A most unusual & profane Easter, but it cannot be helped. Good Friday the General was in trenches & as for some reasons which there is no need to mention he had to come down he told me to get up there & spend the night, my job was to discover how things lay in general – there had been a good deal of excitement one way & another during the two previous nights & no one quite knew how we stood. It was raining quite hard enough to be unpleasant & I did not get up to the scene of operation until it was nearly dark. The rest of the night until the early hours of next morning I was there or thereabouts – soaked to the skin & getting more & more muddy every minute. Just before dawn I reinforced myself with a fairly stiff rum ration & then returned to see the matter by daylight. We got a bomb or two over in the morning but the other gentleman soon desisted when he found that he got more than he gave. I thoroughly enjoyed myself & got all I wanted in the way of plans & sketches, & finally returned wet through, & disguised as a cake of mud about mid-day. By the time I got back everyone had cleared out – I may have mentioned that we were going for a bit of rest. There was no means of getting back until about eight o’clock so I had a bath and packed up. At 8.30 we set forth on a motor lorry ride with a few sick men of one of the regiments to whom we were giving a lift. I had no map but both the driver & I knew the way – it was about nine miles. Unfortunately the police would not let us go by the ordinary route for some reason or another, so we tried to find another road. Five times we turned back from roads that were too bad for the lorry. Once we got into a village & could not get back, & then when we were at least getting near the place we had a calamity. We had gone up a road which, according to a sign-post, led in the right direction, only to find that it practically ceased to exist after about a mile. With much skill & great difficulty our driver managed to turn around in a ploughed field, & we started back. But fate was against us & a few yards further we skidded off the road & stuck fast. For an hour & a half we tried for all we were worth to work our way out – but it was all of no avail. The sick men were mostly “bad feet” & to ask then to march home was out of the question – so I set off myself. More by luck than good judgement I set off in the right direction & struck a village at 12.45 AM – there was one light burning – I decided to ask the way. Just as I got near the window the noises coming from it convinced me that its occupant was either a lunatic or having a fit – so I gave it up as a bad job, trusted to the sign-post and walked on. I got to our new head-quarters at 2.0. AM swallowed a mouthful of hot soup & some cold beef & rushed into bed. It was very nearly forty eight hours since I had had any sleep, & for ten or eleven hours I was absolutely wet through. So rising early was out of the question & I got up for lunch to the tune, as it happened, of “Art Thou Weary”. According to all accounts the padre forgot that it was Easter Day & provided three Lent Hymns – at least, as one subaltern told me – “They contained allusions to coffins & things”. I will make up for my delinquencies by going to Church with you next Sunday all being well. Unless anything very untoward happenes I shall turn up at some hour or other on Friday. I probably told you that Bosworth had crocked up – I have a very useful person at present in his place named Hall, but am glad to hear that B. will be back in a day or two & is much better. Meanwhile we have a new mess waiter. His age is sixteen & he looks fourteen, so goodness only knows how he ever got out here. To judge by the clumsiness of his ways I should say he had spent most of his existence in a farmyard or else down a coal mine, & even my most patient self am beginning to despair of ever turning him into anything. He will insist that we drink with our left hands & eat porridge with a knife. We are at present in what must at one time have been a most magnificent Chateau. It has a tower & some very large rooms, in one of which we feed. It has rather fallen into a state of decay through not being properly looked after since the war began, but is still very comfortable. Its owner was one M. Bethune who with his two daughters was one of the victims of the villainous Le Bon at Arras in ’93 or thereabouts. It is the first time that we have struck any really old chateau – the others have been the country residences of some wealthy Parisian “Parvenue” as a rule. This was first built in 1485 so is really quite old. Viccars is very struck with the window glass which he calls hand blown & old with old-world tints. The General, on the other hand is very scornful, & says he prefers to see things as they are when he looks through a widow, & does not admire two curly trees leaning against each other – with a “flaw” in the sky. They had a long argument about it at lunch. But V. is the sort of man to give £5 for an old pewter plate so you can imagine what he is like. My own billet is in the same house as the Brigade Major & Escombe, also the interpreter. The owner is the schoolmistress an austere old dame – very talkative. There is also an exceedingly handsome young lady who favours one occasionally with a sweet smile, but is most struck with Godsal – presumably on account of his red-hat. All the village turned out this afternoon to listen to our band which gave selections on the square much to everybody’s delight. Several of the players had for some time been away on leave, long leave given to those who are willing to re-engage on the expiration of their term of service. Now that they are back the band HAS greatly improved, & ARE now really worth listening to. The last is bad grammar but it is getting late. I told you that we were going out of sound of the guns, but that is not true as we can hear them fairly distinctly. This afternoon we could even see them bursting – crowds of them all round some aeroplanes that were up; it was all a long way away over the lines so we could not tell whether it was a Bosch or one of our fellows that was running into the Archies.
