15th November (1917)

Today is sunny and we have been riding bare-back exercising our animals, which usually entails a certain amount of fun.  Yesterday a huge hairy and hideous ‘donk’ (the redoubtable Irish Hunter of whom more anon) broke away and in the throes of temporary freedom gave us an exhibition of riderless or spontaneous buck-jumping.  A quaint type of farm waggon is often seen here, 3 wheels only (the small one in front on a turntable) the horse being hooked on to a swingletree and driven with one long thin rein.  He is apparently guided by voice.  Other waggons have one lone rough beam fixed underneath and protruding in front, and in no case are they backable (to invent a word); not very convenient, but very picturesque, with curved sides.  I went and got mine and W’s washing this evening.  The farm folk who do it appear to be Flemish and don’t understand French any better than English, but one of them, a bright and rather handsome girl of about twenty, has learned not only to speak but to read English very passably during the war.  She is a great sport and knows all the boys by name.  It is the custom now for every farm to keep a sort of open house where soldiers congregate in the evenings and are provided with beer or coffee.  Tonight père who is evidently a bootmaker (inter alia) was mending boots, mère was darning soldiers’ socks.  The kiddies were delighted when I learnt a little chanson of theirs and sang it back to them.

“Allons mes amis, Il est midi”.

Got a P.C. from R today; he is at the base camp in France and expects to move up shortly.  J. is with him and they seem to be having a royal time with some French friends they have acquired.

13th November (1917)

In the evening went to the neighbouring town with a Scotch chap named Guthrie who was amusing company.  We had a meal, a few drinks, smoked cigars and back.  Whom should I see lined up for breakfast after stables was over?  An unshaven and not so tidy as usual personage – W.  He had got out of the D.A.C.* in which he had been put on the night we were separated and he arrived last night, actually passing the night in this barn without knowing I was in it, and “here we are again”, comrades in arms.

This evening we wetted our reunion with canteen beer and hunted out a farmer’s wife willing to wash our dirty clothes.  W. had been on similar work to myself but with a much more easy-going crowd – no shave every day – clean buttons etc. as it is with us.  Is it not amazing that there should be no uniformity of hours of work and of discipline throughout the army, but that in each unit it should depend on the whim and caprice of the man in charge and so, like Equity in the middle ages, be as variable as the size of not the “Chancellors” but the O.C.’s foot**.

* “Divisional Ammunition Column”, ** “Officer Commanding”.

10th November 1917

(Near Haazebruk [Hazebrouck]).  We have trekked about another 10 miles and are again in billets (I am in a barn perched up on a stack of dried peas).  We have been here about three days and seem to be going to stay for awhile for a rest, though we are on duty practically the whole time.  Horses are of course, like the poor, always with us and always a nuisance.  The farm buildings are very picturesque and differ from the English ones, being built higher with very sloping roofs, usually thatched neatly over ruddy tiles.  We can’t keep free from “passengers”.  I am already very much a martyr and less inclined to bless the Duke of Argyle than to curse the beasts that necessitate the “scratching posts”; in any case one per mile would be quite useless, you need one every five yards.  The walls of most of the buildings are of mud, which sets very hard, plastered on laths between stout oak beams.  Every small town and village has a large and often handsome church or cathedral and there are shrines of various design all over the countryside.  This part of France is a land of ponds.  There are very few streams and I haven’t seen a river worth the name, but every field has its pond surrounded with stunted pollard trees, and the farm houses and buildings are invariably situated near one or more of these ponds.  At them we perform all our ablutions and as they are muddy and dirty holes you can imagine what it’s like, groping about their slimy margins on these early autumn mornings.  “No bon” as the men say.  The leaves have not yet all fallen and in some parts the long rows of graceful trees are very beautiful.  The country about here is highly cultivated.  The root crops are stacked in large pyramids, the sides of which are packed up with straw kept in place with sods.  Beans and peas seem to be grown as well as the usual cereals.  There are practically no fences, the large fields being cultivated right up to the roadside, where there is usually a bank, or a ditch.  Had great fund poking around the town of Haazebruck in the dark, going into shops, estaminets etc. and buying, pocketing, eating and smoking all the useless and unnecessary things I could think of.  A night out.  Also great fun talking or trying to talk to the various Madames, Messieurs, and Mademoiselles in the shops; one of them, who told me she had been a schoolmistress went into shrieks of laughter over my attempts.

