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Medic's diary brings home horrors of war

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BerichtGeplaatst: 31 Aug 2006 19:05    Onderwerp: Medic's diary brings home horrors of war Reageer met quote

Medic's diary brings home horrors of war
Soldier risked court martial to record the savagery of life on the Western Front in World War 1 for future generations of his family. Charles Heslett reports
THERE is an entry in the First World War diary of field medic William Alchorne which gives the reader a harrowing snapshot of the brutality of trench warfare.
He describes how some infantry colleagues came across a kitten pinned with a bayonet to a wooden door in a deserted German dug-out.
One animal-loving soldier began removing the animal from the door, only for the booby-trapped carcass to explode and maim him.
The horrific incident is one of many included by William, from Holbeck, in his diary which was based upon thoughts scribbled down on pieces of paper and smuggled back to Leeds.
His grandson, Barrie Alchorne, is now custodian of the child's dog-eared exercise book which his grandpa used to record his memoirs after returning from the battlefield in 1919.
Barrie, 72, a retired police sergeant from Meanwood, said: "He'd always kept a diary because as children we used to buy him a new one as part of his Christmas box.
"But I wasn't aware that he had this diary and it wasn't until a lot later in my life when my father told me about its existence, shortly after grandpa's death."
The red-covered book with its ruled pages and fine fountain pen writing has become a treasured family heirloom read by each generation of Alchornes.
It is of particular value historically as during the 'Great War' any soldier found keeping a diary faced a court martial.
Military top brass would only allow heavily censored letters to be sent home from the front in a blatant propaganda bid to preserve morale back home.
Barrie said: "You always wonder what it must have been like for soldiers fighting in that war.
"Grandpa was a frontline medic so he was going in to pick up the wounded and the dead in the aftermath of attacks.
"I've watched lots of films and read bits in magazines and books about World War One, but when you read it first hand from somebody in your own family it really brings it home."
It was in the Autumn of 1914 that the 32-year-old gave up his job as a Schools' Officer for the Leeds Education Committee and volunteered for the 2/2rd West Riding Field Ambulance based in Leeds.
William chose the Royal Army Medical Corps as he had hoped to become a doctor in civilian life but his family couldn't afford to send him to university.
By Christmas 1916 he was fully trained and found himself on a train heading towards the killing fields of northern France and the Western Front.
In 1917 he was in the thick of conflict and when he wasn't tending to the injured he was using a pencil and scraps of paper to record the events of his daily life.
None of the original notes survive today, but back in 1922 William used them to create the diary, which runs to over 200 pages, to provide a fascinating insight into the life of a field medic on the frontline.
His eye-witness accounts of the savagery of infantry combat was also driven by his desire to create, as he says in his introduction, "a permanent record for those of my own kith and kin who might want to read them."
And the father-of-four was also passionate about honouring the men in the medical corps who were sometimes accused of having a "cushy job" as they were non-combatants.
He outlines how in the Battle of Cambrai near the Belgian boarder in November, 1917, where 26 medics were killed and wounded from his battalion in just one day, rising to 43 out of a total of 180 in four days as they carried out their duties as part of the field ambulance.
He remarks dryly: "This, I contend, is a high percentage for non-combatants."
Later in the diary he also describes in another incident how: "No less than six of our stretcher parties came to grief, one was blown to bits along with the man they were carrying."
While his earlier entries focus on the minutiae of military life as he trains in England, the tone changes dramatically towards the end of the diary with William even appearing to predict the start of the Second World War.
On page 205 he warns: "To those who would lift the Boche (slang for Germans) on to his feet again, I say beware of what you do, for as sure as the dog often bites the hand of the one that feeds him, so is the German secretly preparing for 'Der Tag' (the day) when he will once again strike a blow against all civilization to get his 'place in the sun' as the Kaiser is reported to have once expressed it."
His opinion of his enemy is obviously influenced by his experiences on the front and he is at pains to stress the average German's "fiendish cruelty" and "very low" moral code.
Although many of his experiences seem horrendous to the peacetime reader, William concedes towards the end of his diary that "many incidents still outstanding in my memory have been omitted because they are too harrowing to detail."
After the war William went back to his civilian job and with wife Mary lived with their four children Charles, Stanley (Barrie's father), Gladys and Marie in Leeds, moving between Hyde Park and Beeston. He died in 1957 aged 75.
Barrie said: "To my knowledge grandpa didn't discuss the war. His way of getting rid of what he'd seen during the war was to write.
"I suppose it drained his memories by putting it on paper so he didn't have to think about the sights that he'd witnessed."

Excerpts from the diary will feature in the Leeds Gallery section of the new £20m City Museum due to open in 2008. Samantha Flavin, the gallery's lead curator, is appealing for people to come forward with their stories and memories about living in Leeds. Call her on 0113 230 5492.
Sections of the diary are available for reading by prior arrangement at the West Yorkshire Archives Service in Sheepscar.
29 August 2006
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