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Biographies, Memoirs and Diaries of the First World War

Biographies, Memoirs and Diaries of the First World War


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Books - First World War

Biographies, Memoirs and Diaries

Pershing’s Lieutenants – American Military Leadership in World War War, ed. David T. Zabecki and Douglas V. Mastriano.A series of twenty two short biographies of the men who served under General Pershing in the AEF of 1917-18, focusing largely on their performance during the First World War and their impact on the inter-war and Second World War army where relevant (and not already very well known). (Read Full Review)

Spy of the Century – Alfred Redl & The Betrayal of Austro-Hungary, John Sadler & Silvie Fisch.Looks at one of the most famous spies of the period before the First World War, simultaneously the head of the Austro-Hungarian counter-espionage service and a Russian spy. A potentially interesting story that really needs to be better organised than it is here in order to give a clearer picture of what Redl actually did and what impact it might have had(Read Full Review)

From Marne to Verdun - The War Diary of Captain Charles Delvert, 101st Infantry 1914-1916, Charles Delvert.The compelling war diaries of a French officer who found in some of the costliest battles of the first half of the First World War, including the battle of the Frontiers, the Marne, the Race to the Sea and most famously at Verdun. Gives us both an insight into life in the French army during the first part of the war, and into some of the costliest battles of the conflict. Mainly light-hearted in tone, the dark moments thus stand out far more(Read Full Review)

War Birds - The Diary of a Great War Pilot, Elliot White Springs.The compelling diaries of an American volunteer serving with the RFC and RAF during the First World War, covering his time in training, which became increasingly light-hearted (and drunken) and his six month long combat career during 1918. Provides a fascinating study of the way in which combat stress could affect someone, as well as the contrast between the fairly safe life on the airfield and the dangers in the air(Read Full Review)

With the German Guns - Four Years on the Western Front, Herbert Sulzbach .The First World War diaries of a German war volunteer who went on to serve in the British Army during the Second World War. Sulzbach served in the artillery on the Western Front from 1914-1918, and took part in the great German offensives of 1918 as well as the final retreat. His diaries are thus an invaluable insight into the views of a reasonable, tolerant member of the German arms forces [read full review]

Menus, Munitions & Keeping the Peace – The Home Front Diaries of Gabrielle West, 1914-1917, ed. Avalon Weston.The wartime diaries of Gabrielle West, following her as she worked in (and set up) various canteens scattered around military hospitals the vast wartime armaments industry, before a chance of career saw her become a paid wartime Woman Police Office, serving in munitions factories. Provides a fascinating view of the munitions industry, and a very different view of the Home Front to any other I've read [read full review]

The Coward? The Rise and Fall of the Silver King, Steve R. Dunn .A look at the life and mistakes of Admiral Ernest Troubridge, a British admiral best known for his failure to intercept the Goeben in the Mediterranean at the start of the First World War. The aim is to try and work out why Troubridge acted as he did in 1914, examining the late Victorian and Edwardian navy, his own career and decisions he made elsewhere in his life to try and work out what made him tick [read full review]

Frontline Medic: Gallipoli, Somme, Ypres: The Diary of Captain George Pirie, R.A.M.C. 1914-17, Michael Lucas .Follows the experiences of a South African doctor from a Scottish family through some of the most notorious battles of the First World War, following Pirie in and out of the lines. An uncut diary that includes both dramatic accounts of major Allied attacks and rest time out of the trenches, as well as the day-to-day life in and around the trenches. Unedited after the war, this gives a contemporary day by day view of Pirie's view of the war. [read full review]

Artillery Scout: The Story of a Forward Observer with the U.S. Field Artillery in World War I, James G. Bilder .Tells the story of the author's grandfather, who served with American Expeditionary Force during the First World War, and took part in the battle of St. Mihiel and the Argonne offensive. Provides two unusual viewpoints for the Western Front for the British reader - that of a US soldier and that of an Artillery Scout, better known as a Forward Observer. [read full review]

Douglas Haig - As I Knew Him, George S. Duncan .A view of Douglas Haig as seen by his favourite chaplain during the First World War, George Duncan of the Church of Scotland. Splits into three - an introduction that explains how they met and looks at life at Haig's HQ, an examination of their relationship and Haig's behaviour at different stages of the war, and a look at Haig's character and religion. Produces a positive and convincing view of Haig the man and Haig the commander-in-chief, a reminder of the pressures that he was under, and a view of life at Haig's head quarters [read full review]

My Escape from Donington Hall, Gunther Plüschow. .The memoir of the only German POW to escape home from mainland Britain during either World War. Includes a fascinating section on life in the pre-war German colony of Kiao-Chow, the author's failed attempt to get home from China and his eventual successful escape from Donington Hall. Presents an unusual twist on the POW escape story. [read full review]

Teenage Tommy: Memoirs of a Cavalryman in the First World War, ed. Richard van Emden .The memoirs of Benjamin Clouting, a very young cavalryman, who was present when the BEF fired its first shots of the First World War, and who despite some serious wounds was still at the front when the war finally ended. A fascinating account of the experiences of a pre-war Cavalry regular, demonstrating the wide range of roles performed by the cavalry during the Great War. [read full review]

Sailor in the Desert: The Adventures of Phillip Gunn, DSM, RN in the Mesopotamia Campaign 1915, David Gunn. Follows the author's father through his experiences on one of the last sail and coal warships in the Royal Navy and onto ever smaller ships as he took part in the campaign in Mesopotamia that ended in disaster at Kut. [read full review]

