Out first thing this morning to get some mangy-looking horse clipped. Whilst waiting our turn we went in and got coffee from the inhabitants. There were a couple of bright young girls of about 15 or 16 who spoke Flemish, French and English, the last quite well. They had learnt it from the soldiers during the war. They used bad English swears with innocent faces, no knowing the meaning. Madam was cheerfully chopping up leeks, not washed, on a very dirty table. One of the horses I took was a Rocinante, even prior to his shave, but afterwards he was the limit. He has a lop ear, flat clumping feet and is lame in one leg; add to this that you could hang your hat on any of his corners, wallowing along beside me like an unseaworthy ship. The one I rode was a sturdy, determined-looking, half-draught, who just plugged along huge-hoofed and purposeful, loudly grinding his teeth. Found later to my astonishment that “he” was a mare. Got back and had an immense feed of spuds flavoured with a bit of skin someone had put among ‘em to look like meat. Topped off with rum issue and now feel quite comfortable. (There drat me if I haven’t singed my socks again).
My mules continue to act with eccentricity. Yesterday I mended a hole in their stable floor with two loads of bricks, which I packed down nice and firm, and then went away for a few moments with a feeling of satisfaction. The moment my back was turned they fell to, like a pair of dogs at a rabbit burrow, and scuttled out the whole result of my labours in a few seconds. The madder one gets hung up every night with one hind leg on each side of the dividing rope. This is high up, about level with his shoulder, but he takes high-angle pot-shots at his new enemy on the other side and eventually kicks right over and so gets hung up. His old enemy is still in hospital. In my absence today W. intrepidly attempted to put his cover on, with spectacular results.
[Image – Veterinary Surgeon examining a mule at No 4 Base Remount Depot in Boulogne, 15 February 1918, IWM Q 8531]
6 p.m. Whenever there is clear weather, like today, aerial and other activity revives. Up go more balloons. Fritz takes pot shots at them, aeroplanes buzz about, Archies bark, and the guns spark up. Last night I could hear the machine guns rattling and see the big star-shells, or S.O.S. signals flaming in the sky along the line. Dawn broke in a gentle pink deluge directly behind the front itself and it was indeed difficult to believe that this gigantic madness was going on in its midst. You must understand there are no country lanes here – there may have been at one time, but now everything is militarised – metalled roads with ditches of mud on each side and the land between them thick with camps, stables, etc. all dreadfully ugly.
[Image – Two observer officers in the basket of a kite balloon. Note the telephones, map rest, parachute and parachute harness. Photograph taken in Gosnay, 2 May 1918. IWM (Q 12028)]
A clear night with a young moon descending along the path of the sun. I have to pass the night in an empty iron hut and do 4 ½ hours picket in the small hours. The big guns have been barking today. A batch of reinforcements including many who, we thought, had become permanent instructors at Ewshot, so there has been a combing out of the “die-hards” or “Anzacs” as the Villian ironically calls them. Curiously the old faces keep popping up, in all sorts of places and under all sorts of conditions, you keep scratching your head wondering where on earth it was that I came across that chap.
Went up with W. and another chap with waggon and 6 horse (or mule) team with a load of ammunition. Dumped that and returned by a wide detour through another village (bashed) picking up a load of stuff to take back. I was able to take a fresh interest in the city after last night’s lecture. The walls and moat are more attractive when you know that on innumerable occasions the besieged poured molten lead on the heads of the besiegers floundering below. We were able to just distinguish a fragment of a mural painting on one of the ruined walls which the lecturer had mentioned, and so forth. He had remarked on the opulence of its vegetation; how the buildings were all to be seen surrounded by trees and gardens. One can see the blasted and blackened remains of trees and shrubs, half buried in the debris on all sides, and there is something about them sadder even than the broken buildings. A blown-up cemetery isn’t a pretty sight either. As my little mules knee was still stiff I took in his stead a mad mare which is quite unmanageable in stables, but an excellent animal in harness, and the pair went splendidly. I must confess to some particularly asinine familiarities with my little donk this afternoon. His only retaliation was to lavishly lick my hand, being it appears, partial to the machine oil I had been smearing on my metal work. Usage soon reduces for one the essential weirdness of mules, so that now when occasionally I handle a horse I marvel at the insignificance of his ears and the brevity of his head. Mules are, as a rule, fast walkers and easy to sit at the trot. When you want them to go you say “allons donc”.
Went to an interesting lecture at the Y.M.C.A. Hut tonight, on the town of Ypres. An Irish Y.M.C.A. official who mixed in a spice of humour that often brought the house down. He emphasised the fact that we have been fighting in Flanders in the teens of each century, with one exception, from the very early times and always for the same purpose – to prevent the coast getting in the control of a powerful adversary; also the fact that the Belgians aren’t really a nation but a modern attempt to nationalise a number of stray fragments mongrelised by constant wars. Moreover, as in all invaded countries, the better off people have removed themselves.
We now exercise animals before breakfast. Trumpet!
When you want to do anything to a touchy animal which he is likely to resent, you commence by putting what is called a “twitch” on his lip, i.e. a stout stick with a loop of cord or leather on one end, the loop being slipped over his upper lip and twisted up tight by the handle. When his lip is pinched up into a bulb he is practically helpless, losing interest in everything in the world except lip which he eyes askance in pained suspense until released.