During his time in the First World War John managed to spend time almost everyday to write about his day.
John Daley’s Diary Extracts
In the run up to the Third Battle of Ypres, during June 1917, John was stationed in Poperhinge. This Belgian town was the main access point to the battlefields on the Ypres Salient and was used to billet troops going to and coming from the trenches at the front. The rail line was also used to distribute supplies. Due to its strategic importance the town was targeted by long range shells and aircraft. John records these occurrences:
“Wed 20.6.17 … Fritz sending murderous shells all day to Pop retired feeling unfit 9pm 11pm shelled vicinity of camp up & stand to (not surprised while the shiny mess tin is produced) got down to it again 12 m.n [midnight]”
“Sat 23.6.17 … Fritz started shelling exciting air fight about an hour after 2 German planes come over covered by clouds dropped behind cloud & put 3 of our observations balloons down on fire observers got clear by Parachutes very smart move for Fritz, retired to Camp 3pm followed with shells arr all clear. One of his planes over camps guns brought him down. Evening the usual shelling proceeds.”
John was quite critical of the military authorities and the organisation of the army, as he frequently noted in his diary:
“Mon 18.6.17 Rest day (supposed) 6.30 marched platoon to Poperhinge for bath arr[ived] 8 am splendid bath looked around town … got within bounds of camp shells came over one scattered platoon I had a very narrow squeak one dropped 5 yards off me no damage one camp bombed by planes 50 casualties reported one can expect such with white tents & shining mess tins on a sunny day when will they learn …”
“Wed 27.6.17 …Fritz plane round again at 4pm marvellous proceeded to Yale had to take another Cross Country route Fritz shelling round Vicinity of Vad Dump no doubt he will get the place our people again, fill up a plane with munitions etc. & then they don’t conceal f[ro]m Obs[ervatio]n then they wonder why a dump goes up, through this non concealment policy caused the terrible bombardment of Achicourt [area in Northern France] Red Tape & inexperience is worse today than ever it could be I wonder what the men of the Old Army would think if they saw what is going on in front of an Enemy like Germany there in front is all his Obsn sausages looking at all what is going on …”
At the end of June the Camp where John was billeted experienced heavy shelling with many casualties:
“Sat 30.6.17 … Fritz Arty very active. 6pm shelled the Camp boys confused shell dropped among 15 of the men as they were clearing off for safety was quite close to them Great God what a sight one man thrown abt 10 ft high & dropped in shell hole rushed forward with one of my platoon & carried off to safety until obtained stretcher & seen him off to dressing st[atio]n two more men laid out on top of shell hole one a terrible sight leg shattered off nearly from above the knee to my astonishment G. Davies one of my platoon poor fellow one of the best in great agony kept a good spirit tried to tell him keep cool & keep up spirit could do nothing for him terrible I was done up after this Cpl Eastwood fine fellow caught it very badly another had shell shock all 4 attended to & sent off by motor amb to C.C.S [casualty clearing station] Davies poor fellow will lose his leg first casualty my platoon unfortunately in Camp after all the narrow scrapes weve pulled through several other slight casualties sight & groans of it haunts me…”
John records his mental state, how tired he is after so little sleep and how the men are “highly strung” at roll call as a result of constant shelling. The Camp was badly damaged and tents had to be moved and new accommodation found, all while under fire: “men fairly demented no rest for 3 or 4 days & nights what fools we have in authority.”
On 6th July 1917 John made a statement on the moral of his Company for a report to Headquarters. He felt his men needed time to rest and recover behind the line, John himself states he feels: “very queer probably result of terrible fumes from shell which burst close to tent..”. Days later John can still feel the effects in his chest, eyes and nose, but he does not receive any treatment and has to sleep in the open.
