Entertained by the spectacle of a burning farmhouse and haystack. The parson discussed the war prospects. He had just seen a friend, lately in Germany (secret service) who told him amongst other things he must not disclose, that the internal conditions there are appalling, that Germany’s present bid for peace is a colossal bluff and that if we only keep optimistic they must crack up before very long.
Got away for a bath this morning and obtained change of underclothes and towel, for which thanks be to Allah. Great hullabaloo over the bacon being boiled to rags this morning; the O.C. blew the cooks up a great; in fact they got into hot water all round – an element they should be fairly used to. As for me, I raked out a lot of scraps with my fourchette and quite enjoyed them. The gun we salvaged yesterday was nothing but a barrel and axle of a 4.5 howitzer yet it is worth £500. That gives an idea of the cost of the implements of war. Each shell of a light field gun costs a couple of pounds. The amount of stuff that can be salvaged is colossal and they’re always at it.
Long and strenuous day. Up at 3.30. with a party of about 18 men up to the front to salvage ammunition and a blown-up gun. We rode in the ghostly moonlight through the well-remembered ruined city (Ypres) which in that dim light and encrusted with frost looked like an old ruin. From the town we then made off towards the lines through three or four miles of country more topsy turvy with shell holes than ever. There isn’t a blade of grass nor any kind of verdure; every tree is dead and blasted and not more than 5 yards spare between shell-holes. This, mind you, prevails over a track of country I don’t know how wide, but several miles deep; as if some misguided giant with a broken shovel had dug up the whole country-side haphazard and kicked over everything standing during the process. There wasn’t much firing but in the air things were very merry. During most of the day the sky was filled with planes and there were plenty of scraps. A hardish day’s work carrying shells over a tract of rough country.
Near where I was working is the remains of a wood, looking not unlike a patch of charred-out bush in the backblocks of N.Z. All water is now frozen 5 or 6 inches thick and would easily support a horse. The wooden roads that are made all over the place are frighteningly slippery and we had to wrap up the feet of one mule in socks, making him look like a cross between a donkey and an elephant. I saw a remarkable instance of the accuracy of Fritz’s shooting in the case of a sector of a road which had been destroyed, the shell holes being planted evenly and accurately, alternating from one side of the road to the other.
Cold weather renders gas shells innocuous, as the liquid chlorine etc. will not vaporise, but when it grows warmer again becomes active and dangerous. Everywhere are traces of bitter fighting – twisted barb-wire, smashed dugouts, trenches, ‘pill-boxes’ etc. and dotted here and there over the devastation a sprinkling of disabled tanks, one of them cocked at an impossible angle gazing disconsolately at the sky.
[Image: Aerial oblique view of Ypres showing the ruins of the city, sourced from Imperial War Museum, Catalogue Number Q 29795]
[Image: German Blockhouses, sourced from Canadian War Museum]
The night is clear cold and luminous, with Jupiter glittering in the East and his amorous consort glowing in the West, as on several former occasions. Today Fritz has been visible at high altitudes having pot shots at our balloons with ‘time’ high explosive, his favourite anti-aircraft weapon. They burst in ragged little puffs of black smoke and are appropriately known as “Woolly Bears.” Tonight soon after dusk he bombed the neighbourhood very heavily and put the wind up us.
The waltzing of the waggy-eared ones at exercise this morning was dithyrambic, but lacked the true Grecian elegance, very few of them having the frost nails in yet. As a result of the cold weather on chronic sore throats two of the boys in our tent have lost their voices, and speak in husky whispers; but they are great sports and almost every evening, but special request, they honour us with a short duet, “Down where the Swannee River Flows” the melody being just discernible through intermittent wheezes. Picket last night was rather a freezer, but we had plenty to occupy the time in collecting the hay-nets as soon as they were emptied (if you don’t, the animals munch up half the string of which the nets are made and spoil them), catching straying donks, and endeavouring to straighten their covers, which they also eat and tear about into fantastic shapes.
[Image: New Zealand artillerymen in action, 1st of January 1918, The Butte, Belgium. Photograph taken by Henry Armytage Sanders. National Library, Ref. 10×8-1806-G]
It hardly seems like New Year’s Day. The cold discourages one from taking off one’s underwear in search of what I for one am beginning to consider the real enemy, and consequently their ranks get replenished even unto distraction [i.e., lice]. Last night had several rude awakenings, the work of a brass and bibulous band which had watched and wassailed up for the coming of the new year, when they burst forth into the most astonishing set of selections. No unit of that band, especially the drummer, intended to be overlooked, but was prepared if necessary, to introduce a sonorous passage of his own to emphasise his standpoint. The leading cornet reached notes of an altitude hitherto unknown and the tout ensemble was such as requires the pen of Christopher North.
