Sitting most of the day on horseback with the water streaming out of our boots and down our necks – a pretty picnic! More pine forest; the high land being planted with sombre green drooping pine. The method of afforestation is methodical. Rough or marshy land is chosen as being unsuitable for other cultivation; one area is heavy grown timber, another packed with saplings which are thinned out for the uses which they serve; a third will be just felled and replanted with tiny seedlings. Here and there amid the woods are dwellings and inns, often of quaint and curious design: one side of a house will be brown or red stone cemented together in irregular shapes, another red brick, a third perhaps painted wood or plaster, distempered and inset with beams picked out in dark colour. This sounds motley, but is often very handsome. (However these are probably holiday cottages.)
Our host is an older whiskered man whose conversation we have been trying to follow. He says the Kaiser has gone mad in Holland – what one would expect!
Two churches are noticeable, probably a Catholic and a Lutheran, and there has been a going to and from services! The inhabitants all in their Sunday best. Most of the urchins are wearing soldier’s caps, thrown away by Fritz in his anxiety to become a civilian again.
In distinct contrast to rural France (as I know it) fences and hedges abound. The houses are scattered about the landscape, and farming approximates more to the English methods. On the whole the buildings are in better repair and of more modern appearance than the French, and there is moreover an air of progress.
Everything is very scarce and dear. Nevertheless the people seem well clothed and shod, but it is in big centres that the pinch is felt most.
The big pine wood which we passed through is visible from here. Most of the men detest woods; it makes them low spirited, tho’ they cannot analyse the feeling, which is, of course, world-old.
We experience curious complications in our money-markets.
Just had lunch – that sounds normal to you, but to me it means grasping with filthy hands (just after grooming) a hunk of bread and jam, and watching it grow grubbier and grubbier whilst I eat it. Also standing perhaps in the rain, for anything up to a quarter of an hour waiting for it.
This is a farming district. The roads are well metalled, and a great contrast to the muddy French lanes. The houses are well built and plain but neat in appearance. The sanitation seems much better than in the French villages, and the huge muck-heaps of the French farmyards are conspicuous by their absence.
I have just crept with trepidation into a great white bed in the house of a Belgian gentleman. Another soldier and I spent the evening with M., Madame and Mademoiselle, partaking of an excellent supper of tender steak, vegetables, beer and tart. Chatted over books of views, maps and things (Madame speaking a little English), drank a bottle of good wine carefully lifted from the cellar, and in a word, been “bon vivants”. Perhaps they mistook us for officers. My companion, determined to pass one comfortable night, had knocked on the door and asked for a bed, with this result.
The trek today was miserably cold, up the valley of the Vesle through scenery in places extremely picturesque, the river plunging through a rocky gorge with quaint villages clinging to its sides; and ruined castles perched on promontories of rock. In one place a beautiful chateau stood upon the opposite bank with a stone bridge and bridgehouse all to itself.
Now for white sheets next to the skin – “home au nature”. We had stacked all our lousy clothes in a far corner of the room, and rinsed ourselves out of the wash basin.
Enjoyed the bed immensely and bade a fond farewell to my hosts this morning. Madam had a basin of water for me to wash in, and also washed up my eating gear, so that I felt quite important.
On the move again in cold driving rain through populous country. Followed the Meuse the greater part of the way, then struck off up a narrow valley feeding its tributary, the Vesle. This small town is concerned with zinc mining, and we are sleeping on the hard floors of a large unfinished building intended as a bureau for some of the large works whose chimneys cut the sky.
(Name of place unknown)
Just going to get into a real bed in the house of some hospitable Walloons. Spent the whole evening chattering with them and their friends in execrable French, and think we have all enjoyed it. We have reached a small town in the Meuse valley, not far from Liege. These people insisted upon my shaving in their front room, after which operation I turned and found a basin of water, on a stool in the middle of the floor, to wash in.
They gave me coffee and bread and butter, and I replied with a small present of tobacco and a tin of “viande”. The husband displayed samples, very fine ones, of his art as a glass cutter. They evinced great interest in my clothes.
White and grey stone buildings stood out against deep blue and purple distances. Green swards run down to the rolling river. Now for the bed.
Reached Liege towards noon, after interesting run down the Meuse Valley. First we passed the little town of Huy with its white stone bridge, church, and old castle built into the white cliffs above the river. An immense volume of water is pouring down the valley, edged in places with stripes of the richest green.
Then we got into an area of huge factories, mines and industries – gigantic jumbles of machinery, retorts, chimneys, with all their attendant gloom and slumminess. What a rich and busy little country this is! Finally Liege. How absurd are one’s attempts to picture places one hasn’t seen. When I used to read of Liege, near which the Hun stumbled, I visioned a kind of Belgium Taihape. It is a large and beautiful town. The river winds through it, spanned by many handsome stone bridges, its banks encased in solid stone walls topped with promenades.
Here are numbers of released prisoners of war of every nationality, even Russians. The streets were gay with bunting. For the first time saw soldiers in the scarlet breeches of the pre-war French army. Everything is amazingly expensive – in many cases ten or twelve times the price one is used to in New Zealand.
My iron rations making me thirsty, although broke, I entered a cafe and ordered coffee. When the waiter asked one franc, I was staggered, but handed him five sous, and told him that it was all I had. He hurried off and brought up the proprietor. Instead of ejecting me, he smilingly addressed me (and the whole room-full) thus: – “You fight for me. You like glass of wine, or verre de Cognac?” I had the Cognac.