War Diary of AA Laporte Payne Apr 1918
Brigade Diary, Personal Diary, Operation Orders, Note Books, Memoranda
P.P.C. 1 APRIL 1918. France
Hope you got my note. Please forgive these P. cards. Times are quite exciting.
R.P. EASTER SUNDAY 1918
Just a line to let you know that I am fit and well, but back in this land again and busy.
We left at an hour’s notice, and it was quick work.
We seem to be holding the Boche alright now, and it is really nothing more than suicide for him to go on now. There is no cause to worry. Everyone is confident out here. Whatever Foch is or may do, it is better by far to have a single supreme commander. I cannot understand why we have not had one before this fiasco.
The weather is nothing like what we left behind, and we miss it. But I am not sorry to have returned for this, if only we can finish it for good.
EASTER SUNDAY 1918
We left at half an hour’s notice, and it was pretty quick work.
The Boche seem to be held alright now, and everyone here seems confident. We are glad Foch has taken over supreme command. In war one commander is a necessity. Foch may not be a genius but one general is better than a dozen. As one or our sergeants said hitherto we have been slaughtered to no purpose, perhaps in the future we may be slaughtered to some purpose.
We miss the beautiful weather we have left behind, but still there are tasks to be done here, and we should have got very slack in Italy.
The journey seemed and was long but uneventful. Now we are fully busy. It has been an extraordinary week.
April 5 1918.
It is horrible to be cut off from all news of home, and for that matter of what is going on out here. No one knows where our mail bags have gone to; probably they are wondering round Italy seeking us.
Ages and ages it seems since we left Italy, where the sun was shining. Here all is mud and rain and confusion and uncertainty.
The Boche seems to have halted for a bit, no doubt to reorganise, and bring up food, stores and big guns. He has out-run his communications. No doubt he will have another go to try and cut his way right through. We must see how many more we can slaughter in the process. Everyone is fairly confident, which is THE great thing. It is no good worrying.
It is strange to be back where we were two years ago at this time. Our old wagon lines are in Boche hands, though, I am sorry to say. We shall have to do a Somme push all over again, but this time I hope we shall be more successful.
The Gothas are leaving you in peace, I hope, and that no long range gun is firing on London as on Paris!
News I may not give, so all letters are thin. The censor would cut out what I should like to say.
Once the guns are in the line now, there we stop, at least until this little show is over and safely settled one way or another. It will probably take some time, but it has got to be done.
The weather is cold and wet, typical French and fighting conditions.
Horses and men are fit, I am glad to say. The men are keen to help the poor devils who had such an awful time of it last week.
R.P. April 13 1918.
I am fit and well, and going strong. But I have never been so busy in my life. We have moved so often in the last few days, nearly every day, that I hardly know where we are. One day the only food I got was a tin plate of thin stew from the sergeants’ dixie or stock pot. One night I had only an hour’s sleep on the ground with a blanket over me. I lost my kit for a time, but it turned up again. I have told my servant that if he saves my books in another quick move I will forgive him all, and let him off. I still have them all.
It is extraordinary with what a little sleep and food one can get along. Yet I feel quite fit and well as ever. I am sure at home we eat and sleep too much. All the clothes one needs are the ones worn, and for the rest a tooth brush and soap. But I need my library, and I get laughed at about my books.
To add to the discomfort of continual moves the weather has been truly awful, wind, rain and mud which invades everything and reduces everything to the same colour.
Under these conditions you soon find out what men are like. Little things, not perceived under normal conditions, shew what men really are. If a man can do his job quietly, unostentatiously, in these circumstances without obvious fear or losing his temper he has something in him. There are several men like that in the battery, and it is curious how one turns to them to get things done. They may not shine under normal conditions, but here and now they are to be relied on for what the rest are not capable of doing. I wish there were more of such men. They are too few.
A scene here. Imagine a black, windy, wet night, and a thickly muddy road, full of troops and traffic. Each side of the road is a bare waste and wilderness. We were coming away from the gun line, returning with empty ammunition wagons, a bit weary but keenly awake, as it was as well to keep your wits about you when at any moment the Boche might shell the crowded road. On the right of the road a long line of transport vehicles of all kinds grinding their noisy way along the uneven track, and another column on the other side of the road going the other way. At times movement is held up, and men and horses impatiently wait for the tide to flow again. Then a break in the line of wagons, and a platoon of men marching, great big men, moving with a slow dignified swing. The Guards going into action! In the rare gleam of an occasional shielded lamp, or the innumerable flashes of the guns round about their silhouette stood out sharply, and you could see them moving along quietly and calmly in all that noise and confusion. It gave me a thrill to watch as I passed by. I was glad we had the Guards in front of our guns. Just the thought soothed my jangled nerves. Somewhat elated, I thanked God I was an Englishman. No doubt the Boche can give an equally good show of discipline, but there is something in the way an Englishman does these things which is somehow different. There is no bravado or ostentation posturing as a patriot, but rather a quiet dignified matter-of-factness, which is so attractive. At times there is even a hint of boredom or superciliousness, which may or may not cover a quiver of fearfulness. It is something to be proud of that our country is still able to produce such men with such spirit. Then I thought of the numbers of such men who had paid the penalty for being of such a kind, and I wondered whether our country could stand the loss without fearful injury, perhaps irreparable. Still as long as such last we cannot lose. Does it take a war to produce such men, tried in the fire? If so war cannot be such a great evil as some make it out. Most people look at the horrors, the deaths, the wounds, the wreckage, the mud and what not, and declare war to be wholly evil. Yet there are other things worth looking for in this mess.
