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.
The snow has thawed and the sloppiness baffles description. We have had an exciting day; at intervals of about ten minutes – beastly sudden high explosive shells – and lunch was cut short in order to get animals out, which we did, taking them to a large tract of open country and walking them about there all afternoon, watching the shells burst in the middle distance. A few of our men who were left there were wounded and other batteries lost a few men. We are all hoping to goodness they won’t open up again tonight, as we will then have to get up in the dark and take the donks out again. If it doesn’t freeze again the mud will soon be almost as bad as it was at “Wipers” – boot-wipers are what we want.
Note: Lieutenant J. R. Byrne, in New Zealand Artillery in the Field, 1914-1918 (Whitcombe and Tombs Limited, 1922, Auckland, p.213), describes German artillery bombardments of NZ Division artillery positions in January 1918 thus:
Hostile shelling was responsible for a number of casualties at gun positions, one unlucky shot on the night of the 9th January penetrating a dug-out in the 3rd Battery and killing all five occupants. Casualties and material damage were also inflicted at the waggon lines by periodic shelling from a long-range high velocity gun, which searched rear areas as far back as Poperinghe. The lines of the 1st and 3rd Brigades and the D.A.C. were concentrated in a confined area, and must have looked a tempting target to the German aerial observers, while the 2nd (Army) Brigade lines were unpleasantly close to the Engineer’s big dump on the railway line at Busseboom. The shelling usually started in the morning and continued on throughout the greater part of the day; a high velocity shell has an unusually disconcerting effect, owing to the frightful suddenness with which it shrieks down out of the sky, and one of these shells could inflict tremendous damage in a crowded horse line. The horses were promptly removed to a flank after the first shell in or near the lines, and were kept out in the open until the shelling had ceased; but casualties to men and horses were frequently suffered before the lines could be cleared.
A batch of us were sent off for foot-bath and to my delight the N.C.O. in charge of us lost his way, so that we got a good warming march, through the establishment was in fact, quite close. En route we tried skating in jackboots on a pond and in spite of the retarding carpet of snow on the ice I came quite a nice cropper on a safe portion of my anatomy. The foot-bath is a fine thing – wash ‘em in hot water with soft-soap, dry, sprinkle feet and socks with camphor powder and the operation is over.
6.30. p.m. A good old snow-storm this afternoon. However, we got a brazier of coal going in the harness shed, the fumes of which kept us in a state of coma until ‘twas time to water and feed the snow-crusted mokes. They were a sight! Some of them had tall white horns between their ears, making them look like degenerate unicorns.
On a fatigue all day shovelling and carting manure. There must be enough manure in France by now to fertilize the Waimarino Plains.
When we got up this morning the ground was hard and black, with thousands of little ice-puddles gleaming all over, but very soon it snowed. And so it has remained all day, a mass of glittering white with blue shadows and every dark thing whether animate or inanimate standing out against it in the sharpest relief. A tender brownish-red sunset, to end the day, was caught and reflected on a million little rumples of snow.
Intensely cold. Old Jove is right overhead and his coy spouse has done a bunk below the horizon, in fact she has dodged right under the bed clothes.
The Civil Servant has had his christening today, going up to the front and getting in the way of a bit of mud from a shell-burst. He has returned full of heroism, and is now being drawn on with sly humour by the old hands to expatiate on his experience.
Image: A battery of 6-inch guns of the Royal Garrison Artillery, covered with camouflage netting in the snow. Near Ypres, 8 January 1918. Imperial War Museum, Q 9804.
Inspected by a Red Hat who took exception to my wearing a comforter outside my overcoat. The snow has melted into most infernal slish or slosh.
Made an amazing hash of things this afternoon; was sent off to drive a waggon with another man’s horses – result – capsized the whole caboodle into a ditch, horses and harness being immersed in mud. The Corporal in charge (killed in action later) a quiet sort of cuss, showed what he was made of; in a trice he had taken a flying leap off the waggon over the ditch, and had me by the shoulders and off the floundering quadruped. He only grinned and didn’t blame me but (wise man) sent for an old driver. Disasters like that kind don’t make me crestfallen a bit; they so tickle me that I have difficulty in concealing my mirth. W. has just received his fourth balaclava and was lucky enough to give it away, though to a man who already had one, but appears to be a collector.