Over the next six months, Memories is going to be serialising a First World War diary which has kindly been lent to us by John Tyson, of Eaglescliffe. The diary was written by Gunner George James, who hailed from Littletown, a mining village a few miles to the east of Durham City, near Pittington.
It is extremely powerful and emotional as God-fearing George grapples with the horrors of war around Ypres on the Western Front. As the diary only lasts six months, you may guess that there is no happy ending.
The full version of the diary will appear here, with new entries being added regularly.
George was the son of William and Isabella James, of Long Street, Littletown. This street appears to no longer exist. It may have been one of the mining terraces which have been demolished and grassed over to create the large village green at the heart of Littletown. Overlooking the green is a Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, built in 1858 and recently converted into a private house. It was extremely dear to George, as we shall see.
With his younger brother John, George responded to Lord Kitchener’s appeal for men to volunteer to form a new army in the final quarter of 1914. George, aged about 20, became a Gunner in the Royal Field Artillery, which operated the heavy, horsedrawn guns which bombarded the enemy positions dug in on the Western Front.
George, clearly a clever and educated chap, started his diary in November 1915 when he was already fighting near Ypres. Fortunately, his first entry fills us in on his war to date:
1915, NOVEMBER 5
We left England on the 11th May 1915. It is now November 5th. And I will try and give a short account from the time we landed in France up to the present time. Then I will attend to this thing daily.
We landed at La Harve (1) on May 12th. It was a bit interesting to find oneself in a foreign country for the first time, but the novelty soon wore off.
After disembarking from the “Rossett” we spent the rest of the day within a limited area of the landing place. At nightfall we started through the town of La Harve (1) to the station. Our battery which consisted of guns, men, horses travelled by itself. We arrived at the station after a little delay got the horses stowed in trucks and guns, wagons etc packed on carriages, gunners, drivers and NCOs were shoved into cattle trucks 30 men per truck. To say we were crowed would be putting it too wildly. It was a problem to find one’s own feet, to take off boots.
It was a long journey lasting something like 16 hours. I will never forget that journey, we were a little excited at first, I think because we were in a strange land, hastening towards the battle front to a destiny unknown and we knew would never return. We were going to the war which we had been training for months. Our guns were going to speak, they were going to do terrible destruction for which they were made.
That night we billeted in an old farm within the sound of the big guns. It was a place called Harvecourt, I think we remained there 4 days.
After another long march (Marching Order) we found ourselves in Sternweck (2). This was our first wagon lines. Two or three days the guns were in action and we had experience what is called “being under fire.” I am fed up with diary already.
This day is my brother’s birthday, he is 19, God bless him wherever he is tonight and whatever he is doing. He is at the Dardayelles. This day is also the anniversary of my Mother’s death. Dad is at Stafford in a Military Hospital serving the RAMC.
We first went into action in Ulay and it is now November. We’ve been through a few months trying experience. The place where we have been in action are Neuve Eglise, Festubart, Lacuture, La Basse, Dickybush (3), we are now at Ypres. The second time in action I was made a signaller. If I put down here what sort of time the signallers have you might think I am praising them because I am one of them myself (so I won’t).
We took part in the big battle of La Basse (3). That was our first bombardment. It lasted 6 days I think. The morning after the attack began (I don’t think I’ll say much about it). We used gas for the first time here, a good many of our men were overcome by our own gas, it was deadly stuff. Our boys were too eager, they were magnificent, grand but God only knows how they suffered. On our own part of the front the attack failed. The Germans were strong at that part and there were blunders made. Perhaps you will have seen it in the papers.
Or infantry advanced at terrible cost but were forced to return owing to the failure of reinforcements not coming in time. To our right the attack was more successful. There was a good many reports about that day. Our cavalry had got through at Varsailles and we had advanced four miles. There was a terrible fight for hill 70, the Guards were successful. Hohlougolleu Redoubt was a problem but our boys held it today. There were many acts of bravery which will never to told, lots of self sacrifice noble heroism magnificent bravery which British people will never hear of. A few days after the attack on our front the trenches were shattered, there were dead everywhere between the lines in “No man’s land”. There were still corpses of many a brave Britisher who had fallen in the charge. It was a sight I shall never forget, it uncovered ones very soul. There were bodies lying trampled in the mud, at the bottom of trenches, gas fumes were still hanging about. The charge was over, the British people soon heard of it. The Roll of Honour was added to. Many mothers, sisters and sweethearts were stricken by the news. British lads had gained a victory but oh’ at what cost.
Soon after the battle we changed our position. We went to Dickybuck (3), we stayed there about a fortnight. Then followed a rest camp for two weeks at Poperinge. At that place we came into action again near Ypres in front of Hill 60 (4) that is where we are at the time of writing.
Have been here four weeks and look like being another four, have had an unpleasant time with rain, cold and German shells. The battery has started leave at the rate of about one in 4 days.
On November 4th there was an aeroplane dual here. I was on duty with another of the signalling gang in the trenches. The German plane came down 200 yards away in our lines, it was completely wrecked. The two aviators being killed, that disturbed the Boshes a little and their artillery was busy for a while.
This has been the most bitter cruel day. I have had news from home telling me my brother John has been killed in action. He is now in the land where there is no suffering. Oh God comfort my poor dad, and my young brothers to help them to know all is for the best. I’ve lost the best brother that was ever had. God help us to understand our faith in thee God of compassion, comfort the bereaved ones.
The faint belief in eternal love.
The lack of peace which only faith can find.
The load of “What might come” has far surpassed.
The real burdon, thou in wisdom cast.
