The diary of a front-line officer

Posted by Andrew Howard - 10 years ago

The diary of a front-line officer

Irish Guards © IWM (Q 28875)

He was known as the youngest Brigadier General in the British Army, but what is less well known is that the Hon John Trefusis, son of the 20th Baron Clinton, also kept his own diary throughout a large part of the Great War.

His story is told here, but the diary tells us more about what he thought about the conflict that raged around him from almost the beginning of the war, until August 1915, when he took over command of 20th Brigade, 7th Division.

The diary starts on 18 September 1914, barely six weeks into the war, when Jack Tre, as he was known, was a Captain in the 1st Battalion of the Irish Guards: “Started this morning from Densil {perhaps Venizel, on the outskirts of Soissons} , and rode to Soupin {probably Soupir, between Soissons and  Reims in northern France} where Headquarters, 4th Brigade are...We were told to be careful on the way as if the Germans saw many horses together they would be certain to shell us. Unfortunately a batch of remounts {new horses acquired for war service} caught us up and we had three or four shells amongst us in less than no time, and all the horses stampeded.

“Having arrived at Headquarters...I found all in the best of spirits and delighted to see us, in spite of the fact that Guernsey, Arthur Hay and Bernes had all been killed on Monday...Guthries and Hugo Gough were both wounded the same day, and the latter lost an arm.”

Later, he describes coming under attack by enemy artillery:  “From 2pm onwards we have been under a very heavy fire from big German guns, and they have been pitching shells on top of the cave and all around. It has been a most unpleasant experience and very nerve wracking, although it has not done any very material damage as far as I can tell. The Germans are certainly wonderful gunners. An aeroplane came over this morning, and they got the range here in a very short time. A furious fusillade started at 9pm which lasted till 10pm. The Germans lit us up with star shells and searchlights.”

But it was not all fighting, there were other more routine matters to attend to: “When I got back to my headquarters I found a letter from the Brigade Major saying that as our billets in the town had been left in such a dirty state the General had ordered us to stay in the trenches another night, ie three nights altogether. The Coldstreams had complained about it, we don’t complain about them as we have every reason to do, but simply set to work and clean up their mess. The men will never forget it and it will make for bad feeling I fear.”

Jack Tre was also interested in the war in the air going on over the trenches: “This morning I saw what I think a wonderful sight. The Germans were shelling a French aeroplane high up in the air. The sun was brilliant, the sky dark blue, and the burst of shrapnel from six guns one after the other, at first you saw one small puff of white then another, then heard the explosions of the first as the puff gradually got bigger and whiter, and so till all six had burst, leaving great thick white puffs gradually getting larger, while the aeroplane sailed away as if nothing had happened. It was a wonderful sight, and an artist might make a very striking picture of it.”

After getting orders to move to Ypres “and drive the enemy wherever met” Jack Tre and his men came across “an ever increasing stream of refugees” coming the other way. “All the women had terribly haunted expressions on their faces, and that, perhaps more than anything else I have seen made one realise the horrors of war...One hears of the Germans advancing and burning everything as they come.”

The 31 October was a tragic day indeed, as heavy fighting saw massive casualties as both sides were dug in trying to force the other to retreat. Jack Tre’s diary records: “Casualties, I think about 40 officers and 50 to 60 men.”

A week later: “I cannot describe my feelings at having no friends here, when only a few days ago, there were 25 of us and all such a happy family. It is too sad. I sincerely hope we will be relieved from the trenches tonight. We have been in them day and night for 15 days and it is a very great strain on the officers and men.”

By January 1915 Captain Trefusis had been promoted to Acting Lieutenant Colonel. His diary of New Year’s Day says”...the men are in excellent spirits because they said they had been shooting a lot of Germans.”

A few days later: “The men spent the day cleaning themselves and their clothes as best they could, and 120 were able to get hot baths at a brewery near here. There are big barrels put in a large room and filled with hot water. Two men get in each barrel. They are provided with soap.”

On 19 January: “I hear there is rather a peculiar situation up the line, some Saxons (German soldiers serving in a regiment from Saxony) insist on sitting on the top of their trenches, and apparently our men do not like to shoot at them. It is also said they pointed further up and shouted: ‘There are the damned Prussians up there, who would shoot as soon as look at you’!”

The 17 March is, of course, St Patrick’s Day, and Jack Tre was in an Irish regiment: “Shamrock was sent to us by Queen Alexandra, and I gave it out to the Company Commanders to distribute to their companies. I arranged that each man who wanted it, had beer with his dinner, which is their height of bliss provided it is free.”

A month later, Jack Tre notes: “We have all been issued out with an antidote to the latest German villainy ie, that of asphyxiating gases. They become more devilish every day, and it does not seem fair to men to fight them with clean weapons.”

A full transcript of the complete diary can be seen here.

Pictured at the top of the page is No. 2 Company, 1st Battalion Irish Guards, 2nd Division, marching off from a village on the Western Front, 17 August, 1915. © IWM (Q 28875)



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