Officer in Waiting
4 May - 12 June
The Somme Again
13 June - 24 August
Dompiere & Mont St. Quentin
25 August - 6 September
7 September - 10 November
11 November - 28 Feb 1919
The WWI diary of Percy Smythe was transcribed by his daughter Betty Smythe.
Moves and a Transfer
Saturday, 26. Went to Doullens. Had some trouble with our limber, and dropped behind. Just before we got to the station at Doullens there was an accident behind us, a man being hurt. Some horses were restless, a chap called to me to hold them. Managed to hang on to them and kept them from getting away, but in the meantime our limbers moved forward, and I lost them. Looked all up and down the station for them, but they were nowhere to be seen. Ascertained that our entraining platform was over at the other side of the station. Went over and found B. Co. on loading fatigue. The limbers hadn't turned up, so lay down of a pile of blankets and had a sleep. When they did arrive, I found that Waterhouse had put in a great tale about me clearing out and leaving him to look after the limber. I went crook on him for it, too.
Got in the train, about twenty to a truck this time, which allowed us sufficient space to lie down. Train moved off at about 6a.m., and we slept till about 10. Had lunch.
Passed through Hazebrouck, and detrained at a small village near Poperinghe. Marched around Poperinghe, and saw by the words on notices etc. that we were now in Belgium. Went through several villages to a hut encampment, which is only a few miles from the famous Ypres.
The Canadians are leaving this district, probably for the Somme. They say there are plenty of gas attacks here, and that the enemy's front-line trench is very close to ours.
Packed diary etc. to send home. Sent "Pierre" to Cambridge Literary Agency. Packed badges and buttons in a tobacco tin to send home.
Sunday, 27. Church parade this morning. Got leave and went to Poperinghe this afternoon to get the driving band I brought from Pozieres made up into a serviette ring, but there did not seem to be anybody in the town who could do it. Scored a Welsh badge for a franc.
Got back about tea time. Packed the driving band, with a German flare and a clip of German cartridges, to send to Bert to get the band made up for me.
Mon. 28. We are to leave here for the trenches soon. Got a letter from Mum. Wrote to Bert, also to Mum and Dad.
News has come to hand that Roumania has at last declared war on Austria. Our prospects are brightening, and after all there might be some hope of the war finishing this year. It is also said that Italy has declared war on Germany.
Tuesday, 29. Raining today. Italy's declaration of war on Germany is in today's paper, but there is nothing about Roumania. Wrote to Vern. Mason told me he got a letter from young Graham, who is at Etaples with a wound in his arm. Was very glad to know that he was not killed. Started letter to Jack Elliott, Taree. Have been warned to be ready to leave here tomorrow at 2p.m.
Wednesday, 30. Had a gas alarm during the night, but no gas came this way. It is a wet miserable day. The paper is full of Roumania's entry into the war, and what it means to us. Greece seems to be greatly influenced in our favour now.
Some of our officers went up to the trenches today, and while there Mr. Pestel was shot through the head by a sniper.
We did not go up today. Got a F.S. card from Viv. He was all right on 20th instant. Continued letter to Jack Elliott.
Thursday, 31. Fine today. Handed in blankets and packs this morning. Muster parade for instructions.
Fell in about 6p.m. and marched to railway about a mile away. Went in the train two or three miles, and marched through the ruined streets of Ypres and along the road to the eastward. Turned off a muddy track across the fields, and eventually arrived at some dug-outs in support, a couple of hundred yards behind the firing line, in the salient. Turned in about midnight.
Friday, 1st. Slept all the morning. Left about 6p.m. for the firing line. The communication trench was rather muddy, and had pools of water in it in places. Had to cross a deep railway cutting through the famous Hill 60. It was a dangerous crossing, for Fritz had scored many victims there, and we had to keep low and get across lively. We took over from the Dublin Fusiliers a Lewis gun position in a small dead-end sap. Just to the right of us there was a big culvert over the cutting, and in front of that, on the right of the cutting, was an unoccupied mine crater. The enemy firing line is about forty yards away from us, but in places on the hill it is as close as twenty yards. The famous Hill 60 is only a long low gradual rise, and the Huns at present hold the crest. There is little danger of gas here, on account of it being the point of the salient, but a good deal of mining is carried on by both sides. A German mine is expected to go up at any moment just across the cutting on our right, and we have to keep the Lewis gun trained on the place where the edge of the crater is expected to be, so as to prevent the Germans from occupying the crater when it does go up.
Mine & Shell -Torn Ground at Hill 60
Stand to 8.30 till 9.30p.m. On from 9.30 till 11.30p.m. with Cox. Our gun crew are allowed the privilege of sleeping in the entrance to a mine shaft. It is uncomfortable, but much better than being out in the weather.
Saturday, 2. Stand to till 6a.m. On from 6 till 8a.m. Heard the sudden clack of a bullet, and a little later a man white-faced and scared-looking crept along our trench with another man's brains splashed all over his sleeve and face. Soon learned that the unfortunate victim was serjeant Barron. He was just standing in the trench, but, being a tall man, his head must have shown above the parapet. The German bullet struck him in the forehead and took the top of his head right off. It is thought to be one of those new extra large bullets requiring a special rifle that the Huns are using for sniping purposes. Was very sorry for Barron's death, as he was such a decent sort of a chap.
Slept most of the day. During the afternoon Fritz sent a few "miniwerfas" over to our supports. They are big mortar bombs, which go off with a horrible explosion, though of course not near so bad as a 9.2 inch shell.
Sunday, 3rd. Still fine this morning. Slept most of the day. Raining this evening. Very quiet all day.
Monday, 4th. Wet and miserable. Fenton went away to the school at Etaples today. While examining Fritz's periscope opposite us with a pair of field glasses through our periscope, I could see the observer's face reflected in his mirror, and once or twice could plainly distinguish his eyes and nose.
Heard that the Roumanians have advanced some considerable distance.
Tuesday, 5th. Our trench mortar got up a bit of a strafe during the night, but they say that Fritz sent back far more bombs than our chaps sent over. Serjeant Love was killed, shot through the back while building up the parapet. He threw his life away, for, in spite of repeated warnings, he would stand right up on the parapet, although the Germans were only forty yards away and flares were going up almost continuously.
Some miniwerfa bombs fell very close to our position during the night. Lieutenant Elliott, who went away with venereal, has come back, and was in the firing line today. Captain Harris told us we are to be relieved on Thursday, and are to go to reserve.
Wednesday, 6th. Fine today for a change, but the trenches are still very muddy. Ormiston, who was wounded at Pozières, has returned to the battalion. Got three letters, one from Mum, Mrs. Tanner and Mrs. Morgan. The latter was very cut up over Perce's death, and asked me to give her all the particulars. It was the saddest letter I've ever read. Poor woman, it must have been an awful blow to her. That is the worst part of this terrible war, the sorrow that is caused to the bereaved ones left behind. Mum said Rita is almost well again. One of the Whitbys enlisted to avoid marrying Janey Chapman. Evidently he doesn't know what war is.
Today I rigged up a telescope in the loophole and got it aligned on Fritz's periscope. We could then see him very plain. He was wearing one of those soft caps, and we could see the smoke rising as he puffed at his pipe. Saw him look up once when a shell passed overhead. He was very attentive to his work, and kept looking up and down our lines.
Studied French all day. Heard that the British took Guillemont and Ginchy. The Bulgarians have attacked Roumania near the Black Sea, and are opposed by the Russians. The French took Clery, capturing 1,500 prisoners.
We are to be relieved early in the morning. Fritz sent over a few rifle grenades this afternoon.
Thurs. 7. Were relieved during stand to, and went right back to the railway dugouts, where we are to be in reserve. A fleet of about twenty or more aeroplanes sailed overhead on their way to the German lines. Wrote to Mum and Dad. Heard that Rupe Ferguson was wounded in the hand. If anybody's lucky he is. Wrote F.S. cards to Bert, Vern and Viv. Studied French. Were allotted to dug-outs, which are tunnelled out of the railway embankment, strongly made, and fitted up with wire-netting bunks.
Friday, 8. We got our packs today, but the felt hats had been taken out of them. Got F.S. cards from Viv and Vern. They were both all right on 29th. and 31st. August respectively. Studied French. On guard tonight. It was a very easy guard, and there was nothing much to do.
Saturday, 9. Wrote to Mr. Harward. Studied French. Off guard at 6p.m. Heard that Greece has definitely joined the Allies.
Sunday, 10. Letter from Clytie. Wrote to Mrs. Tanner and Clytie. Also wrote to Mrs. Morgan telling her the particulars of Perce's death, and that his letter case was sent down to the base.
Mon. 11. The Germans claim a great victory over the Roumanians in the Dobrudja. Roumania admits the loss of Turtukai. On aeroplane and gas guard tonight.
Tues. 12. Studied French. We packed up and left here about 9 or 10p.m. Marched through Ypres to the railway. Could not see too much of the town by the night light, but there seem to have been some fine churches and public buildings, which are now, however, in ruins, only the bare walls remaining. Whole blocks of buildings were in places reduced to ruins, only small fragments of walls standing here and there. Ypres seems to have been a fair sized town.
Wednesday, 13. After a long wait we at last entrained for a few miles and then marched a good long distance to a hut encampment where we arrived at daybreak. Turned in and slept till 11a.m. Got a postcard from Clytie. She had got the photo I sent her and said the "Sun" had the four Smythes' photos in it.
After tea got a leave pass and went out in search of the 24th battalion which I had heard was in this vicinity. After being directed from place to place and walking a roundabout way I eventually found them. Viv is now a first lieutenant. Had a good yarn to him about our adventures at Pozières. He had quite an exciting time, and was once given twenty-six men and told to take Mouquet Farm. Fortunately the order was cancelled before they set out. Next day three companies went over to take the farm and were wiped out. Viv reckons there would be a better chance of getting a transfer to the 24th. now. He is writing out a narrative of his experiences since coming to France.
Got back late, but was not marked absent, fortunately.
Thursday, 14. Letter from Cambridge Literary Agency saying that "Pierre" was accepted for negotiation, and that there was 16/- to pay, including 6/9 to have it typed, which they said was advisable.
Friday, 15. We went to the divisional baths today. Asked McDougall about getting out of the Lewis Gun section back into the company.
A chap who has been away at Etaples wounded said that Cpl. Flynn has been booked for Australia. Lucky beggar! Got six letters this afternoon, two from Mum, one from Mrs. Tanner, Vera Billingham, Lorrie Maloney and Bert. Mum says Viola will probably be taking the position of teaching the student teachers, which carries a salary of £40 per year more than teaching the children. They had got the news of the "awful fighting" at Pozières, but did not know where we were. Mr. Harward had been out to see Mum. They had all just received the photos I sent. Mrs. Tanner said Les took part in the Jutland battle, and she had just had a letter from him. Am glad he came through it all right. Vera said my photo was in the porch at the C.T. She is at a place in Neutral Bay now. Bert got my letter from Belgium. The censor had obliterated my remarks about Belgium, but he was just able to distinguish the words. He has finished with the school and was about to return to Perham Downs, but did not yet know the results of his exam. Charlie Bodsworth is in camp over there, also Viola's young cop, Wal Frazer.
Went over to the 24th. battalion tonight and borrowed twenty francs from Viv.
Saturday, 16. Applications were called for to go to a school of instruction for the Royal Flying Corps. Preston, Bowling, McBride, and I put in applications. It would be all right if a fellow were lucky enough to get in. Sent 25 francs to Cambridge Literary Agency.
On semaphore signalling this morning. While there the observation balloon went up near by. It is a queer looking concern with a balancing windbag on one end, and a tail of small parachutes.
Sunday, 17. Mum's birthday. Church parade this morning. Our newly-formed band was present and made it a bit more lively. The band is coming on fine, and will soon be as good as our old band, most of whom are gone from us.
Preston and one of the signallers have been recommended for the Royal Flying Corps, out of the sixty applicants.
The papers record another great victory in Picardy, Flers having been taken. We were issued with the new type of box respirator this morning. They seem to be a mixture of the German helmets and our old box respirators, comprising the best features of both. We had to test them by wearing them for about fifteen minutes in a room full of lachramatory or "weeping" gas.