You at home, please do not worry about this seeming reverse, serious though it is. Our politicians have failed us, others, whom I may not here mention, have failed us; but that is no reason why the average fighting man leavened by great spirits should not win through in the end. They have done it before, and will do so again. As long as any such remain we shall not ultimately fail. In our history it is usually left to the rank and file to put the mess straight. It will be so again. So it is a waste of energy to lose heart. There are some good men left out here, and there is no need, when things look a bit black, to worry and be downhearted. There is far more defeatism at home than out here.
I met Frank Okell yesterday. He is quite near here. I am so sorry to hear that Trevor has been wounded again.
April 13 1918.
Field post cards are horrid things, but they will have told you that I am well and that we are going strong.
I have never have had such a rush. One whole day I only got one “meal”, and that was a tin dish of thin stew from the sergeants’ stock pot. It was weak and nasty. One night I slept on the ground under a horse rug with the horses. This will serve to explain the omission to write letters. To add to my petty annoyances my kit managed to get lost. But it is extraordinary how little one really wants beyond the clothes one is actually wearing, and how little sleep and food is really necessary to keep one going, and yet be fit and well. Usually, I think we eat too much.
The weather is very trying. Rain and mud has reduced everything to the same wetness and colour.
But the great thing is that the Boche has made no more progress on this particular front, and most here seem cheery and confident.
I met Frank Okell here today. I hope to see some more of him. Life is a sequence of crowded moments.
R.P. April 17 1918.
In spite of the weather all is well. Italy must have stolen all the sun and left us the wind and rain.
I am still with the battery I am glad to say. No Headquarters for me, if I can help it.
The Boche has been lying low here for a bit. Perhaps he had a little too much of it the other day. We are quite prepared for him. Once he gets in the open we can account for masses of them. We may lose a bit of ground now and them, but he cannot go on losing men at this rate.
Poor old Armentieres has gone and with it many familiar places such as Bailleul, Steenwerk, Neuf Berquin, Neuf Eglise, and others. Occupying those places will do the enemy little good if he cannot get further.
You ask me if I have a billet. No thank you! I am better off in an open field. We are hardened soldiers now. Ask Trevor what he thinks of billets. Besides there aint any.
April 17, 1918.
The mail has at last delivered up all the letters addressed to Italy, which is one bright spot in the wilderness.
Our men grumbled when in Italy at being so far away from home; now I ask them how they like it now they are back here again. Italy at least had more sun and fewer shells.
The Boche have taken many familiar places, where we spent many days, Armentieres, Steenwerk, Bailleul, Vieux Berquin, Laventie, Fleur Baix, and are now pushing north and west towards Neuve Eglise and Hazebrouck. Well! I suppose we must expect to lose a bit of ground when they put in so many troops against us. It can’t be helped. However they seem to have suffered severe casualties.
We are now awaiting his next onslaught in the south. I bet the German fighting man hates it like hell. We do not like it much situated as we are between two fires, the Boche and the staff.
The poor old gees are done in; but so far I have only lost two, so I must not complain.
R.P. April 24, 1918,
The best tonic we can have are cheery letters from home. Thank you very much for them.
We are still where we were. The Boche has taken no ground from us since the first rush, and than very little indeed at this particular place. We are waiting for him quietly but confidently: here at any rate. I do not know what is happening on other parts of the line. It is quite an experience being attacked in this way. Having regard to the shocking shortage in troops it is not to be wondered at that we were pushed back. What is astonishing is that the troops we had were able to hold up the hordes of insects in field grey. They are like a plague of locusts that eat up everything, even our Expeditionary Force Canteens!
In spite of the weather we are not idle. There is a lot to do. I should like to give you an account of our activities, but my letter would no doubt be heavily censored, and I should get into trouble.
I am glad to hear Reggie is getting on well in spite of the horrors of life at the Base.
I see by the papers that both my old Divisions have distinguished themselves, the 18th and the 34th Divisions. The latter in Armentieres. We never get mentioned as we are unfortunately an Army Field Artillery Brigade with no Friends. But still we are in most things.
Hunkin has done very well out here, and has become popular with the men he works amongst. You would not think a Cambridge History Don would go down with the men, but Freddy Head has. He was at Emmanuel before the war.
April 24 1918
I am at the wagon lines at present, so am by myself. I am inundated with messages marked urgent, and some secret, needless to say none of them were important.
But I have other duties. I have just come away from the cemetery, and now have those letters to write which I hate. Tonight I am a bundle of contradictions. Now I am gloomy, and now flippant. Little things annoy, but serious do not for the moment. My blankets are a sopping mess, and I am furiously angry. The ammunition is delayed, and I do not care. My mare would not trot or walk coming back to the lines, but jigged about on her toes until I could have shot her. The guns frighten her, but I had no pity. She pulled and so did I until my hands were sore. But if material for the gun-line is tipped into a ditch in the middle of the night I laugh. My temper is atrocious. In spite of all this, everything is really all right. I am quite fit and well.
We are waiting another Boche attack in confidence. Let them come, the insects. Like locusts, let them come and eat up the land, even the Expeditionary Force Canteens, the brutes; but we will do them down in the end. Needless to say we are busy preparing for his destruction. I hope we are destroying them now. Our guns are hardly ever silent, and we gas him, plenty of it. He must be having a rotten time, even as we. He is held up here, I think. So far and no further. So all goes well on the western front, and there is no need to worry. All we want is a few more men of the better sort, but such are very scarce these days. As such cannot in such times be any where else they cannot exist. I suppose they are all dead.
April 26, 1918
At the present moment I am up in the gun line, having taken over from the Major, who is at the wagon line. The Colonel has just been here.
And so we wait the next move. But in the meanwhile neither side is particularly quiet. gas in hospital.