A soldier's diary

1st December 2000 at 00:00
When I was 16 and beginning to take a real interest in history, my mother gave me her father's First World War diary. She said my grandfather, who had been dead 15 years, had talked little about his experiences but had shown his diary to my own father. It chronicles my grandfather's experiences through training and his trip to Gallipoli in the late summer of 1915, and from there to Ypres, Messine Ridge and Cambrai.

As with many diaries of the time, it brings home the horrors of what he called the Great War, and is made the more interesting by his presence at the Nek when the Australians carried out their desperate charges (featured in the Mel Gibson film Gallipoli).

Soon after I began teaching in the 1970s I decided my grandfather's diary would be an excellent primary source for the pupils to use. Although the diary was highly personal in places, my parents agreed that he would have been pleased to share his experiences with another generation. Gradually other members of the family began to chip in and I now own a mini First World War "museum", which I use on a regular basis. To date all the materials have been treated with great respect and I have yet to lose anything.

I have used extracts from the diary for students to back-up what they have learned and to ask questions such as: "How useful is the evidence from the diary in supporting the textbook view of life in the trenches?" Students can try to imagine the facts behind an entry such as: "... slightly gassed - not to be forgotten" from November 16, 1916. I also have a letter my grandfather sent his mother. Students can compare his diary entry of July 2, 1915: "... had a rough passage over the Bay of Biscay and were followed by enemy submarines and had a very narrow escape", with the version of events in the censored letter to his mother at about the sam time. Here he says: "...it's a treat! So far on our journey we have seen two ships each day on the horizon - no doubt mail or passenger boats. Could do with about three months of this."

Last Easter my family took a a holiday in Belgium - an opportunity for me to visit the Western front. On my leg of the holiday we concentrated on Ypres and, diary in hand, I went for a tour of the "In Flanders Field" museum. At the desk, I sought the help a researcher in hope of establishing where my grandfather had been at certain points in the diary. While he went away to search, we went round the displays.

The most intriguing part was the interactive areas where you can track the experiences of a single person by using a swipe card. I was a Welsh soldier, my son the mayor of Ypres and my wife a young girl evacuated from Ypres. They were all true-life experiences, examined at three points during the museum tour - before, during and after the war. Each piece of text goes with a photograph and, despite the high standard of the exhibits, I found myself wanting to get to the end to see whether "my" character survived. Thankfully he did.

On our way out the researcher found me with the answer to my questions and suggested I might like to place my grandfather in the interactive museum. On returning to England, I hauled out three photographs - 1907, 1915 and 1919 and e-mailed three pieces of text to Ypres. On their acceptance, I sent off the photographs and was informed that my grandfather would "become interactive" this autumn. Now visitors may get a swipe card bearing the name Sapper Fred Stephens from Millom, Cumbria, and follow his war experiences.

Keith Gregson is head of history at Brierton school, Hartlepool. E-mail: keith.gregson@talk21.comIn Flanders Field Museum, Janseniusstraat 9, B 8900 Ieper, Belgium

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