Started to write a new war romance. This evening several of us went over to see the observation balloon brought down. It was held by a wire cable no thicker than a window-cord, & was secured to a motor lorry, by which it was wound down. Groups of men were waiting ready, and, when it was low enough, took hold of the securing ropes, hooked ballast bags on to it, and led the flimsy monster round to its hangar.
Monday, 18. The victory in Picardy has been great, Courcelette, Martinpuich, and Flers having been taken. Some new British armoured cars were used there for the first time, and proved very successful. They are great steel monsters built on the "caterpillar" principle, and advanced with the infantry to the attack. They can go straight on over trenches, hedges, and all kinds of obstacles, and are able to resist a 4.7 inch shell. The Serbians have also had a great victory over the Bulgarians, advancing well on the way to Monastir.
Mac said that Burrett will not allow any machine gunners to go back to the company, so I'll have to stay in the section.
Tuesday, 19. Got a letter today from Winnie Fishwick, a City Temple girl whom I met at a picnic at National Park. It was very nice of her to write. Continued story. Wrote to Mum and Dad, postcards to Mrs. Tanner, Lorrie Maloney, and Clytie, and a birthday postcard to Vern.
Wednesday, 20. Vern's birthday. He is now twenty-two. Got a F.S. card from him dated 6th. instant today. It was a long time coming.
Some Sydney papers with accounts of the Pozières fighting have come to hand, and some of them are rather amusing. One story says the Australians threw away their rifles and fought with knives, razors, and bombs. Absurd.
Thursday, 21. Paid today, 30francs. No parade this afternoon, on account of battalion sports. They were rather tame, so went and had a sleep.
Went over to see Viv this evening, and paid him the 20 francs I borrowed. They had a piece of amusing doggerel there about "How the Farm took Mookay Bill". It referred to Viv's Mouquet Farm stunt, which did not come off, fortunately. Asked him to put in application to have me transferred to the 24th. battalion. He showed me a clipping from the "Sun" with the photos of the four Smythes in it. Clytie had sent it to him.
Friday, 22. Wrote to Bert. Saw some more Sydney papers with absurd yarns of Pozières. One referred to the street fighting, and said the Australians stormed the houses, etc. They may, perhaps, have stormed the cellars where the houses had been, and, well, I suppose there was really some street fighting, although the streets could not be distinguished from the rest of the place. Saw a Sydney "Sun", August 6th., containing a photo of Mum and three other "fighting men's mothers". Wrote to Vera Billingham.
Saturday, 23. Went to the baths at Poperinghe this afternoon. Ernie Graham came over on horseback today. He had just been along to see Viv. We went and had tea at a Belgian farmhouse near by.
Sunday, 24. Church parade to brigade ground. Mackenzie preached, our padre being on leave in England. General Birdwood and Mr. Fisher were present, and after the service some honours were presented. Millard got the military medal, though what for nobody seems to know. Lieutenant Bulkley would have got the Military Cross if he had not been killed. Major Moore was awarded the D.S.O., but was not present to receive it, being away wounded. What he did to earn it no one knows.
This afternoon Roy Bowling and I got leave passes and went into Poperinghe to have a look round. Got back about 6p.m. We are to leave here for the reserve lines tomorrow night.
Monday, 25. Packed the guns, magazines, etc. Marched off this evening to the entraining station. Callaghan, who has been drinking a lot recently, had not turned up when we left. Trained a few miles and then marched to Woodcote Farm. Callaghan's crew had to go straight on to the firing line.
Tuesday, 26. We waited at the farm for instructions, which did not come for an hour or two. Went to the reserve lines at an old canal, which I think must be the Ypres-Comines canal. We were accommodated in the dug-outs, or rather subterranean passages, with which the canal embankment is honeycombed. It was about 3a.m. when we arrived here.
Slept till breakfast time. Resurrected "Crum Dobbin, Bushranger", and began to alter, transpose, and revise it.
On ration fatigue tonight.
Wednesday, 27. This morning Waterhouse and Mac and I took rations and gumboots to the crew in the firing line. They had a fair position, but the trench was rather shallow. In places one could look over the parapet while merely standing upright, and there were no danger notice-boards. The Hun lines varied from about eighty to one-hundred-and-fifty yards away. On the left there was a big crater and the trench there followed the canal embankment.
Continued revising "Crum Dobbin" most of the day. In the afternoon a number of miniwerfers and other bombs landed on the ridge about half-a-mile or less over to the left, and later on a few wounded men came by on their way to the dressing station.
It has been officially announced that Thiepval and another town, also Combles, have fallen, and 2,000 prisoners taken.
On ration fatigue tonight.
Thursday, 28. A wiring party of the 1st. Battalion was caught by a German machine gun last night. One man was killed and half a dozen wounded. The dead man was left lying in front of our dug-out wrapped in a blanket. Went over and had a look at him. The bullet had struck him near the corner of his eye and cut the side of his head open, chopping the ear off. He was killed by a margin of about half an inch.
On fatigue building up a sandbag wall which was falling away at company headquarters. We had to keep working at it until it was finished, about 8.15p.m. During the afternoon there was a bit of a strafe with mini-werfers etc. on the ridge on the left.
Letter from Mrs. Morgan tonight. She said Bert was reinstated in his old job. One of the Priors was over there somewhere. She made further enquiries about Percy's pay book, etc.
Friday, 29. No fatigue today. Finished revising "Crum Dobbin", and commenced transcription of same. On ration fatigue tonight.
Saturday, 30. Continued transcription all day. There is to be a raid by a party from the 16th. Battalion tonight.
The bombardment for the raid began just as we finished with the ration fatigue. It was mostly just over the ridge on the left, and looked rather pretty. We were all ordered into the dug-outs, but we stayed outside to see the spectacle. No doubt a bombardment at night witnessed from a safe distance makes a fine sight.
Was sent round to see Captain Burrett about the transfer to the 24th. Battalion. He told me to report at eight in the morning with everything packed ready to go to B.H.Q.
Sunday, 1st. The clocks are put back an hour this morning, as per the summer daylight saving scheme, which, on its first trial, has proved very satisfactory.
After breakfast, packed up, got conduct sheet and kit inventory and went to report at Battalion Headquarters. Had a look over the Belgian king's summer residence, which had once been a neat three-storey building surrounded by a moat and standing in garden grounds. The garden was now only grass and weeds with a few flowering shrubs intermingled. The front wall of the building and parts of some of the partitions still remained, but the rest was a mass of broken rubble and stoneware, scraps of plaster and shattered slabs of marble. There had been gas radiators under all the windows, let into the brick walls. A lot of these still remained in position. It must have been a nice comfortable home, but the rooms were all rather small. Among the debris in one of the rooms were the remains of some toys, which had probably belonged to the little princes and princess of Belgium. The rear portion of the building was wrecked entirely. Obtained a piece of glazed tile and a couple of bits of marble for souvenirs.
Reported to B.H.Q., got transfer paper, and was sent to report to the 24th. Battalion, without any instructions as to their whereabouts. Went in to Ypres, and after hunting around a bit, found the 17th. Battalion in barracks, and looked up Roy McPhee, who is now a serjeant. Left my rifle and equipment there and went out to have a look around the town.
The Cloth Hall was the most interesting feature. It was a beautiful pile of ruin and desolation. Great blocks of stone lay in shapeless heaps around the ruined structure, sculptured figures stood in their niches lacking heads or arms; a couple of undamaged minarets still pointed skywards, and a number of others, partly broken, remained unfallen. One wall of the tower stood up like a tall sentry guarding the ruins, and over the porch, which was blocked up with masses of rubble stood a stone figure of Christ, unscathed amid all the destruction. Inside the building, walls, roofs, columns, statues, furniture, and decorations were heaped in a wilderness of broken masonry. Fragments of marble, white and coloured, were scattered here and there. A large figure of the Madonna in white marble lay headless and armless upon a floor of rubble. A number of columns remained upright, but many lay fallen amongst the ruins, split up into the circular sections of which they were composed. Portions of the walls were left intact, but all the windows were gone.
Had a look round all over the wreckage. In one corner a mass of twisted lead and splintered woodwork was all that remained of the pipe organ. Broke off a few pieces of the lead pipes to have made up into souvenirs; also took a small piece of coloured marble.
Strolled round the town and looked over some ruined houses, securing a few interesting curios. Made enquiries as to the whereabouts of the 24th. Battalion, and learned that they are still in the hut encampment near Ouderdom.
Went back to the barracks where the 17th. Battalion were, and had dinner with Roy McPhee, after which I left Ypres and went along the Poperinghe railway as far as Clamertinghe. Arrived at the 24th. Battalion at something after 3 p.m. A football match was in progress, the officers versus the non-coms.
Was allotted to A. Co., which is Viv's company. Had tea in the officers' mess, and dossed in the Q.M.S. store hut, the other huts being all full.
Monday, 2. Anniversary of my arrival at Malta with pneumonia, and entrance into St. John's Hospital. We went to the divisional baths at Poperinghe this morning.
Wrote to the Cambridge Literary Agency notifying them of change of address and of new story, "Castles", which is the new name for "Crum Dobbin, Bushranger". Viv got a letter from Vern. He goes on leave tomorrow, and is going to Londonderry to visit some friends of Rene Hanna's. Wrote to Mrs. Morgan.
Messed at the Q.M.S. hut today, and the tucker was a pleasant change after the ordinary issue rations. In the evening, walked over to Ouderdom and bought a hairbrush, boot brush, brilliantine, boot polish, and a mirror to use for a periscope.
Tuesday, 3. Have been allotted to No.4 platoon, but still tucker at Q.M.S. hut. Bad weather again. Wrote to Bert. Went to cinema this evening. There were some good pictures, but the machine, being new, was a bit bothersome. For the second time I saw Charlie Chaplin filmed. The first time I saw him was at a picture palace in Perth, when we all "pinched off" from the Orsova at Fremantle. Didn't like him then, as it seemed a silly sort of a picture, but this time he was real good, and an irresistible laugh-maker.
Wednesday, 4. We are to leave here for the trenches tomorrow. The sports which were to be held this afternoon had to be postponed on account of the bad weather.
Got a leave pass this afternoon and went to Poperinghe. Managed to get a lift in with a motor transport wagon. Wanted a special kind of writing pad, but, although I tried every shop I could find in the town, I could not get the kind I wanted. Got a similar one at a place near Ouderdom on the way home.
Thursday, 5. Have been selected for the competing squad in the drilling competition. Our going to the trenches has been indefinitely postponed. Finished transcription of "Castles".
Friday, 6. Got Viv to censor "Castles", packed it, and sent to Cambridge Literary Agency. Commenced another one, "A Plebian".
Saturday, 7. Continued "A Plebian". Went to cinema tonight.
Sunday, 8. Church parade in Winnipeg Hall. Continued story. Viv got a letter from Mum, dated Aug. 11th.
Monday, 9. Viv got another letter from Mum. They had read about the Anzacs at Pozières, but had no idea of our whereabouts. Mum apparently thinks the word "Anzac" refers only to those who were at Anzac.
Tuesday, 10. This morning a number of men recommended for promotion had to parade before the C.O. to be put through a test. I was one of them. Only two serjeants were tested this morning. The first made a mess of things generally, but the other did not do so bad. The colonel was very particular about the way the various movements were carried out.
Went to cinema tonight. Shakespeare's "Taming of the Shrew" was the only picture worth seeing, and it could have been decidedly better. By a unique coincidence the Chaplin film was the same one that I saw screened at Perth when we broke leave from the Orsova at Fremantle. Most of the other pictures were Keystones, and were more silly than comical.
Wednesday, 11. Went on a route march this morning. Viv was in charge. At the sports this afternoon our squad failed hopelessly in the drilling competition. There was a strong wind, and the band was playing, so that we could not hear some of the orders. Captain MacAlroy and others declared afterwards that, apart from failing to hear those orders, we drilled better than the other squads.
After tea, walked over to Reninghelst, and, while there, bought some copies of Le Miroir, which contained some fine war photographs.
Thursday, 12. This afternoon we were paraded before the colonel again, and this time the four privates present were tested. I did fair, but my voice was not too strong, and consequently the word of command was faulty.
