There Was No Poetry for Uncle Herbert on the 80th Anniversary of the Armistice, Three Very Different Views on How We Should Commemorate the Victims of War

By Hattersley, Roy | The Independent (London, England), November 11, 1998 | Go to article overview
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There Was No Poetry for Uncle Herbert on the 80th Anniversary of the Armistice, Three Very Different Views on How We Should Commemorate the Victims of War


Hattersley, Roy, The Independent (London, England)


IT WAS not much of a diary - a penny notebook fastened by elastic inside a cheap leatherette wallet that his sister Augusta had sent him in anticipation of his 17th birthday. But it began as English adventure stories have begun for 600 years: "Embarked for France."

Ten days later, Herbert Hattersley, Private 2042, the 1/7 Battalion of the Sherwood Foresters, the Notts and Derby Regiment, "went to trenches with 1st Hampshires. Relieved after 24 hours. CV Shepherd killed by accident."

After that it was a litany of death. "Went up to trenches in motor buses, went to place where big advance was made, hundreds of dead lying on the ground." Even when his friends were killed he made his entries with the same laconic brevity. "Our Division made an attack on the Hohenzollern Redoubt, Jack Burton was killed on the same day. We were relieved from the trenches and went for a rest." Only the final page records more than the bare facts. First it lists "battles since I arrived in France. Plugstreet, Kemel, Houge and Sanctuary Wood {all Ypres}, Vielle Chapelle, Mont St Eloy." Then it repeats the story of how Jack Burton died. "Jack was killed in a bayonet charge, I think that he was hit in the head by a piece of shell. He was 17 and a half when he first came to France. Pt H Timpson was killed trying to bury him." It would be foolish to talk of premonitions. Bert had no time for anything so fanciful. He was a labourer in the packing department of a company, who had joined the territorials when he was barely 16, because a recruitment poster promised a fortnight's summer camp at "Fascinating Filey". And although his terms of engagement did not require him to serve abroad, he had volunteered for active service rather than risk the contempt of his newly found comrades-in-arms. When he died on the Somme on 1 July 1916, he was not quite 19. They found the diary in his billet in Bienvilliers. Folded inside were three letters from home. Bert's religious mother ended with a pious hope: "Bless you and may He send you safely home." My father, his 12-year-old brother, was infuriatingly philosophical: "I expect that you are sorry that you haven't had leave before now, but your turn will come." Augusta, who gave him the notebook and the wallet, told him that another brother, Leslie, "was giving Alice Smith the glad eye". The messages were all written in careful ink. Bert wrote in indelible pencil, turned blurred and purple by the incessant rain. It had rained for more than a week before the day of battle, and the downpour was more difficult to bear than the shelling. The Sherwood Foresters were wet in the trenches and wet in their dugouts. On the eve of the big push, they waded knee-deep through the mud of the supply trenches to their position 600 yards to the right of Gommecourt Wood.

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