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The First World War diaries of an Ipswich man

PUBLISHED: 14:48 07 November 2018

The offical unveiling of the Christchurch Park Cenotaph, Ipswich, on May 3 1924. Picture: from the original by Lucy Taylor

The offical unveiling of the Christchurch Park Cenotaph, Ipswich, on May 3 1924. Picture: from the original by Lucy Taylor

Suffolk Regiment’s George Punchard was one of the first men to be mobilised in 1914. Demobbed in ebruary 1919, he wrote a record of his War.

Every man and woman who served in the Great War of 1914-18 has his and her own story to tell. This is the story of Sergeant George Punchard, of the Suffolk Regiment.

George, who survived and came home to Ipswich, kept pocket book diaries during the four-year conflict and transcribed them in his closely-written, neat hand into two large volumes.

His personal record of the war has been treasured by his family since his death in 1931, aged 46.

The 1911 census shows George was married to Ethel and the couple lived in Elliott Street, Ipswich, with their three-year-old son. In that year, George was 26 and worked in the warehouse at a leather manufacturer.

George Punchard, cornet player in the Suffolk Regiment. Picture: Lucy TaylorGeorge Punchard, cornet player in the Suffolk Regiment. Picture: Lucy Taylor

A stretcher bearer in the war − as many bandsmen were − he fought in the trenches in 1914 and 1915 before trench foot saw him assigned to other duties.

George joined the 4th Suffolks in 1912. He writes: “It was not for any patriotic reason that I joined... but being very fond of bands and able to play the cornet pretty fairly, and also some of my mates being in the 4th Suffolks, I decided to try and join.”

“Little did I know or think... what I was to go through, the hardships, miles away from home, the discomforts and danger, but I joined with a good heart and I always tried ever afterwards to keep it so.”

Britain declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914 and George, having been issued with identification discs, field dressings, extra cartridges etc, was despatched to Felixstowe to dig trenches, put down barbed wire, burn beach huts and fortify houses.

The journals of George Punchard from the First World War. Picture: Lucy TaylorThe journals of George Punchard from the First World War. Picture: Lucy Taylor

When volunteers were requested to go overseas, George (having first consulted his wife), stepped forward. By early December, marching through northern France, they were nearing the firing line and saw the graves of Scots and French soldiers along their route

“Here we were attached to the Julundi Brigade,Lahore Division or Eighth. It was an Indian division, it being composed of Manchesters, 4th Suffolks, 59th Indian Rifles and the Sikhs. We soon became good friends with the Manchesters and Indians... often of a night having a singsong together.”

At the battle of Givenchy, in December, the stretcher bearers were needed on the battlefield.

“I went to pick up some wounded that laid there. When we got there, by the aid of a match, we saw two Germans badly wounded, one dying while we were there. The other, if we had shifted him would have died so we left them and went after some Manchesters further on.”

The homecoming of 4th Suffolk Reg May 1919. A picture from the journals of George Punchard. Picture Lucy Taylor (by courtesy of H Blackwood)The homecoming of 4th Suffolk Reg May 1919. A picture from the journals of George Punchard. Picture Lucy Taylor (by courtesy of H Blackwood)

George took off his gloves and put them on the hands of a wounded man who said he was cold.

The fighting went on with fierce intensity; men lay dead and dying. Under German machine gun fire George heard someone shout for help and found a man was down with a bullet through the bone of the leg, which was broken in two. With the help of a lieutenant George dragged the man into a shell hole, out of rifle fire.

Winter 1915 was a nightmare of snow, mud, marching in full kit, being shot at; digging trenches and bitter, bitter cold. George talks of aeroplanes overhead and seeing lines of German prisoners under Gurkha escort. By the end of April, the Suffolks were embroiled in the Second Battle of Ypres: “Going up the roads there were several dead and dying lying about, and horses being killed by shells.”

“Just to let you know, men help each other on the battlefield. I saw a chap who, having half his foot shot off, was crawling along the field on his hands and knees when he came across another chap with his knee badly shot and who could not walk and hardly crawl. So, telling him to get on his back, he (the man with the foot injury) carried him that way.”

George Punchard (Back Left) with his father (Back Centre) and brothers in 1917. Picture Lucy Taylor (by courtesy of H Blackwood).George Punchard (Back Left) with his father (Back Centre) and brothers in 1917. Picture Lucy Taylor (by courtesy of H Blackwood).

George took a dim view of officers who made their men endlessly drill and salute... while under fire. “There is too much distinction between an English officer and soldier (compared) to what there is in any other army,” he observed.

After six days leave in Blighty George noted, as he caught the train at Victoria Station to return to the front: “It is a rather sad sight... to see the women and children saying goodbye, perhaps for the last time to their husbands and fathers or sweethearts.”

In late 1915 George was struck down with trench foot. Told to report to the doctor, George took off his shoes and socks off for the first time for a week. “After being dried, I found I could not get my boots on again so I tied two sandbags on them (secured) with my puttees.”

Invalided back to England in January 1916, George was back on the home front, guarding rivers and

beaches. In early 1917 he sailed for Boulogne, where he worked on the docks. In September 1918 he was posted to a Prisoner of War company to guard German prisoners.

“Monday, November 11, Armistice was declared. This did not make much difference to us for work went

on just the same but as we were not afraid of ‘Fritz’ coming over, we used to have singsongs in our hut.”

George Punchard’s post script was written in January 1919, in Ipswich.

“When I was a boy at school, the Headmaster gave our class an essay to write on War. Well, I got about six lines done and came to a full stop, could not get any further... When the Master came to look at my

paper, he was astonished. ‘What?’ he said, ‘only six lines. On such a subject as that you ought to have been able to write six pages.’”

George’s war diary amounted to around 60,000 words.

• George Punchard was mobilised on August 4 1914; promoted to corporal in January 1916; promoted to sergeant in December 1918; discharged, February 9, 1919.

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