Video: Distant voices of the Great War

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The University of Leeds is home to a collection of letters, diaries, medals and artefacts that tell the story of the First World War through the lives of those who witnessed it. Chris Bond reports

OF all those who survived the horrors of the First World War, Private J V Salisbury had more reason than most to thank the Lord for his salvation.

In 1915 he was working as a medical orderly at Gallipoli, the Peninsula on the western shore of the Dardanelles, scene of the ultimately doomed campaign to force Turkey out of the war. He was tending to wounded soldiers when the dugout he and his colleagues were in came under fire.

Richard High, of the special collections department at the University of Leeds, picks up the story. “He turned his stretcher round to get a better light to work in at which point a shell burst behind him.”

The others in the dugout were either killed or wounded by the blast but Pte Salisbury was saved – by the leather-bound Bible he had in his pocket.

“He was hit by a piece of shrapnel that went into the Bible he had in his tunic and it’s gone through the front and embedded halfway through the Book of Kings,” says High.

It is one of those remarkable stories that almost sounds like a myth, but the young private realised he’d had a lucky escape and felt compelled to keep both the holy book and the lump of shrapnel that so nearly killed him.

We know this because they’re among the many highlights of the Liddle Collection, housed in the university’s magnificent Brotherton Library. “We have his Bible, we have the fragment of shell and we also have his own record of what happened.” His diary, the pencil markings now rather faint, describes how his Bible saved him as the shells rained down on the operating theatre.

Salisbury’s story is one of more than 4,000 personal records relating to the First World War in the collection, started 50 years ago by Dr Peter Liddle who wanted to capture the testimony of veterans before it was too late. The Liddle Collection is one of the library’s special collections and includes personal belongings such as letters, diaries and photographs, along with some of the more sobering souvenirs of war. Individual stories range from a dozen boxes full of detailed diaries and memorabilia, to a single folder containing a handful of letters.

Private William David Jones, 10th Battalion, Royal Welsh Fusiliers, wrote three diaries and describes seeing 3,000 casualties on the second day of the Battle of Somme in July, 1916. “He records being woken up in the early hours of the morning to go down and unload casualties that were coming in on trucks,” says High. “He expresses shock and surprise at the number of people who were being brought in. Up to that point the diaries were all about how difficult it was marching and where they would get their food from and suddenly the mood changes.”

Other diaries are more prosaic. “There’s one on display in the corridor that’s open on the page for November 11, 1918, and it just has one word – ‘armistice’ badly spelled, and for the next day it says ‘not much to do’.”

The war produced no shortage of heroes including Bertram ‘Bertie’ Ratcliffe, a nephew of the Leeds industrialist and philanthropist Lord Brotherton. He was a regular soldier who was captured by the Germans and imprisoned in Bavaria in 1915. But two years later he escaped, with a little help from his mother, becoming the first British PoW of the First World War to make it back to England.

“His mother managed to send him a compass inside a tin of Harrogate toffee. It reached him and he used it as part of his escape and we actually the compass here,” says High.

Ratcliffe’s escape offered some respite from the daily diet of death from the trenches and he was given a hero’s welcome on his return home. As well as being awarded the Military Cross he was invited to have lunch with King George V. But rather than sitting back and enjoying his new celebrity status he travelled to Palestine where he helped Britain’s war effort in the Middle East.

He survived the remainder of the war and went on to live to the ripe old age of 98.

The collection also sheds light on some intriguing aspects of the war like the Christmas truce of 1914. “For a long time people didn’t believe it really happened. It was talked about as a myth like the ‘Angel of Mons’ or the ‘Crucified Soldier’, but a fair amount of archives have come to light where people mentioned it.”

High says a truce did break out spontaneously along some parts of the Western Front during that first Christmas. “It started with British troops seeing fairy lights and candles and hearing carol singing on Christmas Eve with the German soldiers encouraging them to come over.

“It seems they were quite wary about it to begin with fearing it could be a trap. But on Christmas morning there were stories of German soldiers coming out on to No Man’s Land with beer, wine and newspapers, even Christmas trees.”

It didn’t happen everywhere in the trenches and in some places officers stopped their men from fraternising with the enemy. Nevertheless, peace did break out albeit only for a short time.

“There are reports of groups from both sides shaking hands, talking about what they did before the war and having a drink together to celebrate Christmas.”

Some soldiers even swapped momentos. “In the collection we have details of someone who swapped a copy of the Daily Mail for a German newspaper. He mentions this in his memoir and we have the actual newspaper which he’s written on the top ‘swapped for Daily Mail, Christmas 1914.’

There’s also the famous story of a football match between soldiers from both sides. This is often thought to be apocryphal but High believes it may actually have happened.

“Robert Graves wrote about it with the Germans winning 3-2 and it crept into later memoirs that some soldiers put together.

“The problem is it was always the regiment up the line, it’s never the people telling the story. They’d say they heard about the Bedfordshires or the Gloucesters playing the Germans - and the Germans always win.”

There are accounts of the truce continuing in some places into Boxing Day but within a few days the fighting resumed. “It happened in a couple of places the following year but by then it was a completely different war. In 1914 they’d only recently established the trench lines and it was a volunteer army, whereas by the end of 1915 you’ve got a much more mechanised war.”

These archives don’t only tell the story of the war from the trenches, they provide a fascinating insight into life on the home front from factory workers and nurses to children and conscientious objectors.

High believes it’s this rich variety of personal stories that makes the collection invaluable. “It’s the story of the ordinary people during the war. They’re no longer with us but this is a way of keeping their own words, their thoughts and photographs alive.”

For more information go to People can go and look at items in the collection, although non-members of the University of Leeds are asked to make an appointment in advance, via or 0113 343 5518.