Just a line or two while I am waiting for the Brigade despatches to come along. The weather has become distinctly Autumnal, and though the worst of the rain seems to be over for the moment, it is by no means warm even in the sun. This morning started very brightly but it has clouded over now and I should not be surprised if we had a shower or two before night. We are down once more to the old familiar game of paddling about wet ditches, and clambering along the side of a trench with a six-foot pole thrust into the other side to prevent one slipping into the young river that runs along the floor. My own particular pole is a very light but strong bamboo with a spike – a most handy weapon both for walking and rat-sticking. The first appearance of these long sticks always produces much humour and mirth from the onlooking soldiers. “While Shepherds watched their flocks by night” I had shouted at me the other day, while I was going up to trenches with the C.O. Old John Burnett has come back from leave and is now second in Command while James Griffiths is in Aldershot on his 3 month course. John is looking wonderfully fit, he is a marvellous fellow. We are a merry party at H.Q. – the only somewhat wet blanket being the Doctor, who takes himself and his work much too seriously. He seems to imagine it his duty to find out that the whole Battalion has scabies. The Colonel pulls his leg always, and the poor man can’t always see the point. Everybody seems to expect the war to end in a day or two. Personally I cannot see why it should, but it is a good thing to be an optimist. The funny old gentleman who lives in the ditches over the way gets a pretty poor time of it one way and another. He must be getting very tired of being knocked about. No time for more. Here comes the morning consignment of written verbosity form the folks in the armchairs.
The weather has taken a distinctly unfavourable turn. It is raining now and has been doing so most of the day – it did so yesterday – it will I dare say do the same tomorrow. The worst thing about this country is that when it starts raining – which it does fairly often, it never seems to want to stop, and what’s more it comes down in bucket-fuls. We are just at present at rest in the very desirable residence with the tennis court – hardly useable just now. We work very hard all the morning but devote the afternoon mostly to games and such-like pastimes. There was to have been some rugger today but the weather was too terrible. I was to have been referee: perhaps it is just as well that the game was cancelled.
After Church Parade this morning I rode over to see the 1st Btn who were not far away. I did not manage to see Col. Jones but came across John – a company commander whom I met at the Base. It rained the whole way back and I got very wet but I don’t know that that mattered very much. There was an early celebration this morning to which I got – there is usually one once a fortnight to which I can get, in fact the average is nearly 2 for every 3 Sundays.
Just a line or two during a spare five minutes to wish you many happy returns of the day – if this arrives in time – and at the same time to reassure you. I am afraid newspapers are apt to be very misleading and there are other troops from the Northern Midlands besides those in this Division. We are living in the most peaceful trenches, and the atmosphere is one of complete calm – as a rule. At all events we have not been making any ferocious attacks. I hope you have not been caused any needless anxiety. I am gradually getting very much attached to the new C.O. – he is obviously a very fine man, and what is particularly admirable is his attitude towards the people above. He knows his place exactly but is never afraid to stand up for his rights and the rights of his Battalion, and consequently is always out to get the best he possibly can for the men. He usually succeeds. The knee has had a great deal to do during the last six days, round the line twice every 24 hours and wandering about all sorts of curious places in the dark. It has stood it very well and I think the only thing which worries it at all is the horrible dampness of underground life. I wake sometimes very stiff in the mornings. Six hours sleep a day is all I need and all I get – and fortunately for me the C.O. doesn’t mind my getting out & about it when he isn’t wanting me in the orderly room. The padre came round trenches with me last night – he is curiously devoid of any fear at all. I don’t think he likes shells and bombs and things but he certainly never shows his dislike for them, He has a considerable influence on the men.