J.D.H. came home on leave April 26th until May
Since I last wrote I have had one night in the trenches, during which time I got as wet as it is well possible for anyone to get. So wet in fact was I that I did not dare go to bed for fear of catching a chill, so walked about all night to keep warm. There has been a certain amount of excitement in our bit of the show in a quiet sort of way; but if we have not damaged the other fellow more than he has us, then we have not done him much harm. Mines, mortars, saucy squibs & all sorts of funny little things like that, have been making themselves felt during the last few days – but all to no purpose as far as we are concerned. As I said before we are shortly going into rest – right out of sight of the guns, & well out of their reach. Whether it will be a real rest, or whether we shall have to find about twenty thousand fatigues, is for the “red caps” to decide; I think there is just a chance of the former. Why we are thus honoured nobody seems to know, because we have not been in the line very long, & before that we seem to have been doing nothing but resting – one way & another. Our new headquarters will not be as comfortable as these – I, for one, am in an empty room instead of a nicely furnished little boudoir. There will be no bed except a home–made affair of some rabbit wire on a few poles. However I dare say it will be pretty country & it will be possible to get a nice ride or two now & then. There are rumours that leave will re-open & I think it quite possibly will sometime next week; so don’t despair of seeing me soon.
There is no news of the starting of leave yet, but I have it on fairly good authority that it is going to commence again soon. I think I can safely say that I shall roll up; complete with a souvenir or two from the continents – visited since I last came home. By the way since I last wrote I have been “strafed” by the Bosch, – that is I believe the correct “modern” trench expression. I was observing through a periscope yesterday morning when the idiot over the way put a bullet through the top. I got an awful whack over the head & two or three tons of broken glass in each eye. Fortunately no damage was done, & I am not blinded or anything horrible of that sort. This time my countenance was not broken as on a similar occasion about this time last year. I have just taken a somewhat momentous step as far as my future existence is concerned. You have probably gathered that my present occupation is largely understudying the Staff-Captain – Sitting on an office stool, & docketing gum-boots. This may of course eventually lead to a Staff-Captaincy for myself. But it is not in my line – I cannot stand papers – & though I might manage the job all right, I should never like it, & would always be fidgeting for something more active. So today I have delivered a sort of ultimatum & asked to be allowed to go back to the good old intelligence job that I liked so much. A red hat is now a very much more distant object, but on the other hand should I get anything it would be on the “G” or fighting side & not the administrative & quartermaster’s side. “G” has much more chance of getting on, whereas a Staff Captain is practically a dead end. To a great many people it will seem like a step in the wrong direction; it will certainly mean giving up comfort, good food & a very safe billet; but whichever way I look at it I am absolutely convinced that at present I am on the wrong track all together. If the army is to be my profession I could never stick it all my life on a stool, even for the sake of a bit of red on my cap; if it is all to end with the war – then I may as well do what suits me the best. One more consideration has urged me on. Anyone can docket gum-boots – it is just the job for some respectable married man: there are not many who can do the Intelligence business & it is simply made for me & I for it. I expect to hang on here for some time but shall probably return to the good old games in a month’s time. Just at present my servant is ill – I do hope he won’t get really bad, as a good servant is really hard to replace out here. My groom is doing the job at present. The horse is getting really fit & looking very well. She is very lively & somewhat obstinate – shies at everything & has a curious habit of turning sharp to the right or left in the middle of a canter. I think I shall call her Kate when she is Shrew-like, & at other times Kitty – a suitable name because her jump is distinctly cat-like. We are very shortly going to move out of our chateau – the most comfortable billet we have ever struck & are to go into rest – probably harder work than we have ever done before.
