Picquet last night under the freezing moon, but we had a bright little fire going behind a brick wall. From our billet one can look across the small North France manufacturing town, with its sharp preeminent Church tower rearing above the sea of tiled roofs, and with its curious mixture of the military of all nations, mingled with the recently repatriated citizens.
Whole morning at a colossal church-parade-thanksgiving-service, attended probably by the whole division, held in a large natural amphitheatre – the bishop, or whoever he was, standing up a small hillock in the centre. Aeroplanes were whirring about overhead the whole time, we could hear absolutely nothing. At noon our O.C. addressed us on the situation and somewhat cleared the air. If he is right we go to Germany only until the armistice (36 days) is completed, when demobilization will commence.
After all, if it does not delay our return, it will be something to have crossed the Rhine before the actual signing of Peace.
The N.Z. infantry are kicking up an awful shindy about going to Germany. I think what they object to is marching all that distance.
On trek again all day – fine, clear, cold weather – passed through many small towns and villages, finally pulling up where we were stationed the night before I went on leave (Quievy). Billeted in a deserted farm house and have secured a fine spring mattresses. Hear that the German Fleet is in revolt, that She is torn with internal troubles, and that the Kaiser, “Clown Prince”, and Hindenburg, have “done a bunk”. It really seems that the end has come.
Johnny Johnson, the cheerful boy with the contagious laugh, was killed by a stray rifle bullet, a few days before my return. Everywhere signs of repatriation of French civilians. Passed a whole party of both sexes this morning – they were going, so they told me, “a l’église” – a very battered one no doubt to a thanks-giving service.
At 11am. on this 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 (if we can believe official despatches) hostilities ceased in the greatest of wars ever waged upon this earth. Most of us are still inclined to be sceptical. We received this news whilst on trek. We are already picturing ourselves back in N.Z. and preparing to live “happy ever afterwards”.
Though we were pulled out at 5am. and started about 8.30am., we have not covered a great distance, owing to the congestion of the roads. Amongst ourselves and those we have met, there has been little enthusiasm and no hilarity, only a slight access of cheerfulness – the thing takes time to soak in, just as it was difficult to realize the fact of the war when it commenced.
The day was gray and cold. Have been in the saddle most of the day and did not get corralled into our usual barn till well after dark. The first rum issue for many a day. Our feet wet, our blankets damp, our bodies dirty, but our hopes are raised.
Perfect autumn day. The village folk – bright, cheery and hospitable, like people let out of prison, cannot do enough for us. Madame is a very sensible, bright woman, and is always doing us little kindnesses which we repay as best we can.
The air is full of rumours such as “abdication of the Kaiser”, refusal of the “clown Prince” to carry on, “Armistice – German fleet surrendered under the red flag”, “peace declared”, etc., etc. At present we are reminded of war by the boom of land mines blowing up roads, etc. behind the retreating bosches. A huge bridge over the river was already destroyed when we got there.
[Image: The aged town crier of Solesmes in France reading war news to local people in a village captured by New Zealanders in World War I. Photograph taken 9 November 1918 by Henry Armytage Sanders. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington. Ref. 1/2-013666-G]
[Image: New Zealand troops marching through the bombed town of Le Quesnoy, France, during Poincare’s visit. Taken by an unidentified photographer, 10 November 1918. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington. Ref: 1/4-017543-F
Note: the various batteries of the NZ Division’s artillery were not at Le Quesnoy itself, but were relatively nearby. J.R. Bryne’s New Zealand Artillery in the Field, 1914-18 (1922, Auckland), p.295, records:
The New Zealand Artillery was in action for the last time on November 8th, when the 1st and 3rd Brigades carried out a little harassing fire. The enemy, now completely disorganised, was still retiring, and in the afternoon both these Brigades moved forward to the vicinity of Boussieres. The following day all batteries were relieved by the 42nd Divisional Artillery, and orders were issued for the three brigades and the Divisional Ammunition Column to march to Quievy, to rejoin the Division. This move was to be carried out on the 11th and 12th, the intervening night being spent in billets at Villereau.]
Too bustled yesterday to write. The whole day and part of the night driving about taking up new lines, finishing up with a long, dreary, wet drive up to a new gun position in pitch darkness. Off to bed in a loft full of bean stalks. Did a picquet in the small hours. Discovered by daylight the nature of the country. Some particularly horrible remains (a German soldier’s brains had been scattered along a post and wire fence hitting 4 or 5 posts in succession).* Moved out once more to a village on the banks of the Sambre, comfortably billeted in a house and have made friends with Madame, who gave us coffee and is now stoking up the fire.
We are promising ourselves a treat in the way of a wash and a clean up, our present condition being deplorable. The horses need it as much as we do. Have draped wet garments and gear from every vantage point and hung my boots on the side of the stove. Some of us are shaving, some writing, some telling their adventures around the fire, whilst Madame, Monsieur and their friends have their evening repast in the next room.
* In the early 1960s Lincoln added the text in brackets to his draft typescript, likely meaning this was something he recalled, but had not included in his original diary-like letter to his first wife.
[Image: Soldiers from a Wellington Regiment sit eating a meal out of mess tins in the French town of Solesmes during World War I. They use broken pieces of masonry as seats and tables. Photograph taken 9 November 1918 by Henry Armytage Sanders. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington. Ref: 1/2-013663-G]
Queer day all through. After slushing about in our mudhole, some of us went off to a house nearby to give details of such studies as we may wish to pursue during demobilisation. At noon we moved camp and were allotted comfy billets, only to be immediately afterwards ordered to hook in and move forward. All afternoon and evening in the saddle – passing through endless woods, the tall trees still clinging to a few golden-brown leaves, the ground beneath one huge carpet of rich red decay; the multitudinous trunks ranging in vista against a background of misty blue-purple obscurity. The roads blown up in various places, perilous passages over rickety temporary bridges, abandoned dumps of the enemy’s munitions, wrecked vehicles, rows of dead awaiting burial, occasional woodsmen’s cottages, troops on the march. It was dark before we pulled our guns into a field and dumped our shells beside them. After the necessary work was done, ate with our filthy hands a hot mess of what we knew not what and wedged ourselves like sardines into every cranny of a huge barn and slept.