Ordeal on western front told in Tommy’s diary

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John William Walls was an ordinary soldier who fought on the Western front in 1918. His hand-written diary offers a glimpse into life on the front line. Chris Bond reports.

THE black ink has faded into grey but the simple words and the story they tell are still compelling.

Private John William Walls was an ordinary soldier who spent the last seven months of the First World War in the firing line on the Western front in places like La Bassee, Cambrai and Maubeuge. He chronicles these experiences in a diary he wrote at the time in a notebook that is now yellowing at the edges.

It was discovered by a relative, David Else, who lives in Gargrave, North Yorkshire, while he was going through his aunt’s belongings after she died a decade ago. David’s aunt, whose first husband had died, knew John from her youth and the pair were together until he passed away in the late 1960s.

But his neatly written diary, called simply Diary of My Soldier Life, survives. “I found this box with all his stuff in it, including these old photographs and his diary from the war,” says David. “I hadn’t looked at it properly but one wet afternoon I sat down and started reading it and by the time I finished I thought ‘wow, that could be in a book’.”

Although the notebook barely stretches to 60 pages it is full of detail. John was born in 1899, and lived in Brighouse, West Yorkshire, where he worked as a yarn printer. He enlisted with the army a month after his 18th birthday in June, 1917, at Halifax barracks. But rather than joining a Yorkshire regiment he was sent to the 14th Manchester Battalion.

In his diary he describes the months of training in England including learning to use Lewis guns, the art of bayonet fighting and the archaic-sounding “general musketry”. As well as the routine drills and marches he mentions zeppelin raids while he was based in Kent. “Jerry used to drop the remainder of his bombs on, or nearby, our camp after he had been making a raid on London,” he writes.

In the spring of 1918 he received his orders to join the King’s Own Royal Lancashire Regiment, in France. Before he left he was able to say goodbye to his parents. “I was glad to see them for it was a long time before I saw them again and who knows it might have been the last time, but fate was kind to me.”

He arrived in Calais in May and travelled with his company by train to a British base at Etaples before heading up to the front line. “My first night there was rather rough as there was a big bombardment going on and Jerrys’ shells were falling pretty near to where we were camped. But I was all right as I had made my bed in one of the trenches.” The next day he saw the town of Bethune, scene of a recent battle where the Allies made initial gains only to be pushed back.

Pte Walls says the new recruits were warned by the older soldiers to keep their heads down, advice that he initially ignored and which almost cost him his life.

“I kept putting my head over the top of the trench to see what was going on in front of me. But I soon learnt to keep my head low, for whilst on guard I had another peep across no man’s land, when whizz and off went my tin hat. A Jerry sniper had spotted me and sent me a present in the form of a bit of lead. So after that warning I took care to keep squat when it was at all possible.”

After a few weeks on the front he was given some leave in a French village along with his comrades, where he saw King George V who was on a morale-boosting visit. “We got news that he would be passing along the main road so we lined up on either side. There were all kinds and classes of soldiers, black, brown and white, to greet him.”

It was a brief respite from life on the front line which was characterised by sleepless nights and the constant sound of shell fire. He describes coming under fire several times while out on patrol, including one occasion when he was lucky to escape. “I had just gone about three yards and turning off the cross-roads when the shell came,” he writes. “I did not remember anything till I found myself sat down in the middle of the road. Oh! by gum what a sensation it is being blown in the air. The other fellows told me afterwards that I went dashing up the road shouting and screaming (I had slight shell shock) and then I jumped into the trench. They found my thumb and first finger bleeding so the stretcher bearer bandaged it up for me. I was lucky as a bit of the same shell killed another Tommy a hundred yards away.”

A short time later he ended up in hospital after being struck down with dysentery. However, a few weeks later he found himself back at the front. On the morning of November 11, 1918, his battalion were given their orders to march up the line ready for another push. “Just as we were ready to move off news came through that the armistice was going to be signed at 11 o’clock,” he writes.

Then came confirmation that the armistice had been signed by the Germans and that the fighting was finally over. “I thought we should have all gone mad, rifles were fired and bombs were thrown making everything a general uproar, and we finished the day listening to the band and making merry with the civilians.”

Pte Walls spent another 12 months with the army billeted in Germany and was eventually demobbed on November 22, 1919. He served more than two years with the British Army and received a British Empire medal, a British war medal and an Allied victory medal, before returning home to Yorkshire to pick up his old life again.

He ends his diary with a reference to Remembrance Day. “November 11th is now being kept in memory of the fallen and a two minute silence at 11 o’clock is one of the reminders that those who did their bit and died for their country are not being forgotten.”

Nearly a century on, they still haven’t been forgotten.