Got a letter from Vern. Went over to Reninghelst this evening. Started hunting through a bookshop in search of something interesting, and after going through the whole stock of sixpenny novels, at last took the only likely-looking one. It was called "The Beetle", and had a weird cover picture. Started reading it when I got home. It was very weird and fascinating, and I read on and on until the candle wick toppled over and, spluttering a moment in the melted grease, went out. Having no matches at hand, I decided to go to bed. It was then after midnight. The story was even more fascinating than "The Brass Bottle", which, some years ago, happening to come across accidentally, I thereupon sat down and read right through, with but a short break for the evening meal.
Friday, 13. We are to leave tomorrow for Hill 60. I wonder if it will be the same part of the hill as I was in with the 3rd. Battalion previously. Got a letter from Bert. He is quite fed up of England, but doesn't altogether relish the idea of a winter in France. He said he is sending a couple of parcels, but did not mention whether or no he received the driving band, German bullets, and flare which I sent over.
Read "The Beetle" during all spare time today, and finished it tonight. It is a fine story spoilt with a poor ending. Everything turns out satisfactorily but the manner of the conclusion was very dry and dull for a story which rivets the attention right to the end of the penultimate chapter.
Saturday, 14. Was detailed to company bombers today. We are leaving tonight for close supports, A and B companies, C and D going to reserve.
Packed up this afternoon. Parted with an old inanimate friend, the air pillow I brought from Sydney, and which proved very useful on various occasions. It sprung a leak at the battle of Pozieres, probably through perished rubber or something wrong with the valve. Pack room being scarce, I consigned it to the incinerator, but as the flames engulfed it, I felt half sorry to part with the blessed old thing, it had been so useful in its time.
We left about 7p.m., going by train as far as Ypres. Passed through the ruined old city, picturesque and pathetic in its desolation. Took up a position in reserve over to the left of Hill 60, and just in front of Zillebeke. Dug-outs were scarce, and a number of men were left waiting unaccommodated. Being one of them I dumped my equipment, and, after scouting round a bit, discovered a very decent dug-out off an old unused trench. It was just wide enough to take three, so I got a couple of others, Smith and Hartley to come to it. It was nice and dry, and had a floor of duckboards, but the roof was rather low.
Sunday, 15. Wrote to Vern. On ration fatigue tonight. We did not have far to go for the rations. There was a little bit of a bombardment somewhere in the vicinity later on.
Monday, 16. On gas and aeroplane guard today. Wrote to Winnie Fishwick.
Tuesday, 17. Off guard this morning. Wrote to Bert. Continued writing "A Plebian". On ration fatigue tonight. There was a bag of mail, and Lionel Hunter said it contained a couple of parcels for me. Probably they are those which Bert said he was sending.
Wednesday, 18. Got the two parcels from Bert this morning. They contained cake, meat paste, sweets, tinned tongue, Horlick's malted milk tablets, and two pair of socks. It was like a young picnic here today.
Voted "No" on conscription referendum this afternoon.
Wet weather has set in, and it is very sloppy. The trench running back from company headquarters is falling in on account of the soakage. Completed story, and commenced revising same. We had to hand in one blanket today. We are leaving the trenches tomorrow and are going right back somewhere. On ration fatigue tonight.
Thursday, 19. Continued revising story today. The trench is falling to pieces altogether. A few of us were put on fatigue clearing a way through it this afternoon, but did not get very much of the mud shovelled out by tea-time.
After tea, packed up ready for departure. Finished revising "A Plebian". Lay down on the duckboard floor of the dug-out to try and get some sleep while waiting for orders to move out. But the night was cold, and time dragged heavily. Smith began to curse the Tommies up hill and down dale for not turning up earlier to relieve us so that we could get away. At somewhere approaching midnight I got out of the dug-out to go over and see the serjeants to find out if there was anything doing. On the way a rat hopped impertinently across my way, and, making a kick at it, my foot caught in a telephone wire, and I thereupon embraced the earth rather hurriedly. Near the serjeants' quarters, having to get across the trench to the lower side before getting down on to the duck-board, I gathered up the bunch of telephone wires, walked under them, and jumped. Must have missed one wire, however for the next instant I was sprawling in the mud. The sentry on duty near by had the hide to challenge me, but I would not give him the satisfaction of telling him who I was. Argued with him more or less sarcastically until I observed that he was a Tommie, and then I learned that they had relieved us over an hour previous. As the dug-out we lived in was in an out-of-the-way place in an unused trench, it had been overlooked and forgotten, and the four of us were left behind. Besides Smith, Hartley, and I, there was another Smith who had been waiting in our dug-out.
Friday, 20. Went to the Tommie officer at company headquarters and got him to send a message to our brigade headquarters asking where we were to go, for we knew the battalion were going right back out of Belgium, and had no idea of their destination. At something after 1 a.m. the answer came back telling us to catch the train at the place where we detrained near Ypres at 3a.m. The other three would not believe that the battalion had been relieved and we were left behind, but thought I was trying to have a loan of them, until I began to fix up about going. Humped our packs and stepped it out, through Zillebeke, which is a heap of pitiful ruins, to Ypres. Fortunately it was a moonlit night and the clouds had disappeared, for the road was very muddy and pitted with shell holes, which were full of water. Passing through the outraged city of Ypres, we arrived at the entraining place just before 3a.m. There was a train there, but not ours, which had gone forty minutes before the scheduled time. So we got in the 21st. battalion train, which left at 3.30p.m. It was a very cold ride, wet with perspiration as we were. We detrained at Godeswaernevelt, in France, at about 5a.m., just as it was breaking daylight, and marched away in the cool frosty air. We were still going when the sun appeared in a perfectly cloudless sky. Arrived at the 21st. battalion's billets at last, and then we four had to scout round for our own battalion's billets. Found them a couple of miles away, just out of Steenvoorde, arriving there about 9a.m.
Had a short sleep on the straw in a loft. Spruced up and went down the village, which is not a bad little place at all. The Mt. de Catts could be seen some distance beyond the village. Got a shave and haircut by a woman barber for the cheap sum of 4d. Got this month's Royal and a writing block.
Commenced transcription of story, changing the name to "A Plebian Friend".
There is a good deal of speculation as to our ultimate destination, and rumour has connected our movements with every conceivable place that has anything to do with the war. It appears we are bound for St. Omer for a start, and I think it is practically certain that we are going to Picardy again, worse luck. We will have an additional enemy this time, in the cold, which is beginning to get rather severe.
Saturday, 21. Spent a cold wakeful night, although I turned in fully dressed and wearing three pairs of sox. Had only one blanket, having been absent when the blankets were issued yesterday. There was a heavy frost this morning, with ice on the water lying about.
Fell in about ten o'clock and were marched away for a brigade parade. Formed up in an enclosure, and the officers all went away leaving us in charge of the non-coms. Three civilians were there to address us; they were Mr. Cobden, agent-general for New South Wales, Mr. Young, ditto for South Australia, and Mr. Beale, of the Beale piano firm, Sydney. Mr. Cobden was the first to speak, and he began by saying how Australia was proud of us, etc., and read a laudatory dispatch from General Joffre about the Australians. He could not have done worse, for the soldiers don't like kid. Then he came round on to the subject of the conscription and of course the boys would not hear of it. He was continually interjected with cries of, "We don't want conscripts!" "No shirkers here!" "Give us volunteers!" etc. He wanted a message to send home to Australia to influence the voting on the conscription referendum, but he could get no support from the boys. Mr. Young spoke next. He was a much better speaker, and was listened to much more readily. After him came Mr. Beale, who was quite a good speaker, having done a good deal of electioneering work in New South Wales. It was quite a pleasure to listen to him, but he did not try to influence our opinions on the question of conscription. He told us his sister had nine sons at the war, which he thought was about the record. A tenth son had been killed under a gun-carriage during militia manoeuvres in peace time, and she had only one son left.
Continued transcription this afternoon. We are leaving here early tomorrow morning, and have three days in which to reach St. Omer.
Sunday, 22. Another heavy frost and ice this morning. Packed up. We have to carry one blanket folded square on the back of the pack, which is a rotten way of carrying it, making it much heavier than when carried horseshoe fashion.
Marched off about 8.30a.m., passing through Mt. Cassel, which is a fair-sized town, with tram service, and arriving at billets in the little village of Noordpeene late in the afternoon, having had dinner on the way.
Several of us strolled up the village, intending to have a look through the church, which seemed a fine one from outside, but there was some service on. Mr. Beale and the two agents-general arrived in the village by motor car, and the former came over to us and made himself sociable. He told us that he had three sons at the front here, and he was staying in France for the present so that he could see them occasionally.
Got rid of some of my extra weight in the form of a few souvenirs, pieces of marble from the Belgian King's summer residence and the Ypres cathedral, and several pieces of lead and zinc from the pipe organ of the cathedral at Ypres, besides a heavy nose-cap. Packed them up and stowed them in Viv's black kit bag, which is carried on the transport.
Monday, 23. Left Noordpeene about 8.30 or 9a.m., and arrived at a small village about 4p.m., after a long and trying march. On the way we came over a high hill, on the top of which were the remains of an old tower, possibly a church tower. The hilltop afforded a fine view of the plain below, with its streams, woods, and villages, and a manufacturing town spread out at the bottom of the hill. Descending the hill we passed through this town, which was no mean place. However, it was not our fortune to be billeted there. We were all more or less knocked up by the time we reached our destination. Went up the village in the hope of being able to buy some butter or jam, as we were short of rations, but as usual there was nothing to be had but tinned fish, tinned fruit at exorbitant prices, and sweets.
Tuesday, 24. Sjt. Henry told me this morning that Captain McAlroy had said I was to put up a bar. H'm. A non-com. again, eh! This is the fifth time, and I wonder if it will prove any luckier than on the previous occasions.
Strolled up the village, and inspected the church, the middle portion of which had been destroyed in the 1870 war, and had been built up since with red bricks, which formed a queer contrast to the light stone-coloured bricks of which the tower and the rear portion were constructed. The old portions were well bespattered with bullet marks, and on the tower was a tablet bearing the names of the citizens who fell in the war of 1870.
We are to leave here about midnight tonight and go to St. Omer, where we entrain.
Saw Viv this afternoon and borrowed five francs from him He hinted that I am well up on the list of recommendations for commissions, which, if anything comes of it, will be très bon. But, in view of my usual absence of luck, such a thing seems almost impossible. Its high time, however, that my luck in that direction took a bit of a change.
Packed up after tea tonight. Could not sleep, so strolled about up the village and back, and jabbered pigeon-french to a couple of froggies who looked in at our billets.
Wednesday, 25. Left about midnight and marched to St. Omer, where we entrained in those beastly old horse-boxes, about twenty-eight men to a truck. We hung our equipments and rifles up on rails and rings in the truck, and, in spite of the crowdedness, I slept pretty well, except that on two occasions an equipment fell on me, and once a falling rifle disturbed my slumber, barking my nose and lip and causing quite a quantity of precious blood to be unnecessarily wasted.
Breakfasted on biscuits and jam at about 10a.m. Passed through Etaples where there are some big encampments and hospitals. We thought that we were training it as far as Amiens, but at 2p.m. or thereabouts, we were surprised to get the order to detrain. We had not been warned previously, and there was a general bustle getting things packed and putting equipment together, and by the time our truck was empty the battalion was formed up ready to move off.
We had a long tiresome march, through L'Etoile, over the river Somme and along the road to Domart and Fienvillers (where the 3rd. battalion detrained on our first visit to Picardy). Turned off to the left, and, passing through Vauchelles-les-Domart, arrived at Brucamps, where we were billeted, No.4 platoon's billets being up at the top of a steep hill. Our evening meal consisted of tea and biscuits and jam.
Went to see if I could buy some bread and butter from madame the owner of our billets. She could not talk any English, but after a while I made out that she was inviting me to come in and have some supper. She made me some coffee and supplied bread and butter, which was very acceptable. She told me that her husband was dead, and her two boys had gone to the war. They had been both at Verdun and the Somme. An old chap came in later on, and she told me he was her father. Poor old beggar, he had been working all day, while his grandsons were away defending la patrie.