In the Teeth of the Wind: Memoirs of the Royal Naval Air Service in the First World War, Squadron Leader C P O Bartlett DSC..Very different to the more familiar RFC memoirs, this traces the wartime experiences of a RNAS bomber pilot, mainly operating near the Channel coast, taking part in the first sustained bombing campaign in military history [read full review]

A Doctor on the Western Front - The Diaries of Henry Owens, 1914-1918, ed. John Hutton. Follows a doctor who reached the front during the period of mobile warfare in 1914 and was present at Ypres, the Somme and Passchendaele. Makes it clear just how dangerous the life of a doctor was on the Western Front, often serving under shell fire and sometimes right at the very front. [read full review]

The Scapegoat: The life and tragedy of a fighting admiral and Churchill's role in his death, Steve R. Dunn. Fascinating biography of Admiral Kit Cradock, the defeated commander at the battle of Coronel in 1914. Also serves as a history of the late Victorian and Edwardian Navy, looking at its strengths and flaws in the period leading up to the First World War, the Royal Navy's first serious trial since the Napoleonic Wars. [read full review]

Of Those We Loved, I L 'Dick' Read. One of the best Great War memoirs I have ever read, following the author from his arrival on the Western Front late in 1915, through the battle of the Somme, periods spent in Flanders, promotion to officer, to Egypt and back and during the final victorious battles of 1918. Equally good on periods in the front line, behind the line, quiet time and the major battles, this is an outstanding memoir. [read full review]

A Gunner's Great War, Ian Ronayne. Based around the journal of Clarence Ahier, a Jersey man who served in the artillery during the First World War, fighting on the Somme in 1916 and Ypres in 1917 before ending up as part of the British garrison in India. The journal is supported by a useful framework that puts Ahier's experiences into context. A useful view of the Great War from the position of the guns rather than from the trenches. [read full review]

The Platoon: An Infantryman on the Western Front 1916-1918, Joseph Johns Steward. Takes an unpublished autobiographical novel of the Western Front and connects the story to historical events and the sources for family history. Probably of most value for the picture it paints of everyday life and death in the trenches, but with some useful historical notes. [read full review]

Blood & Iron: Letters from the Western Front, Hugh Montagu Butterworth, ed. Jon Cooksey. A collection of letters written in the Ypres salient between May and September 1915. Built around the letters written by Hugh Montagu Butterworth during his time on the Western Front, supported by a detailed biography of Butterworth himself, a sports mad student who emigrated to New Zealand where he worked as a teacher. A fascinating selection of letters that give a glimpse into the brutality of trench warfare. [read full review]

Wingate Pasha, R J M Pugh. A biography of an important figure in the British Empire, the ruler of the Sudan for twenty years. Wingate was also involved in the defeat of the Dervishes and played a major part in the success of the Arab Revolt of the First World War, and is an interesting figure. [read full review]

Up to Mametz and Beyond, Llewelyn Wyn Griffith. A classic account of life on the Western Front (Up to Mametz, first published in 1931), accompanied by the same author's unpublished memoirs covering his time as a staff officer during the last two years of the war. The two books are very different in tone, well written and of great value. [read full review]

Haig - Master of the Field, Major General Sir John Davidson. An account of the events on the Western Front in 1917 and 1918, written by Haig's Director of Operations. The author was motivated by a desire to restore Haig's reputation against what he believed were unfair attacks, and to a large extent he succeeds, although on occasions he does rather over-state his case. [read full review]

Donald Dean VC, the Memoirs of a Volunteer and Territorial from Two World Wars, ed. Terry Crowdy. The memoirs of a very impressive man, a Victoria Cross winning soldier during the First World War and a senior commander with the Pioneers during the Second World War. The account of the second part of his career is of particular interest, partly because it covers part of the army that is rarely mentioned but that played a crucial part in the Allied victory and partly because of Dean's own attitude to the multi-racial and multi-cultural units under his command. [read full review]

The Distant Drum - A Memoir of a Guardsman in the Great War, F. E. Noakes. A rare example both of an autobiography written by a private soldier serving in the Guards during the First World War, and of an autobiography that covers the events of 1917 and 1918, including the German offensives in the spring and the final victorious Allied campaigns. [read full review]

Some Desperate Glory - The Diary of a Young Officer, 1917, Edwin Campion Vaughan. This diary covers the experiences of a young and very inexperienced infantry officer (as he admits himself) from his arrival in France in January 1917 to his participation in the Third Battle of Ypres in August. Casts an unusual light on the relationship between junior officers and the men under their command [read full review]

Chitral Charlie, The Rise and Fall of Major General Charles Townshend, N. S. Nash. A biography of the general best known for his part in the disastrous Mesopotamian campaign of 1915-16, which ended with the siege and fall of Kut. Townshend is revealed as an intelligent, ambitious and able officer, with a passionate interest in the conduct of military operations but with flaws in his character that combined with the anger caused by the poor treatment of his men in Turkish captivity to leave his reputation in tatters [read full review]

Brief Glory - The Life of Arthur Rhys Davids DSO MC, Alex Revell. A biography of a classic representative of the First World War's 'lost generation', a brilliant scholar with a promising future who went straight from Eton to the Royal Flying Corps, before gaining fame as a talented 'ace', shooting down Werner Voss just before his own death in battle over Ypres [read full review]

