War Diary of AA Laporte Payne
Brigade Diary, Personal Diary, Operation Orders, Note Books, Memoranda
R.P. August 1,1917.
It has rained continuously and hard for the last thirty hours and it is still coming down in torrents. After twelve hours out in it I came back and found the camp under water, with about a foot deep in my tent. I am now sitting on a throne of ammunition boxes in the middle of the tent writing letters. The poor horses are having a wretched time, and the men too. I tried hard to find a barn or other shelter for the men to dry themselves in, but I was quite unsuccessful. They will have to remain wet until it pleases the sun to come out again.
We have taken I understand 3000 prisoners and a good slice of the Boche front line: then it pours with rain. Truly the stars in their courses fought against us. It really is exasperating. The poilu shrugs his shoulders and exclaims “C’est la guerre”. The British tommy curses or whines dismal tunes. The staff sit in their chateau playing cards.
I enclose a newspaper cutting, (July 29th)
We have just had another officer posted to us. It will relieve the pressure a bit.
Down here at the wagon line I mess with the W.L. Officer of B Battery. At the moment he is howling for me to go to dinner in a shanty made of tarred felting. It is very shaky, draughty, and certainly not water tight, but still it serves. So I must close.
August the first, 1917.
The sand here is very troublesome as it seems to pull the shoes off the horses’ feet, and the appalling mud gives them greasy heel.
Conditions are delightful! It has rained hard and persistently for the last thirty hours without stopping, and it still continues. The camp is under water. When I returned there after being out in it for twelve hours in hardly a dry condition I found a foot of water in my tent. I am now sitting on a throne of ammunition boxes in the tent writing a few notes. The wretched horses are having a rotten time, and the men almost as bad. I tried hard to get a shed or barn for the drivers to make some attempt to get dry, but was quite unsuccessful. They will have to be wet until Jupiter turns the tap off. It always pours when we contemplate making a push. If the stars in their courses do not fight against us the clouds dropping rain do so. The gods must be angry with us. It is bad luck on the men who have the weather, the staff and the Boche to contend with. In such conditions success is hardly likely.
The papers will have told you what is going on. Up to the present I have heard that part of the German line with about three thousand prisoners have been taken to the south of us. Now the weather has called a halt. Poor old British Army! They are always getting done down by one or all of the three elements that go to make up our atmosphere out here, staff, Boche, and rain. But stay, I must not forget what journalists say about “tommy”, that he is never so cheerful as when everything goes wrong. Did you ever hear such rot? I wonder where they get their information from? The censor, no doubt. He ought to know, if any one did. They live close to one another in some cosy chateau.
Well, well. Hay-up has just gone, so I must stop.
R.P. August 4, 1917.
The weather is truly fearful. We are swamped out. We know that the floods are subsiding when we can see the tips of the horses’ ears sticking above the water. We have no need of a dove. Our bridge over the dyke, by which we enter the field where we live, floated away yesterday, and we had great but wet fun rescuing it. One of the ammunition wagons completely disappeared in a bog. I do not think I have ever experienced such a lengthy period of steady rain, certainly not in August. Thank Jupiter it is clearing up now, so we are alright except for the MUD.
However the flood gave us a certain amount of amusement, but we could well do without it.
The new officers to replace casualties seem to be no earthly use. I do believe they do not know which end of the gun shoots out of. I should have thought that at this stage of the war men better trained could have been sent out. It makes it very hard for the old stagers who have to spoon feed them without being relieved of any of their duties.
The Boche infantry is nothing like what they used to be. The enemy seem to rely on their 5.9, in. gun and machine guns manned to the latter by picked men in strong posts. Tanks should be our answer to the latter, and good counter-battery work to the former. These difficulties have got to be surmounted somehow.
At last we are obtaining a fair allotment of leave for the men, I am glad to say. The majority of them have had no leave since they have been in France.
August 5, 1917.
We have been quite flooded out. We do not require a dove here. We know when the floods are subsiding when we see the horse’s ears semaphoring above the water.
