We last heard from Earnest in November 1916 when he moved to a most unpleasant place, Citadel Camp, Fricourt.
After a month’s leave back in “Blightly”, Ernest returned to France in March 1917. It was not a happy return. He noted that he had arrived at “Probably the most desolate spot in the back area. Got some breakfast at a French canteen with one knife between three and small glasses of coffee, but not a bad omelette. For the remainder of the day we subsisted on rations & wrote letters or read or dozed in the YMCA hut until night time. Got away at 9.30pm in a 3rd class coach. Beastly cold & hard”. If the journey was bad, then arriving was not much better as he was “Kicked out at 1.30am at Mericourt, where I had to go & find a lodging. Got one in a tent standing in the usual six inches of mud with a plank bed & four blankets. Not so bad as it might have been. Was told I had come too far and would have to go back to Corbie by 8am train”. Ernest’s battalion was based at Bonnay, which was a small village on the River Ancre, some 15-20 kms to the east of Amiens.
After a couple of uneventful weeks, Ernest went to Quesnoy for “hard training” and again was disappointed with his billet but his luck improved when he moved forward to Vignacourt. “Our Hd Qrs billet was nice & clean & Madame & her daughters most obliging.
They were refugees …. Don’t know how they collected it but they had a fine stock of champagne, wines & liqueurs”. However, the men weren’t quite so lucky “It rained (as it usually does when we are on the move) before the troops arrived, and a number of the blankets were wet and muddy and as the men can’t have ... fires in barns they have to remain wet”.
The weather in early Spring 1917 was very wet and cold, causing many problems for Ernest as he tried to provide for the men. On 1st April he wrote “Of course it rains almost incessantly with hail, sleet & snow as alternatives” and 3rd April was not much better “It snowed hard for half an hour or an hour yesterday – the largest flakes I’ve seen for years. It was snowing again this morning when we got up”. In spite of the weather, “We have to be prepared to go forward now without kits, and the men without blankets or great-coats. Ugh! We’ll freeze I’m thinking.”
By 8th April, they have marched to “MONCHIET. The worst place we have struck as a village in the back area in France. The whole place is in an appalling state of mud. …. The huts are alright but standing over ankle deep in mud. …. Eventually managed to get two large huts elsewhere as a temporary measure ….Snow, sleet rain & hail fell and didn’t improve matters”.
On 9th April he records “Never saw such weather conditions for April. More snow and hail etc. all coming from the West, with heavy wind and occasional glimpses of sun.”. 11th April brings further trouble “It is now snowing hard and the Brigade Major has just been in to say we most probably move tonight. Hope to goodness we don’t. It will be awful marching in the snow and slush by night, and our boots are not here yet and probably no billets at the end of our march”.
Ernest and his comrades were heading into Arras where they would be involved in heavy fighting. Weather and billets would then be a secondary concern but his diary entries give a vivid description of the horrible conditions the men had to endure for months on end.