He might be a good soldier but he must be a rotten musician.
Somewhere in France, 1st April, 1916.
Another new address – these moonlight flits are beginning to get interesting. Now that we are in a decent country at last and the girl of the place, where we are billeted, tells us that in two months the weather will get warm, but two months is a long time to wait when you don't like continual frost.
We arrive at Marseilles in due course after a very pleasant trip – not even being torpedoed once, so there is nothing to write about. The harbour here is absolutely lovely and the scenery in and about the place, magnificent. I've never seen the like before. I am not going to attempt to describe it – I would only mess things.
We entered the train on Sunday 26th after a short march from the boat to the station. The Band played a bit and you just ought to see the Frenchies when we strike up the Marseillaise – they never shout but clap their hands and jump about as if they were on hot bricks – it can't be the Band they clap, it must be their song that does it for we are a very poor specimen of a band – sadly out of tune, and none of us good players.
When we reach the station, we came across some prisoners of war loading trucks – members of the 171st Prussian Guards – the finest build of man I have yet seen. Every man was just on six foot and good looking. It was hard to believe that these are the men that have done so many terrible things. There was an officer with them checking the stuff as they loaded it and I'll state my life that the atrocities were none of his sanctioning. He looked a great little chap and when he saw me with a camera he hid his face and turned away, so I had not the nerve to take him, so I snapped three of his men but all through out the train ride we saw prisoners at work.
The Band were very lucky in getting a carriage to themselves so as we could keep our instruments from getting damaged. That left four men to a compartment and in ours there was only three so one of us had the floor and the other two the seats to sleep on and it was a really comfortable home for our 56 hours train ride.
The south of France was great, the scenery superb as we went our way. First of all we would be travelling high up along the sides of a mountain, gazing down on peaceful farms and streets below, and then, all of a sudden we would disappear in a hole in the side of the mount and remain in gross darkness for ten minutes or so (gross darkness is 144 times darker than ordinary dark). The people of the south seem to go in more for orchards and that class of thing than up north, more especially grapes and I noticed dozens and dozens of railway trucks just huge wine casks and all along the line, the women and children gave us a great ovation and at every stop would bring us wine, flowers, soup, bread (home-made goods), in fact, they couldn't do enough for us. The nippers clamoured for souvenirs and pounced on anything thrown out to them – bully, biscuits, cartridges, badges – anything at all that came from an Australian. It is great great change to see white, civilised children after the neglected eyesores of Egyptians.
It's terrible to see all the sorrowing faces of the women. I have never seen so much black in my life, it seems as if every house has lost someone. The people in whose shed we live, have lost one son and the other has not been heard of for months.
We travelled night and day and, as a rule, I am not fond of train travelling but I could have stopped in our old third class carriage for a couple of weeks.
The City of Lyons which we passed by early in the morning of our second day was a great sight. We past over the Rhone and there, on it's left bank, all the side of the valley was one mass of spires and fine buildings. I really forgot all the stations we passed through. I was disappointed when we got within a few miles of Paree and then shunted around by a back way. We saw all the business folk hurrying to catch their trains, and could see the Eiffel Tower in the distance.
As we came north, the character of the country changed, the houses thinned out and farms became the general order of things and all worked by women and old men.
There is not a young man to be seen unless he is in uniform home on leave, or with his head or arm tied up. Anyhow, to cut a long story short, I was having a lovely warm sleep one bitterly cold night, all huddled up on the seat, our third nights journey, when the train stopped and our door was flung open and the order was given to detrain at once (2am). My word, wasn't I pleased for there was a gale blowing and talk about cold.
Well, we got our equipment and stuff together and jumped down, and then it began to snow. Great weather to be out in when you are half frozen, half asleep and can't see two feet in front, but we started off on our four mile march to the village where we were to be billeted which we reached at day break and then we were told off to different barns and sheds, floored over with straw ad I have heard no one complain of the places being stuffy for they are exceedingly well ventilated and if a chap doesn't want to use the door he can go out by many of the cracks and fissures in the mud walls. But still, we are not the worst off, we are fed by the Army but so far, as per usual, things are taking a long time to settle down and if it was not for the little Inns where we can buy fried eggs and coffee we would all be shadows. You should just see the fagged look on the poor hens, they are just run off their legs for it's about the only thing in the eatable line you can buy here. I've just about lived in the place here and I'm blessed if I know how many “erfs”I got inside since we came here.
Last night I bought some veal and then trotted all over the town to get someone to cook it for me. All of the places were too busy with wine for they are allowed to sell it to soldiers between 6 and 8 and it pays better than food. So at last we cooked it ourselves at one of the places along with 18 eggs and had a square dinkum feed.
The weather is perfect. It snowed a bit the first day but since then we have had clear, sharp days – just like a fine winters' day in Australia – although the nights are very bitter.
Yesterday we were inspected by Lord Kitchener who made a very short speech saying that he hoped we would fight the same as we did in Gallipoli, and that if we did, we would soon become popular with everyone except the Germans.
Afterwards, he came over to the Band 21st and 22nd. And said “A very good band”. He might be a good soldier but he must be a rotten musician. General Munro also spoke to the Band and asked us if we had our instruments when on Gallipoli, but I hardly think that Gallipoli was the place for bands.
We had our first experience of Gas Lacrymatory bombs today when we tested our new gas helmets. We walked through the gas issuing from a cylinder but we couldn't smell anything but the chemicals in the flannel but the bomb was different, we had nothing on for these. Of course, it was only a small sample and smelt great but your eyes smart terribly for a long while and you can't open them for the pain. It was funny to see a whole battalion crying.
It's a good thing we have been inoculated against fever or else I'm afraid quite a lot of us would be down with it for the French have primitive ideas as to the sanitation of a farmyard. It's easy to see they haven't any health inspector about. The two girls here do all the rough work. One is 16 and the other 18 and they do a mans work and are at it from daybreak until dark. They are just pictures of health and not too bad looking. The French people have splendid complexions. The girls are Angile and Jeanette and are learning to speak English. I'm afraid I'll never be able to speak French. I learn a sentence out of a phrase book and then when I say it to anyone, they don't know their own language.
Oh well, I guess your eyes are sore mother, before you have come this far. As for the present, I'll say ”Bon Jour Madame” Hoping you are quite well as it leaves me at present.
With love from your affectionate son.