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The entries selected for inclusion provide a fascinating record of the life of a despatch rider on the Western Front: one day dodging shell holes and ammunition limbers to take his despatches to the front, the next observing the quaint but often courageous lives of the local populace. Throughout the diary are colourful and amusing anecdotes about his fellow soldiers, and critical comments on the strategies and tactics employed by the officers.
Some of the original entries, covering the main actions of the 37th Division, are much longer passages that go beyond the usual diary form. These cover the Battles of the Somme (July 1916), the Ancre (November 1916), Arras (April 1917), and Ypres (the third battle in August 1917). Also described in detail are the German offensive of April 1918, the final Allied offensive in August 1918 and the Armistice. These passages are included as ‘narratives’ alongside the selected diary entries.
Looking back, I am sure a despatch rider with a division had one of the most interesting jobs in the army. All day long he was roaming the shell-broken roads and tracks behind the trenches, acting as postman, keeping the Staff in touch with the infantry and artillery brigades ... The DR, as he was always called, saw the war from the ‘stalls’, sometimes running the gauntlet of the shelling of the roads within range of the German artillery. His greatest danger came from the transport at night, when the ammunition and supplies were sent up the line under the cover of darkness. Worming his way through the horse and motor waggons and the long lines of pack animals, he risked falling under the wheels of the transport or becoming a target for the hooves of the horses and mules, who had a rabid hatred of motorcycles and showed it by lashing out with their hind legs.
October 27th 1914
A full day. First I went to the ACU office where I found a couple of dozen fellows there for the same purpose as myself. Each one was questioned as to his education, occupation and motor-cycling experience. We were supposed to know something of map reading and French. I have been swotting up my school French which was pretty rusty, but found I had remembered sufficient to ask and answer simple questions. After this we were sent to Whitehall for medical examination. I passed all right but several were turned down for ruptures or poor eyesight.
We were then passed to another department where, standing in a circle with Bible in hand, we were sworn in a dozen at a time. Just as the officer began to read the oath one fellow blurted out, ‘Oh, I can’t, I’m a Jew,’ which raised a general laugh. He was told to stand aside and the business proceeded. Then we filled in some forms and lastly received our first day’s pay, two brand new shillings - just enough to keep one in cigarettes and a couple of drinks per day. We are now soldiers of the King, the rawest of raw recruits. We were told to report to the Royal Engineers’ depot at Chatham tomorrow.
December 2nd 1914
Today we were issued with a uniform of sorts. It is made of very thin serge with black bone buttons. Some of the fellows recognise it as being similar to those worn by native troops in the tropics. For headgear we have been given a shiny peaked hat like a tram driver’s. We have also been issued with a civilian overcoat, two shirts, ‘one on and one in the wash’ as the Quartermaster said, two pairs of socks, two pairs of boots which look suspiciously like brown paper, a knife, fork and spoon and lastly a piece of cutlery which we eventually identified as an army razor.
Those who have not brought their own motorcycles have been issued with new machines, BSA, Zenith, Rudge, Douglas etc. I have brought my own Douglas for which I shall be paid.
January 1st 1915
We have now been in the army just a month. Our daily routine is usually as follows. We parade at 07.30 washed and shaved. After roll call we go for a route march, then breakfast, followed by drill, with a long break before dinner. In the afternoon we have buzzer practice, flag waving and Morse. Then we have lectures on electricity and the construction of telegraph instruments. If we are to become expert in all these we shall not see France for a long time. Occasionally we get out on our motorcycles when we indulge in scorching to our hearts’ content, much to the alarm of the townspeople who have not seen really fast riding before.
February 12th 1915
Today I was promoted to sergeant of the despatch riders’ section – why I do not know. I am not senior in service or years, but possibly I am the most experienced rider, and have a good drilling voice. That voice, which used to be such a trouble to me in my teens, loud and gruff, has come into its own. As my mother used to say, ‘keep anything seven years and it is sure to come in’.
March 9th 1915
There is an epidemic of measles in the army, the German variety. Today I felt very seedy and feverish so I went to the doctor and had to go to bed right away. There is a house set apart for measles and scabies which is also very rife.
March 15th 1915
Out for the first time today, after four days in bed and isolation for the remainder of the time. At one end of the room were men with measles and at the other men with scabies. It is a wonder we did not get the scabies and they the measles.
July 28th 1915
We sailed at about midnight - the night was overcast, not a star showing. The ship was escorted by two destroyers which scurried around like a couple of sheep dogs, disappearing into the blackness and then reappearing where least expected, their white bow wave alone showing their presence. Daylight was just beginning to show as we entered the outer harbour of Le Havre. In the afternoon we were sent to a rest camp outside the town. We are entraining for the Front tomorrow.