Horrific World War I experience documented in soldier’s diary


Harry Drinkwater (at the center, marked in blue pen) joined the “Pal’s Battalion” during the outbreak of World War I in 1914. He recorded the details of his experience in a diary which show the world the horrors of life in the trenches during the war.
Harry Drinkwater (at the center, marked in blue pen) joined the “Pal’s Battalion” during the outbreak of World War I in 1914. He recorded the details of his experience in a diary which show the world the horrors of life in the trenches during the war.

Harry Drinkwater Soldier’s diary is a surviving testimony of his actual hair-raising experience during the Great War. As a soldier in the muddy trenches, it was against the strict rules and regulations of the military at that time to keep a diary.

His accounts recorded in the diary tell the story of the gruesome life led by those who got the bitter taste of the life-changing hellish experience that the realities of Great War have to offer.

Covered in mud, confronted by enemy gun fires, bombs and gas, witnessed the inevitable deaths of comrades and friends, he scribbled away with pen and paper against orders of higher authority and translated to words a priceless piece of history.

Harry Drinkwater was among the eager youngsters who enlisted in the army during the outbreak of the war in 1914. He was then 25 when he was assigned to the “Pal’s Battalion”. The battalion was nicknamed as such because the soldiers who enlisted were batches of friends and work colleagues.

He was a shop assistant of Stratford-upon-Avon before joining the military. After a few months of training, he was transformed to a soldier. He was then assigned to the trenches at the Somme in Picardie, Northern France. There, he experienced his own personal battle of life and death as he struggled to fight side-by-side his comrades in the front lines.

The Mail Online reports the extracts from his diary as follows:


Thursday, December 16, 1915

Arrived in [the hamlet of] Suzanne today, after a very hard march. We’re billeted in tents, 12 men in each, encamped between the enemy and our own heavy guns. At night-time, one sees little slits of light shining from the tents on the puddles of water outside, which give the impression of a fairy land. 

Rolling into our blankets, we occasionally hear the ‘splash, splash’ as some fellow moves from one tent to another, or the plod of the sentry. Plus the continual shriek of shells. Tomorrow we go into the trenches. I wonder what sort of a show we will make.

Sunday, December 19

No words can adequately describe the conditions. It’s not the Germans we’re fighting, but the weather. Within an hour of moving off, we were up to our knees in mud and water. The mud gradually got deeper as we advanced along the trench. We hadn’t gone far before we had to duck; the enemy were sending over their evening salute of shells. To move forward, I had to use both elbows for leverage, one each side of the trench.

After about one and a half hours of this, we reached the firing line. Later, I groped my way to our dugout. What a sight. Imagine a room underneath the ground, whose walls are slimy with moisture. The floor is a foot or more deep in rancid-smelling mud.

Monday, December 20

The trenches are in a terrible condition — anything up to 4ft deep in mud and water. We’re plastered in mud up to our faces. Our food – cold bacon, bread and jam – is slung together in a sack that hangs from the dripping dugout roof. Consequently, we eat and drink mud. 

Tuesday, December 21

Heavy bombardment at about 11am. Heard a fearful crash. The next dugout to ours blown to blazes, and our physical drill instructor Sergeant Horton with it. I helped dig him out. But before we could get him anywhere, he’d departed this life – our first experience of death. I’m tired out, sick of everything. 

Saturday, December 25

After five days in the trenches, we’re thankful we can still walk.  I’ve had approximately an hour’s sleep a day – always standing up. Often, when from sheer exhaustion I doze off, I’m awakened by a fat squeaking rat on my shoulder or feel it running over my head. Most of the rations fail to arrive – because the communication trenches are water-logged and being continually shelled. We eat with hands caked in mud, which has caused many cases of acute dysentery. 

In common with others, I’ve done regular turns at the firing line. It’s a very creepy business looking over the top, imagining every noise is a German. A rat skirmishing among empty tins in no-man’s land is sufficient to attract all our attention. Each morning, one hour before daybreak, every man stands in the trench until daylight. This is in case the Germans follow the old custom of attacking just before dawn. The same happens an hour before sunset. 

Last night, I had a narrow squeak. I was wedged in the mud when I heard a shell coming. Unable to move quickly, I crouched when it burst on the parapet and got covered in dirt. Later, we marched to our billets [for rest days]. This morning, Christmas Day, I took my shirt off – thick with dried mud – and had a wash.  We had one tub and no soap between about 50 fellows.

Friday, December 31

Back on the firing line, and nearly up to our waists in mud. We’ve found a new diversion — at dusk, we put a small piece of cheese on the end of a bayonet, wait for a rat to have a nibble, and then pull the trigger.

