We hear that we are at last to have a rest, so everything will be in a chaotic state for the next few days. It is a fatal thing to remain any length of time in one place: one collects an enormous amount of property, one’s kit swells to most disgraceful proportions & one becomes a sort of landed proprietor. Then comes the move & it is always remarkably difficult to find room on the wagon for 2 or 3 armchairs, a Turkish bath, garden roller, 4 Rembrants, a five roomed villa, kitchen range, bed & library. Hence the chaos mentioned above. As a matter of fact I usually avoid all that sort of thing by staying on a few days with the good folk, who come to take our place. They need a guide who knows his way about, & so I get left. That means that, when everybody close has finished hustling about & reducing their kits to look like the regulation 35 lbs, I get a whole limber to myself & ride comfortably after them into good billets, & a Mess that has had 3 or 4 days in which to settle down. I lose a day or two of rest but that cannot be helped; in a way it is almost worth it.
We hear today that the great John Burnett is down with pneumonia & on his way to England. He is one of the very few who came out with us & has never missed a day since. For the last week or two he has been away at the School, learning a great deal in a short time, & it seems that he got ill there. It is a very great pity because he has always been one of the cheeriest of them all. The weather, except this afternoon which has been comparatively respectable, has been too atrocious for words for the last week. The roads are deep in mud, everything is wet & it has rained continuously. To make things even more cheerful we have spent a considerable amount of our time shrouded in a damp mist which makes observation impossible & my job a waste of time.
I rode over yesterday morning to see Cyril Ashford, the intelligence bloke of the Bde on our left, you probably have come across him before in my letters of June or thereabouts. I found that he had gone about a fortnight ago to take over some soft job as a sniping instructor at one of those Schools. It is just the job for him & he is just the man for it, but I am sorry that he has gone, he was always a cheery fellow & most excellent company. His place has been taken by a man I know nothing of. After a fruitless ride, I went over to lunch with a battery commander named Meynell – owner of a somewhat famous hunt of that name in Derbyshire. I have run into him several times, & found him a great man. He was alone & gave me a good lunch. You may remember ages ago, my telling you of a gunner named Morgan whom I saw many times & liked very much. He used to be in Meynell’s battery. Rambout was also until he got temporary command of another.
I see from the Taylorian that Gifford is a Staff Captain, I must write & jeer at him. I suppose he is still out in India where they went quite early in the war, & so far as I know have been ever since. Our poor old apology for that position –Viccars – has suddenly discovered that his moustache always a trifle reminiscent of Mr Charles Chaplain, is now contra-regulation; & I have to rag him a good deal about it.
“Gilbert Talbot” I have just finished reading, & passed on to G.W. Allen. The latter knew G.T. fairly well at Oxford & his brother Neville very well indeed. I must write & return thanks, when I can find time, just at present we are rather busy. They say one always has a change of weather after 3 white frosts, certainly it has come true with us. After 3 really splendid days, very cold but bright & cheerful, today has been a useless sort of foggy, damp & cheerless affair. Most of the time it has been impossible to see more than 50 yards ahead of one, so as you can imagine it has not been much of a day for my job. As a matter of fact I spent most of last night wandering round the line for various reasons, so was not at all sorry to have a good excuse for not going up today. Now it has started raining, nothing very much, but I expect that my tomorrow, it will be pouring down in its usual torrential manner. The General’s liver has greatly improved of late, in spite of the fact that he has got rather a severe chill & has had to remain indoors all day. He has been much more cheerful for the last few days, & it is nearly a week since he threw a plate at the waiter’s head, or anything exciting of that sort. In fact out mess is quite dull in consequence. There is talk of a rugger match on Wed, & possibly another a few days later, with any luck I shall get a game. The net result will doubtless be terrific and appaling stiffness of all my limbs, to say nothing of a black eye or two. However it will be great fun.
The day before yesterday, we were indulging in what is I believe known as a miner enterprise. One rushes across in the middle of the night & tries to grab a Bosch. He gets awfully excited & puts up many beautifully coloured flowery fireworks of all descriptions. Everybody throws a great many shells & shouts at everybody else, most people are in a very bad temper from start to finish.