I have just heard of the death in action of W. E. Moore, a well-known Auckland Solicitor. He had distinguished himself as a soldier and been decorated for bravery, and he once paid me the compliment of saying he would like to have me in his office.
[Image of William Ernest Moore, sourced from the Auckland Museum online cenotaph]
One of our horses came down so heavily as to break a leg and have to be shot. The difficulty is got over by putting what are called “frost nails” in the animals shoes and ours are being done now. These are small wedge-shaped steel plugs screwed into either side of each shoe. Even my sure-footed pair were performing a kind of mulish mazurks on the way to water.
Talk about lacrymatory gas! We have a supply (purloined railway sleepers) of very green pine-wood and every half hour or so, when the fire is replenished, our eyes, noses, and lungs have to undergo an ordeal that out to render us proof against anything ‘Jerry’ may have in store for us. In spite of its various discomforts, the life we have been leading lately is a lazy and monotonous one. I was quite envying some infantry that I saw drilling today in the snow. At this game one grows very like an animal and one’s chief pleasure is eating. The older hands are most of them very taciturn (except for expletives) and unresponsive to the casual remark. Whereas the songs of the Boer War (Soldiers of the Queen etc) were painfully jingoistic, those of this war ignore the whole business. Here are some:
Tipperary – Coming Hom – and When you Come Home (Maudlin). On the Telephone – Take me Back to Blighty – (light and cheerful) I like that Girl – Down in the Valley – Charlotte the Harlot – (all unprintable) Come to the Army (i.e. Salvation Army) etc. etc. Evidence that when the situation is deadly serious jingoism goes by the board.
We read the peace proposals by the various belligerents with avidity, the very sound of the word peace is electrifying. Sometimes we abandon all hope of it ever coming and lugubriously discuss the dread possibility of being here for the rest of our naturals.
Footnote: In World War II bad taste reached its apotheosis in such absurdities as We are the Men – The Army, the Navy and the Air-Force – etc. an exception being Hitler, I’ve got my eyes on you – to the tune of Colonel Bogey. [Note – this footnote is included in Lincoln’s typescript]
Last night Fritz made things pretty merry with bombing planes, and has been over again today reconnoitring, the clear weather with all buildings etc. standing sharply out of the sunlit snow being probably ideal for aerial photography. Our ‘archibalds’ filled the sky with little artificial clouds and some of the shell cases fell whistling down in unpleasant proximity. The main object of their fire seems to be to keep the enemy at a great altitude and minimise the value of his information. One of our shrapnel shells burst into a lovely smoke-ring which hung about in the sky for about a minute. I have seen the same thing much closer from the mouth of a big cannon.
6.30. p.m. It has grown ‘wonderous cold’ and we are debating whether to sacrifice the length of duckboard, used as a boot-scraper and threshold to our tent, for additional firing. However, a good feed, supplemented by a tin of sausage from the canteen followed by rum issue heated up with a hunk of butterscotch in lieu of sugar, have put a better complexion on matters, and the duckboard motion has been lost for the time being.
The rising and setting of the sun over the snow-covered country is attended with a certain sad, almost tragic beauty.
[Image: Snow covered battlefields near Hooge, Belgium. Photograph taken on 1 January 1918, by Henry Armytage Sanders. National Library of New Zealand, Ref. 1/2-013024-G]
One of my donks is of brownish colour and is quite well mannered, but its mate, a brunette (if that word can be used of a male, though in its propensities this donk is quite distinctly female) is a very flighty beast and so touchy about the head that I can never put on its bridle or nosebag in the usual way, but have to untie one side, first slip the leather round its neck, and then tighten up. At first I thought this was no end of a nuisance, but now do it mechanically. He also dives under the rope and stands on the wrong side of it and every now and then gets scared and, like the Prisoner of Chillon, breaks his chain with one bound. All these bad qualities are balanced by the fact that he can pull like a son of a gun – you never get a donk without some deficiencies.
W’s on the other hand, are large clumsy specimens with clumpy feet and they were sliding about all over the road, with in places was like glass with the effect of traffic over the snow – in fact I saw a Tommy skating on it quite gracefully in his boots. One of our drivers was up with a waggon yesterday and got wounded in the foot; he is now the envy of all. Of a few casualties that have occurred in other batteries in this place, two are men I knew fairly well; both killed.
