Sunday, 23rd December (1917)

I have just lost 2 f. in a bet with the Villain as to whether a recently-shot animal on the roadside was a mule or a horse.  We took a stroll down the road to settle the point and found a party of Tommies burying the flayed and hideous remains.  They had appropriated most of the rump steak and when we arrived were diving gruesomely into its viscera, lugging out huge chunks of liver – “aay choom we’re t’ ‘ave a Xmas dinner after awl”.  It took the bun.

6.30 p.m. On Picquet.  Fritz has been making things rather merry with bombs, the air through moonlight being too hazy for our guns to pick him up, so he is able to fly low.  The chief inconvenience is having to put our lights out when the whistle blows.

You will notice that I always start each instalment of this commentary as if it were nothing but a private letter to you; that’s done partly to discourage the censorious one, who mayhap says to himself, “who am I to come between a man and his lawful spouse”.*  My hair is, you will be displeased to hear, egregiously long and spring-poetic.

[* Note – These introductions have been edited out in the account presented here.  As Lincoln mentioned in his ‘Forward’ to the typescript, “In its original form, this diary, typed direct from my letters to my first wife, was twice its present length.  In the forty five intervening years I have deleted much personal and trivial matter, hoping that in its present form it may prove of general interest.”]

22nd December (1917)

The white incrustation on the trees and roofs has disappeared.  I must tell you of the disaster which happened this morning, to the Villain.  We walk or trot our steeds around a paddock in the great circus or ring, but he of the demi-monde chose to go off in sullen seclusion and parade up and down to a flank.  When first I remarked him in difficulties he was mounted with the ‘ride’ donk pulling in one direction and the ‘lead’ in the other.  In act 2 he came clean over his ‘ride’s’ head in a somersault, appearing to land on his own head and revolve over on his back.  The sudden released ‘lead’ actually sat down on his haunches, like a puppy, with both forelegs held in a supplicating attitude.  He slowly picked himself up, said nothing, and carefully and painfully remounted.

Fritz has woken up sufficiently to lob a few light shells around the countryside behind our lines.  Do you want to know what a Nissen Hut is?  It is one made of curved sheets of iron arched over a floor, dome-wise, with windows of transparent waterproof at each end; very quickly and easily built, and now much in use all over France.  “Heavies”, large guns generally.  “Dinks”, N.Z. Rifle Brigade.  “Toc Emmas”, French mortars.  “Imshi”, get out, clear out.  “Mafeesh”, finish.

Clear frosty sky, guns busy, and Aphrodite low in the West giving the glad eye to Jove high in the East.  I am still in some sense economically disposed and make and burn some amazing candles out of wax that others allow to waste.  You would laugh at our morning ablutions.  We heat up a tin of water and all wash in it, usually scalding ourselves in the process.  I have trained to clean my teeth with one mouthful of water out of my waterbottle; rush outside, with toothbrush in hand duly charged with paste, and distended cheeks, and allow it to dribble out at just the rate to do the job.  Fritz has just been over and blazed at by a dozen barking Archibalds but we take no notice – the gamblers don’t stop.  The gamesters continue to shuffle cards, jingle coin, rustle notes and utter mysterious shibboleths to me quite unintelligible.

eo-0976 Anti-Aircraft Guns

Photograph of Anti-aircraft guns (Archibalds), from the Canadian War Museum collection.

20th December (1917)

Severe frost, accompanied by fog which has crystallised on everything in a snow-white rime; every twig on the shrubs and hedges looks as if it had been dipped in the hot springs of old N.Z. the legs and ears of our devoted donks are affected likewise and the ice on the shell-holes easily bear one’s weight.  If you leave a little moisture in your mess-tin it soon freezes up.  We go about with glistening pearl-like appendages to our nasal protuberances.  Our fire is merrily consuming purloined wood and what with the exterior warmth and the interior glow induced by some hot rum and sugar we are quite comfortable.  The brawny young Scot has today astounded us with his gastric feats – at lunch he ate (inter alia) a mixture of jam and pickles and roasted cheese – this evening, dissatisfied with the official menu he made a huge hash of buffy and pickles cooked in his mess tin on our brazier, washing it down with over a pint of tea.

