LICE-RIDDEN breeches, thrilling air battles and good looking nurses - the secret diaries of a Yorkshire soldier in World War One have finally been revealed, after the shorthand they were written in was translated by an army of volunteers.
Wass Reader wrote the diaries while serving with the 1st East Riding Yeomanry C Squadron in the Palestine Campaign between 1917 and 1918.
But his thoughts on the conflict, often humorous, poignant and heart-wrenching, remained hidden until now as they were written in shorthand.
The abbreviated, symbolic script, the traditional tool of journalists and secretaries alike, has its roots in Ancient Greece and is undecipherable to the untrained eye.
But an appeal by York Castle Museum, the custodians of the diaries, attracted attention from all over the world, with a number of volunteers spending hours translating every word.
The diaries feature in York Castle Museum‘s major new exhibition on World War One, 1914: When the World Changed Forever.
Philip Newton, assistant curator of history, said: “Wass’ thoughts, concerns and comments on the events going on around him are truly fascinating. Here is a down to earth young lad thrown into a world of chaos, harsh conditions and bloodshed who is describing his life in such a way that it is impossible not to warm to him.
“His matter of fact language and his accounts of football, Christmas drinks with friends and his relationship with the nurses also hits home that this is an ordinary young man not too different from young men today.”
Little is known about the man himself, other than that he was born in Hull and worked as a clerk before joining the East Riding Yeomanry.
Mr Newton said: “But we got a lot of information just from the diaries themselves. It was fantastic to read as they were being translated, Because it was a day by day account, it was quite exciting to get an insight into his mind.
“We would like to thank the army of volunteers who have spent many hours of their time translating the diaries, we couldn’t have done it without them. “
Wass’ accounts of the conflict include seeing thrilling air battles overhead and being shot in the shoulder while galloping on his horse to take control of a village.
He also tells of getting injured playing football, being treated by “very nice” and “good looking nurses” and Christmas night drinking with friends, stating: “I will draw a gentle veil over the events of the evening, but thank goodness Christmas only comes once a year.”
This is contrasted with accounts of lice ridden breeches, the horrific injuries of fellow soldiers and one grim New Years Day at the ocean looking for bodies washed up from an unrecorded incident.
He recalls “What a black prospect for the New Year... The bodies of 150 nurses lie under the sheds at the dock awaiting burial. “ By 1917 Wass is clearly tired of war, noting, “three years of the best part of my life wasted”. His entry for his birthday in 1918 reads: “Here’s another birthday come round. Am I 25 or 26? Blessed if I know. What I am wondering is how many more birthdays I am going to spend in the blinking army.”
More than 100 volunteers have helped to translate the diaries. Work started in January, and although the diaries have now been translated, work is still ongoing to refine the translation.
Linda Bird, of York, is one of the volunteers.
She learnt Pittman shorthand, the style used by Wass, when she was 15 in the late 1960s and used it in her job as a secretary.
She said diaries really brought home the scale of what the young men went through.
“We have absolutely no idea what they went through. It’s opened up my eyes to it,” Mrs Bird said.
Being part of the project has made Mrs Bird, who is retired, realise just how much of her shorthand she remembers.
“It’s got the grey matter working,” she added.
The diary can be seen as part of 1914: When the World Changed Forever, which is open now. Translations will be later posted on the museum website, www.yorkcastlemuseum.org.uk
The exhibition has been made possible thanks to a £1,167,900 from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), with the rest of the £1.7m project money coming from York Museums Trust funds.
Selected extracts from the diaries include:
May 20, 1917: “I am becoming simply smothered with constant lice and the seams of my breeches are absolutely thick with eggs. I had a good wash-down in a bucket of water this morning but I cannot get rid of the lice.”
November 14 1917: “Got our forage and rations in this village and then went out to take the next one. It was while galloping across the field to do this that I got hit in the neck and I fell off my horse. I was picked up in about an hour and taken on a sand cart to the Dressing Station.”
November 15 1917: “Stopped last night at the 22nd Dressing Station and was taken away this morning in the ambulance to the 3rd L.H.F.A. I think the bullet is in my right shoulder. Our Regiment has a lot of casualties but we are doing well and I hear we have taken RAMLEH. I have seen some horrible wounds and some fellows are in bad pain. We get bully and biscuits to eat in the hospital. Left this station tonight in a motor lorry and had a most painful journey for 30 miles. Arrived at the Desert Column Station and stayed the night.”
November 23 1917: “They have put me in a bed next to the operating theatre and it is only covered in with matting. Last night I peeped through and saw them take a chap’s leg off.”
December 25 1917: “The third Christmas Day of the war. Had the tent brightened this morning and “poshed up” accordingly. As usual I went into town after tea and met all our lads altogether. What a night! There were 12 of the P.B. men sat drinking round one table. I will draw a gentle veil over the events of the evening, but thank goodness Christmas only comes once a year.”
January 1, 1918: “What a black prospect for the New Year. We have parties at the ocean looking for bodies washed up and burial parties parading all day. The bodies of 150 nurses lie under the sheds at the dock awaiting burial. Up town again just for a walk round and back early to bed.”
May 2 1918: “Had an exciting time this morning killing bugs. I discovered hundreds of them in the bolts etc on my iron bed and on inspecting find that all the other beds are the same. They are extremely large bugs and take a lot of doing in with strong gristle.”
Monday November 11 1918: “News received at Kantara at 18.00. Got up at 05.00 and did some more P.T on our own. We all of us really enjoyed it for it is doing us a power of good, especially as we are getting good food as well and I hope I shall arrive home as fit as a fiddle at any rate as far as physical fitness if concerned. We had a gruelling time on the mid morning parade for the officer and the major were both here. Luckily the Officer happened to pass a complimentary remark on one of my movements (the first I have ever heard him use). He also asked me my name so I suppose I am well in now.
PEACE AT LAST!
Everybody here went mad last night and the air was simply full of fairy lights, rockets, etc from 18.00 to 24.00.”