Dispatches From Hell – Diary Excerpts From Six Survivors of World War One

Two historians, with the help of Oxford University Press, are set to release six unpublished First World War diaries in a single volume. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Two historians, with the help of Oxford University Press, are set to release six unpublished First World War diaries in a single volume. (Image source: WikiCommons)

9780199336074COMMITMENT AND SACRIFICE, a new book from Oxford University Press could fairly be described as ‘history’s first draft’.

Edited by historians Marilyn Shevin-Coetzee and Frans Coetzee, the 350-pager is a collection of original diary entries by six participants of the Great War. Through the eyes of French, German and British foot soldiers, an American volunteer ambulance driver and even a civilian internee, Commitment and Sacrifice offers readers unvarnished testimony to the death and destruction, hunger and sickness, and injustice of war. As a whole, the accounts cover the landmark episodes of the conflict: the patriotic frenzy of mobilization in 1914, the battles of Verdun, the Somme, and the Chemin des Dames; the invasion at Gallipoli, the 1917 mutinies in the French army, as well as the last desperate campaigns of 1918 and the Spanish flu.

In advance of the book’s Aug. 3 release, the publishers have provided readers of MilitaryHistoryNow.com with these following excerpts from the book.

John French's diary tells the story of an English miner who tunnelled under the Western Front. (Image source: WikiCommons)

John French’s diary tells the story of an English miner who tunnelled under the Western Front. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Cornishman John French was already a veteran of the Arizona Copper Mines when war broke out. But in 1915, duty called so he returned home to enlist with the Royal Engineers. French’s prewar mining experience made him well-suited for service as a sapper, tunnelling underground through Flemish clay to place explosives beneath German lines. His diaries, preserved in tiny volumes the size of credit cards, document the ferocious ‘underground war’ that lay hidden from view. Here French describes an encounter following a German mine attack on a British trench on June 22, 1916:

When we reached the place where the mine had gone off, we could not recognize the place it was altered so. Great gaps in the parapets, where you could see the German lines easily and where the mine had gone off or rather series of mines. There was an enormous crater with dead and wounded, both Germans and British for the Germans had made an attack right after the explosion. They got in our trenches but very few got back again, for after the first shock our men got together splendidly and there was some fierce had to hand fighting. The enemy carried hand grenades and daggers beside rifle and bayonet. . . . There was a German Officer lying dead just over the back of our trench with a grenade still in his hand. There was also one of our officers who had killed three Germans in hand to hand fighting finally being killed himself with a dagger thrust. . . . Two of our squad dug out a sergeant . . . He had a leg and arm broken and was half buried. . . .[T]here were scores of German hand grenades and a lot of German equipment lying around and blood on almost everything. Five of our Coy are buried in one of our mine galleries.


French soldiers load their wounded comrades aboard an American volunteer ambulance. (Image source: WikiCommons)

French soldiers load their wounded comrades aboard an American volunteer ambulance. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Twenty-four-year-old Harvard-educated Philip T. Cate put his studies on hold in 1915 to volunteer as an ambulance driver with the American Field Service in France. Because the U.S. remained neutral until April 1917, Cate served for seven months in a non-combatant role in the Vosges (Alsace) with French medical officers, transporting military and civilian casualties in American-built Ford ambulances. Cate’s diary illuminates war in a sector that has received far less attention from historians than those in Belgium and northern France. On December 21/22, 1915, Cate retrieved wounded from the third and final phase of the Battle of Hartmannswillerkopf in Alsace amid some of the worst weather conditions imaginable.

Last night the Boches shelled Bain Douche getting about eighty men. I was at Moosch and at noon I was sent up in place of some of the men that had come down. I went straight to Herrenflue and got a load at once. I rolled steadily all day Monday and Tuesday. Tuesday night I got four and one half hours sleep in two snatches of two and two and one half hours…The first night of working, the French had attacked and so we had many wounded, both French and German. All our cars and some of the English worked steadily.

On my second trip, it had begun to snow and the down road was terrible; almost sheer ice. For some reason I started down without chains and had not gone far before I was sliding side to side. The poor man beside me almost passed out… The work continued all night steadily.


Daily life was harsh for inmates of Allied internment camps. (Image source: Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies in Banff , Handout)

Daily life was harsh for inmates of Allied internment camps. (Image source: Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies in Banff , Handout)

Confinement on the windswept Isle of Man in Knockaloe Farm internment camp was the only option for 24-year-old Willy Wolff. As a German businessman working at a cotton brokerage near Manchester, England, Wolff fell victim to British wartime restrictions on the movement and activity of aliens resident from the Central Powers. The regulations applied even to those that had lived in Britain for years in peacetime. His diary recounts the physical and emotional toll of a five-year imprisonment, which was marked by monotony and deprivation. That enervating routine was punctuated by the occasional excitement caused by an attempted escape or, as in the following description by Wolff, the discovery of a camp “snitch.”

April 6, 1916

A really tragic event happened today in compound 2. An informer, who reported everything going on in that compound to the sub-commander, was discovered. As a result, the internees beat him and appealed to the sub-commander to remove him from the compound and place him elsewhere. The sub-commander insisted that this informant remain in the compound. This afternoon he already snitched again and behaved terribly towards his fellow internees. They wanted to beat him again but this little devil bolted towards the guard, who was already rather excited because at that moment a fire alarm had rung throughout the entire camp, called the old guard for help and a damn sergeant had nothing more urgent to do but to fire a shot from his watch post. This lout got off three shots in which an internee, unfortunately, was badly wounded and two others lightly wounded, although they had absolutely nothing at all to do with the entire affair… The shots were heard in almost every nearby compound and caused great excitement throughout the entire camp. A few minutes after the shooting the guard and the head commander, the sub-commander and various adjutants came to compound 2 in order to investigate the incident. The wounded were taken to the hospital immediately and the informer, who was guilty of all this, was transferred to camp 1.