Viccars is arriving back tonight, & the General had given me permission to go on leave tomorrow. The fates however were unwilling & late last night a wire came cancelling all leave until further orders. I think there is good reason to hope it will come on again, none of us know why it has been stopped: when it does resume it’s normal course I shall put in an appearance. The attached Staff Captain from England has returned whence he came, & I think enjoyed himself immensely. I took him up to the trenches yesterday afternoon & we spent the night in the dug-out. Several shells came quite near enough to make him think, & during the night we went for a most interesting & illuminating little walk all over the place. At one critical period of our ramble he got absolutely stuck & had to come away without one of his gum-boots, which I afterwards salved for him. There were one or two whistling bullets going over very high up, but I think he pictured himself hopelessly stuck in full (moonlight) view of the Bosches who were cruelly potting at him, during his frantic efforts at self extrication. In reality of course there was no danger – I could not risk it as should have been most horribly strafed if the fellow had been hit or anything unpleasant of that sort.
Just at present I am feeling very important. Not only am I officiating as Staff Captain but I am also instructing another Staff Captain in his duties. He has just come out from home to learn the job as his Brigade expects to get here sooner or later. Viccars is due back tomorrow but as he generally manages to get an extra day or two at Boulogne or somewhere, we shall not expect him until we see him. If he cannot manage it by any other means, he arranges to have a motor or railway accident. Tomorrow I shall take the attached Staff Captain up to have a look at the trenches & see how we do things up there. It is my turn for a night in the dug-out so everything works out very conveniently. So long as the Bosch does not do anything too dreadful I shall doubtless be able to appear magnificently courageous, & conceal the fact that if a shell really did come I should run like an antelope for cover. This morning I had to represent the Brigadier while the G.O.C. inspected a new draft. As the latter was not in the best of humours it was not a very exciting job. The weather was – & still is – exceedingly beastly; that is to say there is a young hurricane & a good deal of rain. We found one man in the draft who had lost the whole of his trigger finger & the use of the next one; what use they imagine he would be I do not know, except perhaps in some special job – such as signalling – or, of course; the A.S.C.
Yesterday evening, last night & this morning were spent in the dug-out which has been vastly improved by a large amount of white-wash. Rude people call it a whited sepulchre but it is certainly lighter & cleaner than it was. The rats & mice are still pretty numerous but our food is kept locked up so that they do not trouble us much. Now that the weather is warm it is really very nice up here. Viccars being still away there is no shortage of work. I seem to spend a most apalling amount of time at this table scribbling away when one ought to be more actively employed. However I still find time for a ride now & then, & had a particularly enjoyable one this evening. My animal is now fit again & very skittish in consequence, ready in fact to jump about all over the place, & shy at the first or slightest provocation. The 5th are now out for a rest so I occasionally see the Colonel & one or two others. In a short time the rest camp should be really delightful; there are large spacious huts & the situation of them is by no means unpleasant. Also the gentleman over the way is not in the habit of interfering with their peaceful pleasures in any way; I do not think a shell has ever visited them. The Bosch was very rude during the morning & fired several rounds of shrapnel at the identical piece of ground which I had selected for my matutinal perambulations. One small piece fell on my helmet, which might have bruised my cranium in the absence of any protective armour. Myriads of other pieces came humming down all round but none of them were gifted with the necessary impertinence to hit me. After the first burst my matutinal perambulation turned itself into an undignified scoot for the nearest cover. I may have told you some time ago that we had a Colonel staying here for a day or two who was going a sort of Cook’s tour of the country. He has now got back to England & returned thanks for his stay here by sending us a most enormous cake, a large box of Carlsbad plums, two jars of “patum” & some “foie gras”. That comes of forgetting to present him with a mess bill, a fact which, up to the arrival of the parcel, I had deeply regretted. Messing looks like becoming a more or less expensive luxury soon as a great many prices have gone up. Even tinned fruits are more than they used to be, & one hears rumours that certain drinks are to be absolutely ungettable; if this should prove true I shudder to think of the after dinner tempers of certain officers of higher rank who are accustomed to a whiskey & soda or two. There is no time for more now as the pile of papers at my elbow has been steadily increasing & I must attend to them.
