Life on the Western Front, 1917

Katie Gill is one of our young volunteers at the Greater Manchester Record Office. She has been working on the GM1914 project, and has transcribed a diary. The original diary had already been transcribed and typed by someone unknown. A carbon copy of this transcription found its way into the archives, with a handwritten note  about the writer of the diary, Thomas Holgate.

He and his brother Ben served as signallers with the London Rifle Brigade in France , and his diary covers just six months, from January until June 1917.

We will be sharing more of their story in future posts. Katie finished her transcription work this week, and we discussed using extracts from the diary for a special post for Armistice Day.

I asked her what she had been  surprised to learn about in Tom’s wartime experiences.

She chose this entry for January 31st 1917, only a week after his arrival in France.

We left England under the impression that there would be little opportunity of spending money, but found we were mistaken. There were many Cafes of the village type in Rougefay, where you sit round the stove in the kitchen. We were ravenous owing to the extremely keen frost, could have drunk French coffee by the quart, and owing to the short Army supplies, bought anything we could; as chocolate and biscuits were the only things procurable, much money was spent. Biscuits were 6d. and 8d. per packet, chocolate 7d. and 1/1d. Cafe 1½d. per tiny cup.Cafe au lait 2½d. per ditto. As the barn was extremely cold and draughty, we were of necessity driven into the Cafes, which were always crowded with our fellows.

The diary is a fascinating mixture of the everyday and the extraordinary. There are some graphic descriptions of the conditions they were surviving and working in, alongside some moments of humour and camaraderie.

Opening a page at random, I found this entry, a real contrast to the Cafe Society scenes described above.

March 19th.  Crossed over the German front line during break for lunch. Drier than ours. Much deeper and wider. Steps at intervals to parapet. Dug-outs good, running back into No Man’s Land. Less than 100 yards between our front line trench and theirs. Fine position of their front line trench, quite commanded half of ravine and Farnborough Road. Beautiful view of our old BHQ and KC2 Office. No wonder they received such a strafing. I cut a button off a German tunic in a sniper’s post. Lost it. Big pile of cartridge clips there. Took some surprising when walking over the open amongst our lines of trenches to see the strafing they had received. Huge holes, but nothing to the way the enemy had been strafed. He had just one fire-trench, and his support line was about half a mile back. The ground in between had been churned into brown earth. Huge craters 25 to 30 ft. deep. Trenches built on our plan could not have been held. On the way back to our lines, came across  the skeleton of a rifleman in no man’s land, rifle stood on end, bayonet and muzzle buried in the ground just had he had fallen months back. (Charger loader rifle). Clothes there, putties on, socks in boots and still on feet, but only the bones of the body left. No sight or sound of the enemy.

The brothers had been brought up in Manchester, and were employed by the Refuge Assurance Company, but had moved to work for an insurance company in London. What could have prepared them for their Great War experiences?

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