Auctions | July 30, 2014

Candid WWI Western Front Diaries for Sale at Bonhams

A vivid, candid and in places disturbing first hand account of the First World War by a solider who served for the entire four years on the Western Front and in Italy is to be sold at Bonhams First World War Commemoration sale in London on 1 October.  The five diaries are estimated at £5,000-7,000.

They were written by Armourer Staff Serjeant W. W. Lesslie of the Army Ordinance Corps responsible for the supply, upkeep and repair of weapons, armoured vehicles and other military equipment.

They reveal:

  • the deep gulf between the officers and men - “the mud gets worse every day. Yesterday the guards came and turned people out of the huts ... such is war and the officers do not share the men's discomfort (December 1916)

"after this war let them look for themselves for there is mutiny everywhere and only the fear of being put up along-side a wall and shot is preventing open mutiny..."

  • resentment of the Government back in the UK - "... there is no hope for us poor devils. May God curse the men responsible for it with every curse that is possible, and after this the glorious & free nation of Briton deserves to lose... for I am disgusted and ashamed to be an Englishman after this...  “I shall never get over this treatment, and from henceforth I am a socialist.” (May 1916)

This was in response to news of a Bill—later to become the Military Service Act, 1916—which introduced conscription and classified those who had volunteered at the beginning of the war as professional soldiers.

  • distrust of the British allies... it is a rotten shame we have had to come up here to cut the wire for the glorious Australians. They absolutely make us sick, with their swank and talk... but haven’t the guts to go up into the front positions to cut wire (July 1916).

"The Italians seem to be very eager to hand over the line & gun positions, but not at all eager to hand over the back areas" (April 1918)

  • amazement at the German’s superior trench system “I am lying in an old German dugout.. it is splendid, as safe as houses it being really a tunnel about 30ft under the ground which runs for about 1.5 miles right along the bank of a valley, with flight of steps going down to it about every 100 yds.etc (January 1918)

Throughout the diaries Lesslie, who came from Bow in East London, reflects on the daily horrors he witnesses. Here he is writing about the Battles of Neuve Chapelle in Spring 1915, “"Our brave chaps and Germans are lying dead in all directions and the Germans especially are blown to pieces, limbs all over the place and they have turned yellow as mustard clothes and all, the effects of Cyddite... the din is awful, all last night I tried to sleep, the din and scream of the shells running through my brain and the sight of the wounded and dead",  "... awful at the trenches it is not war but sheer murder..."

The last year of the war saw Lesslie in Italy where he established a repair workshop in Mantua and it was there that he records the terrible sense of anticlimax as the Armistice was announced, It ”….was funny, not a cheer or rejoicing in the shop.  Everybody is awfully fed up with the war yet one would think we did not care… Hudson and I celebrated by having two packets of biscuits & a cup of coffee.”

Bonhams Head of Books, Matthew Haley said: “It is extremely unusual to find a series of diaries covering the entire war, Lesslie is a passionate and frank guide not only to the horrors of the western front but also to the fluctuating emotions of people caught up in a kind of warfare never seen before.  The perception that officers led a privileged life tells us much about the drive for political change in Britain in the post war years.  Although we know now that the casualty rate was actually higher among junior officers than men that is not how it was seen at the time. The feeling that there was one law for the ruling classes and another for everyone else shattered the prewar social consensus as it was to do again after the Second World War.”