Just over a week later on 14th July the camp suffered an artillery attack from different directions with gas shells, resulting in heavy casualties:
“…Heavy thunderstorm & rain accompanied by heavy shelling from Hun Arty many long range passing over camp direction of Pop a new addition & from the right of Salient several guns playing round camp scorching fire some very close to camp this continued at intervals until 3am when I had to evacuate my lonely tent & comfy bed several dropped close to & covered tent with soil cleared out & made for dug out just got our & got smothered with soil etc from one close to, very nice sensation in tent alone laying back listening to the terrible howls of the monster shells passing overhead & the rain pelting on the tent & shells dropping close expecting one every min …”
After a period of quiet the shelling continues with more casualties and with more dumps destroyed. John also witnesses observation balloons being destroyed and aerial battles: “…plenty of shrapnel over high explos[ions] after balloons planes ? …several Hun planes overhead dark night searchlights busy bit of an air scrap no bombs our arty still active…” On 24th July John’s Company moved to the area near Woodcote Farm; he describes the place as a sight from all the bombs and gas, with No Man’s Land all open.
Seeing the damage to the countryside and hearing the artillery overhead made John stop and question: “…to think we are all Christian…all this for your country…ye Gods man’s inhumanity to man time for your 2 biscuits & bully ye stalwart slaves so get on with it…”
On 30th July John moved off to Brandhoek, a different section. He notes this is quieter with some enemy activity and more troops arriving for an upcoming push. The following day John’s diary records the scene before him: “…horrifying Great God sights horrid gained objectives w[ou]nded many walking horrible too bad to mention following up with line am sick at heart to write or think of it.”. From here John moved off to Zillebeke, marching through the night up to his knees in mud.
For the next few days John had to march through the rain in soaking wet clothes. They experienced heavy shelling. John writes of his near miss:
“Thank God just missed 2 behind & front & burst over my head sailed clear dropping them all around searching Boys coming from trenches copping it arrived camp 1pm officer in charge remarked abt my cold & miserable state gave me a drop of whiskey in fact I couldn’t tell what it was revived me for a time (decent chap) my L/Sgt gone to Hosp rec[eive]d ? to stand by at Hqs of appearing run down (very thoughtful) I am under great pain still I don’t desire going on sick list. Still raining all evening 4 men report sick, not surprised turned in soaked 10.30pm 12m.n. v. early morn Fritz shelling camp & vicinity long rangers. Reveille 1.45am still raining boys soaked & a long march horrible”
On 5th August John still records feeling feverish and exhausted despite rest and a bath. However, the rain and shelling continues. Headquarters are hit and John is given night duty. He would be based there for some time. On 8th there is a violent thunderstorm: “flooded out again boys out soaked shocking”. John is sleeping in a tent which must be wet most of the time due to the weather. Around this time the artillery seems more active with John recording more planes overhead. On 17th August part of diary entry reads: “Huns busy planes & shells some overhead while writing can feel my nerves are gone a bit.”
The Company Commanding Officer, Captain Brooke, took ill and was taken away on the same day the General Officer Commanding II Corps inspected the group and gave a speech complementing and thanking the men for their work. Two Military Medals were also presented to unnamed Corporal and Private.
John took over command of his platoon on 25th August 1917. The following day, after a terrible night of low flying planes, the platoon moved to new ground south of Zillbeke. This area was no quieter with very active artillery on both sides. By the time they reached camp John notes the weather broke for the worst with torrential rain. The morning of 28th John describes as terrible with “cyclone weather…country frightful state sights horrid, too stormy to do much…” When there was a break in the weather the men cleared and repaired the dug outs.
On 3rd September John and the platoon returned to Poperinghe. Here John comments the days are fairly quiet but he describes some nights as terrifying with heavy artillery shelling the area. John and the men move off to different locations on a circuit and return to their camp. On one occasion they see other troops coming in to the area and a Chinese Labour party heading further up the line.
After noting a number of German prisoners had been captured on 27th September, John’s diary for the next day states: “Fritz plane over all night must have dropped about 100 bombs…” This level of bombardment continued for several nights.