The Man who ran London during the Great War, Richard Morris. A biography of General Sir Francis Lloyd, General Officer Commanding London District for most of the First World War. Covers Lloyd's service in the Sudan, where he fought at Omdurman, during the Boer War, and his peace-time military and political career as well as his time in charge of London, its military hospitals, crucial rail networks and anti-invasion defences. [read full review]

Gunther Plüschow: Airman, Escaper, Explorer, Anton Rippon. The biography of a remarkable figure - a German airman who fought at Tsingtao in China, before become the only German POW to escape from Britain during either World War and returning to a hero's welcome in Germany. [read full review]

Mons, Anzac and Kut, by an MP, Lieutenant Colonel the Hon. Aubrey Herbert MP, ed. Edward Melotte. Three very different diaries from the same author that show how attitudes to the war changed in the first two years of the First World War as the promise of a short exciting war faded away. They also provide some valuable insights into the events they portray, illuminating the chaos of the early fighting in France and the hopelessness of the Allied position at Gallipoli. [read full review]

Private Beatson's War: Life, Death and Hope on the Western Front, ed. Shaun Springer and Stuart Humphreys. One of the most humane and thoughtful diaries to emerge from the Western Front. Beatson emerges as a literate, compassionate man, able to see his German opponents as human, while also determined to beat them. A reminder of the remarkable generation lost in the trenches of the First World War. [read full review]

My Seventy-Five, The Journal of a French Gunner August-September 1914, Paul Lintier. The diary of a talented young French author covering the first two months of the First World War, covering mobilisation, the advance to the French frontier and the long retreat, the counter-attack on the Marne and the eventual stalemate on the Aisne. A fascinating view of one of the most important campaigns of the First World War. [read full review]

Through all the Changing Scenes of Life, ed Susan Harrison. The memories of William Edward Jones, a career Navy man who joined up in 1899 and served during the First World War. An interesting account of life in a navy that still had some old 'three deckers' (mainly as training ships) operating alongside turbine driven destroyers and the great dreadnoughts. [read full review]


“If my life ends, what will become of my diary?”
–Last entry in the diary of Chaim Kaplan, published as Scroll of Agony

Among the most personal and immediate accounts of life under Nazi tyranny are the many diaries kept by persons of all ages and backgrounds. In these journals, diarists recorded their private reactions to major events and life-changing incidents, such as the deportation of loved ones or acts of resistance in the ghettos. But diaries also capture the seemingly mundane, everyday tasks—gathering food, playing with friends, caring for family members—rendered all the more poignant because they were written in the shadow of Nazi persecution. The diaries often reflect a sense of belonging to the larger community of Jews targeted by the Nazis for ghettoization and, as many diarists came to realize, for extermination. Moreover, many diarists, such as those who recorded their thoughts for the underground Ringelblum Archives (“Oneg Shabbat”) in the Warsaw Ghetto, sensed that they were writing for posterity, recording events around them so that they would not be forgotten. By gathering and publishing these diaries, survivors and their loved ones have ensured that the writers and their stories are remembered long after they are gone.

The following bibliography was compiled to guide readers to published diaries of Holocaust victims and survivors in English as well as works about these diaries that are in the Library’s collection. It is not meant to be exhaustive. Annotations are provided to help the user determine the item’s focus, and call numbers for the Museum’s Library are given in parentheses following each citation. Those unable to visit might be able to find these works in a nearby public library or acquire them through interlibrary loan. Follow the “Find in a library near you” link in each citation and enter your zip code at the Open WorldCat search screen. The results of that search indicate all libraries in your area that own that particular title. Talk to your local librarian for assistance.


My Life before the World War, 1860--1917 : A Memoir

Few American military figures are more revered than General John J. "Black Jack" Pershing (1860--1948), who is most famous for leading the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I. The only soldier besides George Washington to be promoted to the highest rank in the U.S. Army (General of the Armies), Pershing was a mentor to the generation of generals who led America's forces during the Second World War.

Though Pershing published a two-volume memoir, My Experiences in the World War, and has been the subject of numerous biographies, few know that he spent many years drafting a memoir of his experiences prior to the First World War. In My Life Before the World War, 1860--1917, John T. Greenwood rescues this vital resource from obscurity, making Pershing's valuable insights into key events in history widely available for the first time.

Pershing performed frontier duty against the Apaches and Sioux from 1886--1891, fought in Cuba in 1898, served three tours of duty in the Philippines, and was an observer with the Japanese Army in 1905 during the Russo-Japanese War. He also commanded the Mexican Punitive Expedition to capture Pancho Villa in 1916--1917. My Life Before the World War provides a rich personal account of events, people, and places as told by an observer at the center of the action. Carefully edited and annotated, this memoir is a significant contribution to our understanding of a legendary American soldier and the historic events in which he participated.


Contents

The individual episodes of the series tell the story of the First World War, not from the perspective of politicians and the military but from the perspective of soldiers, housewives, factory workers, nurses and children. In total there are 14 main characters. Meaningful scenes from their lives are re-enacted and intertwined. The result is not only a political or military history of the First World War, but a story that poignantly captures the feelings and moods of the people.

