Friday, October 19th (1917)

Warwick and I took a stroll in the dark to a neighbouring village.  Most of the shopkeepers have converted their establishments into cafes or estaminets; so one looks into a cobbler’s shop and sees tommies scoffing eggs and ham round a table, Mere knitting in a corner, Pere mending shoes and les enfants crawling about the floor.  We went into an estaminet and had some very watery beer and stout and were gratuitously entertained by a squiffy Frenchy who looked like an engine driver and did stepdances and sang tommy songs in French – incongruous sound!  A candle or two seem to be the sole wartime illumination, so we didn’t see much.

7 p.m.  In an estaminet drinking Bock with W.  This town has a large church with the tall pointed spire which seems to be typical of French ecclesiastical architecture – something like a witch’s hat – and a large central square or market-place with a few more or less imposing buildings.  Every few 100 yds. one comes across a crucifix or shrine.  Sundials are to be seen on church fronts and I saw one yesterday accurately indicating the time.  There have been a motley collection of Frenchies in the estaminet tonight not forgetting an extremely garrulous old female who cooks, and who keeps popping in and out of the kitchen and jabbering excitedly.  The cultivation of the fields goes on apace all around.  The crops now growing and being harvested appear to be chiefly sugar-beet – something like mangel-wurzels – and beans.  The soil appears to be light and fertile.  The peasants often use antediluvian farm wagons and implements, wooden harrows etc, but not in every case.  Liquors and food and other commodities are by no means cheap – old hands tell us that they were early in the war.  I remark the absence of oak and other bushy trees.  The French appear to prefer the tall and slender varieties.

Thursday (17 October 1917)

The Marquee leaked like billy-o in the night and some of us got very wet.  Novelty in deafening reveille when we played awake by the band.  The ablutionary arrangements beat all.  We skated (literally) down the slope of what recently was a meadow but now is slush, and grouped ourselves around murky ponds, half-covered with green scum.  There we ladled out water and “abluted”.  Seven or eight of us got a shave with an inch of water in the bottom of one mug.  Had breakfast of bully and bread, and hot tea, and later on went for a short route march.  Much amusement when they told us off in threes (instead of 4s) owing to the narrowness of the lanes, so you see I have actually seen the “three ‘um threes” joke come off.  We have passed and seen pass endless columns of ammunition wagons, batteries, “archibalds”; saw an aeroplane being shelled in the far distance, little white puffs of smoke breaking out all around it – heard occasionally the distant rumble of the guns.  Oh!  The mules:  they lope along with their great ears floperty-floperty rhythmically as if they moved them deliberately – weird cross-breeds – many a kick I’ll get from them before I’ve seen their tails for the last time.  Weather clearer.  There was some really canine barking in the marquee last night and I put such a tax on my hanky that this morning I couldn’t look it in the face.  Henceforth I adopt the common or Irish method of emunction merely utilising the mouchoir for finishing touches.  You would be amused to see us having our tucker, squatting on our tin hats on the mud and splashing mess tins full of stew and tea over one another.  All you read about the wonderful busyness for miles behind the lines is quite true, but it is equally impossible to picture it without being here.

17th October (1917)

I am writing this on my knee in a packed horse-truck marked: Hommes 40.  Cheveaux (en long) 8.  So you will guess that we have been up since 4 a.m. and are now really en route for the field of operations.  When we have our packs up you can hardly see us; viz. Oil sheet overcoat and spare clothes rolled, haversack, waterbottle and mess tin, box respirator, P.H. gas helmet, steel-helmet (horrid and heavy), bandolier and 50 rounds of ammunition and sundries.  Items I have not remarked are – Continental edition of Daily Mail delivered at 1½d – we all have slight colds.  These trucks have no seats but also no smell to speak of – all goes well.  The band marched us down to the station and played us aboard with Auld Lang Syne.  It is now moon and we have pulled up at Calais after passing through Boulogne again.  All one can see en passant is a wall of buildings with spires and domes peeping up above the red tile roofs; red tile roofs seem to be general hereabouts and go well with the whitewashed walls of the village dwellings and inns.  Between the two large towns were stretches of charming country.  We have passed through huge camps, quarries of enormous extent, factories of various kinds and seen large numbers of German prisoners at work therein. (1.30. p.m.)  Reached a town called St. Omer, where there are some fine old cathedrals and have passed low-lying country trellised with drains and canals, but highly cultivated.  Low hills surrounded surmounted by windmills, or chateaux, or ruined towers: pollarded trees – not only the osier willow, but many other varieties are lopped, apparently every stick having its value.  Stopped at Haazebruch, which cannot be many miles behind the lines as an observation balloon is visible.  We are eternally passing other trains bearing troops, wounded, etc.  Have just watched an old baker on his round with a large hand-cart under which a big dog harnessed-up does most of the work.  All sorts of troops are to be seen – Indians, Nova Scotians, Tommies, Chows, Japs, Blacks, Frenchies, etc.