Occasionally during quieter moments the men in the platoons would organise football matches in the camp. John records who these matches were against and the result. “Sun 14.10.17 …played match with 3 platoon won 4-3…” Such matches would have been good for morale.
Into October as the weather got colder John decided to abandon his old weather beaten tent: “…built a dugout & occupied it too cold in tent…” The dug out was warmer than the tent and John was not on his own but surrounded by others.
The Platoon moved to Ypres on 20th October. John notes there is quite a change since his last visit there, quieter than before. However this is short lived as just two days later John’s diary reads:
“Mon 22.10.17 terrible night bombs all round heavy cas[ualties] at Angus moved off to Ypres complete grading all quiet had an accident on way back Parkinson lost his foot poor fellow bad sight…”
Heavy shelling continues and John moves off to Winnipeg and Brandhoek. He also travels to Poperhinge for a bath and notes there is activity everywhere. Around this time the weather also turns, becoming wetter and colder. John records receiving rum rations to help combat this.
John was stung by wasps as he tried to eat some jam. A wasp stung his tongue and the roof of his mouth, his tongue and mouth were all swollen and he was in terrible pain. After treating the stings with Iodine John had some rum and soda, but was still unable to sleep.
On Mon 5th November 1917 John celebrates 22 years of service in the army. He doesn’t state if he marks this anniversary in any way. John’s routine continues surrounded by active artillery and moving around the same sector, with occasional inspections and letters from his wife, while the weather deteriorates.
John also comments on the rations, stating they have been rotten of late. Days later John receives a parcel from home, but sadly he notes contents are all broken. The letter has also been opened, not the first letter he has received like this John recalls.
Occasionally John would see men from other local regiments. At a church parade on 2nd December 1917 John saw men from the 17th and 20th Pal’s battalions.
Despite the conditions; bad weather, poor rations and constant shelling John somehow remained focused and committed. He was often commended for his work: “…highly praised for difficult job…”, but John does not actually go in to any detail as to what he achieved.
On 16th December 1917 John had a period of leave. However the leave train he was supposed to travel on was used for casualties. John was able to speak to the men on board and asked one of them, Hanlon, to pass a message on to his wife.
During Christmas John was in the Ypres Sector, in English Wood. He describes Christmas Eve as being “rotten” as he had yet to receive a parcel from his wife.
“Tues 25.12.17 Christmas Day Horrible nothing to mark the occasion! Miserable food Arty active no parcel retired done up.”
John did not receive a Christmas parcel and letter until 27th. These were dated 24th and had possibly been delayed due to the sheer volume of post sent over to France from England at that time.
New Year 1918 saw frost and snow on the ground with an increase in aerial attacks and planes flying overhead. After his previous leave had to be cancelled, John was granted leave from 12th Jan. This was later changed last minute after John had already written and informed his wife. John recorded his long journey home:
“Fri 11.1.18 proceeded on leave 7.45 am to Pop 9.30 train arrd Boulogne 5.30 pm put into warehouse locked in nothing to eat horrible marched to Coppins billet 8.30 pm bedded down on floor all bungled together like cattle.
Sat 12.1.18 marched to boat 10.30 am got 2 buns moved off at 11 very rough a great many sick arr’d Folkestone abt 2 pm arr’d London abt 7 pm. 7.25 pm train to L’pool arr’d 4 am Sun 13.1.18 things very bad”
On 3rd February 1918 John moved to Dickebusch and worked with an Advance party relieving 154 Company. John would stay in this sector for a couple of weeks before moving on to a different sector. On 25th John records another new sector: “…Hill 60 behind Sanctuary Wood too near line words fail to describe sights…” John spent time out of the line and returned, where he experienced heavy bombardments during the night and a barrage of gas shells on a couple of separate occasions.
Throughout March John was still in the same area and had witnessed numerous attacks with shells of different calibres. He notes he had been able to clear his men to safety. The platoon were inoculated whilst at camp. John does not state exactly what this for.