I am afraid once again there has been a long gap between letters: in fact I have only time to write now because my bedding has not got back from the trenches & I cannot go to bed until it comes. As I was up in the line most of last night you can readily imagine that I am pretty tired. The Brigadier came back all right bringing with him an enormous salmon, which has already lasted for a considerable number of meals. He, the General not the fish, is now spending his night up – alone this time as Viccars is away on leave, & I must stay in the office. This morning I had to act as a sort of Cook’s official guide to a party of red hats from another division who wanted to see our trenches. It is not a very easy business guiding them because one has to keep them away from any place that might be in the slightest degree dangerous while at the same time one is expected to show then all the interesting parts of the line. Bonnassieux is also away on leave at present but our mess is kept at its usual number by the presence of an officer who has got a bit trench–worn, & is having a rest–cure in our chateau. There has been quite a lot of strafe lately in these parts & someone is doing a good deal of shooting at the present minute. We are so far back here that it is impossible to tell exactly where the row is, so I have rung up to try & find out. My kit has just turned up so I will turn in.
I am afraid it is a very long time since I have written, work is my only excuse. Of that there seems to have been even more than usual. Viccars is proposing to go on leave the day after tomorrow, the Divisional Bomb Officer is on leave now – both their jobs are my job in their absence. In addition to that there are our own little bomb worries & a court martial of which I have been a member in the last three days. The General is due back the day that Viccars goes, I only hope he is not in too fierce a mood at having to return to this beautiful country. Leave is not as a rule calculated to improve one’s outlook on this jolly old war. At all events he will have had good weather, if you are having anything like what we have got here just now. The sun today was really hot, & everything is drying up very quickly. Another fortnight of this & with a good deal of labour our trenches may become almost habitable. Tremendous excitement was caused this morning by the downfall of a Bosch aeroplane, the victim of one of our machines. It was a splendid piece of manoeuvring, & the whole affair occurred well behind our lines: I did not see it all myself though we heard a few m.gun shots fired somewhere high up & out of sight. We all wish that it had been Lt Hantelman who is said to have brought down 13 Allied machines in his life; unfortunately it was not. I suppose the last Zep. Raid was too far away for you to be worried at all by them. I am very glad they managed to wing and finally capture one of them. I see the Kaiser is reported to be against “frightfulness”; & also that he thinks it will not help to finish the war. It is rather news to us that he wants the war to finish, it almost looks as if he were a little tired of it. Everyone who comes back from leave says that all London is very optimistic, & everybody is in high spirits everywhere. This must be quite a change because last time I was there it struck me as being rather a distressingly gloomy place. The trees & shrubs are just beginning to look really nice, while the hyacinths, violets, daffodils & auriculas in our front garden are most excellent. The only things that are likely to prove a nuisance now are the dust which is fast collecting, & the lack of good drinking water which is of course always a bit of a bother.