Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales
Balme letter, 29 April 1918 / Gerald Archibald Balme
[Transcriber’s note: Private Balme, who was later promoted to Sergeant enlisted at age 30 and embarked from Melbourne on the Port Melbourne on 21 October 1916 for overseas. He arrived in Devonport, England on 28 December 1916. He attended various courses in England before proceeding to France and Belgium where he fought with the 29th Battalion, 10th Reinforcement. He suffered the effects of gas poisoning in March 1918 and returned to hospital at St. Albans in England on 26 March 1918. Following his convalescence he attended further courses at Aldershot and finally returned to Australia in July 1919. Attached to a letter to his wife is a section of his diary from 15 November 1917 to 18 December 1917 when he was the Sergeant of a working party on Messines Ridge, Belgium. He describes the work they are doing of building an Observation Post, life in the trenches and the battle being fought around him.]
My Darling Wife
You said in a recent letter that you’d love a peep at my diary.
Well, I have kept a diary of sorts, from the first time I went into action properly – kept it in shorthand, and when I was in the field ambulance at the time of my being gassed I tore out these leaves & have carried them ever since.
Here in England I have copied some out for you and am sending them, as I know you would be interested.
I took 20 men up on Messines Ridge on a working party. We had no Officer, and we lived in a muddy and very verminous old trench for 32 days without a break, and under continuous but intermittent shell fire, and never had a casualty, though other fatigues had them every night; a wonderfully lucky run.
Awakened 5.30 after a strenuous evening. I was billeting Sergeant and our Mess was a British Canteen.
Ordered at a moment’s notice to proceed to Messines village with 20 men (11 platoon, not my own) & report to an 18 pr. Battery 400 yds. Left from there.
Half an hour Later we got away and toiled up the first ridge.
Passing Brigade we split into parties of 6. A Long weary march. The ridge has been very heavily shelled, the craters being the largest we have seen even on the Somme.
Got well roared up for exposing our party on the top of the ridge. Also got splendidly Lost at Last. Orders were wrong as regards the Battery.
Finally met an Officer with a map, & at a Late hour we were dug in to an old trench, wet but fairly comfy.
No sign of the R.E. Officers to whom I report. I hear our job is to build an O.P. for the battery, just near the support lines. Arranged for our rations with the Battery.
Still no orders. A quiet day.
And still no sign. We started bringing up concrete to the crest of the ridge by day on the light railway. Fritz shells this Line at night; & goes close to our home at Times.
Four chaps went west today. Got a 5.9 in their big dug out – 100 yards from here – Strangely enough, I wanted to put my party in their when we came up, but the occupants couldn’t move; so their wasn’t room.
At Last I have word of my boss & have been up to the Lines to see him. Seems rather a silly ass, but the job isn’t a bad prospect, if Fritz would Leave our home alone a bit more.
Saw the first dead Aussie about ten tonight. Poor chap. I thought if his people only saw him; tossed on one side of the sap. Must have been killed the night the Brigade went in. There are plenty of dead Huns about the ridge: but somehow our Boys are different.
Work in earnest now. We bring up the stuff by day, & then take it up to the job at night. Spend the mornings resting & cleaning up. The boys are splendid.
The Battalion are in now in front of us, but they go out again tomorrow for 8 days. I wish we did too. Heavy shelling Last night again. All round us. The railway, the road, the guns; After the guns of course. Its wonderful how he just mises them. I’m pally with the Sagt. of the forward guns of the Battery we work for. Decent Little Chap – Stephens - & I go over & throw a few at the Hun sometimes. Oh well – Bed for mine – Good night.
Still hard at work. Lots of shelling at nights – I must tell you of my home in which I write these notes. I think its an old support post; an irregular but fairly good old trench running right along the crest of the ridge. Standing on the top (which is forbidden) you can see the white puffs of our stuff bursting on the Hun lines 1000 yards away, and on a clear day, Comines, with its factories and Churches, shows up half Left from here. Fritz holds it, of course.
At the extreme right of our post is a Fritz
Pill Box, in which 4 of my boys sleep, & more shelter when he shells us. My dug out is at the side of this Pill Box. It is very exposed but we can stand in it; and it is our kitchen; quite a palatial dug out. As I say, it’s a bit exposed; but then if he hits us at all, that won’t make very much difference. One is a fatalist here – absolutely.
Our first night up here under fairly heavy shelling, I had a magazine. Their was an article in it by a man under shell fire in Ladysmith, and it fitted my frame of mind exactly.
Bravery (and no one here poses as even ordinarily courageous) isn’t of any use to a man under his first shelling.
Coming to a war, I suppose one expects trouble, in a vague sort of way: but one cannot imagine beforehand the sensations one experiences when crouching in a Little hole listening to their missiles rushing towards you in the dark.
You hear the far away gun at times: then a whisper, rising to a whistle, and; (if its coming near) to a shriek drowned in the shattering burst of the shell.
I have timed one big gun of his, and it takes
13½ seconds from the sound of discharge until the shell arrives!
Still normal, so you may as well hear more of our above.
Behind our trench the big ridge slopes away for 1500 yards to Wulverghem, and on our right rear, is a gully down which runs the Light Railway, and also tons of water, from crater to crater.
