Memories of a First World War officer on the western front
PUBLISHED: 10:40 09 November 2018 | UPDATED: 10:17 12 November 2018
Letters, postcards and diaries provide valuable insight into the different perspectives of those serving on the frontline during World War I. Nicky Barrell and Sabrina Johnson report
Gilbert Barrell’s red leather bound diary and postcards - detailing his time serving as a commanding officer of Lincolnshire 4th Batallion on the western front - were hidden away in a bureau until discovered by his grandson Kenneth Barrell.
The former Diss High School history teacher built up a picture of his grandfather’s time on the battlefields of Flanders from February to October 1915 by researching troop movements, translating the meticulous entries and gathering wartime photographs.
The published book Grandpa’s Diary details comrades killed or wounded each day and the letters of condolence written to widows and mothers as well as the time spent socialising with fellow officers in between shells and gunfire. The postcards sent to his wife Florence and his two young sons Kenneth and Stanley provide insight into the gentle family man behind the uniform.
Gilbert lists the men serving in the battalion and what they took with them as they set off on Feburary 28th 2016: 30 Officers (includng 1 chaplain), 986 other ranks, 14 riding horses, 59 draught and pack horses, 5 small ammunitions carts (limbered), 2 machine guns, 11 bicycles, 13 carts.
Mr Barrell recalls a story passed own from his own father: “Apparently during the middle of a battle, with shells exploding all around, the telephone rang. “How many non-conformists are there in your battalion.” came a voice from headquarters. Grandfather was furious. “Several fewer than there were two hours ago.” He shouted and slammed the phone down.”
“Grandpa in his diary understates everything but it is obvious how saddened he is by the losses sustained. When his friend Captain Meaburn Staniland the young 2nd Lieut. Wilfred Fox are killed on the same day his only comment is “in all a rather depressing sort of day.”
Mr Barrell’s grandmother Florence uffered a double tragedy after her husband premature death in 1938 when just four years later the eldest of her two son’s Kenneth was killed whilst serving in Italy – yet another family torn apart by world war.
Extracts from Grandpa’s Diary 1916
Saturday 28th February
Arrived Le Harvre about 5am. Golden Eagle rocked gently in harbour
Landed 9am saw Salaman marched 4 miles to rest camp at Gainneville top of a hill outside town
Fur coats indented for and served out
Wednesday 3rd March
Passed through Abbeville, Boulogne and Calais then south
We all shaved in railway carriage
Arrived at detraining station (Armeke) about 2pm then marched 3 miles to Zuytpeene
Sunday 14th March
Sailly Sur La Lys
4:30pm sound of very heavy gunfire from north shells going about 300 per minute
Afterwards saw house plastered with bullet holes and church is demolished all but tower – on which was German machine gun
Orders received to move 3 miles tomorrow
Wednesday 24th March
Practice attack on trenches
Afternoon route march of 5 miles
Shower came on about 4pm
Dean to dinner (tinned salmon and veal cutlets)
Thursday 8th April
Meeting of offices at 11:30am
Went round trenches with Johnson visited Frenchman’s Farm and other posts Piccadilly and Pall Mall.
Tuesday 13th April
Enemy shelled us at 3:34am hit our barn then turned onto Pond. Shells all round; one through wall. G Staniland and Bridges killed. Buck badly wounded. Peasgood wounded. Total 3 killed 6 wounded.
Thursday 22nd April
I hear Hurst is dead
Shaved by Barsham this morning to tune of shells and bullets
Aeroplane dropped light balls in evening and it was stated that dropped something which caused eyes to smart.
Lay out at night supporting 5th Leceistershires back at dawn arriving 5am.
Thursday 6th May
Copper and CO went to trenches at 2pm
I went out with Sergeant Major to locate site of communications trench and was sniped at near Cookers and got very dirty in trench. CO and Cooper back at 7pm. Played bridge
Thursday 13th May
Chalet at Lindenhoek
Went to trenches 3pm
Heavy artillery fire during afternoon, shells close over trenches. At 7pm seven trench mortars exploded against G1 and 2 Tetley. Then hot fire with machine guns and artillery. Hell for 1 hour. Germans sent bombing party to apex of G trenches.
Friday 4th June
Cooper and I went with Toller to see the dump when German shell came close to headquarters. Another came and killed Colnel Jessop wounded Colnel Jones and killed Co’s and Cooper’s horse – mine got away.
Tuesday 15th June
D company digging 50 yards morning , 50 yards afternoon
Band of A company (mouth organ) played outside mess hut.
9.15pm heavy fire by our guns and rapid fire. Finished 9:30pm
Wednesday 23rd June
Home for leave
I arrived Spalding 5.57pm Flo and the boys to meet me, delighted to see each other again
Saturday 26th June
Left Spalding by 2.27pm with Flo, Ken rather upset before I left, poor old chap he felt the parting as much as I did.
Thursday 1st July
Heavy shelling took place on both sides 7pm-8pm
German using gas shells into Zouave Wood and quite strong affecting my eyes and senses. Violet in colour and ethereal. Like mustard and cress.
Sunday 4th July
Our guns were very busy in morning. I went up to tenches at 11.30am returned at 5.30pm.. Two shrapnels burst near me when coming down, one man of B company hit (Day) and one man C company badly hit.
Huns sent several 8in. shrapnel to us
Saturday 17th July
Colnel Martin called. He told us that General Plummer says we have to hold this line during winter!
Saturday 24th July
Holy Communion by Pratt at 12 noon. I read the Epistle
Germans shelled ‘Les trois amis’ near to us at 1.30pm and some shells fell in a field next to us. 2.30pm shell burst close to us and wounded one stretcher bearer slighly in his dug out.
Sunday 29th July
Sunny morning. Band played from 10am - 11.45am
Cricket match between A and C companies finished. Company won I won £1 from Cooper
This was one of Gilbert’s last entries due to suffering from colitis Gilbert was sent home to rest for a few weeks before returning to the front to fight in the Battle of the Somme. During his time on sick leave the 4th Lincolnshires attacked Hohenzollen Dedoubt in which his replacement officer Cooper was wounded in both arms.