(The diarist was OC of a Royal Field Artillery battery of 18pdr guns. The battery had just moved to Beauchamp, which had been an area of fierce fighting during a German counter-attack after the Battle of Cambrai.)
January 7th. On the 7th January it suddenly thawed, not always a blessing, for frost is at any rate clean. I had been to C battery to watch a demonstration of how to blow up abandoned guns with dynamite (another sign of the defensive spirits abroad) and returned to find N0. 3 gun in three feet of water, sinking in the mud and completely out of action. W, whom I had left in charge, of course did not notice anything! The whole Battery spent the rest of the day hauling and tugging at it and only by six o’clock in the dark was it got out and taken to the rear gun-pit. Some of the men worked like Trojans and I was enabled to see what N.C.O.s and men stood out in an emergency. Not always the cleanest and smartest……
Royal Field Artillery gunners hauling an 18 pounder field gun out of the mud near Zillebeke, 9 August 1917 (IWM)
January 14th. Thaw, frost and thaw succeeded one another alternatively and the long-suffering earth in which we delve for our comfort and existence at last utterly gave way under the strain. The sides of the trench in which are dug-outs are, fell in, covering the duckboards and cookhouse to a depth of several feet with plastic mud. The trench boards were buried out of sight, the sides of the gun pits caved-in and gun platforms sank and sagged in watery slime.
120th Battery Royal Field Artillery gunners digging an emplacement for an 18-pounder field gun.
The levels altered from hour to hour and it was impossible to keep the guns truly on their lines. Ammunition racks fell to pieces, shells were covered with earth, and last but not least, the entrance to our tunnel dugout staircase became choked with landslides and debris and the stairs themselves became a Niagara of water and slime. …The men’s’ dugouts little dugouts began to fall in and I expected at any moment to hear of someone being buried alive. My anxiety for the Battery increased daily, as it was next to impossible to keep things efficient under the circumstances.
March 1st. Next morning I meant to go up to the OP early, but I was so tired that I did not start out till 10 o-clock. It was one of the beastliest days I’ve known out here and that’s saying a good deal! Very cold with fine, driving, very wetting snow and a bitter wind. When I got to the battery OP by the forward gun, there was a good view for a quarter of an hour. As so often happens in such cases the communications were cut to begin with, and when it was mended the light had passed and the mist came down. Shooting from there was impossible. Mac was with me and was a useful companion, though quite inexperienced in war-time gunnery. So we wandered further forward, looking hopelessly around in the snow for the alleged group OP by means of a map reference.
Anyone who has seen a limitless, flattened, crater-covered area, white with snow, will know what that means and what the chances are of finding it. However, by good luck and perseverance we did find it, but the snow storm was heavier than ever and we could only see a few yards. We stayed there shivering for an hour, getting half frozen, and then rang up the Adjutant and told him it was impossible to register the newly placed guns, then wandered back and arrived at the battery, soaked and white with snow, at 4pm. It was rather like an Alpine expedition – but with the absence of mountains and presence of shells.
Mac and I sat up late that night, I very much worried. Three of my guns were in an open position and totally unregistered. A raid was coming on and not a strand of wire was cut. The anxiety of this latter weighed heavily on me, though I knew conditions had been impossible for artillery firing. All this wire-cutting ought to be done by trench mortars, with double the certainly and half the expenditure. But we go on doing it just because it was done in 1915, before we had any trench mortars.
What a war!