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.”