    (portrayed by Celia Bannerman) was born on 26 October 1864 in Partick, Scotland. Already having served in the Boer War, the British woman had experience as a nurse. In 1914, when assistants were being sought for the British Army in Belgium, she volunteered. In 1915 she witnessed the first gas attack at Ypres. Macnaughtan died on 24 July 1916 at the age of 51 years. (portrayed by David Acton) was born on 1 January 1867, the son of a Roman Catholic priest and grew up in London. After graduating, he became a journalist. Montague was anti-war and a pacifist - until the summer of 1914. Despite his 47 years, he volunteered for the war effort. After the war he resumed his journalistic career but retired shortly after in order to spend his old age as a writer. Charles Edward Montague died on 28 May 1928 at the age of 61 years. (portrayed by Christina Große) was born on 8 July 1867, in Königsberg. The well-known German artist was an avowed socialist and pacifist. But when the war began, the 47-year-old could not avoid the patriotic spirit of optimism in Germany. Her son Peter volunteered for military service, marched into Belgium in 1914 and was killed in October. Käthe Kollwitz died on 22 April 1945, in Moritzburg at the age of 77 years, a few days before the end of World War II. (portrayed by Megan Gay) was born on 24 December 1871 in North Adelaide. Between 1897 and 1906, she studied music in Leipzig, but returned temporarily to Australia. From 1911, Leipzig becomes her adopted home. When the war broke out, she found herself suddenly considered a foreign enemy. She was spied on and suffered from hunger and disease, but she was not allowed to leave the country. Caroline Ethel Cooper died on 25 May 1961 in Malvern, Australia at the age of 90. [2] (portrayed by Mikaël Fitoussi) was born the son of a barrel maker and a seamstress on 14 July 1879 in the French wine-growing region of Languedoc. He took up his father's profession. At 35 years of age Barthas was recruited into the reserve army. In the last days of 1914 he found himself on one of the most dangerous sections of the German-French front and experienced the horrors of trench warfare. After the war, he began work as a barrel maker once again. Barthas died on 4 May 1952 at the age of 72 years.
  • Karl Kasser (portrayed by David Oberkogler) was born in 1889 in the Lower Austrian town of Kilb. Despite a hand injury, the 25-year-old farmer was deemed fit for military service. Reluctantly, he had to enlist in early 1915. He was captured by the Russians during fighting on the Eastern Front. This was the beginning of a multi-year odyssey throughout the Tsarist Empire which only ended on 4 October 1920. Karl Kasser died in 1976 at the age of 87 years. [3]
  • Gabrielle West (portrayed by Naomi Sheldon) was born in 1890. For the young woman from a wealthy British family, it was only natural to serve her country through volunteer work. She becomes a guard in a munitions factory, where she is confronted with the terrible working conditions of the women there. Her date of death is unknown. Her diary was published under the name World War I diary of Miss G. West. [4]
  • Paul Pireaud (portrayed by Lazare Herson-Macarel) was born in 1890 in southwestern France. At the beginning of the war, Marie and Paul Pireaud were a young couple. But the young farmer was separated for a long time from his wife, Marie, by the war. His only connection to her was the field post. In his letters he tells of the suffering of the soldiers at the front. After many years together with his wife, Paul Pireaud died in 1970 shortly before his 80th birthday.Your Death Would Be Mine: Paul and Marie Pireaud in the Great War, by Martha Hanna, was published in 2008. [5]
  • Marie Pireaud (portrayed by Emilie Aubertot) was born in 1892 near Paris. At the beginning of the war, Marie and Paul Pireaud were a happy, young couple. However, when her husband went to war, Marie had to do the hard work on the farm. In her very personal letters to Paul she writes about her jealousy and her great desire for intimacy, tenderness and a child. Later the couple give birth to a son. But there are unfortunately no grandchildren who might remember the love of the two. Marie Pireaud died eight years after her husband in September 1978 at the age of 86 years. Your Death Would Be Mine: Paul and Marie Pireaud in the Great War, by Martha Hanna, was published in 2008. [6]
  • Vincenzo D'Aquila (portrayed by Jacopo Menicagli) was born on 19 September 1892 in Palermo, Sicily. After the emigration of his family, he grew up in the United States. In the spring of 1915, the 22-year-old travelled with a ship full of volunteers who wanted to fight for their original homeland. In Europe, however, the fighting caused D'Aquila to have psychological issues. After the initial enthusiasm, D’Aquila was taken by disillusionment of a war that manifested itself in all its atrocity. He was forcibly consigned to a mental hospital with poor conditions characteristic of the time period, most particularly suspicion from the doctors that he was faking his issues to avoid the front. D'Aquila died on 26 April 1975 at the age of 82 years. [7] In 1931 he wrote a memoir based on his experience titled Bodyguard Unseen: A True Autobiography. The book was published in New York by Richard R. Smith and appeared in Italy in 2019 for the first time. (portrayed by Jonas Friedrich Leonhardi) was born on 29 March 1895 in Heidelberg. The then high school student, who later became a writer, signed up for military service in August 1914. At the end of 1914, he was assigned to the front in France. He survived several battles before the end of the war in 1918, including the bloody battles of the Somme. He died in 1998 at the age of 102 years at the hospital in Riedlingen. (portrayed by Natalia Witmer) was born in 1901 in a small village in the Caucasus. The daughter of a colonel of the Kuban Cossacks was just 14 years old when her father went to war in August 1914. In the search for her father, she became a child soldier in the Russian army at age 14. She originally worked as a groom in Armenia however, after two months of this she was sent to fight the Turkish Army. In 1915 she was wounded while blasting bridges across the Erivan River. She was treated at the Red Cross hospital in Baku and then returned to the Eastern Front. In 1916 she was again wounded and also had a mental breakdown and was sent to an asylum. However, in 1919 she was released and emigrated to the United States. Yurlova published two autobiographies, Cossack Girl (1934) and Russia Farewell (1936). [8] In 1984 Marina Yurlova died at the age of 84 years. (portrayed by Elisa Monse) was born on 25 April 1902, in the German town of Schneidemühl (modern Pila), about 100 kilometers from the border with Russia. At the beginning of the war, the 12 -year-old girl, who lived with her grandmother, celebrated the German victories but then Elfriede experienced how the war brought suffering and misery. She died on 29 March 1989, at the age of 86 years. [9] (portrayed by Antoine de Prekel) was born on 8 April 1904 in Sedan in northern France, where he grew up well protected until the age of ten. In 1914, he had to experience the German invasion and beginning of a four-year occupation of his hometown. Later he would become a Catholic theologian and cardinal. Yves Congar died on 22 June 1995 at the age of 91 years in Paris.