Of course I did not go careering across trying to get Bosches, that is not at all in my line. But still I had to be up & about the place, just to look business-like. Everything went off very successfully, & though our people did not actually come back dragging innumerable Bosches by their neck capes, still we killed one or two & discovered who they were which is what one always wants to know. I found a delightful place, well behind the active hostilities, from where I could observe the pyrotechnic display in comparative safety. I have noticed that as a general rule one observers much better when in a state of security. It is most disturbing to a calm & thoughtful observer to have to imagine that a large shell may any minute dent his cranium. Personally, if I cant find a safe place, I stay at home. Yesterday the weather was awful all the morning, but as I had been getting somewhat behind with my office had records & diaries etc, I spent he time in making things up to date. In the evening I delivered another lecture, this time to our 4th Btn. & after performing stayed to dinner at their headquarters; it was a most excellent dinner but somehow they are very different to Jones & our gang. Allen has come back from leave & Godsal has gone this afternoon. The G.O.C. is taking him in his car as far as Boulogne, so he is a lucky man: the train journey is always appalling, & in this weather -. Today has been bitterly cold, but other wise by no means bad, as the sun has been bright. I managed two trips to trenches, one this morning & one after I had finished the report this afternoon. The ditches are pretty wet after the heavy rain, but might be very much worse. They are nothing like so bad as the trenches were in at the beginning of last winter, where one almost had to swim.
Rambaut the Shrewsbury master who is also a gunner & lives next door to us, does not seem to think the St Beesman (Cannon Sawyer new Head of Shrewsbury) is at all a bad sort – I do not know whether he knows anything about him.
Just at present I am having a very amusing time over a scandal which by some means or other has got attached to me. Allen coming through Boulogne a few days ago on his way back has asked whether “I had got over my trouble?” He naturally asked “What trouble?” To which the officer in question, whom I know quite well – replied “Oh, haven’t you heard, Hills got into an awful row, nearly got court-martialled for having some lady to stay with him for the weekend at the rest camp at – on the coast.” Allen thought this was a great joke & has of course been telling everybody. As I have been slaving here for some months & have not been near the rest camp, I cannot imagine how it originated. However it provides a great deal of amusement in these dull times.
After a fortnight of W. S.W. winds with a good deal of rain we got our change at last today. The wind is now NE & quite cold enough for people like myself in summer clothing: but the sun has been really delicious all day & the view such as I have never seen, since we came to France. One can see villages 10 & 12 miles away without any difficulty with the naked eye. With a powerful glass once could see the flies crawling on the noses of Bosches walking in the fields for miles and miles. Consequently, I spent a really enjoyable morning seeing all the sights, in company with a gunner who was very interested. This evening it is distinctly cold, but I think we shall get a fine night as soon as the moon rises. If we do we can hope for another fine day tomorrow. Just at present it is almost freezing, & I shall not be a bit surprised to find ice on my bath water in the morning. I still take my dip “en plein-air”, & it is becoming really chilly now – I don’t suppose I shall last much longer. We are starting to make all sorts of arrangements for the winter, which according to that cheery pessimist Huskisson will be one of the real old-fashioned hard sort. The first consideration is the mess floor which is tiled & consequently none too warm, Turkish carpets do not grow on trees in these parts, so we are going to try & get felt, possibly even a cheap drugget of sorts. Failing that we may have to be content with straw which is warm enough, but rather inclined to be dirty & full of all manner of insects. Fortunately for the state of the General’s temper (& consequently for the peace of the Mess) the fireplace here is not at all bad, & though of French pattern, & a semi-stove, does heat the room a good deal. On the other hand the house is only one room thick & we have windows on both sides, which the General simply hates; draughts are his pet aversion. How we are to warm the office is a much more serious problem. It is also a room of many windows & has not got the advantage of having a good fireplace, it has in fact a young kitchen range, which will doubtless consume quantities of good coal without making the room any less like an ice house. My own little log hut is not so bad. It is dry & small & has a beautiful little stove that can turn it into an oven in a few minutes. My only difficulty will be the lack of glass in one of the windows: glass is not to be had here for love or money, & at present we cannot even get a fake substitute. Talking of my hut reminds me of the fact that I have got a new suit of pyjamas, one of my suits came to pieces, so I determined to try what the country could produce. The cook was commissioned to get me a suit, next time he went to the city to get our provisions. He did. They are a sort of dark khaki, with blue facings of a most wonderful order – terribly chic. I must write to Dad & tell him the arguments of the R.C. padre, they would I am sure amuse him greatly. I never realized before how desperately keen on converts they were.
Many thanks for your letter containing Uncle Robs address, I will write as soon as I get a chance, at present my prospects of being able to find time are none too bright. I am sorry to hear his arm is not going on as well as it should, but that is what one always has to expect with a wound received on the Western Front. Anywhere else wounds heal up pretty quickly, but there seems to be something radically wrong about this benighted country. Yesterday was rather a strenuous day on the whole. In the morning I went round trenches with Godsal & had a look at some of the works of evil that the old Bosch still continues to do. It was a very peaceful morning thought not over bright, & it rained at intervals; we had to confine our attentions almost entirely to things in the near foreground because anything in the distance was blotted out by the drizzle. I always enjoy going round with Godsal because we ride the first mile & a half across country & come home again the same way. He has a magnificent animal & goes careering over ditches & everything else. My little mare gets so excited that she comes along behind very gaily & jumps everything in grand style, which I can never make her do when out alone. We got back for lunch & during the afternoon I wrote the reports as usual.