Upon these shoulders, sorrow thou dost send
With strength to bear them grant us now thy grace.
To fight the doubts and fears that know no peace.
Within the soul of one who calls thee friend.
Some things we cannot understand. Our Lord bids us trust. He said my ways are not your ways, and my thoughts are not your thoughts. All be well, dear John. Our God who is God of Love will bring us together again.
I’ve been to……………
The Germans made an attack early on Sunday morning as usual. They sent over clouds of their poisonous gas before them, but thanks to our pattern smoke helmet the gas did little damage. The attack was repulsed and then followed for two days a terrible murderous artillery duel.
We are likely for going out of action for a rest tomorrow. We’ve been at Ypres for 8 weeks, the worst place I have been at, if there was a place on earth worthy of the name the same of Hell, it is the Ypres salient.
We are out of action, we have travelled about 20 miles to a place called Millam (it’s a French village) (5).
We are billeted in a large house and expect to be here 10 or more days. Then we are going on to St Omer, for divisional training or something else. The rest is to last six weeks I believe. At the present moment three parts of our battery are drunk, so far there has only been one fight. Some English lads are singing Home Sweet Home, some Scotch men are singing of Bonnie Scotland, (and a group?) of Irishmen are singing of the Emerald Isle. They are telling each other of their dear old mother and father, of their sisters and sweethearts. They are thinking of old times. It’s Christmas Eve. The time of peace on earth and goodwill towards man.
I’ve just had a Christmas card wishing us a happy Christmas. Oh God is it possible that this cruel war can go on this beautiful earth, all this agony, suffering, misery, grief and despair.
Thou who gave his only Son to die, to save his people, comfort the sad ones, give relief to the suffering, send peace Oh God Mercy and Compassion. It is Christmas Eve and nations are fighting against nation, men are being sacrificed for nothing. Suffering grief and death are everywhere. All that is good and true and beautiful are thrown to one side and bloodshed takes their place just because a few men are ambitious, greedy and mad.
It is Christmas Day. I’ve been like a big baby kicking and groaning on the floor with toothache, I’ve been to the doctor, I am going to hospital tomorrow to have some teeth drawn.
1916, JANUARY 2
Just bought a fountain pen for 12 francs. I’m back from the hospital, I was at S Omer, came back this morning and have to go again. One the way back, I spent a day in Hazbouch (6) and stayed overnight in a little wayside cottage. Had a fine sleep on a “feather bed”. Somehow tonight I am feeling depressed and downhearted. Perhaps David was in a similar state of mind when he cried “Oh why art thou cast down, Oh my soul”. Oh dear Lord these many who are downhearted, despairing almost wondering why these things all doubts, help us pairing almost and wondering why these things should be and if they shall ever he happy again, “Lord we need thee”, increase our faith, take away all, misgivings, all doubts, help us to see through all this uproar, all this fighting and suffering. Take away the mist and smoke and help us to see that the beautiful star of Hope and Salvation promises is still shining. Comfort thy people who are weary and show us that same as ever. It is now 7.30 and time to water and feed. Poor innocent brutes, you have a hard time too, but you have nothing to fret about except perhaps hay cake etc.
It is drill order tomorrow, been raining heavy today, in fact it is almost a daily occurrence that here I think a man who goes through this campaign alright will always associate mud and rain with Flanders.
I have been trying to learn some German sentences. “Wie geht es ihueu weine here,” I am sure to forget this directly. It means “How are you gentlemen”, “Sibgut danke compire.”
We’ve been paid 25 francs. I’m just going to write a letter. I fancy the lady who sold me this pen saw me coming.
JANUARY 3, 8.30PM
I’ve been reading an old diary which I kept in 1913. Raking up dead ashes from the past. Dear old happy peaceful days that are gone, never to return. Goodbye happy past goodbye childhood days. There is a verse somewhere which goes like this, Blessed are they who pass away childhood days. Here I am brooding and miserable again, and the Lord is still pleading, come unto me and I will give you rest. That hymn is still true which says I need thee every hour. Dear Lord change and decay, in all around I see, Oh thou who changes not Abide with me.
What a pitiable, insignificant word is me.
The big guns are wuttering a bit more than usual tonight, there’s some wicked work on somewhere. Stick it old chums we’ll be with you presently.
Our life is granted not in pleasures round.
Our even in Loves sweet dream
To lapse content.
Duty and faith are words of solemn sound.
And to their ahoes? Must the soul be bent.
Autuminas fall and winters death will be over.
And the leaves will tell a tale of joyful spring.
Of victory and peace restored they’ll sing.
Be then, your boy will have served his King.
They are two good verses, those, I’ll get down and have some sleep now, it’s just about “lights out”. That reminds me I’ll have to see the Quarter Master bloke about a new tunic. We had a fire ride this morning round by Watten (7), just escaped being thrown into a ditch, had a rough five minutes.
Never seen a newspaper for weeks.
To be continued…
(1) Gunner George’s spelling of foreign place names is not very accurate. This is Le Havre
(2) This could be either Steenwerck or Steenvoorde. Both are small towns on the French side of the Belgian border, near Armentieres and Lille
(3) George has crossed over the French border near Armentieres and fought his way north to Ypres through Neuve-Eglise, Festubert, La Couture, La Bassee and Dikkebus
(4) Hill 60 – named after its height on a map – is just south of Ypres. It was the scene of a particularly violent battle in April and May 1915, and of lots of tunneling and mining. There is a museum there today
(5) Millam is a French village about 20 miles west of Ypres
(6) Hazebrouck is a French town near Armentieres
(7) Watten is next to Millam