My hostess was very hospitable, and, to my surprise, offered me a bed to sleep in for the night. It was a big double bed, and had been used by her "garçons" before their departure to the war. Being tired, I turned in early.
Thursday, 26. Spent a nice comfortable night of it. It was a bit of a change from sleeping on hard floors in draughty sheds with an insufficiency of covering. Slept in till about 9a.m. Fortunately there was no early parade. Madame very kindly provided breakfast of bread and butter and coffee. The coffee these country folk have is the dinkum stuff, unmixed with chicory or anything else. They keep a small hand mill and a supply of the beans, which thy grind as required.
Afterwards we fell in and were organised into sections, men being told off for bombers, bayoneters, wire cutters, carriers, etc. As our section is short of men I have to act as bomb carrier. Mr. Pittard said we are going into the line somewhere on the right of Flers. Captain McAlroy gave us an address on what we have to do and how we have to do it, saying that if we fail to achieve the task allotted to us, we shall be sent at it a second time, and until we do succeed in doing it, unless we get wiped out. He described our method of attack, in several successive waves of infantry, but did not mention if we are to act in conjunction with "tanks". We are to leave here tomorrow for Albert in motor transport wagons, and will probably be sent straight into action, without being allowed any time for organization or practice. If we achieve our objective at the first attempt, it is very probable that we will not have to go in a second time, but will be taken right away back somewhere, possibly to the south of France, there to spend the cold winter months.
Wrote to Bert, and also to Mum and Dad this afternoon.
Well, we shall soon be in the thick of the fighting again, and I wonder what the result will be? I think the cold will play up with us a treat this time, and it is probable that there will be a number of casualties from that alone. However, one can only go at it cheerfully, and trust in God to get through it safely. And if it is His will that we have to go under, well, God's will be done.
Friday, 27th. Drizzling wet morning. Packed up and left about 8a.m., marching a few miles on to the main road. Had to wait there for an hour or two in the cold and wet, but at last our motor transport came along, and we got aboard, about thirty men to a bus. It was a much more congenial mode of travelling than marching. We passed through the town of Flixecourt and several villages along the Amiens road on the north side of the Somme river. Went through the outskirts of Amiens, the city itself being on the southern side of the river, and got on to the straight main road to Albert. At various places along the way German prisoners were engaged in keeping the road in repair. They were not working very hard, and appeared quite content to be prisoners.
Turned off the main Albert road down to the right to a village called Ribemont, where we disembussed, and marched to Buire-sur-l'Ancre, going into billets there. After tea, borrowed a French paper from the people of the farm where we are billeted. The French have advanced three kilometres at Verdun, taking the forts of Thiaumont and Donaumont, and capturing the commander of the former. The Roumanians are retreating in the Dobrudja, and have evacuated Constanza.
Sat. 28. Wrote to Vera Billingham and Mrs. Tanner. Spent this evening with the French people. The mistress of the place had learnt a little English at school.
Sun. 29. Church parade this morning. Roy McPhee and Viv dropped in this evening. Roy is to go to England to the O.T.C. to qualify for a commission. That will mean a few months in Blighty, lucky beggar.
Mon. 30. Spent the morning's parade practising the assault in a number of waves. This afternoon Viv got leave for both of us, and a couple of horses, to go to Mametz to see Vern. We left about 2.30p.m. It was raining fairly heavily, and we soon got rather wet. Were informed at Albert that the 56th. were at Mametz wood. It was a long wet ride through mud and slush in the heavy rain, and the traffic on the roads was very congested, on account of the 1st. division's transports moving up, in addition to the usual traffic. Met Jim Dawson in an ambulance motor wagon. He was one of our old Gladesville Fellowship members, and enlisted soon after Viv and I.
As we neared Mametz the way became treacherous with shell holes full of water. Went on beyond Mametz. A number of shells began to fall on the ridge opposite, on the left, about a couple of thousand yards away. Made enquiries as to the whereabouts of the 56th., but nobody seemed to know, as they were all 1st. division, and had only just come up. After hunting about a while we decided to go back, as it was beginning to get dark, and it was bad enough in daylight picking a way through the traffic, mud, water, and shell holes. That was about 5p.m. Very soon it was dark, and the roads were more congested than ever. Once, being held up by a block, we left the road to get around the chaos of horses, carts, limbers, motors, bikes and motor transports, and got into some old barbed wire entanglements, in which Viv's horse got caught. But we got through and back on to the road. The traffic had all come to a standstill by this time, but we managed to get along somehow, squeezing in between the various vehicles. Once, in a narrow passage the wheels of limbers on either side pressed my knees tightly against the horse's sides. It seemed marvellous that there were not a number of accidents. Farther on the roads became more clear, and progress more rapid and comfortable. Passed through Albert about 7p.m. All there was dark and sombre, but, some distance over to the left, a whole hillside scintillated with twinkling lights, like the hills rising up from the waters of Sydney harbour. It must have been some encampment, and appeared like a big town.
Passed through Dernancourt, and arrived at Buire about 7.30p.m. rather wet and tired, and having failed to gain our objective. Had tea with Viv at the officers' billet. Afterwards went in to the French peoples' place and spent the rest of the evening there. Our fellows were rather lively, having been drinking too much French beer, and in the end three of them got fighting. It was near midnight before we could settle down to sleep.
Tues. 31. Practiced wave assault today. Col. Watson told us today that a railway is to be built from Fricourt to the line, and the 24th. B'n have been selected for the job, instead of going into the line. It is announced that the Christmas mail for Australia closes in the first week of November. Bought a few postcards to send as Christmas cards. Spent the evening at the French peoples' place.
Wednesday, 1st. We were on fatigue this morning, A company, road making from 8a.m. till 12.30p.m. There were a lot of German prisoners working (?) near us. Some of them seemed jolly enough, and responded to our salutations with "Good morning Fritz", which they had probably learnt parrot fashion by hearing it so often. They had bully beef and bread for dinner, and appeared to relish it.
Bought some more postcards tonight, and a handkerchief tidy to send to Mum. Spent the remainder of the evening with the French people, playing dominoes. May be leaving here tomorrow.
Thurs. 2. Leaving orders came this morning. Packed up. Left the tidy I bought for Mum with the French people, and asked Duncan Campbell, who is staying behind, to send it for me. We marched off about 9a.m. Took both my overcoats, wearing one and carrying the other in the pack, not wishing to lose the Hun coat. We had scarcely left our billets when it came on to rain heavily, and we had a weary and uncomfortable tramp through muck and slush. Entrained somewhere near Fricourt. Most of the trucks were open, and on one of these I got. After the usual delay we got a move on, detrained near the end of the line of railway, and marched through slush to a bivouacking ground pitted with shell holes, large and small.
Have been put in charge of No.13 section in place of Sjt. Wilson, who has been sent to Amiens on some piquet job.
By the time we got to our camping grounds the rain had gone and the sun shone intermittently through the clouds. One after another our balloons went up, until the sky was dotted with them. The aeroplanes also got busy, and soon a Taube came over, but two of ours took after him, and he had to get, lively. There was an interesting chase for a while, but the Taube flew into a cloud and dodged our machines.
Viv learned that the 56th. were camped not far away, and we went over and found them in a tent encampment. Vern was there, all O.K., though well bespattered with mud. First time I've seen him since leaving Tel-el-Kebir eight months ago. He gave us a description of the Armentieres stunt. It appears it was all a diversion to draw attention away from the Somme, and was widely advertised for the benefit of German spies by bringing up big howitzers etc. through Sailly and Fleurbaix in broad daylight. There were two divisions to go over, our 5th. and a Tommy division. Half an hour before the zero time the Tommy divisional commander refused to take his division into the stunt, so our fifth division went over alone, Vern's brigade in the centre, and his battalion in reserve. They got three lines of trenches, but the brigade on their right failed completely and were cut up, and that on their left, being composed mostly of new men, began to fall back when they were a little pressed. That left them exposed on both flanks, and they were gradually forced back. The flooding incident occurred when they had retired to the German front line, and was only of minor importance. Hun prisoners told them that there were strong German forces held in reserve for a counter attack, so that in any case they would probably have had to retire.
We got back about dark. After tea Arthur Henry and I turned in together to get the maximum of warmth from our blankets.
Fri. 3. We slept very comfortable and warm during the night. The guns were booming occasionally all night, and a few shells landed near our bivouac. Some mice found their way into our bed, where doubtless they found it much warmer than out in the atmosphere. In the morning there was a thick fog and our bed was covered with a heavy dew. We put in the day building huts of sandbags and canvas covers for roofs. Gordon and Weales and I went over to Delville Wood for sandbags, which, however, we were unable to obtain. This is the famous "Devil's Wood" which some time back was so desperately disputed before it eventually fell to the Allies. It is a scene of desolation, but does not present the same completely devastated spectacle as Pozieres, not having, I suppose, been subjected to such an awful bombardment as that indescribable Hell we suffered there. The trees were all devoid of leaves, but in many cases even the smaller twigs remained. A few decayed bodies lay here and there, where the unfortunate victims were left unburied.
Got the huts finished about teatime. It is much warmer in them than camping out in the open.
Sat. 4. Reveille at 6a.m., and we were warned to get ready to go to the firing line. Had breakfast at 6.30 and packed up, dumped packs and blankets, were issued with bombs and extra ammunition, and told off into fighting sections. Was put second in charge of No.16 section, under Cpl. Snaddon. We waited about all the morning, had dinner, and then marched off, passing to the left of Delville wood. Crossed a road where some big 9.2 inch howitzers were hurling their messengers of death and destruction into the German lines, and went on towards the ridge beyond, threading our way between ruined trenches and shell craters of all sizes. Stopped short of the ridge and lay there for some time awaiting orders. A few shells fell on the ridge over to our left, and one or two wounded were taken back. No orders came as to our movements, and eventually we had to go back to our encampment. Had tea, and left again immediately after, going over to the top of the ridge, where we sat down and waited. It seemed a bit of a mix up, for nobody knew where we were bound for, or what we were going to do. It looked as if we were to stay on the ridge all night, which was by no means a pleasant prospect, as a cold biting wind was blowing and the ground was very wet. Dick Weales, Sam Gordon, and I dug a bit of a wind shelter in the side of a shallow hole and lay down on our waterproof sheets. Had just dozed off when it came on to rain, and we had to get up and sit on our equipments, with waterproof sheets over our heads and shoulders. Heard that there was to be a bombardment and a hop over at 12.30a.m. Waited about in the rain and the cold wind, sometimes sitting down, sometimes walking about between the holes to try and get some warmth into our feet.
Sun. 5. True to rumour, the promised bombardment suddenly opened up at 12.30a.m. We were just about in the big gun lines, and it was all right to listen to, the almost continuous rumble and roar, unmarred by the harsh grating sound of shells exploding and the danger of being blown up. Lightning flashed forth in vivid spurts of yellow fire on all sides, weirdly illuminating the wet landscape. The front line was indicated by the continuous stream of moving lights, the numberless white illumination flares, varied by the red signal lights and the orange star-showers.
The stunt lasted for about half an hour, and then gradually subsided. Seeing a fire burning at a gun pit some distance away I went over, carefully circumnavigating the morasses and mud-bogs, and arrived at a dugout where an artillery man was keeping a fire going in a tin. He was very sociable, and I stayed there for about an hour. He told me there was to be another stunt at 9a.m. tomorrow.
Got my feet wet in the slush going back, and then could not find the place where my things were. Stood and walked about for awhile to try and keep warm, but eventually, being tired, I squatted down in a hole with waterproof over my head to keep out the wind, and went to sleep.
We were all roused out at about 5a.m., fallen in and promptly marched off without breakfast, taking only rifles and bandoliers with us. Went by a roundabout route to a ruined village in a wood. Learned later that it was the village of Flers. We were all just about dog-tired, and then we had to carry two boxes of bombs each to a divisional dump about a mile away. Fritz put a few odd shells over close to us, but they did no damage. Struggled back to Flers again completely knocked up for want of food and sleep. Got a few dirty pieces of biscuit in a tin near a gun pit, and ate them. Ferguson picked up a turnip, and gave me a bit of it, and it was very acceptable. A very heavy wind was blowing against us, making it much harder to walk. The bombardment that the artilleryman told me of last night opened up promptly at 9, just as we arrived back at Flers, and later Fritz put a few shells into the village and along the valley leading back from it.
