As the title indicates, a British soldier’s battered World War One diary recounting the bloody Battle of the Somme has recently been discovered in a U.K. barn. The diary, which is set to be auctioned off on March 20th by Hanson’s Auctioneers, was written in pencil by Private Arthur Edward Diggens of the Royal Engineers. It begins on February 13, 1916 and ends later that year on October 11th. The entry for July 1, 1916 describes the appalling first day of the infamous Battle of Somme.
"Something awful. Never witnessed anything like it before. After a bombardment of a week the Germans mounted their own trenches and the infantry reckon that every German had a machine gun. Our fellows were mowed down."
The battle, a massive joint operation between British and French forces that attempted to break through German defenses on the Western Front, lasted until November 18, 1916. According to the Imperial War Museum in London, over the course of this single battle, more than one million British, French, and German troops were killed, wounded or captured in action.
The first day of the battle alone resulted in more than 57,000 British casualties, of whom 19,240 were killed. That equates to one soldier being killed every 4.4 seconds during the initial attack, making July 1, 1916 the bloodiest single day in British military history.
Diggens’ diary was inside a box found in a barn in Leicestershire, in England’s Midlands region. It was among numerous other unrelated military items also found in the box. The auction house reports that the owner had no idea who any of the items related to or how they came to be assembled in the box. All he knew as that his mother had been the recipient of some “old family heirlooms”.
As a result, no one can account for exactly how this Somme diary ended up in the Midlands of England, particularly as Diggens was born farther south down in London. Nonetheless, everyone now involved is relieved that such an important piece of military history has been found and brought to light.
Given that the diary ends abruptly on October 11, 1916, one might fear the worst for Private Diggens. But research proves otherwise. It seems that the soldier in question not only survived the First World War, but also returned to his loved ones in England and became a husband and father. He went on to marry his wartime sweetheart Alice (nee Phillips); and the two of them together produced a son in 1920, also called Arthur.
Now, what is truly amazing is that before he ever fought on the Western Front in France, this same soldier, Private Diggens, also took part in the Gallipoli campaign in Turkey. This campaign was, of course, reminiscent of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem about the infamous “Charge of the Light Brigade” which memorialized a suicidal charge by light cavalry over open terrain by British forces in the Battle of Balaclava (Ukraine) in the Crimean War (of 1854-56).
I say this because the Gallipoli campaign involved a series of relentless and futile attacks on Ottoman forts at the entrance of the Dardanelles in February of 1915, all of which failed. These attacks were then followed by an amphibious landing on the Gallipoli peninsula in April of 1915 which was designed to capture the Ottoman capital of Constantinople (Istanbul). It too failed miserably. And, as a result, the allies suffered one their worst defeats of the entire First World War!
Now, what is amazing in all of this is that it seems that a Gallipoli diary was also penned and kept by this same Private Diggens. He appears to have fought in and kept a diary of this terrible conflict, which he then mailed home. Unfortunately, it never arrived! One can only imagine what horrors it recorded!
Even more amazingly, researchers also report that they now know why Private Diggens’ Somme diary ended so suddenly. His future wife Alice had apparently sent him a new address book, which he then used as another diary from October, 1916 onward. Alas! That second Somme diary, too, has been lost!
How frustrating! Three diaries; and only one survived! And even that one was all but lost to posterity. And yet, how perfectly indicative of the larger conflict this is! For sadly, the events of World War Two were soon to overshadow the events of World War One. And in the process, a fair portion of the events of World War One were all but forgotten to history!
Thankfully, the recent centennial of World War One (2014-2018) has sparked a newfound interest in the original “War to End All Wars”. The story of the Private Diggens’ diary comes on the heels of the release of the movie “1917”, which has also brought the horrors of the first great worldwide cataclysm to the attention of the public at large. We would all do well to remember the sacrifices of that forgotten generation of World War One heroes who gave so much for the freedom of the world.
As the above referenced article points out, according to data from the British War Office, over 700,000 British troops were killed during World War I; and almost more 1.7 million were wounded. Around 6 million British troops were mobilized in the conflict. In total, according to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the war resulted in the deaths of 13 million military personnel on both sides; and left another 21 million more wounded. Simply put, World War One is among the deadliest wars in all of history!
For my part, I have been amazed to discover that my own great grandfather had a brother who fought in the World War One Battle of Aisne-Marne just outside Paris from July 18-25, 1918. This battle was significant in that the Allies repulsed the last great German offensive of the war. Thereafter, the Germans retreated, until an armistice was eventually signed in November of that year.
By then, my great uncle, James Walter Jackson, was home. He had been gassed by the Germans in the Battle of Aisne–Marne. He made his way home with a medal hanging on the outside of his chest; and with scarred lungs on the inside. Sadly, he would die 19 years later in a V.A. hospital of tuberculosis – a forgotten casualty of one of the quickest forgotten, and at the same time bloodiest, wars in all of human history.
How ironic, therefore, that the diary referenced above is only expected to bring between $390 to $521 at auction. To this very day, so few people seem to value what all that anonymous generation sacrificed, fought, and even died for.
Yet I, for one, will not forget! Up until now, I might have been forgiven for overlooking such sacrifices. After all, I was ignorant of this period of history and its significance. But not now! Not now that that I know about these sacrifices and the individuals who made them. May God hold me accountable if I do!
Oh, and by the way, you too now know of some of these sacrifices. As a result, you too are now accountable. I trust, therefore, that you, like me, will find some way to honor the memory of those who gave so much on our behalf!
The author, James Rogers, can be followed on Twitter @jamesjrogers.