Decoded after 97 years - remarkable extracts from a WWI soldier's diary

Katie Brown, the assistant curator of history for the York Museums Trust with the First World War diaries that were discovered in a Castle Museum store

The First World War diaries that were discovered in a Castle Museum store

One of the First World War diairies that were discovered after almost 100 years

Pictured with the original diaries are Linda Bird, left and Suzy Brown who transcribed the diaries.

The Decoded Diaries.

Serg't Hickson with members of the East Riding Yeomanry in North Yorkshire or County Durham. Names (left to right) - F Keyworth, Chummy Mann, (?) Best, Wass Reader, Oscar Tweddle and Serg't Hickson. Courtesy of Hedon Museum.

First published in News
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FOR the best part of 100 years, William 'Wass' Reader's secret First World War diaries remained just that - a secret.

Even when they were discovered in a forgotten box in stores at the York Castle Museum a few months ago, their contents remained a mystery: because they were written in shorthand.

An army of volunteers have since spent months decoding them, however. And what they reveal is an extraordinary record of life on the front line during the Palestine Campaign from 1917-18

We don't know much about William - generally known as Wass - himself, other than that he served with C Company of the Ist East Riding Yeomanry during the Palestinian Campaign.

But his character - and his weariness with war - shine through.

He had an eye for a good-looking nurse, enjoyed having a good time with his mates when he could snatch one - and loathed the lice which were the soldiers' curse.

Wounded once in the shoulder himself, he was also able to describe with vivid clarity the horrors of war, from watching from his hospital bed while a man had his leg cut off to combing the ocean for bodies washed up on the shore.

On January 1, 1918, he wrote: "What a black prospect for the New Year... the bodies of 150 nurses lie under the sheds at the dock awaiting burial."

His thoughts and observations on the events going on around him offer a fascinating glimpse into the lives of soldiers during the war, says Philip Newton, assistant curator of history at the York Museums' Trust.

"Here is a down to earth young lad thrown into a world of chaos, harsh conditions and bloodshed who is describing his life in such a way that it is impossible not to warm to him. His matter of fact language and his accounts of football, Christmas drinks with friends and his relationship with the nurses also hits home that this is an ordinary young man not too different from young men today.”

The diaries have been translated following an appeal by York Castle Museum. The appeal attracted attention from all over the world, with volunteers spending hours translating every word.

The diaries will now feature in the Castle Museum's First World War exhibition 1914: When the World Changed Forever.

 

Extracts from the  diaries:

4th August 1917

It is just three years ago since I drove to Walton Street in a cab and entered my life as a real soldier. Three years of the best part of my life wasted


20th May 1917

I am becoming simply smothered with constant lice and the seams of my breeches are absolutely thick with eggs. I had a good wash-down in a bucket of water this morning but I cannot get rid of the lice


28th June 1917

Football is now in full swing here and we have matches every night. Our sergeants played 'B' Squadron sergeants this afternoon for 100 ... and we beat them 3-2. I sprained my thigh and I can hardly walk now.


29th June 1917

This afternoon we saw a very thrilling air battle just over our lines. The Taub had been in the habit of coming over here every day at the same time so our fellows lay in wait for him today. Three of our machines darted at him from all directions and darted round him like flies but whether he got hit or not we could not see for he got out of sight.


23rd July 1917

This is a comfortable hospital and the nurses are very nice and good looking.


29th July 1917

I am getting well in with all three sisters – I like the auburn haired one best as she has such a nice figure.


Memo October 1917

We have been without “fags” now in the canteen for nearly 3 weeks and managed to get a few boxes of Woodbines the other day. We expect “Johny Turk” to throw up the sponge the next time we attack in force and all our N.C.O.’s are being taught the Turkish for “throwdown your arms, surrender and you are surrounded”. The effect sounds awful.


14th November 1917

Got our forage and rations in this village and then went out to take the next one. It was while galloping across the field to do this that I got hit in the neck and I fell off my horse. I was picked up in about an hour and taken on a sand cart to the Dressing Station.


15th November 1917

Stopped last night at the 22nd Dressing Station and was taken away this morning in the ambulance to the 3rd L.H.F.A. I think the bullet is in my right shoulder. Our Regiment has a lot of casualties... I have seen some horrible wounds and some fellows are in bad pain. We get bully and biscuits to eat in the hospital. Left this station tonight in a motor lorry and had a most painful journey for 30 miles.


23rd November 1917

They have put me in a bed next to the operating theatre and it is only covered in with matting. Last night I peeped through and saw them take a chap’s leg off.


25th December 1917

The third Christmas Day of the war. Had the tent brightened this morning and “poshed up” accordingly. As usual I went into town after tea and met all our lads altogether. What a night! There were 12 of the P.B. men sat drinking round one table. I will draw a gentle veil over the events of the evening, but thank goodness Christmas only comes once a year.


29th December 1917

Went to town as usual and went to a concert at the Y.M. where Miss Fitzjohn and HarryPalty?, all singers were performing. She is very hot stuff and used to be a Music Hall artist but now she is the wife of a crooner


1st January 1918

What a black prospect for the New Year. We have parties at the ocean looking for bodies washed up and burial parties parading all day. The bodies of 150 nurses lie under the sheds at the dock awaiting burial.


30th May 1918

Here’s another birthday come round. Am I 25 or 26? Blessed if I know. What I am wondering is how many more birthdays I am going to spend in the blinking army.


Monday 11th November 1918

PEACE AT LAST!

Everybody here went mad last night and the air was simply full of fairy lights, rockets, etc from 18.00 to 24.00.

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