Shifting into a Nissen hut. It’s a bit crowded; but a change of neighbours varies the monotony. Three giddy airmen (probably N. Zedders) swooped down on us from nowhere and buzzed around and over our camp like huge mosquitos. One madcap dipped down so as to just shave the top of a telegraph post under which I and others were standing. You should have seen us jump!
8 p.m. Today was pay day and tonight was rum night and the first night we have all been together in the new Camp. We have a huge new canteen with two fireplaces. I spent half an hour there, drying socks at the blaze, making sundry purchases, drinking beer and watching the effects of firelight on the rough semi-bibulous faces and forms of the thronging soldiers. How quickly a camp like this materialises! In a couple of days huts, tents, canteen Q.M stores, smithy, buildings of wood and iron, canvass, tarpaulin and what not, spring up like mushrooms, men take possession of them and the whole is soon a going concern.
A jumbled troublous day; most unsabbatical. Busy shifting camp to a new position nearer our stables. The sun went down through a brilliant slot between an overhanging bulk of drab cloud and the horizon, on which the little hills with their windmills stood out in sharp relief of deep purply-blue against an orange background. I have been indulging in a supper that would stagger you and may possibly stagger me – a hunk of dry bread and some salt bully-beef – opened with a muddy bayonet – washed down with a mouthful of musty water out of my bottle. Today banged into another waggon, interlocking our wheels which were un-interlocked after a spasmodic 4 minutes.
Could I but get an excused duty for a month, a box of colours, a camp stool, gum boots, break-wind with plate-glass window, permit to paint, a few minor commodities, I might be able to supplement this budget with some sketches; but, a yes, I forgot; that would necessitate a larger and stronger green envelope.
A great naval gun mounted on a railway line, close behind us is banging away at regular intervals. A few Yanks are to be met with here and there – they say they want to “go up there where that gard-damn noise is going on”. One of our captive balloons got adrift today and mounted out of sight followed by dozens of shell-bursts – our guns trying to destroy in case it should fall into Fritz’s lines. The Villain, who never writes – only sends a cable once a year for money to go on leave with – has given me a green envelope. The Villain has good points. For instance, he scorned the idea of selling the envelope, though it is common to barter them. Extraordinary people! They wanted a steward for the Officer’s Club and instead of getting some tired old chap they let a younger active member have it. I see that the Yankees allow only one batman or groom to several officers, whereas in our English armies every officer has at least one and from my observation they seem always to be young and active fellows.
[Image: A distant view of a British 9.2 inch rail gun firing in the New Zealand sector during in Coigneux, France, 30 April 1918. Royal New Zealand Returned and Services’ Association: New Zealand official negatives, World War 1914-1918. Ref: 1/2-013726-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22886860]
[Image: Gunners of the Royal Garrison Artillery hauling a shell on to the platform of a 9.2 inch railway gun by its crane. Near Bethune, 17 April 1918, Imperial War Museums Q11593]
Helping to build a Nissen hut all day. The mud steadily increases. Freeze, freeze thou bitter sky! This afternoon some of our returning airmen, in small, fast graceful machines with cocked up tails, swooped down within a couple of hundred feet of us, one after another, each waving his hand as he passed. The engines in that proximity made a tremendous din, like a bevy of machine guns, and the whole of the little incident was pleasant and thrilling.
Heavens! There’s a man in this tent reading “The Waipukurau Press”; wonder if its leader is entitled “Our Warning to the Kaiser.” (It won fame in distant times with a heading “Our warning to the Tzar”)
[Image: Photograph taken on 19 January 1918, of mule teams crossing a muddy field near Arras. Imperial War Museums, Q10627. A Nissen hut can be seen in the background.]
Storm raged all night, several bivvies flooded out; the Y.M.C.A. marquee blown down and the roads have all the metal washed bare. The state of things down at stables was astonishing, as the roofs are not yet on. In some places I went down nearly to the top of my jack-boots – how the chaps in puttees fared don’t ask. Got into a lovely scot with my donks, after I took their covers off and hung them up they pulled them down into the slush, fouling their own nests; later when I had just put on one’s nose-bag the ungrateful beast banged the slushy bottom of the thing fair in my eye. Tickled by a statement of the Villain’s, to the effect that he had written his sister for “six pairs of sox, two mouth organs and a clarinet.”
A nightmare of mud, rivals the most primitive cow-byre in N.Z. backblocks. Through this augean abomination we have shoggled all day in drizzling rain and, as a finale, when we were lined up for tea there was a flash and crack of thunder and a shower whose vehemence I have seldom seen equalled sent us, draggle-tailed, laded with well-watered soup and soaked bread dripping in liquescent jam, off into our hovels. A big gun is booming far away and making us wonder how in the devil anybody can be bothering about a war in this weather.
On chaff-cutting fatigue, chippety-chop-chippety-chop. Find that the driver whose horses I performed with the other day is trying to get rid of one of them and am not surprised.
Driving manure cart with a dour and taciturn old Scot. Same job this afternoon. They’ve painted all our tin hats battleship grey.
7.30. A charming sunset over the snow, everything fading away in a tinted mist and the red sun sinking behind a straggling row of tall bare trees. Two very squiffy Canadians were grovelling about on all fours on a railway line, to the huge delight of a gathering crowd. Gave my quiet Donk a snowball, which to my amazement he ate and swallowed. I repeated the performance, so did he, and I let it rest at that, fearing to make him ill. One forgets in this continental winter that such a climate as summer and warmth ever existed. What we are getting now is mere child’s play to last winter, when they often had to send the men into their huts and give them fuel. You may perhaps wonder why I talk of riding when carting things in waggons, etc. but no doubt you know that almost all driving in the army is done postilion fashion.
Image: Photograph taken on 14 January 1918 showing waggons ridden ‘postilion fashion’, not of New Zealand troops, but of British field kitchens arriving to relieve the French on the Seraucourt-le-Grand road, Imperial War Museums, Q 78272.