A while later we left and went back to our bivouacking ground, where we got a good issue of rations, except bread, which was very short.
Built up a bit of a wind shelter with earth and had just settled down for a sleep when we were turned out and had to fall in. Moved off towards the firing line in sections at fifty yards distance. Had not gone very far when Sam Gordon, and later Wally Smyth, fell out, declaring themselves unable to go on. Passed by Flers and arrived at a roadside, where we rested for a time. Moving on, we got a box of bombs each at the divisional dump and went for the best part of a mile along a communication trench, which was in fairly good order. Left the trench and got into the open again, just about dark, and then Fritz started a bombardment, which was answered with interest by our artillery. The showers of moving lights of different colours looked very pretty, and, with the éclat of exploding shells and the roaring of the big guns, formed a really grand celebration of this Guy Fawkes' Day.
A few shells began to fall in our vicinity, and the company got into the communication trench. Reckoned it was just as safe to stay in the open, so lay down in a bit of a hole. Dozed off to sleep a few times, but was generally awakened by a shell bursting somewhere near by.
Got into the trench later on, and learned that we were staying there for the night. Cut a bit of a seat in the trench side to sit in and try and get some sleep. But it was a rather awkward position, so I lay down on the waterproof on the trench floor and slept soundly.
Was aroused by someone calling for No.4 platoon to go stretcher-bearing. Non-coms, however, were not required, so I got back into the trench and obtained a little intermittent sleep sitting in a cramped position. Could not lie down in the trench as it was now raining lightly.
Mon. 6. A fatigue party was wanted from No.4 platoon, but it was a job to get the men, many of them keeping low and deliberately shirking. Could not go, as they would not take nom-coms.
Daylight came at last, and we were by no means sorry that the night was past. A rum issue was served out, and we breakfasted on biscuits and jam. Later on rations were issued, and we were able to have a decent meal.
During the night one of our stretcher-bearers was killed and several wounded by a shell, which also accounted for some 32nd. battalion men. An arm and part of the body of one of the latter was lying just outside of the trench near us, having been thrown about fifty yards. Tattered bits of equipment and uniform were still twisted about the gruesome object.
The weather fined up this morning. Fritz put a few shells over, doing no damage. Some of them were ordinary shrapnel, which he rarely uses now. Turned in on the trench floor and slept for about an hour, when I was awakened to find it raining.
There was a little intermittent shelling during the afternoon. Once nine shells came over in half an hour, and seven of them failed to explode, probably on account of the softness of the ground. Another effect of the weather is to reduce the effective radius of a bursting shell, which sinks deep in the soft earth before exploding, and the pieces consequently fly up at a much higher angle. Later on a few shells began to fall close to the trench just behind us, and Viv, Captain Mac, Mr. Pittard, Weales and others, who were there, came along to our part of the trench. It was just as well that they shifted, for soon afterwards a shell landed fair in the trench where they had been. Viv said he was building a dugout this morning, but a number of shells fell so close to it that he had to abandon the job. Heard a rumour that we might go out tonight. Fritz favoured us with a few gratis samples of his new quick shell of the "whizzbang" type, but larger. The "whizz" before the "bang" is so short and sharp as to make the whole thing sound almost like a double explosion.
Had tea of bread and jam, and then we got orders to prepare to move. Got our equipment together and had to dump our bombs. The Huns sent over a few parting shells as we moved out in the moonlight. It was very muddy, and walking was a tiresome job. Picked our way wearily between the multitudinous shell-holes and over ruined trenches and entanglements. Many fell out on the way, utterly beaten. At last we got to a tram-line, which we followed down to the road. It was very sloppy, but was firm underneath. Went through Delville Wood, and arrived at last at our camp, absolutely dead-beat. We were supplied with tea, also bully beef and biscuits. Turned in and slept soundly.
Tues. 7. Raining again. Our packs were re-issued today. Wet uncomfortable night with rain leaking through the roof.
Wed. 8. Applications were called for this morning for the Australian Flying Corps. I put in for it. On railway fatigue today, from 9.15a.m. till 4p.m., taking lunch with us. We had the job of levelling off a track for a railway line, filling up shell holes, cutting down the bumps and building up the low places. The Hun `planes have been getting very daring lately. A few shells came over our way, mostly over towards Delville Wood. There was a number of big 9.2 inch howitzers just in rear of where we were working, and each time they flung their massive "iron rations" over to the German lines we could see the projectile whirling away and growing smaller and smaller till it passed the culminating point and vanished from sight. These shells are so heavy that two men are required to lift one of them, so what enormous power must be concentrated in that small charge - power sufficient to throw one of those heavy missiles a distance of half a dozen miles and more.
Our camp was shelled during the day while we were away, and some new reinforcements to the 23rd battalion, just arrived, fell in for it, one of them being killed. It was rather rotten luck, being knocked on the day of his arrival, without seeing even a day's fighting.
After tea, went on a vermin-exterminating expedition. They have become very troublesome since we came here and have been unable to obtain a bath or a change of underclothing.
Heard with regret tonight that Colonel Price was recently killed in action. He was a game man, and a competent commander in the line, though he was a hard man out of it.
Orders have been issued for blankets and packs to be dumped tomorrow morning, and it looks as if we are going to make a shift somewhere, probably to the line.
Thurs. 9. Kept awake a good deal by those pestiferous little beasts during the night. Dumped packs and blankets this morning. On the railway job all day, 8.45am till 4p.m. Various rumours have been prevalent as to where we are going, and when. It is also said that the Roumanians have advanced in Dobrudja, driving the enemy back almost right out of Roumania. There are persistent, and no less absurd, stories about a great peace conference between the nations at war, only France objecting to the terms of peace.
We are in an unhappy way tonight, out of candles, pestered with vermin, cold, and uncomfortable. Have no blankets to wrap up in tonight. It is one of those bright moonlight evenings when one can enjoy a nice walk, but -- the roads are mere lakes of thick slush, and the fields are nothing but mud and shell-holes. Walking, under the circumstances, would be hard work, and decidedly unpleasant.
Later on somebody got hold of a small piece of candle, and we exterminated as many vermin as possible while it lasted. Went to bed early. Weales and Cooley made a fire in a tin, but they only succeeded in making more smoke than heat. Stood it awhile and then got up and went to Corporal Laidlaw's hut for some time.
Fri. 10. Warned for orderly corporal this morning, and had to take the sick parade. Did not have to go out on the fatigue job. Corporal Snaddon went to hospital this morning with malaria. Two Hun `planes were brought down during the day, one by one of our scout planes, and the other by the fire from our anti-aircraft guns, having got one wing blown off.
S.M. Morcom assured us this morning that we were to go back to Buire tonight, but still no shift is being made. Smoked out again by fire in tin tonight.
Sat. 11. The non-coms were paraded before the adjutant this morning and lectured on their lack of system and management on this railway job. Worked on it again today.
Got talking to Bob Laidlaw and discovered that he had lived at Corowa for the last six years before enlisting and knew pretty well everybody there. Got all the Corowa news from him. Was very sorry to learn that Bert Ritchie died recently of some longstanding complaint, and also that Florrie Thorpe died in childbirth. Her affair with Reg Gibbons ended in smoke and she married Arthur Marti, who was an old pal of hers. Kate Dunn is married, good luck to her. Miss Burke, Tessy O'Leary, Mary Luxton, and dear little May Curtain are still at Ritchies'. Bob knew them all, especially Mary and May, and he says the latter is just as little as ever. Mary Luxton's boy has been killed at the war. Jack Maher joined the Artillery, but had not left Australia when Bob last heard from Corowa. Sorry to hear that Alec Cameron was killed at Pozières. Both Jack and Jim Wilson are in some battalion of the 1st. division. Reg Gibbons is an artillery officer, but recently went to England with appendicitis. The young girls I knew at the Pres. Sunday School are now all young women, and it was like a leaf from the past to hear news of them. The town is now lit with electricity, and has grown a lot, especially up towards the showground. Some big woollen mills have recently been opened up just behind Ritchies'. Mrs. Taylor, nee Jean Gulliver, has several children. Bert Ritchie left two children. Mary McMahon went to the bad altogether, becoming a drunkard and no good. Monty Parkin got herself into trouble, and left Corowa.
Sun. 12. Passed a restless night with vermin and cold. Mitchell was sent to hospital this morning. Was sent back from the railway job this morning in order to be medically examined in connection with the Flying Corps application, but as I had already been examined, it was not necessary to repeat the performance. Remained at the camp for the rest of the day. Built a fireplace in the side of the hut to accommodate the fire-tin, and the result was we were no longer troubled with smoke.
There was a big bombardment all around during the afternoon, and several smaller ones later in the evening.
Mon. 13. There were bombardments off and on all night, one very heavy. Worked on the railway today. The line is now through where we have been levelling off for a station, which is to be known as Longueval station, after the ruined village in the vicinity.
Got talking to Goldsmith tonight, and discovered that he is from Wunnamurra, and knew most of the Jerilderie people.
Tues. 14. We were turned out early this morning by moonlight to go away on some fatigue job. Had early breakfast, and then the job was postponed. D company went away stretcher-bearing, and we were told off to relieve them at 1 p.m. Had an inspection parade at 9.30 to replace deficiencies. The camp was shelled during the morning and we had to get out. One hut was wrecked and one damaged, but nobody was hurt. Had early dinner and fell in at twelve. Moved off across the valley beyond Delville Wood, and by a new wide duckboard track over the ridge and to the left of Flers. A strafe opened up ahead, and a number of shells were falling in the wide valley before us. The Huns had a number of observation balloons up, which made it worse for parties crossing the open valley.
Turned off to the left, to some old disused trenches, near where was a wrecked "tank", one of those Hun-dreaded monsters which are the latest development of modern warfare. This one did not look such a very terrible thing, and was much smaller than I had expected them to be. It was heavily armoured, and had machine-gun emplacements protruding from each side and in front, and had a steering wheel in rear. Side-on, it had the shape of an irregular ellipse, and it moved on two caterpillars, one on each side, running right over and under the machine from end to end. One of these caterpillars was broken, and was doubled up in a loop on top. This was my first view of one of His Majesty's Land Ships, of which we have read so much in the papers, and which did such good work at the capture of Flers, Martinpuich, Courcelette, and Ginchy. After waiting there awhile we moved off down to the Field Dressing Station known as Drop Alley, from where wounded men were being taken back in stretchers. Was put in charge of a stretcher party and sent to the advanced dressing station at Goose Alley. Mr. Sellick came with us, and he said that the British had taken three villages near Thiepval. The Huns were shelling along our track, and some of the shells came uncomfortably close. Arriving at the top of the ridge, which is about three quarters of a mile behind the front line, we had to get into a trench and wait there until our services should be required. Meanwhile the Germans continued shelling the vicinity, as many parties and individuals were constantly coming and going. They must have been able to see at that distance that we were only stretcher-bearing, but it apparently made no difference to them. The Prussians are in, and that probably accounts for it.
We did not have long to wait. Some A.M.C. men, just relieved from the firing line, came past on their way to the rear, and one of them, replying to a question, exclaimed, "Its a --- up there! Thank God we are out of it. If I had my way I would kill every one of those ------ German -------s!" He had not gone more than another thirty or forty yards when a shell got him clean, wounding two of his companions. It was not a very nice thing to have said just before going into eternity. The shell also killed two other men who were there. My party took one of the wounded men in our stretcher after his wounds were dressed. Just then we had the pleasure of seeing a Hun observation balloon come down in flames, leaving a trail of black smoke behind. One of our airmen had evidently got him. Took our patient back to Drop Alley, and on the way a shell buried itself in the soft earth about ten or fifteen yards away, failing to explode. Arriving at Drop Alley, we found that it had been closed down as a dressing station, and we had to go right back to the main 6th. brigade dressing station at the railway. Were led by a roundabout difficult way, and it was no easy job shouldering the stretcher with a heavy man on board. Had we known the right track we could have been met by sleighs at a rendezvous and there relieved of our burden. These sleighs, which are built of wood and are drawn by horses, are fine things for getting over the mud.
