Posts from ‘WWI Soldier’s Diary’
A friend loaned me a WWI diary she acquired once from a sale of memorabilia. On an earlier post I provided brief snippets from his day to day entries. Yesterday, when tidying my desk after a flurry of manuscript revisions, the diary beckoned and leafing through several pages I was struck by the entries of Mackenzie’s first day in the trenches.
Stayed here all Sat and are now all ready for the road again. Frid. afternoon General Alderson came and addressed us. He is our division commander and he told us that we would be sent right into the trenches Sat. night but there has been a change in plans and we now expect to get there tonight. We have heard the cannon firing heavily for the last 4 days and on Frid. afternoon we could see exploding shrapnel shells which were evidently being fired at an aeroplane but we could not tell which was German – the aeroplane or the shells. They say, though, that the smoke from German shells is white and from the British black, so if that is the case it must have been the Germans shooting.
Monday Morning, Sept 20th
We are now in Belgium about 3 miles from the firing line and are pretty sure to go into the trenches tonight. We are about 6 miles to the east of Ypres and the reports from the 28th Div, whose place we are taking, say that the conditions are fine and that we are likely to have a very easy time. Heard my first big shell go overhead yesterday evening. John and I broke bounds and went out after dark to a big hill about 2 miles away from where the German trenches can be seen. On our way we heard a sort of long drawn whine above us and then two explosions a few hundred yes north of our camp. We learned that it was two German shells fired at the night position of a big observation balloon which we had seen close to our camp. Haven’t heard yet if it was hit.
The weather has been beautiful and even now within the sound of the guns it is hard to realize that there is a war going on. This morning the sky is perfectly blue and cloudless and every little while a French or British aeroplane goes over the German lines and we see the puffs of white smoke from the shrapnel shells bursting sometimes quite near them. But they say that very seldom does anyone get hit. They also say that the French and B. are so superior to the Germans that instead of shooting when a German appears they go up and chase him off so the G. aeroplanes hardly ever get over our trenches.
The country around here is quite like rural Ontario except for the houses and people. The roads are not as good as those in England. Where they are not just earth they are paved with cobblestones which are rough and hard to walk on. The same is true of what we saw of French roads.
Tues Sept 21
Well, we are at last in the trenches. Came in last night about 8:30 and had a little excitement on the way. Our sec. was halted on the road behind the trenches to let the rest of the Batt’n get on ahead. The Germs. sent up a couple of flares and at the same time two or three bullets sang past us. They were only strays but we didn’t know that and when Kilmer said down it was astonishing how we disappeared over the side of the road. No more came our way just then but a little farther on when we were crossing some open fields on the double a few more strays went over with a whine. No one was hit but a horse on the water cart was killed so there really was some chance of someone stopping a bullet.
The night was quiet, each side merely sending a shot over now and then to let the enemy know they were not all asleep. While I was on watch what they call a ‘dirt’ fight took place – that is – one side gets up & fires like the devil for a few minutes and then ducks down and the other side then replies in like manner. About the only result is that a lot of dirt is knocked off the parapet on to the soldiers and that is what gives the fight its name. The gun I am on – no 2 – is at a pt. about 150 yes from the enemy but no. 3 is where the trenches come to within 40 yes of each other. They say things are likely to be warm there at times with bombs and hand grenades popping over pretty fast, but nothing happened there last night.
One man in A comp. got a scratch on the head when he stuck it up this morn. to have a look around. Can’t say that I am curious enough to risk putting my head up in daylight but I had a few looks last night by moonlight, which, by the way, was beautifully brilliant. Could only see a long mound of earth, and though the Germans were shooting quite a lot, I did not see any flashes from their rifles.
What has struck me every time I read about WWI is the ability of soldiers – every day citizens like you and me – to endure horrifying conditions and circumstances. This notion is one of the reasons I have chosen to set three novels in WWI, and who knows, I might write others. I have included other photos in my posts but consider the utter bleakness of this one taken in 1917 near Ypres. As I mentioned earlier, I visited Ypres in June, a haunting experience and unless you have been it is difficult to imagine the small territory that was the site of three separate battles to gain control of a relatively small hill.
