Ensival, 19 December 1918

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.

18th December (1918)

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.

17th December (1918)

(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.

16th December (1918)

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.

14th December (1918)

In the forenoon a body of us were marched downstream to an enormous sugar refinery where we obtained baths, hot and good.

The sugar refinery seemed well appointed.  The beet is cleaned and shredded by machinery and, after the goodness is taken out, the refuse, like squeezed and chopped up macaroni, is taken off to the farms to make ensilage.  A peculiar sickly smell hangs around.  The heat making me very thirsty, I had some beer at the nearest cafe, and begorrah, it tasted the same as the “schmell” of the sugar-beet.  Proving, bedad, that they make the beer out of it.

A boy with whom I chatted told me that although he spoke some French, his natural language was Walloon – also that the Meuse was very high and practically in flood.

13th December (1918)

Dead weary – Mauvais temps, Monsieur! as an old Belgian called to me en route.  We formed a dripping cavalcade.  After traversing rolling country, we began to strike into entirely different terrain; more hilly, more rugged.  The villages too, seemed different, and the inhabitants dissimilar to those further back. So we plodded, our clothes and equipment running wet; curiously gazed upon by the dripping villagers.

The last mile was the most interesting.  From fairly high country, we swept down a steep grade into the valley of the Meuse which here rushes, a broad torrent, through a narrow gorge, flanked on the one side by rocky promontories and cliffs, and on the other by a strip of flat.  Towns and villages are visible both up and down stream, making exceedingly picturesque peeps even now when winter darkens all.

Liege is not far from here: our nearest town being Huy, and this village Bas-Oha, or some such name.  In summer this would have been an enjoyable jaunt.

Le lendemain (11th December, 1918)

This morning the spirits of those of us who won in a lottery, for passes to Bruxelles were high.  We arrived in the famous city at about 3 p.m., with only an hour of daylight in which to view all its wonders.  A hasty glance around and superb cathedral revealed glories of sculpture, carving, and stained glass that could easily absorb a summer’s day.  A walk around the towering Town Hall and other beautiful buildings, were the only glimpses of the City I could get.  The rest of the time spent wandering about watching the life of the people who apparently never dream of spending an evening at home, but frequent the cafes, picture theatres, dancing halls, and the like.

10th December (1918)

Tea over; barn candle lit; air full of foolish, ill-flavoured talk.  I sometimes grow quite desperate with the fear that either it will not end, or that, when it does, I shall have become deprived of the power of rational conversation.