Bullets, battles and bully beef: diary of a First World War soldier

13 Aug 2014 @ 9.55 pm
| History

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Members of the East Riding Yeomanry in North Yorkshire or County Durham. Left to right: F Keyworth, Chummy Mann, (?) Best, diarist Wass Reader, Oscar Tweddle and Sergeant Hickson. Courtesy of Hedon Museum
From the grim reality of life on the front line to moments of humanity and hope, nothing escaped the notice of First World War diarist Wass Reader.

If he witnessed fellow soldier having his leg amputated or enjoyed a Charlie Chaplin film, the member of the 1st East Riding Yeomanry C Squadron noted it down in his journal.

But his thoughts were impenetrable to most modern readers because Mr Reader wrote them in shorthand.

Now, thanks to an army of volunteers, his notes have been deciphered – and his personal insights can be shared 100 years after the beginning of the First World War.

Wass wrote the diaries while serving in the Palestine Campaign between 1917 and 1918. After an appeal for help by York Castle Museum, the custodians of the diaries, volunteers spending hours translating every word.

Now his day-by-day account will feature in the museum’s major new exhibition on the First World War, 1914: When The World Changed Forever.

“Wass’s thoughts, concerns and comments on the events going on around him are truly fascinating,” said Philip Newton, assistant curator of history.

“Here is a down to earth young lad thrown into a world of chaos, harsh conditions and bloodshed who is describing his life in such a way that it is impossible not to warm to him.

“His matter of fact language and his accounts of football, Christmas drinks with friends and his relationship with the nurses also hits home that this is an ordinary young man not too different from young men today.”

Philip added: “We would like to thank the army of volunteers who have spent many hours of their time translating the diaries, we couldn’t have done it without them.”

Wass’ accounts of the conflict include seeing thrilling air battles overhead and being shot in the shoulder while galloping on his horse to take control of a village.

By 1917 Wass is clearly tired of war, noting, “three years of the best part of my life wasted”.

His entry for his birthday in 1918 reads: “Here’s another birthday come round. Am I 25 or 26? Blessed if I know. What I am wondering is how many more birthdays I am going to spend in the blinking army.”

Extracts from the diaries of Wass Reader

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Wass Reader’s war diaries

4th August 1917
It is just three years ago since I drove to Walton Street in a cab and entered my life as a real soldier. Three years of the best part of my life wasted

20th May 1917
I am becoming simply smothered with constant lice and the seams of my breeches are absolutely thick with eggs. I had a good wash-down in a bucket of water this morning but I cannot get rid of the lice

28th June 1917
Football is now in full swing here and we have matches every night. Our sergeants played ‘B’ Squadron sergeants this afternoon for 100 … and we beat them 3-2. I sprained my thigh and I can hardly walk now.

29th June 1917
This afternoon we saw a very thrilling air battle just over our lines. The Taub had been in the habit of coming over here every day at the same time so our fellows lay in wait for him today. Three of our machines darted at him from all directions and darted round him like flies but whether he got hit or not we could not see for he got out of sight.

23rd July 1917
This is a comfortable hospital and the nurses are very nice and good looking.

29th July 1917
I am getting well in with all three sisters – I like the auburn haired one best as she has such a nice figure.

28th Sept 1917
Got the ration camels mixed up this morning and had to go round the squadron squaring things up. Cigarettes are quite unobtainable anywhere just now but luckily we received a full issue of 5 packets per man today so now we are alright for a day or two.

2nd Oct 1917
We had a cinematograph show in the YMCA tent tonight and Charlie Chaplin amused us for a while

Memo Oct 1917
We have been without “fags” now in the canteen for nearly 3 weeks and managed to get a few boxes of Woodbines the other day. We expect “Johny Turk” to throw up the sponge the next time we attack in force and all our N.C.O.’s are being taught the Turkish for “throwdown your arms, surrender and you are surrounded”. The effect sounds awful.

24th Oct 1917
Today we were issued with the new box respirators and did some drill with them. They are a great improvement being much easier to put on and they do not taste nearly so bad as the old ones.

14th Nov 1917
Got our forage and rations in this village and then went out to take the next one. It was while galloping across the field to do this that I got hit in the neck and I fell off my horse. I was picked up in about an hour and taken on a sand cart to the Dressing Station.

15th Nov 1917
Stopped last night at the 22nd Dressing Station and was taken away this morning in the ambulance to the 3rd L.H.F.A. I think the bullet is in my right shoulder. Our Regiment has a lot of casualties but we are doing well and I hear we have taken RAMLEH. I have seen some horrible wounds and some fellows are in bad pain. We get bully and biscuits to eat in the hospital. Left this station tonight in a motor lorry and had a most painful journey for 30 miles. Arrived at the Desert Column Station and stayed the night.

23rd Nov 1917
They have put me in a bed next to the operating theatre and it is only covered in with matting. Last night I peeped through and saw them take a chap’s leg off.

18th Dec 1917
Tissy’s cigarettes are really a good send and have brought me untold comfort. I have been making my own with cigarette papers as we have had no issue of cigarettes here, only tobacco.

25th Dec 1917
The third Christmas Day of the war. Had the tent brightened this morning and “poshed up” accordingly. As usual I went into town after tea and met all our lads altogether. What a night! There were 12 of the P.B. men sat drinking round one table. I will draw a gentle veil over the events of the evening, but thank goodness Christmas only comes once a year.

29th Dec 1917
Went to town as usual and went to a concert at the Y.M. where Miss Fitzjohn and HarryPalty? All singers were performing. She is very hot stuff and used to be a Music Hall artist but now she is the wife of a crooner.

1st Jan 1918
What a black prospect for the New Year. We have parties at the ocean looking for bodies washed up and burial parties parading all day. The bodies of 150 nurses lie under the sheds at the dock awaiting burial. Up town again just for a walk round and back early to bed.

2nd May 1918
Had an exciting time this morning killing bugs. I discovered hundreds of them in the bolts etc on my iron bed and on inspecting find that all the other beds are the same. They are extremely large bugs and take a lot of doing in with strong gristle.

17th May 1918
Put in a good night at the Y.M. It is a concert given by the Mummers. They are quite a strong party with quite a professional touch.

30th May 1918
Here’s another birthday come round. Am I 25 or 26? Blessed if I know. What I am wondering is how many more birthdays I am going to spend in the blinking army.

11th November 1918
News received at Kantara at 18.00. Got up at 05.00 and did some more P.T on our own. We all of us really enjoyed it for it is doing us a power of good, especially as we are getting good food as well and I hope I shall arrive home as fit as a fiddle at any rate as far as physical fitness if concerned. We had a gruelling time on the mid morning parade for the officer and the major were both here. Luckily the officer happened to pass a complimentary remark on one of my movements (the first I have ever heard him use). He also asked me my name so I suppose I am well in now.

PEACE AT LAST!

Everybody here went mad last night and the air was simply full of fairy lights, rockets, etc from 18.00 to 24.00.