We were supplied with a small decoction of soup at the dressing station, and, after resting awhile, returned to Drop Alley, where another case was waiting, a serjeant wounded in the right leg and the stomach. Went off in company with L/cpl. Burns' party. It was now well after dark, and we took the wrong track from the outset. Floundered through some sticky morasses along a track used by artillery ammunition wagons, and picked an uncertain way amongst the multitudinous holes and craters. It soon became evident that we were lost, and there was nothing for it but to keep on going until we came to the railway or some road or track by which we could locate our position. Came to the conclusion that we were going too much to the right, so insisted upon veering over to the left. Opinions differed as to which was the right direction, and there were some arguments about it, so I took my own counsel, which in the end proved to be most correct. Jack Cooley wanted us right or wrong to go away to the right, which would have taken us to blazes out of the way. He was a source of continual worry to me, as he was dreadfully impatient at every little delay, being nervous, I think, and afraid the Huns might start shelling. Every time we came upon trenches or got stuck in a quagmire he would pour out a torrent of oaths and complaints, regardless of the feelings of the wounded man on the stretcher. Time after time we came upon old disused trench systems, and then it was a troublesome task getting the patients across. We jogged along over the land pitted with treacherous holes, with tired feet and aching shoulders, till at last we got beyond the ridge. Then we picked up a couple of Tommy artillerymen with an electric torch, and they undertook to act as guides to us. We were some distance out of our way to the right, and in front of a line of guns. The two gunners lighted our way as far as the gun lines, landed us in a quagmire, and then we lost them. Went over to a gun pit dugout to make enquiries. The men there were very hospitable, and one of them promptly offered me a tot of rum, which was very acceptable after the long tiresome walk. He then gave me some for the other men, and offered to conduct us to a Tommy dressing station near by. With some difficulty we got our burden across the boggy wagon track, aided by the artillery-man's electric torchlight, and after going some distance farther the gunner went on ahead and summoned the men from the Tommy dressing station. They came and met us with a hurricane lantern to guide us in. One more mud bog to cross and we were there, to our great relief. They had a nice big underground dugout, and we rested there while they attended to the patients' wounds, which were only temporarily bound up at the advanced station at Goose Alley. When the job was finished one of the A.M.C. men brought his lantern and led us to our own dressing station at the railway siding. It was now moonlight and much easier travelling. Delivering our cases we lay down on a platform of duck-boards, and, though rather cold, soon dropped off to sleep.
Wed. 15. Awoke with feet freezing. We had expected that A company had been relieved long ago, but, upon making enquiries, found that they were still on the job, so set off again for Drop Alley. Canterbury got us on to a good track, the right track, on the way back. When there, I tried to sleep, but my feet were wet, and very painful with the cold. Got up and walked up and down, in company with a lot more chaps, to try and get warm. A bitter cold wind was blowing and the night was freezing.
Got another case, and went this time by the good track to "The Crest" relief station. We had heard last evening that our C.O., Major Nicolas, was dead, and our patient now verified the rumour, saying that the major was killed by the same shell that wounded him. We were met at The Crest by sleighs, which relieved us of our burden.
We rested a short time in a bit of a dugout in a trench near by. It was daylight, but foggy, when we went back to Drop Alley, where another case was waiting. Took him up to The Crest, and became aware, on the way, of a peculiar smell, which we decided must be gas, as we could hear a number of gas shells bursting away over across the valley to the right, whence a strong wind was blowing. They explode with a soft sound almost like a dud shell, and are easily discernible. On our way back the smell of gas became very strong, and the shelling developed into a gas shell bombardment, which, at its utmost, is not very effective as a means of inflicting losses. The smell soon began to make me feel rather sick in the stomach, so we put on our respirators and were no longer troubled by it.
Breakfasted on bully beef and biscuits, and rested awhile in the officers' dugout, it being cold outside, and secured a few winks of sleep.
We were kept going almost continuously all the morning with stretcher cases to The Crest. We were not troubled with any shellfire, as it was slightly foggy, thus preventing observation.
Rations of bacon, bread, jam, and cheese were brought up and issued for dinner. While we were partaking thereof, I happened to be looking at a couple of dead men lying in stretchers apart by themselves when I suddenly noticed one of them move. Arthur Henry came along just then, and I called his attention to the fact that the chap was not dead. An A.M.C. man then had a look at him, and found him to be very much alive, so a stretcher party was at once told off to get him away.
Work slackened off a good deal this afternoon. Took my party to the advanced dressing station at Goose Alley, where we had a long cold wait before any work came along. A few walking cases came along, including a young German who was hit in the arm and had his eyes blown out. Poor beggar, he looked a pitiful sight. Had to send Leoscovitch with Radley's party to the firing line. They went out in No-man's-land with the white flag bringing in the wounded men.
At last we got a stretcher case and took him back to Drop Alley, after which we had a belated tea of meat, potatoes, and bread. Rested awhile in the officers' dugout. The M.O. decided that it was no longer necessary to keep all the company on the job, and Viv went to Brigade H.Q. with a message to that effect.
Took another case to The Crest. He was a B. Company stretcher-bearer. He and another heard someone in No-man's-land call "Stretcher-bearers!" They climbed out over the parapet, and a machine-gun was at once turned on them, the other man being killed, and this chap receiving five bullet wounds.
Returning to Drop Alley, we found we were one of seven parties to remain behind on duty, the remainder going back to camp. Viv was left in charge of the stretcher parties.
Thurs. 16. Took a case to McCormack's Post. Work being very slack, I tried to sleep, but was kept awake by those voracious monsters, vermin. Had a tot of rum, looked over my underclothing, and then turned in and slept soundly till after sunrise.
There was a heavy frost this morning, with thick ice in the shell holes. Had breakfast and took a gassed man from McCormack's Post to The Crest.
While waiting for another case we had the pleasure of seeing a German aeroplane come down. He volplaned down low over our heads, and came to earth over near Flers. It was decided that four parties were sufficient to carry on, and three were told off to return to camp. One of them being away somewhere, my party was told off to go instead. We dragged our weary selves back to the camp, got an issue of rations, and had a decent feed. It had been a long period of duty, as we were kept going almost continuously for over forty-eight hours.
Parties were cut up this evening to relieve those who remained behind.
Fri. 17. Spent a very cold and uncomfortable night. There was another heavy frost this morning, with ice 1/2 and 3/4 inch thick in the shell holes. After breakfast, went over to Viv's dugout. He had got some mail, including photos of Jean and Jessie McPhee, and others I didn't know. Mum said Viola was now getting £132 a year, and would get an annual wage of £172 if she secured the Darlinghurst job. Eric is going for a bursary. There were a couple of letters from Myrrhee, from Flora and Aunt Lydia. Flora says poor old Jack Hay is dead.
Went over to Delville Wood and got a supply of wood for our fire, and then commenced the much-put-off letter of Christmas greetings to Mum. Having no writing paper, it being away in the pack, I had to use envelopes, which I opened out flat. Did not have time to finish the letter by dinnertime and immediately after dinner we had to go out on the railway job. The air was very cold, and the ice in the shell holes froze harder during the afternoon, although the sun was shining. Soon after we got back to camp a relief party was being selected to take over the stretcher-bearing. The evening meal was issued, and I had just sat down in our hut with my portion, when the C.S.M.'s voice roared out, "A Company, fall in! Fighting order!" Grumbled a bit, and, instead of falling in, forthwith proceeded to dispose of the meal of stew and tea.
"Fighting order" was a very unwelcome order, for it could mean nothing less than the trenches, and when at last we were fallen in a platoon was made up to be attached to D Company. Viv was in charge of the platoon, and had also sjts. Wilson and Mundell, and I had charge of one of the sections, which consisted of six men besides its commander. Besides Gordon, White and Burrows, who belonged to my regular section, there were McDonald, Hartley, and Cummings, to complete the number.
When at last we were all fitted up we moved off along our usual track between the craters, down past the left of Delville Wood, following along the High Wood road till we came to the railway, along which we followed to the right, till we came to the duckboard track which led over the ridge and down past the left of Flers.
The way so far had been easy going, because the mud was frozen solid. Coming to the end of the duckboard track, we bore over to the right somewhat and came to an embankment. Passing this the way began to get more difficult, being only a narrow footpath and treacherous with holes. Once, while we were halted, the mournful whizzing of half-spent machine gun bullets filled the air around us, scaring a few of the chaps. But it was only indirect fire at long range, and it was but mere chance that the bullets came our way. Nobody was hit.
Moving on again, the ground became rougher and more broken as we proceeded, and it was difficult in the darkness to discern the treacherous holes, with the result that time after time someone would lose his balance and fall heavily. I went very warily, and only had two or three falls. The proximity of the ever-moving line of lights indicated that we were now getting close to the firing lines, and caution and quietness became very necessary.
Coming to a low embankment close behind the firing line, we moved along it to the right. It was now necessary to halt and crouch low when each flare went up, as detection at this stage would be disastrous, and we had no love for Fritz's spare shells. Machine gun bullets frequently disturbed the stillness in sudden bursts, and instead of the mournful whizz it was now the savage biting clack of close range fire. But the embankment provided ample protection, so long as we kept low. However, at each outburst, McDonald would make precipitately for the nearest shell-hole and stow himself well down in it till we moved on again. I reproved him for his unnecessary fears, but it seemed to do him no good. It did not augur well for the efficiency of my section that one of them should take fright so easily, and I foresaw trouble with him in the front line in the event of a strafe or an attack.
We halted for some time behind the embankment, and Viv gave the section commanders their instructions. Then we moved through a short communication trench to the firing line, which was a very poor trench devoid of sandbags, and having a number of small uninviting holes in the sides to serve as dugouts.
Took up a position according to instructions, and posted a couple of men. One of them happened to be McDonald, and it soon became evident that stern measures would be necessary with him, for, on several occasions, I found him crouching down on the fire step and making no attempt to observe. Once I watched him while talking to Jim Wilson for about ten minutes or quarter of an hour, and during that time he did not raise his head once to look over the parapet. When Jim went I gave Mac a severe talking to, and ordered him to get up and observe. He protested that a machine gun had been firing, but that was no excuse for him to keep down for twenty minutes after it had ceased. Some of these men fail to realize what a heavy responsibility rests upon them while they are on post.
A little later we had to move along to the left and get in touch with D Co. I took over about fifteen yards of trench and manned it with my section. It contained a few dugouts of the rat-hole type, for which I suppose we ought to have been thankful.
Collected all the bombs lying about and stowed them in handy places ready for use. Gathered a number of large clods, and with them improvised a rough-and-ready loophole for use during the day.
Found, on the left of my section of trench, a wide shallow obsolete sap running back and to the left. In it were a pile of salvaged rifles, boxes containing bombs, flares, and ammunition frozen hard, various kinds of rubbish, and a dead man, who looked as though someone had just begun to cover him with earth and had then gone away and left the job unfinished.
A bit of a stunt opened up over to the left, and the Hun opposite betrayed some uneasiness, keeping the place well illuminated with flares, and obliging us with an odd shell or two.
When the disturbance subsided I climbed into my rat-hole, which provided sitting room only, and tried to get some sleep. My feet were freezing.
Sat. 18. Sleep was almost out of the question. Had to get up and walk about, and stamp my feet on the hard frozen ground to get some warmth into them. Then I would turn in and fall asleep, only to be awakened fifteen or twenty minutes later by the unendurable pain of freezing feet, and that would mean another war-dance to restore blood circulation and a degree of warmth. Towards morning it began to snow, and soon the ground was covered with white. It was only a light fall, however, and was the first of the season here.
At last daylight crept out of the east, and the landscape looked very pretty in its white covering. We had stand to from 6 till 7.45a.m., and then breakfasted on bacon and bread and jam. Got some tins of bully beef lying about the trench, and someone else found jam and beans in discarded haversacks.