It was great sport fishing for floating wagons and our precious ditch bridges with drag ropes. You know the physical geography of this delightful country, so you can imagine the conditions after a sixty hour storm.
There is a subaltern here in the adjoining wagon-lines of our Brigade, a delightful fellow and a Scotchman, and he makes me howl with laughter at his antics and grousings. He is really most amusing. I should fade away with melancholia if he were not here. He is the brightest spot in the landscape. The sight he presented when he arrived at my tent late the other night in the pouring rain was most comical. He had waded over knee deep in water, and forgotten the water hidden ditch half way across. His great wish now is to ride into a small town some way away where there are some English or other nurses. He says that if he does not get a sight of an English girl soon he will languish and die.
The new subalterns we are getting as reinforcements to replace casualties are truly awful. They seem to be worse than useless, and do not know which end of the gun shoots out of.
My mare is looking very well, and appears to be thoroughly enjoying life. I have a new groom now to replace the one the Colonel robbed me of. This fellow is quite good, and keeps my large quantity of saddlery clean. Nothing looks so pleasing as a good horse, well groomed, and well polished leather. But he is not so good as Scarret, my former groom.
Noon, and time for stables so I must go.
August 9, 1917.
A line by one of the men who is going on leave to let you know we are alright….. Let me know if you get this properly stamped, for if not the fellow I give it to will be sorry for himself when he returns.
August 11, 1917.
Another note by a man going on leave… The fellow is in a hurry. He has not seen his people since December 1915.
August 12, 1917.
Time does not hang heavily on our hands at present. But noise, rain and mud and the other usual concomitants of war in Belgium get a bit wearisome at times. Though I must say I have never been so fit and well or eager to enjoy life as I am at present. Just as the minor discomforts often become disproportionately momentous so with avidity we snatch at the trifling pleasures which this unnatural life sometimes offers us. From a low view point the unevenness of existence appear unduly exalted. Perhaps we do not things sub specie aeternitatis as we should. The only true philosophy for the soldier is the Stoic. I still carry Marcus Aurelius about with me. It is curious to recollect that he wrote while on active service and at a time when the Roman Empire was just beginning to fall into decay. I wonder whether our so-called civilization will go the same way.
We have been sending a lot of our men away on leave, those who have had none since they came out, poor fellows! So I am up early every morning to see that they go away properly dressed and that they leave behind their dangerous souvenirs. Many are the precautions taken to see that the folk at home come to no harm.
I have just paid the battery three thousand francs, and now is tea time. After tea I am off to the gun-line. It is delightful there now. You cannot see the smoke or hear for the noise. With luck I shall be back at midnight and without rain. It will be a still greater relief if there is no traffic block on the road, and if the Boche does not take it into his head to start shelling.
The men are having a wretched time. I have not had the heart to damn them for not cleaning the vehicles and harness lately. But there will come a day of reckoning. The harness is filthy and red with rust, and there are four sheds of it, quite full. And we are very short handed. I am expecting a visit from the General soon, and he is a brute, who expects everything to be kept as if in barracks in peace time. He has no experience of the conditions except for a fleeting glimpse occasionally, and no imagination sufficient for sympathetic consideration. How a creature has the audacity to curse the infantry for being dirty or straggling after days in the line, let alone the heart to do it, beats me. However I do not suppose he will get nearer the lines than the gate to the field, which has at least two foot of mud in the “fairway”. He will certainly get his boots dirty if he negotiates it, and will make such a mess in his car.
I am enjoying myself with the horses. I have found a broken down cottage, and in it I have stabled my own two horses, one of them the bay mare known in the Brigade as “that hot little devil”. Room has also been found for the Major’s two horses, one of which won jumping at Aldershot, two belonging to a “wart” (subaltern), one a very good jumper, and another charger also a subaltern’s. In all seven. All these I ride in turn, sometimes as many as four a day. Now they are all fit, and their coats looking fine. They are better housed than their masters. It is comical to see them tied up in the kitchen and best parlour, but they look all the better for being under cover and free from mud.
