By Dominique Triggs, Archives Assistant
What was life like for a soldier in World War One?
As we approach the centenary of the Armistice (11th November 1918), this was something I wanted to investigate.
Reading the diary of Private Raymond Crossland Newton, held at WYAS Wakefield, has allowed me to follow his personal journey from training in London to serving on the front line with the 3rd Battalion Grenadier Guards. Yet as we will see, there is a mystery surrounding his diary…
His diary begins in January 1918, and his time in London gives us an interesting insight into a soldier’s life at home. In his free time went to the theatre and on the 8th January he notes, “I go with Luke to Apollo Theatre to see Inside the Lines a good spy play”. Later in the month he records going to “Wyndham’s Theatre to see Dear Brutus” which he reviews as “très bon!” During these months he also experiences the stark horror of the London air raids reporting on the 28th January “Air raid!!” and the subsequent night “Another air raid!!!” These were the first German raids of 1918 with 67 people killed and 166 people injured. His diary suggests he was close to his family and friends, as he writes in an entry on the 15th February “I go home on leave!!!” He was recalled off leave on the 28th March and a few days later set sail from Southampton to France, his London life left behind. Newton’s diary was The Soldier’s Own Diary, which were produced for soldiers and included a lot of useful information prior to the calendar diary, which would have stood him in good stead whilst on active duty. His diary included a guide to French, with phrases we would not expect to see now including, “I am wounded” and “Where are the English?”
Life on the front line was far from easy, and he records being bombarded by gas shells. At this point Newton takes to recording the weather quite regularly, referencing when there’s been large downpours or when it’s been too hot. The 11th May appears to have been a poignant day, as he records it is the anniversary of his enlistment at Derby. After a few months on the front line things take a turn for the worse for Newton. In June he records “I go sick at Boles. (?) Influenza brought on by gas.” He is taken to hospital, but after convalescing has a relapse which results in “tons of medicine”. Yet he pulls through and the MO marks him as fit for duty in July. Sadly only a month later Newton is killed in action on the 23rd August 1918.
Yet after his death, the diary continues.
This has proved a great mystery, as the diary continues until December 1918 with no obvious change in writer. We know from other war diaries that the 3rd Battalion suffered casualties on the 23rd August during some heavy fighting, and it would not be surprising if in all the chaos an error was made and he was mistakenly reported as dead. This happened to a number of soldiers during the war, including Private Alfred Holland who was reported dead but had actually been taken as a prisoner of war. We also know that soldiers would exchange items as good luck charms before going over the top, so potentially a soldier had an item of Newton’s, which if were found in the thick of the fighting would have suggested he was missing in action. This is all conjecture though, and as the Commonwealth War Graves Commission record his burial place as Bucquoy Road Cemetery in France, the prevailing evidence is that Newton did sadly die in the war.
The mystery of the continuation of his diary therefore continues…