To our discomfort it began to rain this morning, melting away the snow and making the place muddy. Put the men on to deepening the trench a bit. There were dead men lying about all over the place, mostly out in No-man's-land, but many were incompletely buried about the trench. Some of them had been badly mutilated by the flying metal, and were horrible to look at. I learned afterwards that this was where the 18th., (or was it the 28th.?) battalion made their two unsuccessful attempts to reach the enemy lines after a very imperfect artillery preparation, their failure eventually resulting in the withdrawal to their own lines of all the attacking brigades in that stunt, which occurred a couple of weeks ago.
Went to my rat-hole dugout and secured a little sleep till dinnertime. Got a little more sleep this afternoon, and then Viv came along and suggested collecting the discarded waterproof sheets that lay half buried in the mud about the trench, and constructing with them some sort of cover for the dugouts to keep the rain out. Began to pull a sheet out of the trench side, but found that it was wrapped around a corpse. Managed to get at the corpse's haversack, and cut it open with my penknife, obtaining there-from a tin of bully, a packet of cocoa, two small tins of Oxo cubes, and a set of cutlery (Had lost my knife and spoon some days ago). The biscuits were mouldy and stained with blood.
Found that all the waterproofs lying about were acting burial-blankets. Got a clean pair of sox from another dead man's haversack. From the obsolete trench on the left I procured a brand new pair of gumboots, which were covered in mud.
As a result of all the rain the trench is becoming horribly muddy and sticky, and the sides, in places, are slipping in. The artillery has kept very quiet all day.
Sam Gordon, who has been ill all day and had neither dinner or tea, become much worse this evening, and I decided to have him sent away if possible. The dugouts began to fall in with the soakage, and things in general promised us a very uncomfortable night. Young Lusado came along and relieved me from 6 till 9.30p.m., and I went to his dugout, which was near Viv's and had a blanket covering, to get a few hours' sleep. Told Viv about Gordon's condition, and he said he would have him sent away at once.
Turned in, and, thanks to the rum issue, slept soundly till half past nine, and then went back to the section, to find my dugout partly fallen in. Cleared the loose mud out of it, put the waterproof on the bottom of it and sat there dozing, but frequent falls of mud from overhead prevented any chance of sleep. Finally I decided that it was untenable, and got out of it. Later on it fell in altogether, burying the waterproof I had left in it. The miserable drizzle of rain continued off and on all night.
Tues. 19. Soon after midnight a patrol was sent out under Cpl. Bird. They were spotted by the enemy, who became alarmed, probably fearing a raid or an attack, and carried on an uncommon lot of sniping for some time, keeping the place lit up with a constant stream of flares. Their artillery also had something to say, and gave us a few shells. By the amount of sniping that was going on, and with Fritz only about eighty yards away, I thought that it was all up with the patrol party, but learned later that they only suffered two casualties, one man being wounded in the foot, and Cpl. Bird missing, probably killed.
Dozed a little in Cummings' and Hartley's dugouts while they were on post. It was too cold to get much sleep, and warming exercises were out of the question, as one could not stamp about in the sticking-plaster that covered the bottom of the trench.
Daylight came, and we breakfasted on bully, beans, and biscuits. The day's rations came up later, when we were able to have a better meal. A special stand to was ordered, and lasted for several hours. There was no rain today, and the trench became very boggy, the mud being worked into a thick sticky paste by the men walking back and forth through it. We were like so many flies on a sheet of tangle-foot. This afternoon I cleaned the mud off the gumboots I got yesterday, and, when they had dried a bit, put them on. The mud became stickier than ever towards evening, and my left knee became weak with constantly dragging my foot out of the mud at every step.
Jim Wilson told me that the Huns had been showing themselves in front and our observers not firing at them. Went along to question my men about it. Met young Burrows, and asked him had he seen any Germans while on post. Yes, he had seen a few. One he observed was putting up barbed wire entanglements.
"And did you shoot at him?" I asked.
"Why didn't you?"
"Well, he was about three hundred yards away."
I was staggered. Burrows, of course, was a new reinforcement, but it seemed incredible that anyone should think three hundred yards too great a distance to hit a man. He had not even thought the matter of sufficient importance to report it. Some people have queer ideas of warfare.
This evening I took a mess tin and worked my passage laboriously down to Viv's quarters in the hope of getting some water, as we had had none since yesterday morning, and were now rather thirsty. Met Viv on the way, and he told me where there was a shell hole containing plenty of good water. He gave me the agreeable information that we were being relieved tonight, with instructions for carrying out the relief. One man was to be left on post to hand over to the incomers, and the remainder to move out by the left route, and find their way independently back to our camp near Delville Wood. Referring to the slackness in sniping at the enemy, Viv said he had a few shots at them, and accounted for one sniper.
Found the welcome shell hole, had a good drink, and took back a mess tin of water for the others. Put equipment together ready for leaving. Put boots in sandbag, along with my waterproof sheet, which I had dug up out of the mud during the afternoon. Told off Jock Cummings to remain on post to hand over, he being the most reliable man in the section. Then we sat down to await the coming of the relief party. Poor old Jim Wilson seemed very much fed-up, and I felt very sorry for him. He had a faraway look in his eyes, a pathetic droop of the mouth, and, whenever he spoke, it was in a low mournful voice scarcely above a whisper. I don't think I ever before saw a man who looked so utterly fed-up.
It was a very cold night. The relief commenced about 6.15p.m., but progress through the mud was so slow that we had to sit there waiting in the cold till nearly 9p.m. At last, however, we got a move on, and went along to the left. The condition of the trench became worse as we proceeded, and it was exhausting work to keep going at all. Sjt. Mundell got stuck for awhile just in front of me, but he managed to get out again, and then I got bogged in the same place. Two chaps tried to drag me out but only succeeded in making matters worse, so I asked them to go on and leave me. Then, slowly, and with great difficulty, I freed first one leg and then the other, and was able to move on again. The trench was in an awful state, the sticky morass being knee-deep in places. The strained knee was getting troublesome, and I was very tired, but there was nothing for it but to keep on going. Discarded the sand-bag containing boots and waterproof, having too much to carry.
The Huns evidently suspected that something was going on, for they began to put a few shells over into supports. What an unlimited distance did that 150 yards of trench appear! The gum-boots I was wearing made it much harder work ploughing through the quagmire. After what seemed an interminable time we arrived at the communication sap, where the going was slightly better. Here and there men were hopelessly bogged, and their comrades trying to drag them out.
After much strenuous labour we arrived at the end of the sap and rested awhile behind the embankment. Then we started off along the track leading back past an old wrecked "tank". It was not boggy here, but was slippery and treacherous with holes. Could only walk very slowly on account of my strained knee, which was causing no end of bother. Was plastered in mud from head to foot, which made so much extra weight to carry. Often felt tempted to throw the cumbersome equipment away, but each time determined to hang on to it at all costs. Had to stop every 50 or 100 yards and sit down in the mud for a spell.
After struggling along slowly for some considerable time, the line of lights that indicated the firing line seemed yet but a very short distance away, and I despaired of getting to the camp before morning. Others came along in groups and passed on ahead. There were many tracks and nobody knew which was the right one, so they all went off in different directions. Sweatman and a number of others including White, overtook me, and we held a parley to try and decide which was the right direction. But opinions differed widely, and we all went our own ways. Had we been able to see the Flers wood it would have been easy to find the duckboard track, but the night was too dark to distinguish any landmarks.
It soon became evident that there was no getting home tonight for me; it was too cold to sleep out, and walking about all night to keep warm was out of the question with my sick leg, so, in the hope of finding an artillery dugout with a little room to spare, I made a bee-line for the first light I saw. It proved to be the cookhouse of the 5th. Brigade Headquarters, and there was a man there sitting up all night and keeping the fire going. There was plenty of room in the cook-house, and I asked to be allowed to sit by the fireside till morning. But there was no hospitality in that place, so rested awhile and then went on again. Came to a road and met a couple of chaps resting there. They had an idea there was a dressing station about somewhere, and then we met a couple of stretcher-bearers, who told us that the road led down to Drop Alley station. So off we went, the two others soon getting away ahead. Eventually arrived at Drop Alley, found a big German dugout, which, however, turned out to be already full up. Slung off my harness and nosed about for a suitable place wherein to spend the remainder of the night. Got a box of matches from a chap and found a new dugout of the German type in course of construction. It provided ample shelter from the wind and weather, and though it had no floor but the sodden earth, that was only a minor drawback. Procured three blankets, which had been out in yesterday's rain and were rather damp, but that also was only a minor drawback. Made bed by match light, and got undressed, at least to the extent of removing overcoat, gumboots, and sox. Had a tin of butter and some broken scraps of biscuits in my haversack, and these provided a welcome supper, though it was a bit awkward manipulating them in the dark. Turned in with steel helmet for pillow, and even the vermin did not keep me awake very long.
Mon. 20. Slept soundly, awaking at daylight and again when the sun was well up in the sky. Breakfasted on biscuit crumbs and butter, dressed, and got out of the dugout, as the men who were building it had arrived and were waiting to carry on. Got some bacon, biscuits, and cheese from the stretcher-bearers to supplement the former insufficient meal, and then harnessed up and took the track going up to the left of McCormack's post. My left knee was still very crook, and I could only limp along slowly. Felt inclined to go over to Mac's post and get a sleigh ride to the main dressing station, but that would only mean a much longer distance to walk at the other end.
It was a glorious morning, the warm sun shining comfortably over the torn and broken landscape. Passed by the old stranded "tank", and got the direction to the duckboards from an artillery man. The sleigh drivers at Mac's post, evidently thinking I was wounded, called out to me to come over there. Did not go, however, but went on up over the ridge to the duckboard track, resting there for some time. While there two German prisoners were brought along. They carried walking sticks, and, with the exception of a few spots, there was no mud on their uniforms. They walked along with a jaunty air, and looked as if they were satisfied to be prisoners. In view of their spruce appearance it is quite probable that they came over and gave themselves up as soon as they arrived at the firing line.
Followed the duckboards down to the road, where a kind hearted motor transport driver picked me up and gave me a lift through Delville Wood to within half a mile of our camp, providing also a generous lump of cake and some tea.
Arrived at camp at about 10.30a.m., and had another breakfast. Of my section there were only White and Burrows in the hut. Jack Cooley had gone to a Lewis gun school, Dick Weales was in the party who relieved us from the firing line, and the others had all gone to hospital.
Went over to the officers' hut, of which Viv and his batman were the sole occupants, all the others being up at the firing line with the party that relieved us. Viv arrived here about 3a.m. this morning. They had had a lot of trouble effecting the relief and with men getting bogged. Before they had got away from the trenches the Huns put over a barrage along the embankment in supports, and they had to wait for it to lift.
Had dinner with Viv. Sjt. Murphy brought him a telegram with instructions to proceed to Brigade Headquarters for to go to an officers' school at Flixecourt for a month. It will be a good spell for him, and will probably mean another star.
Heard that we are going right back tomorrow, for a two months' rest. Also heard that Vern's division are on their way up to the front again.
Viv left this evening for Brigade Hqrs., and I took possession of his bunk to sleep in tonight.
Tues. 21. We were roused out soon after daylight this morning with orders for all hut covers to be handed in at once. Afterwards, cleaned around my hut and buried all the rubbish. Packed up my belongings ready for departure. After breakfast, dug my rifle out of the covering of mud which enveloped it, and gave it a thorough cleaning. Cleaned mud off equipment this afternoon. Went with Holloway to Delville Wood for firewood, which, however, was rather wet and sodden, in consequence of the heavy fog which has prevailed all day.
We are not going back today after all, but will stay here tonight and go tomorrow with the rest of the battalion, who are being relieved to night. Got two waterproofs for a roof and built a small hut big enough for two, in order to accommodate Dick Weales on his arrival. After tea, dried some of my firewood at Holloway's fire. Started the fire in my hut about 8p.m. so as to have a good fire and a warm hut for Dick when he came. Turned into bed and went to sleep, but awoke several times and kept the fire going, but Dick did not turn up.
Wed. 22. The men from the firing line turned up about daylight. Wright, whom someone told me had gone to hospital, also arrived with Dick Weales. Had breakfast and fell in for departure. Marched about a mile past Water Point to the entraining place, where we were crowded into horse-boxes. Detrained somewhere near Fricourt and marched to Dernancourt, arriving there about 1.30p.m. and going into billets. Packs and blankets were issued this afternoon. As we got the whole section's blankets between the five of us who remained, we were well off. Heard that Monastir fell into the hands of the Allies while we were up at the front.
