Words by John Broadhead
Just before he died in 1980, my father handed me a battered black leather diary and said in his unmistakable, gruff Yorkshire voice: ‘Here lad, you might be interested in this’. George William Broadhead was born in the mill town of Batley in 1894, the son of a foreman rag grinder. The diary tells of his experiences between December 1915 and December 1916 with the 18th Battalion, West Yorkshire Regiment (Prince of Wales’s Own) – otherwise known as the ‘Second Bradford Pals’.
The history of the formation of the battalion was similar to many of the other Kitchener battalions. In September 1914, the Bradford Citizen’s Army League was created, and within one week more than one thousand volunteers had applied to join the new battalion, the 16th Battalion, West Yorkshire Regiment, the ‘First Bradford Pals’. Demand was so great that by February 1915 a second battalion was formed, and on 15 March 1915, George William Broadhead, a junior clerk working for the Borough of Batley, enlisted as Private no. 476 of ‘C’ Company, 18th Battalion West Yorks. Following training at Ripon in North Yorkshire, and at Fovant in Wiltshire, the battalion was attached to 93rd Brigade, part of 31st Division. Along with their sister battalion, the ‘First Bradford Pals’, the brigade included two other Pals Battalions – the 15th West Yorks. (Leeds Pals) and the 18th Durham Light Infantry (Durham Pals). In December 1915, the brigade entrained for Liverpool, their secret destination being Egypt.
The opening entries of my father’s diary reads as follows:
Monday 6 December 1915 – Embarked on the Empress of Britain. Spent the night on board in dock. Nearly 6,000 on board.
Tuesday 7 December 1915 – Left Liverpool for an unknown destination. Sleeping accommodation alright but grub rotten. Very little to do except physical drill and stand to for Grand Rounds. Feeling sick and got worse as day advanced. Sea choppy.
The monotony of life on board was soon dispelled when the ship entered Mediterranean waters. On the night of 13 December he reports the sinking of the French steamer Djingjurd:
At midnight collided with a small auxiliary transport which sank in a very short time. Crew numbering 63 saved with exception of Chief Engineer who was drowned. French Ambassador’s wife and maid (from Greece) on board. Both saved. Our ship was damaged but not serious. Behaviour fine. No excitement whatever. Chaps even refused to get out of bed.
More excitement was to follow five days later, when the ship had an even narrower escape:
Awakened from afternoon sleep by a terrific crash quickly followed by another. Thought we were torpedoed but found it was our gun firing at two German submarines which were chasing us. Excitement intense. Went to bed and slept none the worse for the business. Torpedo missed us by about 30 yards.
The battalion’s service in Egypt guarding the Suez canal was unexceptional, and there was great glee when in March 1916 the brigade was transferred to France as part of the build-up for the upcoming offensive on the Somme. At the time my father was in hospital in Egypt, recovering from a knee operation (the result of a football injury sustained in civilian life). ‘After a bit of persuasion’, the doctors at Third General Hospital agreed to discharge him early, and he managed to rejoin his comrades at Port Said as they boarded the Ivernia on 6 March 1916. They were bound for Marseilles.
The reality of the war on the Western Front is revealed for the first time in the diary when he comments on the ‘pitiful sight’ of French casualties from Verdun on a hospital train near Lyons. The battalion moved into trenches opposite the village of Serre, on the left flank of the British line. They were introduced slowly to the art of trench warfare, with short spells in support and the front line alternated by unpopular trench digging work for the ‘slave driver’ engineers. The weather in early June was poor, and the following diary passage for Sunday 4 June to Monday 12 June, vividly describes the difficult conditions:
Sunday – Went in the trenches again with the battalion and ‘C’ Company occupied the reserve line. Carrying rations at night and it was a very heavy task.
Monday – Started raining so everything got messed up. Went up to the ‘Sugaries’ digging in the afternoon. Rationing at night and it was a bit awkward owing to rain.
Tuesday – Still raining and trenches getting into a bad state. Everything wet through and my feet are in a bad way. Ration carrying at night very bad and we were floundering all over the place. Heavy bombardment made things look worse.
Wednesday – Raining hard all day and trenches in a rotten condition. Digging in support trench all day and wet through again. Rationing at night was simply awful and it was up to the knees in some places in water. Fell in it twice.
Thursday – At 10:30am we relieved ‘D’ Company from the firing line and spent the day repairing part of a trench which a 6” shell had broken. The night passed quiet although it was terribly cold and raining again.
Friday – Raining again and we are simply covered in mud so all day we are trying to improve things by baling out. Our dug out has been blown in so we are without a home. Quiet night.
Saturday – More rain and therefore more misery. Fritz playing the very devil all day. Put on listening post and soon after got a couple of canister bombs over and nearly blew us in. Very hot night. Fritz sent any amount of stuff over but did little damage. Sgt. Green seriously wounded.
Sunday – Nothing of very great importance occurred with the exception that our parapet was blown in. Casualties for the battalion very low. Sgt. Green still living but there is very little hope. (note: Sergeant Harry Charles Green died on 22 June 1916).
Monday – Was relieved at 3:30pm by East Yorks. so therefore needless to say we were highly delighted to get out of it again. Arrived at Bus at 7:00pm and went straight to bed.
The battalion was thoroughly occupied throughout June 1916 with preparations for the forthcoming offensive. A training exercise was carried out at Gezaincourt, to the south of Doullens, and the relief from trench conditions was palpable, as evidence by the diary entry for Tuesday 20 June 1916:
Out at 7am with party under Major Carter and Capt. Bakes putting flags out for the advance scheme. Spent a splendid day and one could hardly imagine that slaughter was being carried on 12 miles away.