Reveille is at 6 a.m.  Stables at 6.30.  Breakfast about 7.45.  Parade 9.  Lunch about 12.  Parade 2.  Tea 4. or 5.  Picquet about once a week.  The mud is everywhere but one gets used to almost anything and a percentage of mud on one’s person and in one’s food doesn’t seem to do any harm.  All the institutions of an army in barracks are carried on in the field, but under greatly altered conditions – your horses are in lines tied up to ropes and stretched between the wheels of vehicles – instead of huts you have if you are lucky, billets in barns and the like, or if you are nearer the firing line you crawl to sleep under pieces of more or less leaky tarpaulin stretched over a low wall of sandbags, or a few pieces of timber.  It is almost an impossibility to keep one’s feet dry even for a few hours.  Instead of a majestic personage in a well-built and orderly store, the Quartermaster is a mere sergeant in a muddy and muddled tent.  The saddler, bootmaker etc. fare similarly.  The canteen is a hardened individual surrounded by a heterogeneous heap in a fowlhouse, a pig-sty, or a hole in the ground whence he hands you your high-priced merchandise.  And so the game goes on.  On each level sit, squat, sprawl or kneel, men, writing, gambling, exchanging repartee; candles flicker from makeshift brackets and stands (mine is the back of a blacking brush the handle of which is stuck into a crack, others use, against orders, inverted tin lids) and from every available nail, rack, rafter and rope depend their garments and belongings.  They are now arguing about the spelling and pronunciation of the word ‘wagon’ or ‘waggon’ – the wags.

You would like to sleep here.  Everything that you enjoy, cobwebs and their weavers everywhere, bugs, lady-birds, and other varieties of insect life, and a nice cool draught.  Of course there aren’t devastated cities everywhere, but in the (in every sense) blasted town through which I used to ride it was curious to see how the debris had been turned to military use.  On what appears to be the utter ruin of a house you’ll see the symbol of Y.M.C.A and on closer inspection will notice a packing-case door in it and will know that somewhere in the bowels of the rubbish heap is a cup of coffee and a cigarette and will dismount from your jaded ‘donk’ and partake.  Other heaps bear other legends and in what was once a city of civilians, a city of un-civil-‘uns is now ‘carrying on’.  You soon lose all nervousness about the explosives you have to handle and get very aggrieved if some ‘sub’ in charge of an ammunition dump takes it into his head to enforce the order against smoking in the camp.  You capsize a heap of H.E. shells so they clatter with resounding thwacks down upon their touchy fellows and you only swear at the bother of picking them up again.  You are delayed for an hour under fire by a stubborn and dead-beat donk’s refusal to negotiate a shell-hole; you go berserk, tweak its nose, kick him in the jaw (it isn’t a question of cruelty to animals but of serving guns) but you don’t bother at all about the shells that drop in the neighbourhood – that comes later on when you have done your work and have time to think.  One can never realise strange conditions of life without actually experiencing them and so I have found almost everything different in appearance, in dimensions, in detail and in assemble from what I had anticipated.

I must say that rough as the men mostly are I find a lot to admire and envy them for – a cheerfulness under any conditions, great loyalty to our cause beneath all their sarcasm and expletives – hardihood and boldness and a capacity to “stick it”.

Tuesday, 30th October (1917)

You must understand that to get to our guns one travels over about 4 miles of devastated country, all one mess of military activity and large gun emplacements.  They bellow at you from every quarter.  The mules are done up and have to be kicked and tortured into most impossible morasses, where as often as not they collapse.  You crawl on top of them and with hideous difficulty unload them – the load you may be lucky enough to save by planting in on a dead horse or a stump, but sometimes it is lost in the mud, to startle and surprise some Belgian ploughman of the golden era “apres la guerre”.*  The donk is then encouraged to make a mighty effort and with a succession of mad plunges usually wins through to the next island, where you muddily re-load him.

This carried me roughly within a few days of our welcome move off.  On one day I was three times covered with mud from the explosion of shells, one of which landed with a big hunk of something on my tin hat, which thus saved me a nasty whack.  The sound of these explosions is ear-splitting, but I can bear with the din of war much better than I had expected.  It’s a peculiar thing that I felt less funky the first time I was under fire than the subsequent times.  The most nerve-testing thing of all is to lie in bed and have bombs dropping around you in the dark.  High above is the insistent and menacing drone of the ‘Fritz’ (which has an entirely different sound to our own planes) and then in twos and threes the bombs come screaming down, hitting the earth with a vicious thump as they burst.  Each one sounds as if it is making straight for you.  The night before we moved out about a dozen of our animals were killed by one, two pieces of it going through the top of the tent I was in.