My latest novel, Blind Regret, tells the story of a woman following her grandfather’s war diaries in an attempt to unravel a mystery he left for her. I’ve researched the path of the 19th Battalion of the 4th Brigade as background for the story. The following diary entries take place in the area of Ypres. Passchendaele is a small, nearby town.
October 24, 1917
We are back near Ypres fighting over the same goddamn land as before. The ground is a morass of water and shell holes that will drown you if you aren’t careful. Our artillery is about to make it worse, if that’s possible, by shelling the hell out of it again. We move up to the line tomorrow for an assault.
November 1, 1917
Worst fighting yet. The first day we were badly bombed but few casualties. Then it went from bad to worse. Sloan, Nelson, Harris, Paton, Birdy, Darcy and Usher are gone. Fleming is missing. Lindsay says our battalion strength is less than half. CO is happy because we took our objectives. We go back of the line tomorrow. Was what we gained worth it?
November 15, 1917
The only good news is that the US are beginning to have an effect. But even that good news is dimmed because Russia has been lost. Germany can bring its full strength against the western front now. We are holding the line rather than attacking so casualties are fewer. The rain is endless and driving me mad.
November 27, 1917
Out of the line again. My feet are in very bad condition since they’ve been in water for days. Nothing we do makes any difference, not the whale oil or the anti-freeze. When you feel so miserable, it’s impossible to think of the big picture. All I can see is our narrow little corner of the world. I doubt that anyone can tell how depressed I am. Lindsay said good things about me yesterday. He’s hinting about a promotion.
November 30, 1917
There is nothing left of Passchendaele. Absolutely nothing. A whole town gone. I’m to see the CO tomorrow. I suspect it’s my promotion. Too many men had to die for me to be promoted. If I could refuse I would, but what’s the point?
What was the point, when a second world war began twenty-two years later?
A close friend of mine loaned me a WWI diary she had in her possession – I believe she bought it at an auction, perhaps even on eBay. When I hold it in my hands, the look and feel imbues a strong sense of reality. This man was soldier in France. He fought, dug trenches, fired machine guns, watched friends die, suffered the noise and confusion – and wrote about it. Some days he writes in pen, other days in pencil. Almost 100 years later both are faded.
On the front cover he wrote: No 56132 (his regimental number), A.M. Mackenzie, 19th Battalion, Machine Gun Detachment, 2nd Can. Exp. Force, 1915.
Martin Devlin, one of the main characters in my third novel, Blind Regret, serves in the 19th Battalion, a choice I made with Alistair Munroe Mackenzie in mind. As a result I researched the whereabouts and experiences of the 19th Battalion and know that Alistair would have landed in Southampton in early June of 1915, gone to Le Havre in August, and fought near the Ypres salient all fall and winter. Like many soldiers, he wrote with great understatement of ‘difficult times’ and ‘unpleasant conditions’. I promised my friend that I would not replicate Alistair’s diary, however consider a few sentences:
Mond morning, Sept 20th We are now in Belgium about 3 miles from the firing line and are pretty sure to go into the trenches tonight.
Friday night Sept 24 Things have been very quiet on our lines but not so on the G’s.
Monday Oct 4th – 4:30 PM There has been nothing doing on our front except the occasional bombardment.
Sunday Oct 10th, 10:30 PM Our lines at this point sort of bulge into the G’s so that they are on 3 sides of us and the bullets come in from all directions pretty thick.
Sat. Dec 11/15 We hear all kinds of rumours about getting leave or being sent back as reserves but we are at the stage now where we don’t believe anything until after it has happened.
Friday, Jan 4/16 Have had so much rain that where there aren’t trench walks the mud is knee deep and we sure long for some cold weather that will harden things up … am going out on a patrol tonight and expect to have some excitement.
The day to day of serving your country in the trenches of WWI. At the end of Alistair’s notebook are a few blank pages which make me wonder what happened. Did he begin a new diary? Was he wounded? Was he killed sometime in January 1916? I hope for the best and fear the worst.
In an earlier post I described Agar Adamson’s letters as an intriguing read for those interested in the WWI experience from an inside perspective. Agar’s wife Mabel is the recipient of many requests from her battle weary husband – requests for pens, new glasses, a pair of winter pants, various bits of food, requests to meet with Agar’s soldiers who are on leave or in hospital, requests to admonish one or other of their sons particularly on the topic of school efforts, requests for the loan of money. Agar always replies with his thanks and often an apology for burdening her once again.
Here are a few examples that illustrate the realities of living with war. Agar was fortunate that his wife moved to England for the duration.
“Thank you for your parcel containing an Easter egg, a cake, a pair of socks and the revolver holster.” 2nd April 1915 The combination of Easter egg and revolver holster is striking.
“Thank you for my mended glasses. The ham in a tin was most excellent.” 18th April 1915
“Please send me some oysters … and a pair of rubber gloves.” Midnight Xmas Day, 1915
“Thank you for boots, breeches, Blackwoods and “Canada”… 15th May 1916 Since he thanks her for “Canada” on subsequent occasions I feel that this might be a newspaper of some sort.
“Will you send me two strong eye glass black cords, with runners, and if you can find time a good flexible metal cord.” 30th June 1916
“The chicken you sent was very nice. Will you go to Philip Grant, Lower Regent Street Gunsmith and ask him to send me his periscope rifle, the same as he has supplied us before. All ours were destroyed.” 25th July 1916 Do the men have to fight and supply their own weapons?
“Your lemon squash is most excellent, as near a fresh lemon as I have ever met.” 18th August 1916
“Will you please send two pair (heavy) – he’s referring to breeches - that are at the flat, also two sets of my heaviest underwear.” 16th September 1916 September had turned unexpectedly cold.
“Yours of the 10th arrived … also some excellent food. The grouse is always very nice, the large tin of biscuits was very nice.” 15th October 1916 Agar frequently comments on the food Mabel sends.
“You can encourage anybody to send us socks. The Battn is badly in need of them.” 17th November 1916 Imagine not having enough socks for soldiers. In another letter he mentions that the men have insufficient underwear and have to wear the same pair for more than a month.
“Thank you for the fur lining and dates, I am eating one of them now.” 25th November 1917 I think he’s eating the dates, not the fur!
“Thank you for the most wonderful ink bottle. I don’t think a shell could spill it.” 7th December 1917
As the title says, a window on reality.
Ah, the joys of getting lost in research! I have embarked on a new novel – working title, Blind Regret – which weaves a woman’s search for the answer to a mystery (set in 1991) with the life of her grandfather during WWI. I’m rereading various novels and non-fiction materials as well as revisiting websites used for two earlier novels. Of particular interest at the moment is WWI diaries written by those who served with the Canadian Expeditionary Force.
I’m meeting all sorts of men. There’s Alister Munro Mackenzie, 19th Battalion, Machine Gun Detachment whose WWI diary has been loaned to me by my good friend, Maggie, and Agar Adamson, 2nd in command of “2″ Company in the PPCLI who enlisted at the age of 48. Not 28 or 38 but 48.
I’ve met Charles Ross Francis, a Winnipeg man with the 90th Canadian Infantry Battalion, and Percy Smythe who fought with the Australian army at Gallipoli and then the Western Front and Kenneth Butler from Nova Scotia, serving with ’B’ Company, 25th Battalion and Charles Leslie Lionel Payne, a machine gunner in the CEF. Such fine soldiers whose diaries and letters are matter-of-fact and who rarely complained about the hell they lived with.
Above is a copy of the War Diary entry for 18th Canadian Battalion stationed at West Sandling Camp. Training activities for each day are shown in the diary: mock attacks and trench action, scouting missions, route marches, night operations and casualties on the firing range.
At the moment I’m preoccupied with West Sandling Camp in Kent, not far from Hythe and Folkestone, a place where Canadians trained before heading to France. From Sandling Camp they could sometimes see the coast of France and could often hear the sounds of war. Despite their looming destiny with the trenches, they joked and played games, swam in the ocean, took brief trips to London, and met their share of young women.
From the tidbits I find, I’m piecing together sufficient information to write a number of fictional diary entries and scenes involving a new character called Martin Devlin.