Memories of a First World War officer on the western front

Gilbert Barrell prior to his departure for the Western front

Gilbert Barrell prior to his departure for the Western front - Credit: Kenneth Barrell

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 (left) with fellow officer in trenches

Gilbert Barrell (left) with fellow officer in trenches - Credit: Kenneth Barrell

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.

Postcard from World War I front

Postcard from World War I front - Credit: Kenneth Barrell

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.

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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.'

Postcard sent from the World War I front to Gilbert Barrell's son

Postcard sent from the World War I front to Gilbert Barrell's son - Credit: Kenneth Barrell

'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

Le Harvre

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

Le Kirlem

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

Frenchman's Farm

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

Cob Farm

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

Sanctuary Wood

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

Sanctuary Wood

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.