This year marks the Centenary of the Battle of the Somme. As my own contribution to the many memorials, here are some extracts from a 21-year-old soldier’s personal diary – kept against all the rules – during 1916.
My grandfather, Bob, was serving with the Royal Field Artillery – but where he was at that time is impossible to say, as all RFA records were destroyed by bombing in WW2. Had he been discovered writing a diary, it’s almost certain he would have been shot.
His brother, Will, a machine-gunner with the Australian forces, was more fortunate – the Aussies were less harsh. Even so, had his diary been discovered, Will would have been in serious trouble for writing a daily account of where they were and what was going on.
Somehow, this 1916 diary came home to his family in York. For how it first came into my hands at the age of 15, please see The Diary blog. Some 15 years later it was given to me, inspiring lots of research and two bestselling novels, Louisa Elliott and Liam’s Story.
In brief, Will had emigrated to Australia in 1913, working on a farm in the Dandenong area of Victoria. He was one of the first to volunteer in August 1914, and was with the 8th Battalion at the landings on Gallipoli, 25th April 1915. Having survived seven months of that disastrous campaign, and three months of hell retraining in the Egyptian desert, he and his mates came to France at the end of March 1916. From Marseilles they travelled by train to Flanders.
After a month’s familiarisation, the 2nd Machine Gun Corps went into the trenches in the area near Fleurbaix, just south of Armentieres. The months of May and June were spent in and out of the trenches near Neuve Eglise, and by the end of June they were at Messines.
We tend to assume that those fighting in WW1 were constantly in the firing line, but as the diary makes clear, the troops rarely spent more than a week in action before being relieved to positions behind the lines. Out of the line, they were kept busy with drills, fatigues, on-going training, and, about once a week, they were marched to the nearest baths for a welcome wash and change of clothes.
Will’s company began moving south to the Somme on July 11th. They would become involved in the battle for Pozières – just a few miles east of Albert – from July 20th until the end of August, 1916.
Over the next few weeks, I will be posting sections of the diary. It gives an idea of what life was like for the fighting man at that time – not just in the trenches, but behind the lines. What stands out to me is the amount of training carried on – no doubt to stop the men from dwelling too much on the dreadful conditions.
Food figures large in his daily jottings, as does the weather; we only have to imagine living outdoors for weeks at a time, without waterproof tents or clothing, to imagine what it was like. And as a man of his time, one who had travelled by sea to Australia and back to Europe, he was clearly fascinated by flight. He often mentions the aeroplanes buzzing over the battlefields; for him they would have represented the future – and no doubt an extraordinary freedom.
Anyway, here we go with the 1916 diary: Will is presently behind the lines near Neuve Eglise, about four or five miles from Messines.
Thursday June 22nd: Still on guard, usually dismount [the guard] but having a prisoner we have to put in 24 hours. Very hot day. Several of our men go to the trenches. A German comes over and gets a good reception from our aircraft guns. At about 12pm we are suddenly awakened by Gas, also a heavy bombard had opened out. We stayed on guard about one hour and dismissed. Afterwards fell in again but it was a false alarm.
Friday June 23rd: Fine day again, great aerial activity. About 8 o’clock a German comes over but our aircraft guns make it too hot for him and he returns home. In afternoon we have gas helmet parade. Towards evening we have a thunderstorm and rain falls in torrents for a while. Then fine again and we take a walk about 4 miles, but the road is very muddy. On our right a heavy bombard begins. Still very damp and slightly misty. The Brigade moves up during the night.
Saturday June 24th: Received orders that we are moving up into the trenches and pack up, morning spent in fatigue work, carrying our bivouacs to Ordnance. During this it rained heavy making walking very unpleasant. Finally moved off at 3.0pm, our section being as usual the last to move and do the cleaning up. Pass through the town of Neuve English [Eglise] well battered about, and then break up into parties of six men. The billet we arrive at is surrounded by huge shell holes, a moat surrounding the house and a beautiful garden. Many 18 pounders round the outside, our aircraft guns at back, which fire while we are in the billet.
Sunday June 25th: Pack up and move from billet at 10 pm last night, and march up a road leading over a hill, very stiff march with full packs up. Just over the top, the limbers dump the stuff and to the trenches we have to carry it. It was a terrible journey, road all shell holes and slippery, pass many dead men on streets, have to make two trips. No communication trenches, [we] came across open country, all work done at night, our first line being in a hollow.
They had arrived at Messines, held by the Germans. See my next blog for more details.