One of the saddest features of the war is to see poor beasts killed and being killed in all directions, but it’s not so sad as to see the dead and injured men carried past.  Though of course, I have not been in the front lines where the infantry are, I have in those 3 or 4 days of packing seen most of the chief features of war other than infantry work.  Aeroplanes in thousands – dropping bombs, attacking one another; attacking observation balloons, from which the occupants promptly descend in parachutes; and have seen them executing all sorts of hair raising manoeuvres.  We used to have to pass a very ticklish cross road, called “blood and guts corner” which Frizt shells systematically.  One day when coming home a shell struck so near that I thought it was all up, but thank God it was a ‘dud’.  (I believe you had something to do with making it one).  It buried itself in a tree-trunk a few feet away, making a little red-hot cave in the wood; was talking to some Tommies and when it happened we all ducked, scared stiff, but when it didn’t explode, we burst out laughing, relief.  Yesterday we got up in the small hours and after various in the mud found ourselves in column of route on the main road.  After about 12 or 13 miles trek we arrived at some sort of half-way house where we are billeted in a big barn with about 3 feet depth of straw to lie on.  No difference is made for Sunday whatsoever in the field.  We have to work all day and every day alike.  Our hours extend with breaks for meals from dawn to dark and one has little time or opportunity either to write letters, attend to his toilet, mend his clothes, or anything else.  Cigarettes and tobacco are issued to us free and we have now been issued with long jackboots for winter wear.  As I have said before, the mud, especially where there are horses, is indescribable, but it has one big thing to its credit, the number of lives it has saved in deadening the effect of shells.  It was pleasant to again see trees that had not been killed and blasted and a bit of country where the shell-holes were not as thick as bubbles in a porridge pot.  All along our route were innumerable shacks put up apparently by refugees from shattered towns and called ‘Villa’ this that and the other; each with a few cigarettes and chocolates in the window to attract the ubiquitous Tommy.  I had a cup of coffee in one.  The good dame in the farm house here sells us coffee also.  It was amusing to see her, this morning wiping her kiddies faces with a none too clean moistened rag.  The French country folk are not fastidious.  This place is quite close to an aerodrome and two or three times a day dozens of planes like a mob of gigantic mosquitoes come swarming up just above our heads, roaring like railway trains under full steam.  It’s a fine sight and they are wonderful machines.  The new tri-planes are the most agile of all and seem to be more at home upside down than right way up.  Truly an amazing business this soldiering.  I’m getting to know these chaps better and some of them are friendly and good sorts.  They are sprawled all around me now in the straw smoking, reading, writing, eating and drinking, singing or whistling, as if they hadn’t a care in the world, as indeed many of them have not.

*  It seems likely Lincoln’s observation on the fate of unexploded munitions after the war is a later edit, written in the early 1960s as he prepared the typescript reproduced here.

nlnzimage 1-2 012931-G

[Image – Mule bogged down in mud.  Discarded shells can be seen nearby, with a soldier trying to help the animal.  Photograph taken 20 October 1917 at Kansas Farm near the front line on the Ypres Salient. NZ National Library, 1/2-012931-G.]

[Note – the two entries by Lincoln of 27 and 30 October 1917, are at the end of the New Zealand Division’s involvement in the battle of Passchendaele.  Lincoln was fortunate to have arrived at the front when he did, missing most of what was a fearsome and deadly time for the New Zealand Division.  (As mentioned previously, on 12 October, 843 New Zealand soldiers lost their lives in a disastrous attack on Bellevue Spur, a day recently commemorated in New Zealand and in Belgium).  Just over a week later, on 20 October 1917, the 3rd Canadian Division moved in to relieve the New Zealand infantry.  The New Zealand artillery, however, remained deployed, and supported the Canadians as they continued the Passchendaele battles.  From 1 November the 1st Canadian Divisional Artillery took over the guns manned by the New Zealanders as they stood in their pits – the poor state of the ground made it impossible to move them.  Both brigades of the New Zealand Artillery, and the Divisional Ammunition Column, were then moved into the Watou area.