The series was produced by LOOKSfilm Leipzig, [10] Les Films d’ici Paris und Filmoption International Montreal. The series is one of the most elaborate docudrama formats ever co-produced in Germany and was already sold in more than 25 countries worldwide before broadcast. The budget for the German version alone was around 6 million euros, [11] for all the international versions together the budget was closer to 8 million euros.

Development Edit

The scripts are based on quotes from diaries and letters from men and women who experienced World War I in Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Italy, Austria-Hungary, Russia and the United States, who wrote during the period from 1914 to 1918. More than 1,000 journals and collections of letters were examined and 14 stories of World War I were selected from this compilation. Overall, the selection of the diaries and subsequent development work took four years.

Archive footage Edit

The series uses cinematic and photographic archive material from a total of 71 archives in 21 countries. Most material came from British Pathé (United Kingdom), Gaumont Pathé (France), Krasnogorsk (Russia), Bundesfilmarchiv (Germany), Österreichisches Filmmuseum, the National Archives and Records Administration (USA) and the Imperial War Museum. [ citation needed ]


What do the records look like?

With each download, you will typically see a unit diary that may cover a period of several years. This may be divided into several PDF files, which you can save to your computer. You can then scroll through the PDF files to locate the battalion and dates that you are interested in.

Many of the war diaries were scribbled hastily in pencil and use obscure abbreviations, whilst some are the second carbon copy of the original, so they may be difficult to read.


Memoirs and Personal Histories

From the second year of the war, soldiers and other service personnel were writing personal memoirs. Some wrote with an eye on history, others with a thought of commercial profit from a public hungry for war news. Several important memoirs appeared after 1918, as well as some novels based on personal experience.

Frederick George Scott, a noted poet, Fellow of the Royal Society, and wartime padre, immediately published a classic memoir in 1922, The Great War as I Saw It. Veteran Will R. Bird, a young Maritimer and failed store owner who had won a Military Medal with the 42nd Battalion, wrote several works extending over nearly 40 years. Commissioned by Maclean’s to write a series of magazine articles based on a return trip to Europe in 1931, he published three popular accounts during the Great Depression and, in 1968, Ghosts Have Warm Hands, a book still considered the finest Canadian memoir of the war.


WW1 memories: my grandfather's story

The Imperial War Museum wants us all to share stories of relatives who fought in the First World War. Toby Helm looks through the letters, diaries and photographs of his own grandfather and uncovers a harrowing and haunting picture of life on the frontline.

A wounded soldier at Ypres. As Cyril Helm wrote at the time: ‘It was cold-blooded work as bullets were whistling round the whole time…The bearers had an awful time getting the lying cases back across the sodden country’. Photograph: IWM/Getty Images

A wounded soldier at Ypres. As Cyril Helm wrote at the time: ‘It was cold-blooded work as bullets were whistling round the whole time…The bearers had an awful time getting the lying cases back across the sodden country’. Photograph: IWM/Getty Images

I t all begins so cheerfully, in gorgeous weather, with the troops itching to join the great adventure abroad. As the 2nd Battalion of the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry sets sail from Dublin for Le Havre on an old cargo ship, the SS Buteshire, on 14 August 1914, a chorus of hoots and sirens fills the riverside air as a large crowd sends them noisily on their way. It feels, in the words of a young medical officer on board, "like the realisation of the dream of every soldier". When they head out into the open sea and are sailing towards Land's End, a message is read out to all those on deck from King George V. "You are leaving home to fight for the safety and honour of my Empire," he tells them. "I pray God to bless you and guard you and bring you back victorious."

Just two and a half months later the same 26-year-old doctor, who kept a daily diary, beautifully written in pencil in his standard-issue Army Book 129, is holed up in a farm in northeastern France which he has chosen as his aid post, just outside a tiny village called Richebourg-l'Avoué. The battalion is already severely depleted. The retreat from Mons in August and early September and the subsequent "race to the sea" have taken a terrible toll. But what is unfolding now is even worse than what went before.

"Hell would be a tame word to describe what we went through," he writes of five dreadful days in October. On the 27th, German shells are raining down around the farm, just 100 yards behind the British fire trench, and he is struggling to cope with the wounded as they flood in. In the garden behind, British and German dead are laid out waiting to be buried as soon as the shelling dies down in the evening. "Many fell in our frontline trenches, causing awful casualties. Men were buried alive whilst others were just dug out in time and brought to, unable to stand, with their backs half broken. My cellar was soon packed, but I could not put any wounded upstairs as any minute I expected the place to be blown up." His work, dressing the injured, is so relentless and intense that at times it takes his mind off the horrors unfolding outside. But when he does pause to listen, the noise almost shatters his nerves. "Unimaginable" is how he describes his feeling at such moments. "There is nothing I know of more trying to the nerves than to sit listening to shells and wondering how long there is before one comes and finds your hiding place."

