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Soldier’s diary that survived Battle of Somme unearthed in time for July anniversary of 1916 conflict

Posted on 22/07/2018 in Press Coverage

A British soldier’s diary that survived the Battle of the Somme has been unearthed just in time for the anniversary of the start of one of the world’s bloodiest conflicts,

The Battle of the Somme began on July 1, 2016 and lasted until November 18. It saw the armies of the British Empire and France fighting against the Germans in a bid to hasten victory for the Allies.

It was the largest battle of the First World War on the Western Front. More than three million men fought and one million were wounded or killed, making it one of the bloodiest battles in human history.

But one man and his tiny diary survived it all. The 1916 diary of First World War Sherwood Forester Charles Smith, Charlie to his friends, has been unearthed by Derbyshire’s Hansons Auctioneers. His notes from the trenches, written in pencil when he was 21, were bought along to a free valuation day by his descendants along with other items relating to his war service including a Military Medal complete with citation note.

Adrian Stevenson, militaria expert at Hansons, said: “It’s a humble affair, a small beige book. But inside is a rich historical treasure that survived one of the bloodiest conflicts in history – the Battle of the Somme.

“Pick it up and images immediately spring to mind of those terrible First World War trenches. But we’ve only seen those images in history books. This diary has been in those trenches, the very place where war took its toll on an entire generation during the Great War of 1914-1918.”

Charlie had it by his side on July 1, 1916 – the day the Battle of the Somme started. His entry for June 30, 1916 reads, ‘Left Pom** for the trenches for big attack, 9.30pm’. It was followed on July 1, 2016 by, ‘Brigade made attack, Robin Hoods led, 8th was in reserve’.

Just prior to that on June 16, 1916 he noted: ‘Went up to the trenches for first time with digging party’ followed on June 22, 1916 by, ‘Went into the trenches for first time’.

Charlie’s Military Medal citation reads: ‘No 305939 Private C Smith, 1/8th Battalion Sherwood Foresters awarded Military Medal November 3rd, 1918 for the following act of gallantry: For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty during the attack near Regnicourt on 17th October, 1918. This man, as a Company Runner, was of invaluable service to his Company Officer, carrying messages quickly and accurately under heavy enemy machine gun fire. He was always anxious to be in the fight and did extremely well all day’.

Mr Stevenson said: “Charlie was clearly a young man of immense bravery and integrity and, thanks to this discovery, we can honour his memory.

“His diary sits alongside other items connected to his military service including his demob certificates and a war badge for ‘Services Rendered’ in HM’s Military Forces since August 4, 1914 – the year the conflict broke out. The fact that it was awarded in 1919 tell us that Charlie was one of the lucky ones. He survived. “

Charlie’s diary features no more than a line or two on each page, a short note about his day. For example, on Monday January 10, 1916, he wrote: “On parade. Repaired sea wall. Cleaned rifles. Wrote to J Martin (France). Work continued’.

Short family notes, sometime intensely sad, creep in. On May 19, 1916, he wrote: ‘General training’ then, underlined, ‘Grandmother died’.

On May 21, 1916: ‘Father’s birthday. Church parade. Evensong at 6.30pm’. Then on May 22: ‘General base training. Grandmother buried’.

Mr Stevenson said: “Not only were these young men in a war zone, they were miles away from their loved ones. Who comforted them in times of grief and loneliness, I wonder?

“Perhaps they had no time to dwell. We see references to it ‘being quiet in the trenches’, ‘night operations’ and ‘French bombing’.”

Away from the hostilities, religion clearly played a big part in these young servicemen’s lives. Charlie refers to Bible class and church services being held regularly.

Of course, it was a disciplined environment, too. Boot and rifle inspections were regular occurrences. But there was some light relief. On December 25, 1916 he wrote: ‘Attended Mass in dugout at dressing station. BDE dinner’. At least Christmas Day warranted a break from routine.

Mr Stevenson said: “Thanks to his diary, we even know what size boots he wore – 9 – and what the weather was like every day, ‘rain’, ‘hot’, ‘misty’. One word always summarised the skies overhead. That obsession with the weather must be part of the great British psyche.

“Charlie lived to be 90, dying in 1985. But he did pay a price for his involvement in the conflict. His family tell us he suffered bronchial problems as a consequence of the conflict. I hope his war memorabilia is treasured and his story continues to be told.”

Charles Smith’s war diary, medals and documents have an estimate of £250-£350 and will be sold on July 27 at a July Coins, Medals and Militaria Auction at Hansons Auctioneers, Heage Lane, Etwall, Derbyshire. To find out more, email militaria valuer Adrian Stevenson – [email protected] or call 01283 733988.