Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Cornwall in the First World War

During this month, each weekday I'm posting a photograph showing Cornwall's First World War.

Today’s Old Cornwall Society is a broad group of local history enthusiasts, with branches across the Duchy. Just outside Redruth the Society runs an excellent museum; among its most prized artefacts is the diary of Sapper John French.

John was a tin miner, born at Redruth in 1892 and one of 11 children. A volunteer soldier, early during 1915 he travelled to France with the Royal Engineers. For two years he kept a detailed diary of life in the trenches, three volumes of immaculate pencilled hand-writing recording his experiences.

Many events were shocking: facing gas attacks; digging trenches so near the Germans he could hear their shouted insults; carrying away the dead. In March 1915 he wrote: “There is a pretty smart German sniper and he has killed a number of our men.”

But several entries include unexpected flashes of humour. In a “rather curious” episode, during a respite in the fighting a British soldier yelled an invitation across no-man’s land to '”come on over, Fritz,” in a mock-German accent. A Teutonic shout replied in accented English: “No blooming fear.” Sometimes, to act as warnings of approaching gas the troops carried caged mice, but in June 1916 the diary recorded: “We got enough gas to make us sick but the mouse was still alive and kicking.”

Despite his experiences, it seems John somehow stayed unruffled. He wrote of how war was “rather exciting” and “you never know what’s coming next.” He rose to Sergeant and later received a field commission as a 2nd Lieutenant. In the latter half of 1917 John fought at Passchendaele and was awarded the Military Cross for “conspicuous bravery.”

Though he was injured he survived the war, and during June 1919 returned to Cornwall. He didn’t stay long but sailed for America, where he met and married a pianist named Eve. Unhappily though, he developed tuberculosis; aged just 37, John died in 1929. 

For many years the diary remained lost, but in 2009 was discovered among his late sister’s effects. The record is a rare first-hand account reflecting great bravery and fortitude, and today we’re privileged to have it safely preserved near John French’s home town.

My book, 'Cornwall In The First World War', is published by Truran. With 112 pages and 100 images, you'll find it in bookshops across the Duchy. It's also available through Amazon:

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