Lieutenant J. R. Byrne, in New Zealand Artillery in the Field, 1914-1918 (Whitcombe and Tombs Limited, 1922, Auckland, p.197), describes the situation when Lincoln arrived at the front thus:

The position by the 20th [October 1917] was that about two-thirds of the New Zealand Artillery had been got up to the forward positions, where the simultaneous packing of ammunition had provided 800 rounds per 18-pr. and 450 rounds per howitzer. During this period the enemy had persistently shelled the whole area with guns of every calibre up to 11in., the shelling being particularly heavy round Spree Farm, Nos. 5 and 6 Tracks, Kansas Cross, and the whole of the Gravenstafel Spur. He had also systematically searched for battery positions, both forward and rear, and had made a favourite target of the Schuler Galleries, where the New Zealand batteries had their control posts. Night bombing of the waggon lines and rear areas had become systematic, whilst the enemy bombing planes had also begun to come boldly over by day, bombing battery positions and the traffic on the crowded roads.”

Byrne cites a letter from Brigadier-General P. A. Mitchell, C.R.A., 3rd Canadian Division:— “Now that the New Zealand Artillery are leaving my command, I wish to place on record my appreciation of the high standard of efficiency maintained by them while they were assisting to cover the offensive operations of the 3rd Canadian Division. In spite of the difficulties of bad weather, and almost impassable roads, they kept their guns in action and their ammunition dumps filled with a regularity which would have been impossible without a high standard of discipline, energy, and efficiency. I should be glad if you would convey my thanks to all officers, N.C.O.’s, gunners, and drivers of the New Zealand Artillery for their gallant and faithful work in trying circumstances.”]

PASSCHENDAELE – Saturday, 27 October 1917

From the above it appears that I left off a week ago in the middle of our move up to the front.  Since then mules, mud and murder have been taking up the whole of my time not including the few hours of sleep one gets between Fritz’s fits of bombing and shelling.  I shall have the greatest difficulty in giving you even the slightest idea of what it’s like here and what I have been doing.  After several marches last Sunday night we were all split up in the dark and drafted off to different batteries and ammunition columns.  I got separated from W. and have no idea where he is.  We then shambled along for about an hour in mud often up to our knees; – Never below our boot-tops.  As we have been told, all have to act as drivers.  Well, we crawled into various shake-downs or “bivvies” crowded with men and next day (after an ample bombing over night) awoke to find ourselves in a vast sea of mud indescribable.  Standing in the mud, or out of it, were horse-lines and wagons as far as the eye could see and the huge horseshoe of observation balloons showed that we were right in the middle of the salient (Ypres) now driven into the Hun’s lines.  Our work is to pack, on mules, ammunition up to the guns of our battery; getting out at about 3.30 a.m., saddle up in the dark and rain and mud, leaving camp about 5 a.m.  We get it in turn but never less often than every other day.  On the days off we scrape up the slush around the horse lines and try to scrape the mules themselves – the poor devils are too done up to kick.  The first day I went out (Tuesday last) three of us new chums got separated from the rest and lost, spending most of the day roaming about amongst the maze of mud-covered roads in the theatre of war, getting our first experience of its unspeakable horror, filth and desolation.  A whole city (Ypres) in utter ruin, the city with its much-pronounced name, simply knocked to smithereens.  Not a single building intact – one horrible jumble of bricks, muck, and topsyturvydom.  It is quite impossible to describe it, none of the pictures, photos, or newspaper accounts of conditions on the front can give even the faintest idea of the reality.  One is at first dazed and stupefied and I think that, to such of us as survive it, it will seem like a horrible nightmare, rather than an actual experience.

nlnzimage 1-2 012946-G (web)

[Image: New Zealand artillery firing from shell-holes, Kansas Farm, Ypres Salient, ca 12 Oct 1917, National Library 1/2-012946-G.  This often-published image shows the ‘vast sea of mud indescribable’ Lincoln describes, while faintly in the background can be seen a mule train – presumably taking ammunition to the guns]

Saturday, 20th October (1917)

The farmers are spreading manure in little heaps all over the fields; they collect it during the year in huge pits close to their homes.  They appear to have no idea of sanitation and it is quite difficult to get water safe to drink.  Have been out for an evening stroll, and am just having some so-called beer in an Estaminet – “Au Charrons” – where the good lady knows less English than I do French.  The Tommies’ attempts to speak French to her are simply beautiful.  I reached a crossing in the road where there was a large crucifix standing up against the starry sky in which the new moon was just setting.  In the same quarter two searchlights were playing and an illuminated aeroplane sailing about like a demented planet dropping an occasional star-shell like an incandescent egg.  On the road nearby were rows and rows of dark motor lorries packed with troops.  It all struck me as an extraordinary jumble of past and present, peace and war, earthly and unearthly; a subject for a poem or a picture or a symphony for some daring modern genius.  Madam says she is 60 years old (certainly doesn’t look it) and finds it hard to pick up English at her age.