At 4 pm Viccars & I went off in a car, he had managed to borrow it off someone, to visit our nearest city & do some most necessary shopping. We bought all manner of things & then drove back again in the dark. The driver knew his job very well & we travelled at almost incredible speeds, even on the way home & in areas where we were not allowed headlights. We came back past Col. Jones’ headquarters soon after seven o’clock & there I left Viccars & went to dinner in the H.Q. Mess. The Colonel was in great form & the dinner excellent. There were twelve of us in all, including all who had been through the show on the 13th and are still going strong. Collins rose to the occasion & feasted us royally, & from 10 to midnight we sang songs & generally made merry. We ended one of the best evenings I have had since we came out, with Old Lang Syne just about midnight. And then to bed, a weary walk.
Today so far as the weather is concerned has been a little better than yesterday in that the rain held off until the evening. But it is still blowing very hard & the sky is very overcast with the result that one seldom gets a really good view. I was round trenches this morning & amused myself by doing a little sniping not a very easy game on account of the high wind which was very troublesome at long ranges. This evening I stayed in & listened to the band which played one or two old favourites such as Iolanthe, & some of the more modern musical comedies. They always attract a very large audience when they perform, in spite of the fact that it is beginning to be rather cold work sometimes, standing round to listen to them. Cannon has just returned from the army school where he apparently had an excellent time. He managed to get his weekend holidays down to the coast which was by no means unpleasant I imagine.
We have slightly reconstituted the mess during the last two days. Bonassieux has left us to go & understudy Monte Bello the interpreter of the Division; & we did not greatly want his successor in the mess. We therefore started a B mess & sent Jones the Signal Office along to it as well, it contains the Bomb-officer, & his two student officers, the two signal officers, the interpreter & the Town Mayor. We are left with only six which is quite enough – the three staff, Huskisson, Cannon & myself. Jones is really the only person with any cause to grouse. I am afraid you must think that we have been living a most terribly luxurious existence lately. It is really not our fault, if people at home send out these luxuries, the least we can do is to eat them & be thankful. Besides I am quite sure it is a good thing to have a bust occasionally merely to prove to ourselves that we are not unduly despondent & upset by the war. I think one can talk the War even too seriously sometimes.
The weather yesterday cannot be described as anything but pretty miserable during the morning. There was a sort of heavy Scotch mist until midday which made observation almost impossible, and walking round trenches exceedingly unpleasant. Today has been better, in that we have had no rain, but there have been heavy clouds, and there has again been not very much chance of a good view. I dined last night with Shields and a goodly array of 5th officers. We had a tremendous bust – it was somebody’s birthday – I am not quite sure whose. There seemed to be oceans of phizz and we sang songs until the cows came home, and the military police thought it was time we went to bed. We finally drifted away and fortunately the rain held off. If it had not the two mile walk home in the early hours of the morning would have been anything but pleasant. I believe I told you that the Brigadier had spent his leave on a jaunt to Brighton. The following was composed concerning his behaviour:-
“There once was a gay Brigadier –
A widower nearly a year –
When there wasn’t a fight on
He went off to Brighton
And flirted with girls on the pier”
There is no need to tell you who was the author. We have not yet had the courage to shew it to the old man himself, thought I daresay he would laugh heartily enough at it. The “old man” had now been given a new nick name in addition to his former soubriquets of “Ginger” – “eyebrows” etc. He is now known as the “beetroot King”. This contains a reference of course to the colour of his hair, but the real reason for the title is his keenness for the new beet sugar scheme. Every time we have anybody to dinner he will talk by the hour about the wretched beetroot and how we shall be able to produce enough sugar in England for the needs of the country. I am sure that he must have invested all his money in the scheme – otherwise he could not be half so zealous. For the rest of us who have not the same interest in sugar beets it is all rather boring as you might imagine. Tomorrow is the memorable 13th. I believe the 5th are having an anniversary dinner if they can find a room large enough to accommodate the whole mess. Godsal and the General will both be out so there will not be anything of the sort here. However we shall celebrate it on Saturday night instead. There are not a tremendously large number who actually went through the show, but just enough to tell a few very tall stories about it.