It is this gully & railway that our pal the Hun shells at all times: but especially at night. More and more guns are being put in quietly. Our home is only 30 yards from this gully – not far enough for comfort.
Other features of this landscape are,
Some very dead mules
Some equally dead Huns
Numerous wooden crosses (4 on our parados)
Much stagnant water and twisted wire
A very batterred and broken Tank.
And this is the year of grace 1917!
Hard frost the Last 2 days, and very cold. We are fairly warm. I have 2 blankets and a coat; also many new sand bags. Not too bad at all.
The greatest evils are the dirt; and the quite unmentionable “chats" [vermin]. These last are the limit – you can do nothing to prevent or destroy them.
A cold day, and a very chilly night. All shell holes have 4 to 6 inches of ice on them. Routine as usual. Would love a bath more than anything. Bon soir Cheris.
Snow this morning. The big ridge, and Wyschaete Ridge look so pretty all snowed over. Our home here was the object of some solid shelling while we were out last night. I didn’t want to come home.
A gorgeous day, following a heavy frost Last night. Everyone is out sunning now. Work goes on: and our O.P. is growing. Fritz must see it in spite of the camouflage. But he won’t strafe it till its finished and occupied. He’s a cunning bird.
Had a small party last night. Two rum jars of beer from the canteen two or three miles back. And very nice too!
Hooray! Two letters from home. Sept. 28th and October 1st. And all you people well, thank God! It’s a good day, and getting letters makes it better.
Got the ‘oil’ that our guns are to put up a stunt tomorrow some time. Having a go at his ‘Minnie Positions’. Claude Farmer told me, & he should know.
Well: the stunt didn’t come off, for some reason. On the other hand the gentle Hun put over a very big shell or two quite close to us, at Lunch Time. That’s unusual for him. I hope its not going to be a habit.
Our crowd go in again tonight Late. More and more guns are being put in on the ridge. They are arriving every night, but few of them ever fire a shot.
Had Long yarn to some of the boys of the Bat. this morning. The crowd got on O.K. They (C Coy) were in Reserve Trenches.
Saw, and spoke to, Birdwood, in the sap. What does it mean? “Birdie" here, and all those guns coming in! It may mean a stunt; but hardly I think. The river Lys would seem to make that impossible.
Had a close call Last night up on the job. Put the wind up me well & truly.
A fool Engineer Officer flashing his torch about was to blame. The Hun put down a Lovely sample of Little barrage. All 5.9’s. One blew me off my feet & gave me a mouth full of fumes. We Lay doggo for 20 minutes or so & then bolted home. The Officer in question fell in a new shell hole full of icy cold water; which rather pleased the rest of us.
Our job is nearly done & Looks A1. Then we’ll go & join up the Company I suppose.
I’m not in the pink tonight. A bit nervous and hate admitting it. Last night’s act unnerved me just a bit I think. I can still taste that phosphorus. However ---
Rain Today – nothing to relate, thank goodness. He shelled Last night for a bit & then stopped as suddenly as he started; but he got 2 nice big ones almost right in our home. By one of the many miracles you see here: both were ‘Duds’.
I haven’t a thing to read tonight, which is rotten.
Had a new job last night. Took a Load into Messines Village. The Battery have an O.P. there too. He’s always shelling the ruins their of course; but our luck was in, and we got finished just before the band began to play in ernest.
Had another small party, as some beer came up from behind. It makes a break to all get together & yarn sometimes.
His shelling was heavy afterwards. The heaviest we’ve had. It says much for our beer, that I went to sleep quite cheerfully while it was on!
Very cold again, but a quiet day. He’s shelling a bit over on our right now, as I am writing these notes. I’m off to bed before he changes his mind.
Gee. The worst night so far Last night! And more of it today. He generally goes quiet in the day, but our people must be annoying him. Our fire is almost continuous.
A Coy had 2 killed & 6 wounded in their trench just ahead of us. Rotten Luck. I only hope our Luck sticks to us for a few more days. We have been marvellously Lucky.
The Hun came over today. Eight big Gothas! They looked magnificent, though they were fairly high. Rumour tonight says he got a lot of chaps at the Baths in Neuve Eglise: but our people got 3 of his planes down, so it didn’t pay him.
I’m getting anxious about our crowd. I’ll be very glad to get them out safely again.
Had some more beer last night: a very nice Little party!
We are to join the Company tomorrow at 10.30 in supports. It sounds madness to do so in daylight, but Brigade sent the order. I’m going to see the second in Command. I’m sure he won’t have it. Fairly heavy shelling all day.
Well, we got out safe at Last. The Bat. came out the next night, and had bad Luck. A dozen or so killed and as many wounded, poor old C Coy getting most of it.
We are billeted in a big factory and are just getting settled down; but its great to be out, & we’ll all have a bath tomorrow.
Wytschaete – sometimes spelt Wijtschate
O.P. – Observation Post – Page 2
'Minnie Positions’ – Colloquial term for the German minenwerfer (trench mortar) - Page 8
Goths – German bombing aeroplanes – Page 11]
[Transcribed by Judy Gimbert for the State Library of New South Wales]