On Palm Sunday (24th March 1918) after an inspection by their Commanding Officer, John attended an open air service. Just before Easter John moved to Iron Bridge sector and on Good Friday a new order came through – no smoking at work. This would not have been popular with the men. Easter Monday saw: “…marvellous escape of 4 men great arty duel Bull Dog tenacity wonderful Easter Monday under very trying circumstances very lucky.”
John then moved to Tunnel Junction where his diary simply records he: “…had a very narrow escape 2.30 two of Fritz’s shells…” sadly no further details are given but John does seem to write more frequently to his wife.
Wed 10.4.18 dull wet morn arty intense C.3 & Canton getting through barrage from Fritz horrible every calibre & Gas Great God & luck horrifying narrowest of shaves fearful Gas got it ?rested dead done up rec’d letter from wife 6.4.18 couldn’t answer.
“Thurs 11.4.18 dull & wet attack & arty intense felt a bit better pack up ready to move no letter to be written activity evening & night horrifying every second anxiety
Fri 12.4.18 …Halt under eyes of Fritz’s Balloons very clear day carry on narrow shaves showered with shrapnel Hell with capital H nerves very strained.”
John did not move off to a new section, near Kemnel, until Monday 15th April 1918. However John does not settle anywhere and appears to be part of a retreat: “enemy reported in place we were yesterday no time for anything done up…” Just days later their camp was evacuated, the dump removed, amid much confusion and they moved to another sector.
The situation did not improve, John continued to be surrounded by heavy shelling and saw confusion among the officers, with congested roads. This was possibly due to hastily issued orders. On 27th April 1918 John moves off on a long march to Proven but continues to be moved from various camps for several days while helping to evacuate an ammunition dump.
At the start of May John was in XGF [?] he was in command of a large party when there was a large explosion which he attributes to carelessness, no casualties are mentioned. Days later another accident occurred: “Sat 4.5.18 had a very sad case 2.45am J. Smith released shell & then expired suddenly very sad & six children removed him to Camp & buried at Mendingham, mad rush all night heavy bomb[ardmen]t returned at 8am…”
On 23rd May 1918 John was up early and marched to a different camp, passing Waton and Winnezeele into France after spending 12 months in Belgium. Shortly afterwards the men met their new platoon officer, W. Stephens. John and the men soon fell into a routine of marching around the quieter surroundings of the village. John makes reference to construction but does not say what exactly.
Throughout June the Company continue to move off with little notice given to them, directed by orders coming from Headquarters.
John records receiving a parcel and a present from his wife on his birthday on 21st June 1918. His joy is short lived as a couple of days later John is confined to camp. The reason is not specified, it may be due to the enemy action in the area. However, John’s reaction is very critical: “…liberty might & freedom & justice Great God what is the army composed of at present…” The following morning he is only too glad to leave the camp to patrol the sector.
After moving to another sector John becomes ill (4th July 1918), noting his temperature is 104 and a sergeant has also been ill for two days. A doctor came to the camp but no diagnosis is recorded. Four days later John manages to write an entry in his diary; he is very weak, shaken up and cannot manage to eat anything as his mouth, tongue and teeth are too sore. John continues with his duties and manages to eat the following day. Despite this his condition worsens: “…terrible agony day & night cough stomach & fever German treatment in these modern times in the Great British Army left in a place miles from anywhere likely to be shelled and bombed.”
Again the doctor came to visit him and gave him more pills to take. A day later John notes little improvement, but his fever has gone. He is ordered to go to Headquarters. John is shocked he has to go in the state he is in: “…riding round the country for 3 hrs life shaken out of me…” The following few days John records that it rains every day which would not aid his recovery.
John is given the role of ASM [?Acting Sergeant Major] from 15th July to 3rd August. John must have been kept bust as his diary entries are very short, sometimes only one line.