The weather today has been a great improvement. It started very bright and no one thought it could last, but as a matter of fact it managed to keep it up all day. Soon after breakfast I rode over with Bonnassieux to the HQ of ours and there delivered a lecture on intelligence to an audience of about 200 officers and men, a somewhat terrifying experience. However I got on alright and found my chief difficulty was not to know what to say to fill up the time, but how to compress all I wanted to say in to the time allotted. I was very dry at the end of it. After the performance B. and I went for a short ride together and realized to the full what really glorious weather it was. We got several excellent canters until B’s camel like horse tying its’ forelegs into knots and cutting itself open with its’ own hoofs: then we had to wend our way slowly home. Kate went excellently. This evening I strolled up to trenches to examine some portions of a new specimen of German shell which had arrived during the day. I walked at a great pace, and collected a positively tremendous appetite for dinner. That meal we have now consumed and I am sitting in the mess waiting for the General to finish with todays Continental Daily Mail – not that there is even any real news in it. Tomorrow night I am going over to dine with Shields. Ours are out at present for a rest of five days and are not far away so I see something of them. I expect we shall have a bit of a bust tomorrow night.
Very many thanks for your letter. I am glad to hear that, as wounds go, Uncle Rob’s is not very serious. One is of course sorry to hear that he is wounded but at the same time it is cheering to know that he is safe in England, whereas while he was here one never knew what was happening to him. If this curious business is still on when the wound heals up, and there is any talk of rejoining his regiment, it must certainly be with a Commission. I expect it will not be difficult to manage. It will be very nice having him at Oakley, doubtless the authorities will allow a sufficient relaxation of the rules to enable him to visit the Vicarage occasionally when he is fit enough. I gather from your description of how it happened that he has been in the middle of one of those battles not many miles from the Somme – one does not as a rule carry bombs across the open unless something exciting is happening. If you see Kunk tell him that as soon as he gets to this country and gets settled down in some neighbourhood he must let me know where he is – this cannot of course be done by letter, but is possible between officers by what is known as D.R.L.S. a special system of despatch riders by which one can occasionally send a letter to a friend, if he is anywhere in the neighbourhood. If he comes to our particular district I shall expect him to give us a lift in his old sausage machine. I could stand it for half an hour or so without being more than moderately sea-sick. Has he yet made a parachute descent or is that an amusement that they do not practise until the old gas-bag has actually broken adrift? The weather has been anything but pleasing today – it has rained on and off the whole time. The trenches we manage to keep fairly dry thanks to a very sound drainage system, but the roads and tracks are thick with most objectionable mud and slime, and the amount of traffic is always so great that there is very little chance of making matters any better. The town Mayor has at last realized his responsibilities and we no longer have to swim to our billet; but the bridge that he has constructed, an affair of logs, so terrifies my mare that it is only with the greatest difficulty that she can be persuaded to cross it. That young lady has been quite conquered by the apples and is not very affectionate whenever I appear. She has learnt that apples are usually produced by, with, or from, my right hand, and consequently if ever I go near her I find her nose groping for my hand, and gently chewing the tips of my fingers. What she will do when apples are no longer procurable I cannot imagine. I hope she won’t resume her old habits of eating me. In spite of the rain I went for a hack round the countryside this morning but had to keep to the roads, it was much too wet for riding over the stubble. They are already starting to plough again and before long cross-country jaunts will be once more out of the question. My overcoat – bought last leave is most successful in keeping out the heaviest of rains, but even when riding one gets very warm inside it. The extra lining of oiled silk does not give the fresh air much chance to penetrate. The Brigadier is expected back tomorrow, we all hope he has a quiet crossing and is not kept an unduly long time waiting anywhere. On these small points depends to a very large extent the state of his temper, and on this last depends our happiness for the next few days. He has been spending most of his time at Brighton, though what on earth he can find to do there I cannot imagine. Probably he is getting married or something surprising of that sort. He is, as a matter of fact, just the sort of widower one would expect to get married again as soon as possible. I don’t know quite why, but he looks like it. Old Boniface (Bonnassieux) has been made a sergeant or what is in French Mounted units a “marechal de logi”. This entitles him to wear a strip of silver braid on his sleeve and hat. He also has two silver chevrons for eighteen months service at the front, and the general effect can only be described as “tres chic”. He is most inordinately fond of it all, and I shall have to lecture him on vanity. For a parson it is most shocking.