Interestingly, the flyleaf and memoranda section of my father’s diary contain detailed drawings and text describing the brigade’s plan of attack, but it is not clear whether these were written before or after the training exercise.
The days immediately preceding the launching of the Somme offensive were not auspicious. On 28 June, the battalion was put on alert for the attack, but ‘later in the day it was cancelled for twenty four hours. Chaps vexed because they got drunk for the occasion.’ The postponement must have put a severe strain on men keyed up for action. On 30 June, Privates Crimmins and Wild spent a large part of the day in the local estaminet near their billets at Bus-les-Artois, and afterwards set off to the rear. They gave themselves up on 4 July 1916 at Vignacourt, some 30 miles away. They were charged with being absent on active service, found guilty, and executed on 5 September 1916. Their death is not mentioned in the diary, nor was it ever referred to in conversation by my father.
On 29 June 1916, the battalion undertook a sizable trench raid which ended in disaster. This, and the preamble to the attack, are recorded as follows:
Thursday 29 June 1916 – Seeking chaps for big bombing raid and Joe Hodgson volunteered. Working in trenches all day and bombardment so terrific that we couldn’t make ourselves heard. Joe had left when I got back 8:30pm.
Friday 30 June 1916 – Bombing raid last night an absolute failure. 29 casualties out of 40. Joe Hodgson missing. Boys went up to the trenches at 8:15 and after a good feed we were in splendid spirits. Stayed behind myself with Salvage Police.
George William Broadhead’s good fortune in not going over the top on the first of July was not matched by that of his comrades. The battalions of 93rd Brigade generally failed to get beyond their own front line, although one platoon of ‘B’ Company, 18th Battalion West Yorks. was reported to have reached the German wire. The assembly trenches were subject to continuous artillery bombardment and heavy machine-gun fire to the front and from the Quadrilateral Redoubt to the south-east on the flank of their trenches. On 1 July 1916, the brigade suffered more than 1,800 casualties spread evenly among its battalions. 18th Battalion West Yorks. casualties of more than 400 officers and men represented some seventy per cent of the battalion’s men who took part in the assault. In my father’s words:
Saturday 1 July 1916 – Attack opened at 7:30am. Leeds got slaughtered as soon as they got on top. 16th and 18th also. Durhams got likewise. The boys fighting like men possessed. Wounded coming up in hundreds and it was simply heartbreaking. Saw about 10 of our platoon’s wounded come in. Hutchinson badly wounded and Ben Parker killed. Simply murder.
Sunday 2 July 1916 – Our lads back in their own line and about 500 of the whole brigade left. Attack a failure and according to one of the 4th Division it was wonderful how the lads stuck it. Artillery fire simply mowed them down. Much worse than anything ever seen before.
Monday 3 July 1916 – Still at Bus on salvage – very busy. Went down to the trenches with limber at night. Very exciting indeed and had a lucky escape – shrapnel bursting overhead.
Tuesday 4 July 1916 – Boys coming into Louvencourt from the trenches. Absolutely jiggered and sad over their awful losses.
In the week following the attack my father was made a battalion orderly room clerk. For him this heralded a slightly more comfortable existence but it did not help lift the gloom which descended after the battle. Although the battalion was deployed in a number of relatively quiet sectors, it was the giver and receiver of several expensive trench raids. For example, on the night of 27 July at Neuve Chapelle, thirty Germans dressed in black surprised ‘B’ Company inflicting around eighty casualties, including over thirty missing, believed prisoners. The diary refers to ‘German trophies brought in – helmet, entrenching tool, 20 bombs and a lot of personal property’. One of the missing was Dickie Bond, a Bradford City international footballer.
In October, the battalion was moved back to the Hebuterne area for the closing stages of the Battle of the Somme; an unpopular move which meant revisiting places which held unpleasant memories. Bus-les-Artois, the site of the battalion’s old billets, is referred to in the diary as ‘a rotten hole which had not altered a bit although I hoped the Germans would blow it to bits’. At this time the battalion suffered many casualties from gas shelling, plus a further fifty casualties in the final attack on 13 November, none of which was helped by ‘rain still the predominating feature of our life’.
The year struggled to its close, but with one amusing incident and the unexpexted bonus of Christmas leave. On 9 December 1916, Corporal Broadhead ‘went with Mr Bowden to bring in a German deserter who was coming across no man’s land’. The following rather laconic entry, ‘Got him to HQ after a bit of a struggle’ doesn’t reveal that the deserter was somewhat inebriated! Christmas leave was taken in Corporal Broadhead’s home town with Boxing day spent watching Batley play their local rivals, Dewsbury, in a Rugby League match, and taking his girlfriend and sister to the Dewsbury Empire theatre. The diary’s final entry, for 27 December 1916, is the prosaic but – given the year’s events – slightly ironic, ‘Got a beastly cold and can scarcely speak’.
So far as I am aware, my father wrote just one Great War diary. The 18th Battalion West Yorks. saw major action in May 1917 at Fresnoy, and remained in France until the disbandment of the battalion in February 1918, as part of Field-Marshal Haig’s major restructuring of the British infantry forces. The men were dispersed to a number of other units, and Sergeant Broadhead’s eventual discharge was from 16th Battalion London Regimen, Queen’s Westminster Rifles, on 21 June 1919. He then joined the Imperial War Graves Commission, based at Abbeville. He had married a French girl in 1918, and worked for the IWGC in France until his divorce in 1936 when he returned to Batley to resume working as a clerk for the Borough of Batley. In 1941, he married my mother.
Like many of his contemporaries my father rarely spoke of the war, and in later life his profound deafness (‘caused by a shell which landed next to me at Vimy’) and advancing years made questioning a somewhat difficult adventure. However, his diary lives on, and provides a rich testimony of one man’s personal experience and an insight into what many other ordinary soldiers endured.