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Ways and By-Ways of a Singing Kiwi with the N.Z. Divisional Entertainers in France


page 159


Somewhere in chapter eight I have mentioned the re-reading of my old war-time letters, and now, after writing and reading, and re-writing and re-reading these nine chapters, it occurs to me that anyone might be excused for concluding that my personal war service was spent, when not undergoing arduous journeys per horse box, in periodical visits to hospital, and trips to London, Paris, and the Riviera.

I hasten to protest that this is not so, but if I have dwelt overmuch on some of the latter more pleasing episodes of my long stay overseas, it is because I find (and I vouch for the fact that most other returned men also do), that it is the happier side of our active service life that is the more recurrent to us and, of course, all will admit, it is as well that it is so.

It may be of interest to know that in the English summer of 1926, Green and I crossed to Ostend and took a train to Ypres, from whence we made an excursion to Dickebusche where, though the old cemetery near the ambulance station was easily found, we could discern no trace of the actual site of the big marquee, the whole area being then breast-high in wheat.

As we read the names on some of the old crosses in the cemetery, a lark soared high in the air, and his song, breaking on the stillness which everywhere prevailed, brought poignant thoughts of other days.

page 160

From Ypres by car through Messines and Ploegsteert, to La Bizet, where we had to pass the customs at the octroi, before entering France, at Armentieres, was a most momentous journey, recalling, as it did, those stirring days of 1917.

It was marvellous to walk through Armentieres once again and to note the changes that had or had not taken place since we last saw it.

Half-past Eleven Square was now a large patch of green turf with a war memorial in the centre, but the trams were still lying idle, and many of the streets looked as if they had been left untouched since the war.

Try to imagine our feelings as we made our way over the old bridge at Pont de Nieppe, past the baths at the brewery, and on to Nieppe itself.

There we sought out several of its old inhabitants who had returned to the town, and who were genuinely glad to see us, as with many photographs of their favourite Diggers they made excited inquiries for their welfare.

Nieppe had not gone ahead at all since 1917, and it was rather sad to see the old people in such apparently poor circumstances, and with seemingly so little to look forward to.

The journey from Armentieres to Lille brought queer feelings of being on dangerous ground, if not, indeed, actually out-of-bounds.

But Lille was quite unknown to us, and we felt much more at home in Amiens, where a couple of days were spent before continuing on to the piece de resistance, Paris.

page 161

In 1932 I was privileged to pay a return visit to Moascar and Ishmalia, in Egypt. The old camp is now a permanent affair, with solid concrete roads where there was only loose sand in 1916, and rows of shops which save the Tommies the walk in to Ishmalia for their odd necessities.

Cairo has been cleaned up quite a lot since the war period, and where there were closely-built hovels near Shepheard's, there are now fine wide thoroughfares, giving much-needed breathing space to the district.

If anyone knows of an excursion more calculated to excite the interest of ex-Diggers than to re-visit these old war-time haunts, I should very much like to know where such a place is; and can sincerely recommend all those in a position to do so, to try the effect of just such a tour of reconnaissance.

In conclusion, I would send my sincerest greeting to all old friends who remember me, or who have ever seen the Kiwis in France.

I wish you "good health," and may you all attain your most-cherished ambitions.

Ernest McKinlay.

Sydney, 1938.