I have begun this on the wrong side of the paper so you will have to find your way through it as best as you can. I hope it will not prove to be as insoluble as a jig-saw puzzle. Worse perhaps even than a jig-saw puzzle are the houses of a certain village at which we have stared for some months in different lights and from different points of view they appear to be in entirely different places, and the effort to plot some conspicuous house on the map is almost sufficient to give one a nightmare for a month. However as winter comes along and the leaves begin to fall from the trees we shall be able to see more and more no doubt. In spite of the difficulties it is undoubtedly very interesting trying to identify houses, and when one does manage to plot one in right and can verify it by photograph, one feels it is quite a triumph. This evening I delivered a lecture to the officers of one of the regiments on this particular village, and managed to struggle along for a much longer time that I had thought probable or even possible. The audience were very kind and I got away at the end without having any rotten eggs thrown at me. Most of the rest of the time since I last wrote I have spent wandering round trenches, including a good deal of last night. There have been one or two little things happening and I have had to be up there more than usual. The weather has not been at all bad and the views have been splendid in between the showers. Today for a wonder we have not even had a shower and as it is a fine night perhaps we can hope for the best tomorrow. I think it just possible that the Uncle may be somewhere in the neighbourhood but I cannot find out anything for certain, meanwhile I have been idiot enough to lose his address. In this respect I am almost as bad as my respected Aunt M. If he really is near I shall be able to ride over and see him with any luck. In some ways it is getting terribly like winter – trees are very nearly bare, the wind is roaring down the chimney and already we are seeing visions of long boots and heavy coats and everything of that sort. Tell Dad the R.C. padre tried to “vert” me ½ an hour yesterday. His arguments were as wonderful as amusing. I am afraid I rather shocked the good man.
Very many thanks for a letter which arrived this morning: there was one from Andrew at the same time so that I had quite a budget. Have they yet appointed a Headmaster of Shrewsbury, or are they going to have a head-mistress on account of the shortage of men? I am sure it would cause quite a little excitement if someone such as Miss Paul got the job. We have just had another “bust”. I have of course eaten about twice as much as is good for me and nothing but a most terrific amount of strenuous exercise tomorrow will save me from a collapse. Apparently the Viccars delicacies had not come to an end as I thought last time I wrote, and there were still two brace of partridges hanging up in the kitchen. They were produced this evening; after we had opened all the windows, put on our respirators, and held our breaths for several minutes we set to work on them. Some doubt seemed to exist as to whether they ought not to have been called humming-birds. Partridges are quite numerous in this neighbourhood especially round the trenches, where there is of course no one to shoot them. One often puts up quite a large covey while strolling up some communication trench. Godsal the day before yesterday shot one. He happened to meet a machine gunman with a revolver just as he saw the birds, so borrowed the weapon, and neatly shot one through the head while flying at a range of about 30 yards. I knew Godsal was a Bisley shot and had captained the D.L.I. team, but did not know he could do that. He is not the sort of man to have as an enemy. We were all very bucked to hear of another Zeppelin being fetched down near London, the defences seem to be really good must at present. If I remember right I rode through Potters Bar one day when were at Sawbridgeworth, probably the day I went over to call on J.C.Hill at some outlandish place where he hung out. It must be very awkward for the gentlemen living in the airship to find that they are suddenly being compelled to make a landing contrary to their wishes, and their better judgement. Now that the moon has appeared again I expect you will get comparative peace for a while, I only hope our luck repeats itself whenever they try their next series of visits. Four down in four trips is a most excellent air-service. In time there will be anything but an eager crowd waiting to enlist outside the recruiting offices of the German Air Force. The weather for the last two days has been just about as rotten as it could be. It has not actually rained all the time, but one has never felt safe going out without a coat. Our little village is once more a series of small lakes, and we have almost to swim home from mess in the evenings. I had to go up to trenches rather late yesterday afternoon, and it was dark when I got back. My mare I left tied up in a stable en route, and when I came to untie her, I suddenly realized that never since I had had her has she been out in the dark. She is always a bit jumpy, but coming home last night she was as nervous as a kitten and jumped at everything. Traffic on the roads, puddles, lighted windows, electric torches, all acted like electric shocks and it was more by luck than any skilled horsemanship that I retained my seat. I am glad old Barton has got married all right, I expect we shall very soon see him out here again, I cannot imagine that a “home” unit will have much attraction for him. Williams is by no means fit again yet though he goes on very well, but Creed and Banwell are both back with the reserve and both very anxious to rejoin us here. Well I am feeling very sleepy so shall wander off home. It will soon be time to have a fire in my billet, there is an excellent little stove, and it will dry the room well, which otherwise is inclined to be a bit damp. If only I could get a pane or two of glass to fill up the missing windows panes I should be all right, as it is there is a fierce draught in one or two places.