Tramped with our swags over the cobbles to a camp about 2 miles away, reaching it after dark.  There we got hot tea and ate some more of our rations.  We are on raised ground and all round the northern horizon are regular flashes like those of a revolving lighthouse – you know what they are!  Every now and then there is a glow in the sky lasting 10 seconds – star shells.  Fancy 300 to 400 miles of that going on on the Western front alone!  Another draft followed up a few hours later to go into the 2nd Brigade (a mobile brigade that dodges about a good deal more than the others) and I must tell you a little incident of yesterday.  They were one man short and the officer asked one of our lot to volunteer.  After a bit a hardcase of a chap mooched out rather sheepishly and, when the officer out of curiosity asked him his reasons for wanting to change, he said it was so that he “wouldn’t have to get up so early tomorrow”.

15th October (1917)

Saw the fleet of fishing boats with their red, brown and white sails go down to the sea and, later on, return.  Trains loaded with guns etc. keep passing and re-passing and along a road near by an almost continuous stream of ambulances, wagons and motor lorries was moving.  The coast is low-lying, unlike the opposite English coast.  It looks incongruous to see an old windmill right in the middle of this camp.

Sunday, 14th October (1917)

A fine sunny day and all busy spreading our things to dry and a more cheerful atmosphere prevails.  If the people responsible for the messing arrangements in N.Z. would adopt the methods used here, the saving in food and improvement in comfort would be revolutionary.  It makes one angry to think of the disgusting waste in the N.Z. camps and the bad cooking and general spoliation of so much good food that goes on there – or did.  The French beer isn’t the best and certainly not over-proof.  We are still in the throes of learning French coinage and I have a thing in my pocket which looks like a 1/- but is only worth about 2 ½ d.  I did make a girl understand that I wanted ‘deux pommes’ on Friday but when I said ‘comment vous portez vous’ to a boy he didn’t appear to grasp it in its entirety.  Saw French peasants going off to work in the fields early this morning and it was like looking at a moving Millet.  I little thought a year ago that I should be over in his country, or Corot’s, Hugo’s, Flambert’s, Rabelais’ and all the rest of them.  A man soon gets used to sleeping with most of his clothes on and giving up his few remaining little luxuries.  W. and I towards dusk had a stroll through the main street, narrow ones lined with old white and tray patchy-looking shops and cafes and estaminets.  Also had a look at the water-front, a tidal river or inlet, mostly mud-flat when we saw it, on whose banks were reposing all sorts of fishing craft.

Saturday, 13th October (1917)

(Etaples)  We have been bandied about from pillar to post, mostly in teaming rain.  We had all sorts of parades and lectures yesterday afternoon and evening.  The O.C. at Etaples, a much wounded officer, and S. A. Veteran, gave us sensible address on the running of the camp.  An amusing anecdote was of a soldier detailed to clean out a sump, poking at it with a stick as though saying “you nasty thing!”.  Asked his occupation in civil life he replied “I was a barrister and solicitor”.  Then, said the O.C., if you were to put your arm in up to the elbow you might find six and eightpence.

The feeding arrangements are excellent, the food being properly cooked, and equally meted out, so that though actually less in quantity than in England it is much more satisfying.  We are in small bell tents, about a dozen in each, all with wet clothes and all our equipment, including gas appliances.  We each have 2 rough blankets, very ‘hummy’ with disinfectant, and sleep on the boards and have again gone through both lachrymatory and poison gasses.  As the O.C. said, it used to be a sporting war, now it’s a devils war.

This place is composed chiefly of rolling sand dunes, with patches of pine and scrub, and one blessing is that the mud being sandy is not of the clinging order.

PART III. PASSCHENDAELE & WINTER IN FRANCE. “Somewhere in France” 12 October 1917

Embarked on small fast ferry steamers; a medley of all regiments; daylight failed us half way over; interesting in the method of convoy and manoeuvres adopted to ensure safety.  We arrived at Boulogne.  It was too dark to see anything of the city, but the fact that we were at last in France and hearing French spoken around us was in itself sufficiently novel.  We had a stiff and much encumbered march up-hill to a camp on the hill-tops known to old hands as “one blanket camp”.

Awakened at 5 a.m. – At about 10 we moved off and marched after various delays, chest inspections etc., through the outskirts of town, and to our joy found that we were to go to the base in motor lorries instead of marching.  Packed 25 in each and rumbled off on our first journey through France.  The countryside hereabouts is rolling and even hilly, broken by woods with villages lying in the valleys.  The only Frenchies we saw were old men, women and children, with an occasional soldier on leave.  I liked the look of the French country girls who ran along selling us apples and chocolate etc., they seem fresh and healthy.

[The significance of 12 October 1917 for the New Zealand soldiers in France must be acknowledged here.  As Lincoln Lee travelled across the Channel, 843 New Zealand soldiers lost their lives during an attack in the Third Battle of Ypres.  As historian Ian McGibbon writes, “In terms of lives lost in a single day, 12 October 1917 ranks as the most catastrophic in the country’s post-1840 history”.]