On 10th August 1918 the King visited the sector and there is a small addition to John’s diary entry: “turn out for H. M. King”
John is again given the role of ASM and receives orders at short notice to move to Ferfay with the team, from here he has to undertake a four hour march before eventually billeting in a barn. He continues to move off each day and remains in the same sector for the majority of August.
“Sat 31/8/18 still following Jerry awful horrid sights burning all leaving nothing Calonne a shambles…”
Throughout September John and the Company continue to press on, his diary entries are very short, he clearly has little time to keep a record of his experiences, just occasional comments on weather and when he received a letter from his wife. After a little over a week they reach the area near Levanti; they remain in this sector for some time.
The men experience staff changes too; one man leaves for a staff job and two Corporals are sent to a Prisoner of War Company. This may have had an impact on morale.
As the weather begins to turn John notes that it is cold at night and he is suffering from neuralgia, meaning he would have been in pain for much of the time. The Company continue to move and enemy activity, particularly from planes seems to be increasing.
“Sat 28.9.18 drill day horrid rain all day arty active fed up
Sun 29.9.18 cheering news jerry throwing shrapnel over camp all night all correct. Some messing about had time to write to wife. More rain. Frightful cold night.”
This routine continues for several weeks. On 13th October John’s diary notes: “…good news had a rag time band” There is no entry for one week after this, but John continues to march to different sectors.
On 23rd October John is given: “Special duties with Canadians to Lorraine.” He does not say what these are exactly, simply recording over the next few days: “…still hanging back beating round Fromelles…” and “…still beating the bush round Lavanti & Fromelles.”
As they are continuing to move John can see the damage done to the towns and villages first hand: “…on the way to Tournai horrible damage civvy’s frightened look.” This may have been the first time that John had encountered any French civilians as they were marching. On the 4th November John recalls: “…shelling very heavy & close poor civvys dodging the shell fire.” This was in Blandain, where John spent the next several days.
“Mon 11.11.18 Blandain sector Armistice signed operations close great L[oyal] N[orth] Lancs Bn cease fire blown turned out miserable & wet great satisfaction.”
Five days later John and the Company are driven to Rumilles beyond Tournai. The roads are busy, with prisoners being transported and civilians returning. The Company eventually end up being billeted in a: “…big Chateau some Belgian Prince quite a mess back in Belgium again terrible cold.” However, this is temporary and the men move billets several times over the next few days. John comments that this situation is a mess and wonders what will happen upon demobilisation.
From 21st November some of the men start to leave while others finally get an opportunity to take leave owed to them. This must be very frustrating for John who has just started feeling pain in his kidneys as the nights are cold and frosty. On 24th the men receive a lecture on demobilisation, yet as John recalls there is some unrest: “…beating the bush discontent frightful…” At this time John is in the Havinnes sector. A concert is held for the men and rations and smokes are distributed but this does little to improve John’s mood: “management all bluff”.
The men were still expected to parade and have kit inspections: “What a mess all in uproar scandalous.” On 6th December the Company move section, but with no news as to when they are returning home there is a: “state of discontent” within the camp. The men are kept busy with frequent long marches to different sectors, but with no news of demobilisation there is a: “poor lookout for Xmas”
“Tues 24-12-18 Same sector everyone slackening
Wed 25-12-18 Xmas day attended mass done fairly well had a concert some dance
Thurs 26-12-18 Boxing day rest day football match bad after the ragtime etc”
After Christmas John notes the weather was cold and he started to feel ill and in pain again for several days, missing going to church on 29th December.
On 30th December and on 3rd Jan John has wrote “Court Martial” in his diary with no explanation. It is not clear whether he was subjected to a Court Martial as nothing in previous entries indicate this of whether he is attending as a witness or in some other capacity.
At this point John has still not heard about the leave he is due. His last entry:
“Mon 6.1.19 Clothes Insp baths finish 12 the rest of day off”