Horror and banalities in captain’s First World War diaries

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TODAY the battlefields of the First World War are relatively green and tranquil rather than desolate and covered in mud.

Comprehending the horror of those in the trenches may not be easy, but one Yorkshireman has left behind a lasting impression of his war in a diary that gives an insight into everyday life on the Somme.

Captain Hepper’s Great War Diary covers the period from January 1916 to January 1919 and deals mainly with his experiences of trench warfare with the 17th Battalion of the West Yorkshire Regiment.

The personal account of Captain Raymond Hepper’s war details daily routines as well as times of fear and killing.

His son, Nigel Hepper, who has transcribed the diaries, said: “Much of a soldiers’ time was taken up waiting for action – and then getting too much all at once.”

Captain Hepper was in the family business of Hepper and Sons – chartered surveyors and auctioneers – in Leeds, until he enlisted in 1914 and again when he was demobbed at the end of the war.

After a year’s training in Ilkley as a junior officer, he was send to France. Despite the millions who died during the conflict, Capt Hepper survived uninjured.

He went on to become a captain of snipers and later a brigade intelligence officer. The diaries have been copied from his original manuscripts by his son, F Nigel Hepper, who has also drawn some of the maps and illustrations.

Mr Hepper, 82, who grew up in Leeds, but later moved to Richmond in Surrey, where he worked as a research botanist at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, says his father only spoke a little about the war.

“He only spoke about canned meat and that sort of thing and he did not like cocoa because he had had it in the trenches.”

He says he had never read his father’s diary in any detail previously but said: “I’ve had it in mind for a long time as I felt I owed it to him, and there’s a lot of wonderful personal and historic information in it, too.”

Mr Hepper says when he read the diary what struck him were the details about the daily routine and: “trying to keep out of harm’s way because the trenches, the enemy trenches and the British ones were so close and of anyone popped up in view of the enemy you were likely to meet a sniper.”

A picture of the horror of war is painted – there is also a sense that life goes on after the terror of battle with Captain Hepper reporting how he was searching for strawberries to buy at a local chateau or noting the beautiful countryside. But the reality of war is never far away.

At the end of July 1916, after a day in the thick of battle, he wrote: “Horror on horror... the barrage continues to fall all along the trench. God this is awful. Shall we ever get out alive?”

The entry concludes: “It is useless putting into writing the sights I have seen today for they will ever be in my mind as a memento of July 30.”

Mr Hepper said: “He also retained a sense of humour. Bathing was vital to get rid of the mud whenever they could find a bath, so when the men found one in a brewery he commented that: ‘There should be a good beer later, plenty of body.’

“He retained his admiration for splendid architecture of buildings sadly damaged by shelling. Trundling around the lines on his pony, finding billets for his men and sniping was his daily routine.”

He added: “He went through so much danger and horror for his family and country. It is sad that so many of his compatriots failed to return and remarkable that he survived.”

Captain Hepper used letters that he had sent to his parents together with his own notes and he would write up his diary in neat handwriting whenever he was home on leave. Captain Hepper’s Great War Diary has now been issued by Hayloft Publishing.

Mr Hepper remembers his father as a cultured man and describes him as a 20th century Mr Pickwick, short and rotund, witty and with a twinkle in his eye.

Spending his time reading his father’s diary also revealed sides of his father that were not so familiar.

He found out his father was more of a horseman that he realised and in an entry in February 1917 Captain Hepper talks about the horse he refers to as Little ’un’.

“The Little ’un’ has only three speeds, slow, damn slow, and stop. She is, however, pleasanter than the one I had in England which always did want to go the way you didn’t, and sometimes went too.”