Saturday, January 8, 1916

At about 3.30am, I heard noises that sounded like wires scraping together. Half an hour later, a sentry spotted two men rising from the ground about 30 yards in front of our trench. We all opened rapid fire. 

At daybreak, we saw the result: a dead German lay about 20 yards in front. Scattered around were about a dozen hand-grenades. Given another five minutes, our trench would have been blown to bits. The victim had got partly through our barbed wire — which is probably what I heard. Later, we raffled his bayonet scabbard. I was the winner and sent it home as a souvenir.

Harry Drinkwater’s diaries record accounts of his World War I experience. The entries were written in six notebooks.
Harry Drinkwater’s diaries record accounts of his World War I experience. The entries were written in six notebooks.

After the entries above, Drinkwater was assigned to his next posting. He joined his comrades to the front line near Arras in the region of Artois. He continues to write:

Saturday, March 4

Nothing here but trench after trench and, in places, the ground blown into heaps of dirt. The trees have been hacked to pieces — only black stumps remain. Nothing grows. Utter desolation.

Tuesday, March 7

Worked at a feverish pace, digging and strengthening trenches all through last night. Then through the day, I have to do an hour’s sentry duty every third hour. This is followed by an hour as the relief man, when I’m able to sit down. For the third hour, I can sleep. I’m feeling like most of the other fellows – half dead.

Wednesday, March 8

Snowed all night. Had a hard job to keep awake. One or two fellows – of whom I was one – were found to be fast asleep at the end of their sentry. We’d gone to sleep standing up – and the relief man was also asleep. Under military law, this is a crime of the first water [punishable by execution].

So, as a preventative, we’ve arranged between ourselves that each sentry along the trench will fire his rifle at intervals. At dusk, I put my head over the top to have a look around and stopped a bullet on the side of my steel hat. The vibration made my head ache.

Thursday, March 9

Owing to food transports going astray, we have one loaf between five of us, a few biscuits and half a tin of marmalade each per day. Have just heard we have a ten-mile march before we can be billeted [for rest]. Jolly hard lines.

Friday, March 10

It was snowing as we set out at 11.15 last night. I saw two fellows – fast asleep as they walked along – walk out of the ranks and fall into the ditch at the side of the road. 

We halted for ten minutes’ rest and I dropped down into a puddle and went to sleep. Was unable to get up without help, and ended up hanging on to Lieutenant Davis on one side and a stretcher-bearer the other. Tried to pull myself together and went headlong on the road. They got me to my feet again but I was helpless. Have a vague idea that I was laid on some straw. Then oblivion.

Sunday, April 23

Easter Sunday. A beautifully sunny [rest] day. I’m writing in a field beside a brook — I can easily imagine myself back in England. We’re all struck with the strangeness of things; one week in Hell and the next in comparative bliss.

Harry Drinkwater was also assigned to dig deep trenches that led to enemy lines. The shaft was then to be planted with explosives underneath the German trenches. The Germans, however, were doing the same thing. Often, the teams assigned from both sides tried to blow each other upon encounter.

Sunday, May 7

Working in the mines – an awful strain mentally. We’re some three-parts of a mile under the ground. Air is got down by means of a large pair of blacksmith’s bellows, connected to a long pipe. But it’s very stuffy, and we work with backs bent for eight hours.

Monday, May 8

Mines again. Feeling very fed up.  No one jokes: we all have it in the back of our minds that the Germans’ mines will go up while we’re down one of ours – and it’s not a pleasant reflection.

Friday, May 19

The Germans forestalled us this morning by about three hours. After three months of hard work, our K14 mine, timed to go up at 8am, was blown in by the Germans at 4.30am. There was a terrific explosion. The ground for yards around was lifted skywards, leaving a huge crater in the ground. 

Captain Edwards, our company captain, crept out over my parapet to investigate the damage and was met by a fusillade of bullets. He stopped one through the shoulder and one in the head. The moment after he was hit, an engineer sprang on to the parapet and, crawling on his stomach, dragged him back. It’s worth noting that the German sentry who shot Edwards could also have shot his rescuer. If he refrained from humane motives, he was a sportsman.

Saturday, May 20

One of our fellows put his head and shoulders over the top and was immediately sniped through the head.

Sunday, May 21

After sentry duty, we passed Major Jones, second-in-command of the battalion, as we crept back to the dugout. Ten minutes later, he was being dug out of about 3ft of earth. He’d gone out to the mine crater after passing us. Death was instant. We’d barely arrived at our dugout when a runner came along and gave the gas alarm.

At the same time, shells were raining down. I helped to carry an NCO to the dressing station. His features were blown away but I recognised him by his identity disk as one of my pals. He was one of two brothers. The other, a stretcher-bearer unconscious of his identity, was the one who dug him out. Arrived back at the dugout feeling very sick.