After the war: Cyril Helm, doctor, diarist and survivor of the First World War.

The farm survives the German fire of 27 October, but the next day at noon it starts up again. Somehow that morning he finds time to write a letter home to his parents. He thanks them for a Thermos flask they sent through the military post and says how sorry he is not to have written for a few days. The reason, he tells them, is because of the "rather trying situation" the battalion has found itself in. His private diary records the much darker reality. The 28th, he writes, "really was a sort of nightmare". "The crumps were coming just over, and then short, until 12 o'clock when there was a blinding flash and a roar. The next thing I knew was that I was leaning up against a wall in pitch darkness with the air full of dust and acrid fumes."

A shell had burst by the cellar where he was working. "After some time we heard tapping and eventually saw light through one of the windows… What a relief it was to see the light, but what a ghastly picture was revealed. Six lay dead about the cellar and many wounded. One poor RAMC orderly who had been standing next to me when the shell burst was lying dead with his chest smashed in by a huge fragment of shell."

The next day saw less shelling, but for the young doctor it was no less painful. By this time, 11 weeks into their war, he and the quartermaster, who worked well behind the front line, were the only two officers remaining of the 27 who had set sail from Dublin in August: 300 men had died in the previous nine days.

"It had been appalling seeing one's friends picked off one after the other," he writes, "and I can only marvel now that I survived. At times, when I realised all those, my pals, had gone, I nearly went off my head."

I had known since 1998, when I began to make inquiries ahead of the 80th anniversary of the end of the First World War, that Cyril Helm, my grandfather, had kept a diary. I was sent a copy that I think had been typed up in the 1960s by a relative in the autumn of that year. But what I had never seen until a few weeks ago were the pencil notes on which it was based almost word for word, the actual daily entries that my grandfather somehow found the time and the strength to write from his hideouts near the front amid the hell of war in the last four months of 1914 and early 1915.

Postcard from the edge: Cyril lets his family know he is still alive.

My father, himself a doctor who served in Normandy in 1944, had rarely talked of his own father's First World War record, but I remembered him referring once or twice to some notes and "pieces of paper" which he thought must still be somewhere, that formed the basis of the diary.

With next year's 100th anniversary of the start of the war approaching, my interest was rekindled and I asked other members of the family to search over the summer. At first we had no luck. We assumed they had been lost as the family had divided, and spread far and wide. But then in July came an email with "great news". One of his two sons by his second marriage, a doctor and professor at the Saint Louis University Hospital, Missouri, had found the two Army Book 129s at the bottom of his father's old trunk as he was packing up in preparation to return to the UK after many years abroad.

A few weeks later, after he arrived back, I saw it for myself: 99 years on it was in almost perfect condition, a prime, contemporaneous pencil account, page after page in his own eccentric handwriting. Almost nothing could beat such a discovery, I thought, as I turned its pages for the first time.

One incident from his typed-up manuscript had always stuck in my mind, about a young soldier, and I wanted to find it. There it was, on 27 October, the same description in full. "A most pathetic thing happened that afternoon. A young gunner subaltern was on his way up to observe a machine-gun position. Just as he got outside my door a shrapnel shell burst full in front of him. The poor fellow was brought in to me absolutely riddled. He lay in my arms until he died, shrieking in his agony and said he hoped I would excuse him for making such a noise as he really could not help it. Pitiful as nothing could be done for him except an injection of morphia. I always will remember that incident, particularly as he was such a fine- looking boy, certainly not more than 19."

The books were not all I found. I was also sent, over the summer, a cache of my grandfather's letters that he had sent home to his parents, mostly in 1914 and 1915, and in which he often addressed them as "My Dearest People".

In these, he shielded his family from the worst, though time after time he wrote emotionally of his longing to come home. There were also adoring birthday greetings to his daughter, his first child, on her first and second birthdays in 1917 and 1918, with little drawings of "naughty Germans" dropping bombs and "Daddy's house" where he was dodging shells at the time. And more: a batch of finely illustrated programmes of swimming and other sports events he had arranged for troops behind the front line in the quieter times an unopened packet of tobacco and another of cigarettes, a gift to all troops at Christmas 1914 from Princess Mary, the daughter of George V and Queen Mary, with a card wishing them "A Happy Christmas and a victorious New Year" and photographs of the desolate scenes in and around Ypres and Passchendaele, where Cyril Helm would serve later in the war.

A Christmas gift of cigarettes from Princess Mary. Photograph: Alicia Canter for the Observer

With this treasure trove in my possession, for so long scattered among relatives and stashed away in drawers and trunks, I contacted the Imperial War Museum, wanting it all to have a wider audience. They told me that they too were working on a similar idea for the 100th anniversary of the First World War, but on a massive 21st-century, and global, scale. It is to be called Lives of the First World War, and will be launched in February next year.

It aims to draw millions of hitherto privately held diaries, letters, photographs and other material out of people's bottom drawers, attics and cupboards and to put them on to the internet over the course of the next four years. It is a huge enterprise that will benefit from the passage of time. In many cases survivors of the war did not discuss their experiences much afterwards. Some could not bring themselves to, or did not think their families would want to know, or understand. Information was often hidden away at home, or in the recesses of their minds.

In her Booker Prize-winning Regeneration trilogy, Pat Barker explored the way many survivors repressed their worst memories on their return from the front and would not confront or discuss them, often with appalling psychological results. Their experiences sometimes only resurfaced in nightmares.

‘Naughty Germans’: a birthday letter for Helm’s daughter.

Now, after 100 years, the IWM is aiming to unearth those hidden histories and assemble up to 8m individual stories from those who served in different capacities, and in all parts of the world, helping their relatives to get in touch with each other and with the families of contemporaries who served alongside them. Established in 1917 with an appeal for any information and records about those who were lost and who had survived, the museum is returning to its founding purpose, but rebooting the enterprise for the internet age.

Many of the stories that will emerge, and be available at the press of a button, have tragic endings. Some 16 million people died in the First World War and another 20 million were wounded. In other cases families will discover more details about relatives, but their searches will ultimately settle nothing for them. The precise fates of many of the tens of thousands who lie anonymously in the cemeteries of northern France and Belgium under headstones bearing the words "A Soldier of the Great War, Known Unto God" will remain that way – unknown to their descendants. There will however be plenty of tales, like that of Cyril Helm, that tell of miraculous escape and survival.

The first two weeks of his war were a microcosm of all that would follow. After landing in France, his battalion headed southeast until it confronted the Germans near the Belgian town of Mons. Before crossing into Belgium, life still seemed good for his contingent of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). At times he makes it sound like nothing more arduous than a trekking holiday in the August sun as local French people cheered them on and spoilt them with food along the way.

The King’s men: Helm (right) and friends make the most of a quiet moment

On 19 and 20 August "the men were given a splendid time in the farms in which they were billeted. People gave them as much butter and milk as they wanted, also fruit and eggs. In fact too much as I as Medical Officer found out to my cost."

On 23 August, however, on reaching Mons, they came face to face with the Germans, and the medical duties changed from tending upset stomachs to saving lives and horribly damaged limbs. Shrapnel shells burst over their billets for the first time and many were wounded and killed. The generals decided they should retreat and a long march ensued towards the French town of Le Cateau.

Although it was a hard slog there were many compensations. "The country in this region was beautiful, miles and miles of rolling hills covered with ripe corn. The wild flowers were gorgeous and all the vegetation most luxurious. By this time we were as brown as berries." But on 26 August the Germans caught up with them at Le Cateau and they got a foretaste of things to come.

Helm became separated from the battalion as he treated the wounded, and was shocked when he came across what was left of it later in the day. "I found the remains of my battalion in a corner of a field and was horrified to find that we mustered seven officers and about 150 men. Roughly speaking 18 officers and 700 of our men were killed wounded or missing on that day." They had been in mainland Europe for just 11 days.

Over the next few weeks there are short idyllic interludes as they head north. He enjoys picking the ripe fruit from the sides of the roads and the men steal into local gardens to get more. The officers take occasional refuge in French châteaux. But most days see skirmishes and brushes with death.

On 15 September they end up by the river Aisne, horribly exposed to the Germans on the other side. The men are told to lie on their stomachs in a single line next to a row of trees. "We knew we had been seen by the German observers and almost immediately four high explosive 5.9 [inches in diameter] shells burst together, exactly over our heads. They were beautifully timed and only a few yards above us. The scene after that was appalling. A great many men had been killed."

Helm describes in his army book the "groans of the wounded" as being "too nerve-racking for words" and admits he felt "like running away", but could not as he had to "set an example to the men." "My thoughts were indescribable as I realised that lying on my belly the next shell might blow me to smithereens." Next to him, an orderly corporal was "frightfully shattered, one of his legs being completely blown away. Of course his death was instantaneous!"

Officer morale was restored a little, some days later, at the French village of Guiscard when the mayor entertained the valiant few still standing in his chateau. "The Mayor was a charming man," my grandfather wrote on 1 October. "When we arrived he prepared a very recherche dinner with champagne."

A picture kept by Helm from the frontline.

Another letter was written home on 15 October. He was homesick and frustrated but full of praise for the troops. "The war is expected to last until the spring. The prospect is too awful as we are all heartily sick of it and have no nerves left – but our soldiers are really wonderful the way they fight." In mid-November, two weeks after surviving the German pounding near Richebourg-l'Avoué, Cyril Helm was told he was to be given a rest from the regiment and would switch to No 15 Field Ambulance. "I was not sorry at all as all my friends were gone," he writes, "and the few officers remaining were comparative strangers to me. If any of my old friends had been there I would have applied to stay, hating the thought of leaving them."

Life behind the front line was calmer for periods, but sometimes "strenuous to an extreme". The first battle of Ypres was under way and as transport officer he had 70 horses to look after. Stationed two miles behind the front line his job was to take the horse-drawn ambulances out at 9pm before leaving them not far from the trenches. Stretcher bearers would then trudge back and forth through the muddy fields to the regimental aid posts and bring the wounded back from there. "It was very cold-blooded work as bullets were whistling round the whole time… The bearers had an awful time getting the lying cases back across the sodden country, the worst part being the negotiation of ditches full of water." On one occasion a bullet landed between his legs and he wished it had struck his foot so he could have taken some desperately needed leave.

On Christmas Day 1914 he sat down and wrote again to his parents, and his wife. "Just a line to wish you all a Happy New Year and to thank you for all the presents you have given me," he began. But he ended on a note that betrayed how hard he was finding it to be apart. "It seems awfully unnatural to be spending Xmas away from home and makes me feel more homesick than ever. Your loving boy, Cyril."

Two days later he wrote home again relating details of the now famous festive cessation of hostilities on Christmas Day. "The Germans and our men met between the trenches and gave each other cigars and cigarettes. They then sang hymns together and were very jolly. The officers did the same and some of ours lunched in their trenches… A lot of the Germans spoke English and said they were heartily sick of the war. They said they hated the Kaiser and long live good old King George."

'A rather trying situation': one of the photographs Cyril Helm kept.

On 1 January 1915 he was awarded the Military Cross. In 1917 he would also receive the Distinguished Service Order (DSO). From early 1915, however, the entries in his diary become far fewer. On Easter day 1915 he went up to Ypres where he stayed in the remains of a convent until the shelling became so bad that all troops and local people had to leave. Much of the town had already been pummelled by German shells, but a good many civilians had insisted on remaining. "It was an absurd sight to see pretty girls dressed in the latest fashions looking into hat shops which consisted of one storey only, all the rest having been blown away."

In late April, shortly after the Germans launched gas attacks on the allied lines north of Ypres, my grandfather was evacuated sick to England. For some reason his diary ends there. The notes in his army book stop, too, though his letters continue. On 18 February 1917 he wrote to his one-year-old daughter to wish her a happy birthday. "My Darling Little Sheila," he says, "Poor Daddy wishes he could be with you, but owing to a nasty thing called war he cannot manage it. Be a good little girl and love your Mummy. With lots and lots of love and kisses, from Daddy."

In a postscript added to his diary years later he accounts for the rest of his war, from early 1915 on, in a couple of paragraphs. He says that after two months at home in spring and early summer that year he returned to the front to take command of No 15 Motor Ambulance Convoy. Later he was put in charge of advanced dressing stations in the Inverness Copse and Passchendaele sectors and eventually took part in the final attacks that ended the war in 1918.

He would serve again in the Second World War, first in West Africa and then a week after D Day he commanded the first 600-bed mobile hospital to be established in occupied Europe at Bayeux, Normandy. He was appointed an OBE in 1945, and after the war returned to work as a general practitioner. He died in 1972 aged 83.

I have no idea why he stopped writing his diaries so early in the war. Perhaps he couldn't bear to carry on, or he thought he had said all there was to say about one man's survival during those first few dreadful months. Whatever the reason, I would love to find out more. Perhaps with the centenary approaching and the internet at our disposal, the families of soldiers and officers who served with him will get in touch, with private accounts from their attics and trunks, and together we can all build a fuller picture of what they all went through 100 years ago.


Memoirs are basically personal recordings of the individual events and happenings that act as a trace of the life of such an individual. While people write memoirs for different personal reasons under different motivations, they still record the events of their life and other issues influencing them.

The role of memoirs in history recording is worth evaluating since it is from this role that their use can be justified or not based on personal interpretations. Memoirs have subsequently been used in recording of past accounts as Fowale points out. [1] Memoirs express the truth in history due to the fact that they are primary sources of evidence and as such the fairness expected of history. [2] The interpretation of historical events does not only rely on other recordings but memoirs play the role of such interpretation with the provision of a flow of events and the time coverage of such events.

History recording requires the explaining of human actions taken. Such human actions however include the evaluation of the beliefs, desires, principles held, values and opinions. These human actions are best interpreted using memoirs as they record the feelings, events and actions taken which represent the individual values, beliefs, opinions and desires.


Dorothea's War : The Diaries of a First World War Nurse

In April 1915, Dorothea Crewdson, a newly trained Red Cross nurse, and her best friend Christie, received instructions to leave for Le Tréport in northern France. Filled with excitement at the prospect of her first paid job, Dorothea began writing a diary. 'Who knows how long we shall really be out here? Seems a good chance from all reports of the campaigns being ended before winter but all is uncertain.'

Dorothea would go on to witness and record some of the worst tragedy of the First World War at first hand, though somehow always maintaining her optimism, curiosity and high spirits throughout. The pages of her diaries sparkle with warmth and humour as she describes the day-to-day realities and frustrations of nursing near the frontline of the battlefields, or the pleasure of a beautiful sunset, or a trip 'joy-riding' in the French countryside on one of her precious days off. One day she might be gossiping about her fellow nurses, or confessing to writing her diary while on shift on the ward, or illustrating the scene of the tents collapsing around them on a windy night in one of her vivid sketches. In another entry she describes picking shells out of the beds on the ward after a terrifying air raid (winning a medal for her bravery in the process).

Nearly a hundred years on, what shines out above all from the pages of these extraordinarily evocative diaries is a courageous, spirited, compassionate young woman, whose story is made all the more poignant by her tragically premature death at the end of the war just before she was due to return home.


Slaughter on the Somme (hardcover)

by John Grehan and Martin Mace

The authors have compiled the complete War Diaries of 1 st July 1916 for the British battalions involved in the Allied offensive which began the 1916 Battle of the Somme. 304 pages. Published by Pen & Sword Military (30 April 2013). ISBN-10: 184884770X ISBN-13: 978-1848847705


Watch the video: Memoir vs Biography vs Autobiography (May 2022).