Went over to Buire after tea and spent the evening with the French people at our last billets there.
Thurs. 23. On orders today, A Company was commended by the 5th. Brigade Hqrs. for their recent excellent work stretcher-bearing. To divisional baths at Dernancourt this morning. Afterwards went to the 53rd. battalion, who were encamped along the road, and tried to find out something about Bill Jackson, but could get no information. Met Bluey Stevens, who had been sent with details to the 53rd. He told me that Sjt. Jim Gordon was not blown to pieces, as reported, at Pozières, but was suffocated by being buried. Bluey was there when he got killed, and saw the corpse after it had been dug out.
This evening, finished the letter I started to Mum last Friday, and also wrote to Dad. Got a parcel from Bert containing two balaclavas and two pairs of gloves, one each for Viv and me.
Fri. 24. On coal guard today. "Tank" photos have now been published in the English papers for the first time. There were two of them, and one was recognisable as the old wrecked monster stranded between McCormack's post and Flers.
Pay-day today. Drew 30fr. Captain Mac said I was to go to a bomb school at Flesselles for a week on Monday.
A disquieting rumour is afloat to the effect that we are leaving tomorrow for a month's road fatigue at Fricourt.
Sat. 25. Yesterday's rumour has proved correct, and we were warned this morning to be ready to move at noon. Captain Mac told me that men were required for commissions after undergoing a month's training, and he had recommended Sjt. Edgerton and me. How grand it will be if anything comes of it! But, in view of my usual rotten luck, it is useless to count any chickens before they are hatched.
Packed up. Had early dinner and got on the warpath soon after noon. Marched about four or five miles to a newly made hut encampment somewhere in the neighbourhood of Fricourt. It rained a good deal, and made the journey very uncomfortable. Wrote to Bert this evening.
Sun. 26. Reveille at 6a.m. The companies had to go on fatigue work from 8a.m. till 4p.m., with half an hour off for lunch. The captain told me not to go out, on account of leaving for the bomb school, and at about 10a.m. I had to go and interview Major True about the recommendation for commission. Instead of enquiring as to my military knowledge and experience, the C.O. asked what education I had had, which was rather disappointing, as I have only had a state school education. However, that may not make a great deal of difference.
Packed up my things. Got orders to be ready to go at a moment's notice. Hung about all day, and then we were told this afternoon that we would probably go tomorrow.
Mon. 27. Waited about all morning. On fatigue this afternoon fetching duckboards to lay along in front of the huts. No word yet of when we're going.
Tues. 28. Got a letter from Bert this morning, to Viv and I. He is fed up with England and wants to rejoin the battalion, but his officer won't let him go till after Christmas.
Had to go out with the company today. We had the job of digging a deep trench for the purpose of draining the water away from the road. Knocked off about 4p.m. and got back about dark. Jack Cooley has returned from the machine gun school. He said that "Topsy" Turvey, of the 3rd. B'n. gunners, was there as an instructor. Wrote to Viv on the back of Bert's letter.
Wed. 29. Went on with the fatigue job again today. It was very cold on the job. Did not feel at all well this afternoon. Sat by a fire bucket at a sentry post, and slept till knock off time. Got a parcel from Clytie for Viv tonight, and re-addressed it to him at Flixecourt. Have been warned for bombing school tomorrow. Will be called at 5a.m.
Thurs. 30. Was not called till 6a.m. Packed up and had hurried breakfast. There were four of us going from A company, Cpl. Radley, Jock Cummings, Campbell and I, the two former being for a non-com's school. We left about 8a.m., and had to foot it all the way to Ribemont, about seven or eight miles, with full pack and two blankets.
Met Woods of No.1 platoon, 3rd. Battalion, near Buire. He told me that Col. Price had been killed by being sniped in the face while looking over the parapet. He lived till next day, but was unconscious all the time. Burrett is now in charge of the battalion. Mr. Bishop and Stan Walsh were also killed, and Jack Bubb has been wounded again. McMasters is now C.S.M., and Millard is a mere sjt. McDougall, Morgan, and Ormiston, of the Lewis gunners, have received commissions. Also met Matthews of the 7th. rfcts. of the 3rd. The battalion is billeted in Buire.
Arrived in Ribemont some time before 11 a.m., and were kept waiting about till 12.30p.m., when we were crowded into cars like kippered herrings, five men to a seat. It was a cold ride, and our feet were freezing, but the convoy halted for some time a mile or two from Amiens, and we got out and walked about till we got warm. Moving on again, we passed through the outskirts of Amiens and arrived at Flesselles about 3.30 p.m. Colonel Bill Watson was there, in charge of the school.
Those who were for the bomb school, comprising representatives from every battalion in the division, were billeted together in a side street. Bought a packet of cornflour and a tin of Nestle's milk at the E.F. canteen. At a farmhouse in the village we bought some straw for our beds, paying only 3d a sheaf for it.
Cooked some cornflour with Nestle's milk for supper. It was very acceptable. A 20th. Battalion chap named Goggin and I put our blankets together in one bed, making it much warmer and more comfortable.
Friday, 1st. We practised bomb throwing for a couple of hours this morning, and were on rifle grenades for two and a half hours this afternoon. Put in application for leave to Amiens.
Sat. 2. Physical jerks before breakfast this morning. Bomb throwing, trench clearing, a lecture on explosives, and rifle grenade practice today. There was a hard white frost all day, making it very cold.
Bill Watson refused to grant me leave, on account of asking for too much. Spent the evening with the French people across the road.
Sun. 3. No jerks this morning. Church parade at 9.30a.m. with a lot of ceremonial rot. General Birdwood was present. It was very cold and frosty, and the chaplain cut the service short. Birdwood awarded a number of decorations, including several D.C.M's. In his concluding speech he said, "If we want to take part in the summer push we must keep fit." If we want to take part in it! H'm. Yes, indeed, h'm.
After dinner a chap who had got a leave pass and did not want it gave it to me. Walked about half way (four miles) and then got a lift in a motor transport into the city. Amiens was crowded with people, including a large proportion of French soldiers on leave.
Could not buy sugar at any price. Fruit and tinned stuffs were being sold at exorbitant prices. Bought some walnuts, dried apricots, dates and apples. Dined at the only restaurant I could find. It was an enjoyable meal, although the "biftek" and the jam for dessert were so minute as to be almost indiscernible. There was such an air of comfort and homeliness about the restaurant that the sudden recollection of the Somme battlefield was, to put it mild, horrifying.
Afterwards took a young garçon to a cinema théatre, at which they only showed two pictures, an English detective drama and the inevitable Charlot (Charlie Chaplin).
Set off to walk back to Flesselles, but was overtaken at the outskirts of the city by a couple of artillerymen with a number of saddled and bridled horses, and they gave me one to ride as they were going to pass through Flesselles. Got back to billets about 10.30p.m.
Mon. 4. Feeling ill with a cold today. Usual bombing and trench work, and instruction on German bombs. The instructors showed us one of our new egg bombs, which are being made to counteract the Hun egg bomb. Spent the evening with the French people across the road.
Tues. 5. Feeling worse today. Practised firing live Mills rifle grenades.
Wed. 6. Was coughing all night, and got very little sleep. Did not feel equal to physical jerks, so put my name on the sick list. Went on sick parade after breakfast, and was told to go to bed, the doctor saying he would come and see me tomorrow. Spent the day in bed.
Thurs. 7. The doctor came to see me this morning, and promptly ordered "hospital". My rotten luck to the fore yet once again! I had been confident of getting another stripe upon returning to the battalion but now this blessed sickness has thwarted those expectations, besides probably cutting me out of the list for officers' school. After all, I was right in thinking that such good fortune could hardly be my lot.
Went by motor ambulance through Vignacourt to a hospital camp at some small village. There they made me a stretcher case and sent me to the New Zealand stationary hospital at Amiens, with a diagnosis of influenza. Was put into a nice clean bed, and lay there sleepless and unhappy for some hours, till the night sister came and washed me all over with cold water, to reduce the temperature, and then I was able to get some sleep.
Fri. 8. Wrote a short note to Viv, and sent F.S. cards to Bert and Vern. Cannot eat anything, and can drink but little.
Sat. 9. Very sick this morning, vomiting a good deal. Wrote a brief letter to Mum and Dad. The doctor, upon examination, found that its bronchitis I have, not influenza.
Sun. 10. An Englishman in the bed next to mine, a fine well-built chap and a cheerful, jolly sort of a fellow, suddenly developed epilepsy this morning, and took fit after fit, and they seemed to be unable to do anything for him. They took him away out of the ward later on.
Mon. 11. ----------------
Tues. 12. Marked out today. Wanted badly to take the old Hun overcoat with me, but they would not let me have it, being a stretcher case. It had been snowing during the night, and the snow still lay thick in places, where the rain had not washed it away. Was taken by motor ambulance to Corbie and was there put aboard a hospital train for Rouen. The train travelled very slowly, and there were frequent stoppages, and we did not arrive at Rouen until sometime in the vicinity of midnight.
Wed. 13. Was taken for another motor ride through Rouen and finally deposited in a bare-looking wooden ward.
Felt much better today, and was able to take food.
Thurs. 14. Germany and her colleagues have sent notes to the Allies asking for a peace conference. Of course the idea is unthinkable to us at present, just following upon Germany's big victories in Roumania. It is aggravating to hear them talk peace when peace is so utterly impossible.
Fri. 15. The doctor marked me "up" today, and I got up about dinnertime.
Sat. 16. According to today's paper the French have had a great success at Verdun, advancing to a depth of two miles. Have not been so well today, and temperature registered over 1000 tonight.
Sun. 17. Confined to bed today.
Mon. 18. ----------------
Tues. 19. It snowed this morning, giving the ground a beautiful covering of white. Wrote to Mum and Dad. Temperature still keeps high.
Wed. 20. Sun out today. Wrote Christmas greetings to Vern and Viv, and sent Christmas card to Bert.
Thurs. 21. ----------------
Fri. 22. A different doctor came round this morning, and arriving at my cot, said, "This man looks a bit of a wreck; we'll send him home for a rest." He forgot to mark my board for England, but will probably do so when he comes tomorrow. It came as a bit of a surprise, for Blighty was the last thing I should have expected. The prospect of such a holiday is cheering, but am not so enthusiastic over it as I should have been at another time. Had hoped to be back with the battalion within two or three weeks and to get out after that promised promotion, but of course "Blighty" will knock that on the head. Have also disquieting fears of serious illness ahead.
Sat. 23. Marked "B" this morning. Was hoping to get away today in order to be in England for Christmas, but we did not go.
Sun. 24. Christmas Eve. The "Blighties" went this morning. Was taken out in a stretcher and then by motor ambulance through Rouen to the railway, where we were entrained. The train was held up for four hours by a smash on the line ahead.
President Wilson has sent a peace note to all the belligerents in which he insults us by saying we are fighting for the same reasons and with the same objects in view as Germany.
The train moved off at 4.30p.m., and arrived at Le Havre about 9p.m. Of course we missed our boat, which would have got us to England in time for Christmas. Embarked on the Australian hospital ship Worilda, and got a comfortable bunk. The boat has to wait here for another train.
Mon. 25. Christmas Day. Was shifted to another ward this morning, which is not quite as comfortable as the one we had last night. A couple of train loads of patients arrived and embarked this morning.
Our Christmas dinner consisted of mutton, parsnips, and potatoes, with a queer looking mixture that was supposed to be rice for dessert. This afternoon the chaplain issued some Christmas presents, which had to be drawn for. I got a combination knife fork and spoon.
We were kept waiting in port all the afternoon for high tide. Moved off about 9p.m. The sea was fairly calm and the ship travelled very smoothly, no rolling or pitching being perceptible. It was a very warm night. Well, it has been a dull enough Christmas, but might have been worse, say, for instance, on the muddy plains of Picardy. I regret missing the parcels from home, not for what they are worth, but for the sake of the senders. Last year I missed them through being at Malta.