‘GUNNER George James came from the Durham colliery village of Littletown. He left school at 13, followed his father down the pit and when war broke out, he joined the Royal Field Artillery.
After training, George, a staunch Methodist, landed in France on May 12, 1915. A long train journey and a couple of days’ march took him to the frontline of the Somme where, in November 1915, he began writing a diary.
It is a remarkable document, treasured by his family who still live in the county.
Despite leaving school so young, it is articulate, powerful and thoughtful.
Memories has been serialising it since Christmas.
We’ve already shared with him some appalling scenes in noman’s land – “it was a sight I shall never forget. It moved one’s very soul. There were bodies lying trampled in the mud at the bottom of trenches” – and we’ve felt his overwhelming grief when he learned his brother, John, had been killed in the Dardanelles.
And then we felt his pain as he visited a grinning dentist for a rudimentary extraction.
In our last extract (Memories 162), the 20-year-old found himself at a fairly quiet part of the frontline. February 1916 – exactly 98 years ago – was almost as quiet, yet in George’s writing you can feel the terrible uneasiness that was always gnawing at a soldier’s mind. Even in the spring-like calm of a sunny February day, there was always the likelihood of horror just around the corner.
George was on the French/Belgian border at Armentieres, about 15 miles south of Ypres. He spent a week of February stationed at “OP” – the observation post, which was usually forward of the trenches and so one of the most vulnerable positions.
We shall return to Gunner George James’ diary in March.
FEB 5, 1916
We have moved our positions owing to the Germans discovering our whereabouts. We have built and taken over a new position near Armentieres.
Fairly quiet, a big bombardment is going on to our left towards Ypres.
I’ve an idea something out of the ordinary is going to happen here, preparations are being made civilians are clearing out.
We lost a ridge at Ypres.
News of Russian successes – 1,000 guns captured.
Expecting a gas attack here.
Preparing for an offensive.
This front looks like being broken in, in the near future.
OP was hit today.We carried out a little demonstration here today. Things are gradually assuming a more grim aspect.
FEB 20 (SUNDAY )
Iti s a glorious spring day full of sunshine and promise. Aeroplanes have been unusually active.
OP today for a week, heavy fall of snow. Gas attack expected by the enemy.
Sentries posted to every gong. Very quiet. Something brewing.