Much has been said this week of heroics in the field and men giving their lives for their country, but we sometimes forget what those lives included, what the men who went to fight gave up, and what they were fighting for. Here are just a few of our diary extracts demonstrating how the pull of home deepened in times of turmoil.
Many of the diaries in our collection contain touching stories of yearning for home on the battlefield or emotional reunions with loved-ones, but few give tender accounts of the initial departure. It seems that men often went away from war spontaneously and without much thought of the dangers or hardships ahead:
'Journal by Walter Baker of his First World War Experience’, Wally Baker of Lyndhurst Hants, aged 19, Private & Corporal, in Regt. 547, 5th Battalion, 10th Irish Division of the Royal Irish Regiment (Signals), courtesy Alec and Martin Baker (the author’s sons)
Aug. 4th 1914:
‘Big headlines appeared in the press. England and Germany were not sort of “looking the same way” and the ominous news read that “war was declared” but there! We consoled ourselves that England was already strong enough to take on all comers and little did we imagine how the country would stand in four years hence and little did I think that “little me” would be one of those millions who would don khaki and fire a rifle with the intent to kill. We scanned the news daily with natural interest and gloated over the news of heavy losses of the Germans and their efforts to reach the Channel ports, but we did not forget to realise that we were also losing men in killed and wounded.
The forceful and menacing approaches of the enemy seemed to gain considerable territorial success and very soon the press, through Lord Kitchener, was appealing for volunteers. This called for serious thinking and eventually resulted in our working staff of eight to offer our services, such as they may be. Our employer, Lord Hylton of Ammerdown Park became very interested and convened a meeting with a view to enrolling others. He graced our patriotic action with a most eloquent speech, which resulted in quite a few more volunteers and giving us Godspeed with a ration of smokes. What heroes we imagined ourselves, marching away amidst the cheers of the village.
I wrote to my parents and told of my “doings” and sent home all my belongings and I received a reply with mixed feelings, most possibly because of my age, although we were all firmly convinced that this “big do” would all be over in a few months.’
Home thoughts in the field
Once they’d been away for a while, even the most cheerful men’s thoughts turned to the homes and people they had left behind. For some it was wives and children, as in our recently publicised love letter, but many of the recruits were too young to have such deep attachments. This didn’t stop them from missing their families, however:
‘Bill’s Gallipoli Diary’, The Gallipoli Diary of Sergeant (later Lieutenant) W.J. Cawthorn of Melbourne, Victoria, Aug 28th 1915- Dec 15th 1915, courtesy Peter Cawthorn, Coomalie Creek, N.T.
‘Sept 8: I have been on duty since 2 o’clock and have tried to sleep for a while, but somehow I can’t. I am feeling awfully homesick, especially after re-reading the last letters I had from home. I shall shake off this feeling, as I am getting quite full of the blues. Still home does seem to be the only place one wants to go and I don’t think I even realised before how much it meant to me. I have been thinking of all the little ones and wondering how they are. It is astonishing how well one remembers them- teeny little incidents I can bring to mind. There is not much chance of getting a letter away or receiving one.
Sept 22: I just feel tonight as if I would like to be at home in front of a roaring fire, in the dining room. How good it would be with all the children there, I really think one misses the presence of little children as much as anything. At least there were native children at Heliopolis but here there is no-one but men of all types and makes. One wants to be right away like this to remember how much one’s happiness depends, not only on himself, but on those who come into contact with him.
Oct 11: How I wish it were Home- I never realised to such an extent before the truth of “There’s no place like home”!’
The hardships and tensions of the battlefield at least kept the men occupied; often it was only when they got home that they realised just how much of a hole their absence had left in the lives of those who remained behind. Some never learned this final lesson; instead, they lost their lives on the battlefield:
‘My Wartime Memories’, Gunner Ward, W.S. 2067668, 484 Searchlight Battalion, R.A., courtesy M. E. Glass
Late April 1945:
‘After a few days in Southsea I was given a train ticket and a pass for twenty-eight days. I got on a train at Paddington at 5.55pm. It would be midnight before I arrived at Burry Port, but I was on my way. At Swansea I had to change trains, so having about half an hour to wait, I went for a cup of tea. Here at home the winter was just ended and everyone was white, while I was a bit brown. One of the ladies said to me, “Have you just come from overseas?” and when I said “Yes,” she gave me a big mug of tea and a plate full of sandwiches on the house. I will never forget that as long as I live.
The war was still on and when I arrived back in Burry Port at about midnight I couldn’t see a hand in front of me, as there were no lights. There was no-one about as I walked along the station road but when I was where the British Legion is now I heard the footsteps of a couple of people coming towards me. It was black and I couldn’t see a thing, but one of them said “Stan!” and I put my arms out in front. They were my two brothers, Fred and Mervyn. They had only been eleven years old when I had last seen them and now they were sixteen years old and working. We threw our arms around each other. We couldn’t see each other, only feel. They carried my kitbag and other things and we walked to the Suburbs and up Bryn Gwdig to No. 2.
We went through the back door and into the living room where my father and my Aunt Alice were sitting, and I broke down when I saw them. I had been away four and a half years but it was my aunt that I cried over most. She was only forty-three years old and when I went overseas her hair had been dark, and now it was white. Only she knew what she went through.
I was home after four and a half years. I don’t remember much about what I did. It was just good to be home, although there were none of my old friends around as they were in the Services somewhere in the world.’
There’s nothing quite like reading a personal account of war, as history unfolds itself through the eyes of somebody who was actually there. Forces War Records are fortunate to receive such amazing real life war stories, and now you can read some of them – completely free of charge - here. If you have a relative’s war diary at home, we’d love to hear about it! Email us now at Diaries@forces-war-records.co.uk.