Payday again and the 5 franc Xmas Dinner Fund was duly collected at our door – catch ‘em on the hop.

My effort in French (wrote a letter in French today in reply to one from my father) is as you will see deplorable.  Before starting I had all sorts of high sounding idioms floating in my noodle, but when I tried to work ‘em into the composition they refused to go (like some of our mules).

Wednesday (19 December 1917)

Had another green envelope issued, so can for a while be even sillier than usual.  I believe the practice is to censor a proportion of these letters at the base P.O., but of course it doesn’t matter a fig when you are not known to the censor.  Getting used to riding about bare-back and managing two animals at once should tend to make a man a fair horseman; when you get into the saddle you feel as secure as Dad in his armchair.

18th December (1917)

Frost again and hard ground with fairly thick ice on the pools – the mokes* don’t fancy much sucking the (always) dirty water through a sieve of broken ice.  The sun only attains about 20˚ above the horizon, around which it makes a very modest segment of a circle and effects an early retreat.  Tonight is clear starlight with Venus in the West and Jove in the East, both in great splendour.  The guns are growling away in ceaseless ire, spring offensives being replaced by winter offensives, in fact perpetual offensives.  Have just been the grateful recipient of 3 small parcels from the Menteath girls.  Tell E. Her sketch of the Kaiser, chased by (I presume) a New Zealander, is pinned to the roof of our tent.

Didn’t think I should ever need gloves, but am now glad of them especially when riding.  Every day when out exercising the animals we have free entertainments at the expense of some unfortunate who loses control of one or both of his donks.  Intoxicated with its unexpected freedom the weird one tosses its eary head, stamps on and breaks its bridle and then in sudden terror bounds off with a succession of startling rearward and upward lashings-out of heels, to be recovered later on, probably at his place in the line, looking quite innocent and unconcerned.

A short sketch of my companions may amuse you.  W. you know.  Next to him a big brawny lad of hearty, if boisterous disposition.  Then a nondescript individual just returned from Hospital whom the others call Von Kluck, and roundly but good-humouredly accuse of being a professional lead-swinger.  To this he makes very faint opposition and seems to be resigned to his fate.  Then comes a chirpy youth with no specially outstanding features physical or otherwise.  Then there is the low-browed villain – the tend brow-beater and know-all.  A volcanic specimen of young Taranaki comes next – his nicknames are legion.  Last on my right is “The Civil Servant”, rising 40 years, the oldest in the Battery.

* Moke: British term for a donkey, or slang used in Australia and New Zealand for a horse that is old or in poor condition.

Monday, 17th December (1917)

My second “buckshee” parcel was from the Spinster’s Club and contained amongst various goods an amazing size in cholera belts which will come in either as a spare comforter or for cleaning harness.  Church at Y.M.C.A. yesterday – a spirited address from the same little man as before.  They have there the tiniest piano I’ve ever seen (set up on top of a packing case) on which the hymns are strummed.

The fireplace is a great success; we make toast, heat water, dry our things and keep warm.  The noise of the guns is at times not unlike the banging and rolling about of big tanks in the distance.

Tuesday (11 December 1917)

Great doings in our tent this evening.  We collared another tent from an abandoned camp and put it over our own, so we are under two thicknesses of canvas; obtained also a brazier with a chimney, which we now have going in full swing in the doorway, with the prospect of dry boots and socks – tres bon!  Or “trees beans” as some have it.  Had a lovely spill off my donk tonight, landing in the mud which, unpleasant in itself, saved me from so much as a bruise.  These are the humorous interludes and we all roar with laughter at the unfortunate, except when your own turn comes: you scrape most of the mud off with your jack-knife and proceed with the business of the day.