What sort of a time are you having in Bromley? The weather at all events ought to be good if you are having anything like what we have got here. It is really wonderful for October, and I hope it will last: one can wander about all the old unpaved trenches in comfort – an absolute impossibility after a little rain. I like my work very much but should find it less tiring up here if I could only work in fairly decent air, instead of at the bottom of a great deep dug-out, which though absolutely safe is somewhat inclined to be headache producing. As a general rule I get out soon after lunch, and stay out until it is nearly dark. On these rambles I am accompanied by a most invaluable orderly named Sullivan – an Irishman from N. London, who, for some unknown reason, enlisted in the Regular Btn of this Regiment a year or two before the war. He considers himself my property and objects most strongly if he has to go round with anybody else, or if I take anyone but him with me. He is a most calm individual, and has an amusing but somewhat irritating habit of rolling out some inane platitude just as one is hiding one’s head ignominiously at the sound of some approaching shell. Nothing alarms him – he is consequently priceless and just the man for me. My next trip round the line, or at all events into the open air is at about 10.30pm. By that time I have generally managed to dispose of all the stackes of literature which higher units, commands, and formations see fit to shower upon us at all hours of the day. Once again Sullivan comes along with me, and we go and survey the countryside by moon-star- or no light as the case may be. Just at present a night walk differs very little from a daylight one as the moon has been lately as bright as I have ever known it. Moore has got back to us form his month’s leave for getting married, and just at the moment is second in command. James Gfiffiths has gone to England for 3 months on a course at Aldershot. He went away from us last night as happy as a sandboy. Burnett, who normally takes his place is away on short leave, so Moore is acting. We have plenty of officers, and they look like making a very excellent lot, and what is particularly useful a very brave and adventurous lot. The spirit of adventure is one of the greatest assets a young officer can have, and only too often in these days it is absolutely lacking. It is just possible I shall not have time to write again in time for your birthday, so you must accept my very best wishes now – I hope next year I shall be somewhat nearer than I am at present. Everybody here seems to imagine that the war is to all intents and purposes won. It seems to be an established fact that the enemy is in a very bad way. Though on this particular front his attitude seems as warlike as ever – it really is a little strange that he has not done more with Russia in a state of Mutiny. There does not seem to be any apparent reason why the Pickelhaube should not be walking on the Nevsky Prospect, and yet the Hohenzollern is still a very long way off the Capital. So tell Dad not to get depressed over a raid or two, and to remember that we are in a very good way indeed. The number of O.M.T.s has been still further increased by the introduction of Cole and Westcott – we now total seven which is I think quite enough for one Battalion.
It is very nice having plenty of work to do again, and plenty I certainly have. There seems to be a never ending stream of paper pouring in upon us from every possible source, and every sheet has to come through me as a sorting office, before being disposed of – wither by the C.O, or by various Company Commanders and other important officials. The Commanding Officer – Col. Turnble returns from his leave today and we expect to see him here tomorrow night. I am wondering what he looks like – as my only view of him is a papers picture of him and his wife leaving the Church. Everybody says what a good fellow he is, so I expect we shall get on very well together. However it is just a little hard on a man to come back to his Regiment to find an unexpected and disturbing element in his Orderly Room. The weather has been absolutely glorious ever since I got back, and except for half an hour one night I have not had to wear my raincoat at all. It has probably been the saving of old wobbly knee, because if I had to start right away in wet & slippery trenches I shudder to think what would have happened. As it is I am partially broken in now, and do not mind what the weather does. My new mare – or rather my new mount – since she is one of the oldest soldiers in the Battalion – is Dolly, ridden successively by Aubrey Sharps, Wollaston, myself when acting Adjutant in 1915, and then Charles Shields for a very long time. She is very quiet with the except when guns go off, and then she hops about a little: she is never any trouble, and is just the sort of animal I want. We are getting swarms and swarms of officers, and shall soon have one for every ten men in the Regiment. They are not all over bright, but I daresay we shall turn them into some fort of soldiers before the war ends. I personally find that I am becoming very fierce – and awfully bad-tempered.
I am still very busy indeed, & have very few moments to spare for anything but work, as you have doubtless gathered from the shortage of letters that you have received. I have simply not had time to write – except one miserable field service postcard which I sent off to Dini just to show I was still alive. It was, and is, so very nice getting back to really hard work, and though at present I have an extra large allotment I think it not improbable when I get things more sorted out, I may have a little more spare time. Everybody keeps very fit & in the best of spirits, & I keep on meeting old friends, who all seem just the same as ever. I went round to old Bonnassieux this morning swaggering about with two ribbons “up” – a croix de guerre & a military medal. I shall probably go & dine with him in a day or two when we get a little less warlike. Today we have been much amused by a visit from a newspaper man – some reporter from the town of Leicester who wanted to see how we lived. He was much impressed, and I think on the whole enjoyed himself, though he was a little bored with a steel helmet and a respirator which he had to carry.
