineers, and crossed by 1st Brigade (1st Wellington) at 4.30 am on 11 October, meeting enemy resistance. The photograph was taken some time after this action, with the bridge apparently remaining part of the supply route to the NZ Division.]