Monday May 22

At 11pm, our fellows, not sure of their ground in the dark, started slinging bombs in among themselves. Quite a usual occurrence.

Wednesday, May 24

Today, D Company, on our left, went over the top. They’d got about 100 yards when they were met by a cross-fire of machine guns and rifle fire. But they still advanced. Some got to the German lines and were killed on the parapet; some got entangled in the barbed wire and riddled with bullets. Casualties: 33.

An explosion of a mine left a crater at the site of battle. After the explosion of the mine, orders were communicated to the rank-and-file. The soldiers were to erect barbed wire fortifications in the crater.

Tuesday, May 30

At 3am, we crawled into the crater and carried on wiring – just 15 yards from German listening post. This crater alone has cost us 20 casualties so far.

Wednesday, May 31

Six of us relieved the sentries in the crater. It was an uncanny night: raw, cold and a thick mist. We lay on the inside lip and hardly moved. 

At the first twinge of dawn, one of the fellows peeped over the top and saw four Germans digging like blazes within 12 yards of where we were lying. For some reason, we’d been told that under no circumstances were we to fire; so we withdrew. It’s never been very clear to me why we should risk so much life just to put barbed wire entanglements in the bottom of a crater. Today, it’s been strafed all day long. The Germans are very restless over this crater. They can’t quite make out what we’re doing with it and what we want it for. 

Thursday, June 1

 The crater has been completely transformed. We’ve now built a little shack on the near side, protected by sandbags. 

Tuesday, June 6

At 4pm on Sunday, a shell landed in front of me and another behind, blowing in the rear of the trench and smothering me with dirt. Casualties were occurring rapidly. I’d barely bandaged Jones, who was badly hit, when Eastwood came rushing in to say the shelter in the crater had been blown in and the sentry group buried.

A day sooner, and I’d have been one of them. Jinks and I gathered picks and shovels and made for the crater. We’d crawled about 15 yards when a shell landed immediately on top of the trench, partly burying us with earth. I felt the force of the explosion force my head into my body and it was some seconds before I was able to see.

By this time, it was impossible to go on. The ground vibrated with explosions and the air was thick with sulphurous fumes. I didn’t for a moment think we’d get out of this alive. But, after three hours, everything ceased as suddenly as it started. Later, I found an unexploded shell within a couple of feet of where Jinks and I had been lying. The gods had been good. 

We made our way back to the front line, dazed. It was unrecognisable: a series of holes, no real trench remaining. Some fellows were lying about dead, some wounded and some alive – one of whom inquired about the fellows in the crater.

Then I remembered why I’d left the line. Gathering up what picks we could find, a sergeant and I crawled back over the top and into the crater. A wretched sight. Young Cooper was wedged in the doorway dead, the remainder buried under the shack. We dug like fury for two hours, impelled by the fact that we could hear someone faintly groaning – and that at any moment, the Germans would be coming over. 

Only Sergeant Ashby had some signs of life. Leaving those we couldn’t help, we carried him down to what remained of the front line. At 9.30pm, Raper and Middleton – close friends – went down, killed by a rifle grenade. Then Jinks was hit by another as we lay next to each other. His legs had been blown off and he was going fast. I could do little else than kneel by his side. He asked me not to leave him and recognised me almost to the last moment. I saw him go West. It was quickly over. 

Meanwhile, the Germans were coming in. Only a few got out of our trench again; the rest of the Germans were either bayoneted or bombed, and we buried them later. 

Wednesday, June 7

Total battalion casualties for Sunday: 120. The roll-call this morning was somewhat pathetic. Each time a name was called out and no one answered, we had to say if we’d seen the fellow killed or knew if he was wounded. There are now very few of the original men I joined with. The idea under which the battalion was formed, that of friends serving together, has long since passed.

Thursday, June 15

This afternoon we lost four more. But we’re quite resigned nowadays to losing old originals. It seems as if the fates have decreed that they’ve had a good run and it’s time they went. Kilby asks: ‘Whose turn next?’ We all wonder…

Kilby was also mentioned in Drinkwater’s diary entry of January 23, 1917. Kilby and Harry, according to the entry, are at a rest camp in Boulogne. Drinkwater was then leaving for Blighty.

Drinkwater reportedly served the army and fought at Somme, Ypres, and Italy. After the war, he was awarded the Military Cross for bravery. He then went on to work as a civil servant. He spent his remaining days without getting married. He died in the year 1978.

The diary of Harry Drinkwater is published in the book Harry’s War. The diary was edited by Jon Cooksey and published by Ebury.




Siegphyl is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE