I think I’ll start by telling you a little bit about myself, I was born in 1889, in London. I was brought up in a middle class family. My mother would do the housework and I would help her in my free time. My father worked in a factory. As a teenager I loved to study and learn; my ambition was to become a teacher or a doctor.
I’m now 25 years old, married and have two boys, Ryan and George. I work in my father’s factory; I have been working there for a year and a half. My mates and I are quite serious about the news and the world around us, so it would be no great surprise that we know about the war that is occurring in Europe. They tell us that a Serbian student named Gavrilo Princip went into Austria-Hungary and murdered the heir to the Austrian crown; Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. After Austria-Hungary invaded Serbia, Russia who were allies of Serbia declared war on Austria-Hungary. Four days ago Germany declared war on Russia, due to the fact that Germany are allies of Austria-Hungary.
There is great rivalry between Germany and France; the French still want reprisal on the Germans after they took parts of their land in a war in 1871. On the same day Germany declared war on France. At that time Britain were still quiet, that was until yesterday. It’s reported that Britain had signed a treaty with Belgium, promising to help them if they were attacked. The Germans thought that they could outsmart the French, France expected Germany to attack from the border but instead they invaded Belgium so that they could attack France by surprise. An evil plot if you asked me. They’ve called it the Schliefan plan. Ten of my cousins, two of my uncles and lots of my friends have already joined the Army. Two of my cousins faked their ages just to get in.
They have these big posters with a man pointing directly at you and underneath it says ‘your country needs YOU’. People are being put under pressure, if a man were to walk out there now without uniform people would want to know why, woman would put a white feather in your hand as a symbol of a chicken. Others are very patriotic and enthusiastic about the prospect of war, so many of them dreamed of having a gun and firing at the enemy when they were children and they see this as an excellent chance to fulfil their dream and make it reality. Me, well I wasn’t too sure… I didn’t like the fact that we were put under so much pressure, but then again it was for the good. We were shown disturbing pictures of Germans killing innocent mothers and their children. I was stuck in two minds.
At around 4 o’clock today I was reading, and then it struck me; I felt restless, exited, eager to do something for the cause of my country and then the impulse came, sending the blood tingling all over my body; why not join the Army now? A great and glorious suggestion. It might not be too late. Besides I’ll be back before Christmas.
So that afternoon I decided to join the army, what sights I saw, a queue of men over a mile long, I stood at the back of the line and waited patiently.
It felt like I had been lining up for a week, but finally it was my turn. I gave my personal details including my age, unlike many others I didn’t need to lie about my age. I was then given my uniform and was prepared to go. I waved goodbye, ‘don’t worry’ I told myself ‘you’ll be back; it shouldn’t take long, not at all…’
7th August 1914
My great adventure starts right now. Our journey to France was quite interesting, so many men around me all proud to be wearing the uniform. I got to know this bloke; his name’s Tom, he told me of how he was eagerly awaiting the reality of war. To be honest I probably felt the same. So much was going through my mind, full of wild thoughts and fantasies.
We finally arrived in France, it was quite dark. We were instructed to line up in a straight line, shoulder to shoulder. Then the general came out and said a short yet very effective speech. They then provided us with a gun each, we were told to clean the guns on a regular basis. The feeling of holding a rifle for the first time made most of us very exited. But deep inside I knew that this was just the start, the fun had yet to start. The general then randomly picked us out, splitting us up into two groups. One group was the reserve trenches and the other was the front line. I was put into the front line alongside Tom. We then set off to the front line.
The second we entered the back of the trenches we were greeted by the loud sounds of shells. The trenches were about five foot deep, so that you could walk in safety from rifle-fire. In each bay of the trench we built fire-steps about two feet off the bottom. This allowed us to put our heads over the parapet. There was a dugout where we would be sleeping, better than nothing I suppose. There’s sandbags to protect us from enemy fire, there’s also barbed wire; also for protection. They’re all pretty good stuff but the item that caught my eye was the machine gun, it could fire 600 bullets a minute.
There are four different jobs which a soldier must do. One- Sentry duty, Two- Getting food, Three- Trench work and Four- Cleaning weapons. I was instructed to do sentry duty, Tom who was also in the same trench as me was cleaning the weapons.
That night, some of our troops were sleeping; I still had to fulfil my task. You could still hear the deafening sound of shells. I stood there guarding the trench, that night I didn’t have to do much. Yet I knew that the next day could be the day when I finally get to shoot the enemy. The thought of being able to use a gun for the good made me feel good.
January 20th 1916
Two years on and I’m still here, surely I’m in a nightmare which I would rather end right now. I can’t believe it! Never before have I ever seen such madness, so many people’s lives taken away. Seeing your relatives charging across No-man’s land… and never coming back. People shooting themselves because it’s far too much for them to take. It’s nothing but the harsh reality of it all.
Everyday you would wake up and see around three rats around you, you’d be greeted by the bangs of shells, the screams of men, and to make it worse you have flies and hundreds of lice all over the place.
To me the worst part of all this has to be when winter comes by, you would soak in the rain and freeze when trying to sleep. You look around and see the same thing; men shivering and you could easily read through their minds ‘Why did I come here?’
In summer, work was not any easier yet it was a lot more pleasant than in the winter. The sun would slightly cheer some of us a little bit, but not much.
One of the most frightening experiences was when I found someone’s diary account on the floor in an empty trench. On the last page it read: ‘”It is utterly impossible to describe one’s feelings during the hours of waiting for ‘zero hour’ – the mind is full of wild thoughts and fantasies etc which are utterly beyond control. Memories of friends and dear ones, places we have seen and known and different phases of life all seem to pass in review before one’s eyes and one is recalled to the bitter realities of the moment by the officer’s voice: ‘Fifteen minutes to go, boys, get ready’. Immediately there is a great stir and excitement, a final setting of equipment etc and examination of arms and then a handshake with one or two dear comrades. 6.45 a.m, ‘Over you go, boys’, and we are away on that strange journey across ‘No-Man’s Land’.”
The four jobs we have to do are quite serious and could affect the outcome of whether we live or die. I’ve done Sentry duty many times now, I’ve fired across towards the enemy , I once shot a German soldier who was delivering food for the rest, I felt pretty proud of myself.
Getting food may sound like the easiest job, but believe me it isn’t. The German’s number one priority is to get you shot, because you are the supplier of food. Trench work isn’t much fun, but repairing the trench is massively important because if the enemy were to attack you’d be a lot safer. Cleaning weapons may not be the hardest task to do, but if do not fulfil this task you could regret it. I saw in front of my own eyes a British soldier who failed to clean his weapon, when he tried to shoot the gun would not fire, his life was taken away just because he didn’t clean his weapon.
On a day to day basis we would be supplied with tins and jars of food, sometimes the food would not even arrive; I would always say a prayer for the person that got shot getting food for the rest.
Some of the scenes I have seen are very disturbing; the health of the soldiers is awful. I have seen in my own eyes men who got shellshock; they would go absolutely crazy and would usually end up shooting themselves. Another horrible disease is trench foot; it’s caused by wet and muddy conditions inside the trench. People would have to have their legs chopped off if they had it. But I sense that some men here at the Western front avoid precautions and get trench foot just so that they would be removed from the front line, but truthfully speaking; can you blame them?
June 15th 1917
Today I’m 28, but I’m beginning to wonder whether this be the last year of my life, maybe the last month, maybe the last week, who knows maybe even the last day. The event that occurred yesterday was my worst experience so far and I’m sure will be for the rest of my life. At around 18:00 hours we were all busy doing our jobs when someone shouted out, ‘ GAS ATTACK’ we had to quickly put on our gas masks to protect ourselves, suddenly I noticed that Tom was struggling to put on his mask, and then it happened, right in front of my eyes. The chlorine gas started to take over his body, he was screaming, he stretched his hand out towards me, but what could I do, the next thing I saw was pitch black, I was in a world of my own. Finally the gas cleared away and you were back in the real world. And there in front of me was Tom’s body. His lungs had exploded. A million things were racing through my mind; it took me around two hours to finally come to my senses. A day that I would rather forget, yet I know I won’t.
Fighting on a day to day basis is no where near what I imagined it would be, not even close. The sounds of shells are booming in your ears. The horror of it all is unreal.
One of the things that annoy me the most is how those idiotic generals think that they will win the war through attrition, don’t they realise that so many damn lives are being lost, their strategy isn’t working, they have never had to cope with something like this, so they think it’s all right to just make soldiers run across no-man’s land and hope that the enemies supply of soldiers and guns run out before ours.
Two days ago I happened to pick up another diary account, this time this person was in the same trench as me, he had shot himself after he wrote this:
‘Mankind is mad! It must be mad to do what it is doing. What slaughter! What scenes of horror and killing! Hell cannot be so terrible. Men are mad.’
I have sent many letters to my family telling them what I am going through, what I fail to understand is why they don’t sympathise with me, why don’t they try to get me out of here, all my family would say is ‘ your doing us proud’ or ‘ wish you luck’.
Every now and then I would think about what the war at sea is like, surely not as bad as this, two of my cousins are fighting for Britain at sea. I’ve heard they use a policy called rationing so that they don’t run out of food. Not a bad idea.
If this is to be the last time I spill my ink on this book, then I hope someone finds it and it will be a lesson to mankind, war is not the best solution to problems.
November 29th 1918
The war is finally over, we have won. I cannot believe that I am still alive; I’ve experienced so much over the past four years. I believe that the war was a huge blow to mankind. Every country lost thousands or millions of soldiers, yesterday it was reported that around 1,000,000 British soldiers died, around 1,500,000 French soldiers died and around 1,950,000 German soldiers died. Was it worth it? No way, some of those people, in fact most of them had done nothing wrong. Through the use of propaganda and immense pressure put on people, millions of lives were taken away. There will be memorials for the people who died; I found out yesterday that only one of my relatives is still alive.
If I ever went back there I would feel that I’m on holy ground. That ground has been trod on by all those lovely lads who never came back. I would then remember this poem:
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them.
I think it’s marvelous, because that’s just how it is. You imagine them as they were then – not as they would be now – young, and in their prime, and never grown old.