Boxing Day, but there isn’t much boxing going on, pugilistic or otherwise. A quantity of snow has fallen during the night and there have been showers of snow and sleet (little crisp nubbly chunks of it) today. The ground is two or three inches thick with it and the roofs of all the tents and buildings are covered, the whole panorama of intense whiteness glistening in the winter’s sun. So many batteries are bivouacked hereabouts that our trumpeters have adopted a distinctive prelude of a few notes before each call, so that we won’t respond to the calls of neighbouring batteries. Ours is the tune “Apres la guerre fini.”
7 p.m. The gamblers’ shibboleths are growing more and more monosyllabic and in one game seem to be confined to “sit” “flip” “bust”. Nothing is more extraordinary than the wastefulness of the average young New Zealander; and a contrast to the Tommy – witness the salvage of horse-liver, reported the other day!
Our bombardment has reached such an intensity that it sounds like one continuous roll of thunder. We speculate as to its object; whether it heralds a great attack by us, or only a raid, or whether it is to repel an enemy attack, or is only a “straff”.
[Image: Snowy conditions along the road at New Zealand headquarters, Chateau Segard, near Dickebusch, Belgium, during World War I. Photograph taken 27 December 1917 by Henry Armytage Sanders. National Library of New Zealand, Ref. 10×8-1809-G]
Here it is at last. A curious sort of Yuletide for us. It has been raining and snowing and the ground is horribly sloppy and greasy. Last night was fairly quiet save for a number of revellers who have skinned the canteen out of beer. We had a flash breakfast of fried steak, bacon and mashed spuds and are now getting up an appetite for the great event.
A right royal spread, the festival lasting from 2 to 4 p.m. fed on turkey and ham with several kinds of vegetables, sauces, stuffing etc., followed by hot duff, stewed fruit and custard; plenty of French wine and beer, cigarettes, cigars, nuts, muscatels etc. Various toasts and a few humorous speeches were followed by an impromptu smoke concert. Some of the items were most funny. The Padre sang “Somerset” starting off egregiously out of tune, but the crowning effort was that of a negro visitor from the West Indies, who piped “Darling I am growing old” in a weedy childish treble. After it all we were rushed through with watering and feeding the dismal donks, during which I saw our West Indian guest and a bibulous bombardier careering up and down the slushy paddocks in a bareback Derby. We are now in our tent drinking beer and bellowing choruses. We had the snow after all and the ground was white when we came out from our feasting. I must confess to a very replete feeling about the “bhingy” for some hours after that dinner. The revellers are now all sleeping peacefully; only W. and I sit up writing, with candles balanced in uneasy attitudes, the only sounds being the distant boom of the heavies (busy, alas, even on this night), the muffled choruses of distant wassailers and the hissing of stray snowflakes on our tin chimney. We should feel thankful that we are not in action or up in the trenches and shell holes with the poor old infantry.
Image: New Zealand soldiers at the counter of an army canteen in France during World War One, eating pieces of Christmas cake and drinking coffee distributed free by the New Zealand YMCA on Christmas Day, 1917. Behind the counter, one soldier is handing out what looks to be chocolate (or a cigar) from a box labelled “Fry’s Chocolate cakes”. Photograph by Henry Armytage Sanders. National Library, ref. 10×8-1764-G.
Note: Lieutenant J. R. Byrne, in New Zealand Artillery in the Field, 1914-1918 (Whitcombe and Tombs Limited, 1922, Auckland, p.213), describes Christmas Day for the NZ Artillery thus:
Warning was issued from Divisional Headquarters that all ranks were to be specially prepared for attacks from the enemy on Christmas Day, but nothing of this nature followed, though the infantry sent up an S.O.S. at 2.45 a.m. Batteries at once opened fire, but after fifteen minutes the situation was reported clear, and firing ceased. During the remainder of the day the enemy’s artillery activity was slightly above normal, while the New Zealand batteries contented themselves with firing two concentrations—one at 8 a.m. and another at 5 p.m. Snow fell during the day, just sufficient to lightly cover the ground and give the traditional setting for an Old World Christmas. All did their best to spend the day as suitably as circumstances permitted, and at the waggon lines at any rate the dinners which had been prepared were of a kind and quantity sufficient to tire the appetite of even such trenchermen as sat round the tables that day. The C.R.A. paid brief visits to the waggon lines about mid-day, and spoke a few words to the assembled men.”