It is very nearly a week since I wrote but I have been worked off my feet ever since I got back to my Btn. Which I did last Saturday night. I found everybody in great form and full of good spirits especially Wollaston, the Major, & old John Burnett. As I more or less expected I have been reinstated as Adjutant, and Woolly has gone to “B” coy. I think he is a little sad about it but that cannot be helped. The C.O. is still on leave getting married, and Colonel Jones is once more coming to France, but to whom or for what purpose, no one knows. He will not be sent to us. Petch has a Military Cross, an event which we are celebrating this evening with a dinner. We start in two hours time and so far they have not succeeded in getting any port. I hope all will be well. Here am I jabbering away to you about all this nonsense and you are practically driven from home. I am exceedingly sorry to hear that you have had to leave London & hope that it will not be for long: at the same time you will certainly be more comfortable away from the noise. I am not sorry for poor Dad left there to face it all alone on Sundays.
The knee is standing the strain excellently. I am in the saddle for several hours a day – cantering about – running on my feet, and on the horses – in fact doing everything: beyond a small jar or two I never feel anything amiss. It was really rather like coming home after the end of term to get back here – not that I mean to imply that my leave was like term time, but it was very nice finding oneself once more amongst all one’s old friends. There are many gone; but those left all seemed awfully glad to see me. They are all delightful. The Battalion does not seem complete without Shields who was an institution but I daresay we shall get used to his absence in time – as we have the others. There is no time for regrets & the old C.O. would never allow any.
Thank goodness my stay in this abominable place is coming to an end & I join my Battalion tomorrow. At least we set forth to join our units tomorrow, the journey is always liable to take a little time. However I expect the next letter that you get from me will come from that haven of rest – Btn H.Q. I have met several friends down here since I last wrote. First of all I ran into Trotter who was in the Head form with me, next Cannon – “Long Percy” who used to be one of Kemp’s H.Q. Mess. The latter is an Instructor at the Training School to which all these Depots are attached. At the same school is a very merry Captain in the 4th Btn. named Bobby Evans whom I know well, & one in our second line whom I know slightly. I dined with Cannon in their mess the night before last – thereby having quite a respectable meal, a thing which it is impossible to get here. Last night two of us had dinner down in the town, where I spent most of the day – it was too hot to do much except sit of the beach & look at the sea. All the heat was apparently working up for a gigantic thunderstorm which we had last night. The lightning was as bright as I have ever seen, & the rain came down in bucketfuls, simply swamping most of our tents.
We had a very successful crossing & arrived all serene once more in the jolly old land of frogs. The other officer of my regiment who should have been there was not, but there were more than a dozen belonging to other Battalions, some of them Regulars, with whom I soon became acquainted. We did not come straight on up here at once but spent the night in a wretched Rest Camp, a miserable place miles out of town, where there were no Batmen & one was even expected to carry ones own valise about. We came on here yesterday & here we seem likely to stay – for an indefinite period. One point of great satisfaction is that I go back to my own Battalion, that is already settled. Here we are on a sandy plain & in tents, you can imagine the result – one’s kit, mouth & clothes always gritty. The mess, full of course of new officers of the most new order, is not a very comfortable spot & I shall not be in the least sorry to get moved on. Old Huskisson came by the same train from Folkestone, he is likely to become Staff Captain as Grinling has been moved to be a Brigade Major. I hope old Husky gets it, he is a first rate man & I know him well. Today we have been fitting & testing respirators, a performance which I believe we repeat tomorrow even more strenuously than today. As far as one can judge from rumours & reports, all the stories one has heard about the new Boche gas are grossly exaggerated, and really there is nothing to fear from it, if one keeps one head. Things seem very little altered since I was last here. Same old filthy trains and unlit carriages. Same way of loitering along & stopping hours between stations. Same playful habit of depositing one about a mile from the platform with no means of conveyance for one’s kit. Same French children very cheerful and very rude. Only it is not raining at the moment, several of us are just off into the town to get dinner there – meals not being very high class in this establishment.
Captain Hills didn’t write any letters between 15th January and 2nd September 1917.
It is likely that Hills’ knee injury prevented him from staying on the front line and that he probably went to England for medical treatment during this time.
The letters blog will return on 2nd September 2017.