Allied troops go 'over the top' at Gallipoli. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Allied troops go ‘over the top’ at Gallipoli. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Although turned away as under age when he volunteered in August 1914, James Douglas Hutchison was determined to do his duty for his native New Zealand. Eight months later the resourceful law student splashed ashore as an artilleryman at Gallipoli, where he served under fire until October 1915, when he was evacuated with enteric fever. He returned to service in northern France, all the while recording his experiences with the clarity and acumen that would eventually earn him a seat on New Zealand’s Supreme Court. Here is an entry from young Hutchinson on April 27, 1915 – shortly after his first experience in combat.

Was not the least scared on going into action, hardly even excited. Were knocked up at 0:30 and started to unload. Got ashore [at Gallipoli] by daybreak, leaving most of the horses and drivers on board. Dragged the guns into scrub just off the beach. Concealed them with scrub and built a sandbag wall… It seems the landing was far from easy yesterday. The first landing party of Australians were badly shot up but jumped from the boats and made a great charge up the hill. They went too far and were badly smacked up, and retreated again with loss. The N.Z. infantry, especially the Canterbury Battalion got hell too, mainly from shrapnel. Tommy Burns of 1st Cant. Is dead. The infantry are not so badly off now that we have artillery ashore… Our fire was very effective keeping their guns quiet and silencing a maxim among other things.

Got up at 4:30, a third day of glorious weather. Hope today will see the end of the battle and the enemy in retreat [the Allied invasion force would remain bogged down for another eight months before withdrawing]… Our firing was very rapid at times and during the day we fired from two guns 257 rounds. About tea time the enemy’s shrapnel got on to us, but we were not firing at the time so we lay low in our dugouts and got no casualties.

French soldiers survey the surreal moonscape of No Man's Land. (Image source: WikiCommons)

French soldiers survey the surreal moonscape of No Man’s Land. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Captain Henri Desagneaux, an attorney for a French railway company in 1914, began the war behind the lines attending to the mobilization and transport of troops to the front. By the beginning of 1916, however, he began a three-year stint leading French infantry in battle. His diary details his own struggles to endure not only harrowing episodes of artillery bombardment and close combat with the Germans, but also the persistent and frustrating incompetence of more senior French officers. Here are some of Desagneaux’s entries.

February 10, 1917

Note from the Colonel: “There are too many men in the rear; keep an eye on your fatigue parties; avoid too many men leaving the trenches. The front line must be attractive and not repulsive!” Why, therefore, don’t we ever see him in the lines?

May 5, 1918

In every sort of sector like this [an active one, in this case the Kemmel sector in Belgium], the conversation revolves around the same topic. There is no longer even any mention of the civilians and their cozy life. No, you are stuck there waiting, simply trying to snatch some part of yourself from death. You don’t even ask to escape unharmed, it seems too impossible; your only wish is to leave as little as possible of yourself behind on the battlefield.

Starvation was commonplace for German POWs in World War One (Image source: WikiCommons)

Starvation was commonplace for German POWs in World War One (Image source: WikiCommons)

Captured in April 1917 by French soldiers during General Nivelle’s Chemin des Dames Offensive, 26-year-old German soldier Felix Kaufmann would endure physical and emotional anguish as a prisoner of war. During his time in stir, Kaufmann was shunted from prison to prison and often forced to work long hours with only minimal food until his release in 1920. His diary provides a rare glimpse into the so-called “other ordeal”: The strain of captivity faced by some eight million POWs of the First World War. The following excerpt is taken from his first few weeks in captivity in a French prison near Châlons-sur-Marne in May of 1917.

The next weeks were truly the saddest and most wretched of my whole captivity. Darkness came early to our cell. Around eight we lie down in a corner on our bed of musty straw. We had not mantle or blanket for covering, only the uniform we wore. Weak from the starvation diet and lack of exercise, we slumbered for hours in the daytime. As a result, we were not able to sleep much during the night… Toward six in the morning we were awakened by the loud bark of dogs… At seven a gendarme brought us a cup of lukewarm coffee we had to drink immediately, because the cup – the only one in existence – went from mouth to mouth and cell to cell. At ten we got a small piece of bread and ½ liter of so-called rice soup, the same old lukewarm water with some grains of rice. The evening meal – at four o’clock – was exactly alike. No wonder that after ten days I was so weakened and had dizzy spells when I got up in the morning that I had to prop up myself against the wall… Monotonously, one day went by after another. We suffered torments of hell not knowing when our imprisonment would come to an end.


9780199336074Marilyn Shevin-Coetzee and Frans Coetzee have taught at Yale and George Washington Universities and have been the recipients of fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies, American Philosophical Society, Alexander von Humboldt, Fulbright, and Mellon foundations, Institute for Advanced Study (Princeton), and the National Endowment for the Humanities. They are the authors of eight books including Commitment and Sacrifice: Personal Diaries from Great War (Oxford University Press, August 2015).

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