R.P. August 14, 1917.
The Sergeant-Major is posting this for me, as he is going on leave. I am fit and well, but the weather is just as bad as ever.
August 17, 1917.
August is now living up to its reputation. It might be April or March.
The team horses are not looking up to the mark. The rain and mud have spoilt their coats, and I have not enough men to groom them properly. The gun-line have too many up there and many are on leave.
The attitude of people in England now is strange. The men come back from leave with impressions they should not have. I have asked several how they enjoyed their leave. A typical answer I get is “Oh! Alright, sir, but everybody is fed up with the war, and grumbling”. Now this is strange. Surely the troops out here are the ones who might be expected to grouse immoderately, and be forgiven. There is no comparison between the conditions. If at times the men here do grumble, there is hardly one who wants to get out of it or finish the war until we have the Boche well beaten. Thank heaven, there is no peace talk out here. I have come to the conclusion that all the men who have got any spirit at all are out here. At home you have now only physical wrecks, politicians and socialists avid for higher wages as munition workers. If you come across any mumblers of peace tell them off on our behalf. Out here we are quite cut off and inarticulate as the war correspondents have no time for the opinions of mere regimental officers or troops.
August 18, 1917.
The weather is better here, and the mud is drying up quite nicely. We shall be able to get on with the war soon.
There is no opportunity of leave yet……
I am losing my “stable companion”, the scotch subaltern, who has, alas! to go up the line. I hope I shall be going soon, too. It is rather dull down here at times, though there is plenty to do.
This evening I am expecting the Major down to inspect the Wagon Line, but he has not turned up yet. Things are not as ship-shape as they might be, but what can you expect with less than half the men we ought to have?
August 24, 1917.
I have got a rash on my face, which is stupid of me. The doctor says that I have poisoned myself with the water I use for shaving in, which usually comes out of shell holes or ditches. I remember cutting my face the other day. I must try and get rid of the sores before my leave comes through.
It is still windy and wet. The wretched inhabitants behind the line are struggling to get the harvest in, in spite of the rain and shells. They are extraordinary people.
August 27, 1917.
It takes I find five days for a letter to arrive from home.
It has poured for two days, and a gale so ferocious that we can hardly stand up against it, has blown for a whole day. It was really most amusing, of course; but I am like a cat and hate the wet. All our tents were levelled on top of us last night, and to make matters worse the Boche shelled our lines and killed one of my best horses. It was a mercy it did nothing else. All the horses were closely packed on some slightly higher ground near my tent to escape the flood water on the rest of the field. A really heavy shell, the first to arrive, landed right in the midst of the horses, went deep into the mud, and burst. A splinter cut into the flank of the horse and killed it. The crater made by the shell was literally from heel to heel of the horses on two lines.
When this missile arrived I was asleep in my tent. It covered the canvas with great lumps of mud. We soon cleared out of the field with all horses, struggling through the narrow muddy exits in the darkness, and waited until the shelling stopped. In the confusion I managed to “make” another horse which was scared and going astray. No one has claimed it yet, so I shall stick to it and make no unnecessary enquiries.
You would have laughed to see me in pyjamas, a Trench coat and an old pair of gum boots with a hole in one of them.
It is hard to be a philosopher, even for the most philosophical, under all circumstances. And I confess that I did not see the humour of it last night. It is, I think, easy to pose as heroic in some great thing with others watching and applauding, but not so easy in little things like this which happen suddenly in the dark when one is alone in responsibility. I hate horses being shelled in mass, or even singly.
I have not read a book for sometime, and have not seen a paper for days. I shall soon be unable to read a book worth while, and shall not have the energy to learn to read again. What a future! But this depression is only in sympathy with the weather.
R.P. August 28, 1917.
August must have been a record, I should think. The weather has been truly fearful. We are now having a gale. Our three enemies are still as powerful as ever, the weather, the Boche, and the staff.