"I have decided to discontinue the diary as nothing startling happens here."
- Gerald W Buxton
With these words Lance Sergeant William Webb ended his diary on 17th January, 1916. Unlike many war diaries which were so often abruptly ended due to the diarist's death, on this occasion the writer lived to see the end of the war and return to his family in England after twenty five years of service.
Born in 1980, William Webb was just 14 years and 4 months old when he joined the army, having lied about his age. He first saw active service at the age of 19 in the Boer War fighting in the battles of Diamond Hill, Johannesburg and Belfast. He returned to England in late 1902 and remained there until 1912, during which time he had married and had a daughter. After a brief spell of service in Malta, he returned to England for just one month before leaving for the Western Front in September, 1914. By this time he had already served for twenty years and was aged 34. As a talented musician, he had been promoted to Band Sergeant (1912) and then Lance Sergeant (1914).
A photograph taken around 1918 shows him as a short, compact individual of upright stature and with perhaps a hint of a smile. He certainly had the look of a very determined man with hidden strengths and was mentioned in Sir John French's Dispatches for, "gallant and distinguished service in the field".
He wrote his diary so that, in the event of his all too probable death, his wife and family might better understand what he and so many others had gone through each day while on the Front Line. His recording of events is simple, direct and straightforward; each entry ends with a, "Goodnight love" plus (often) a few "xxxx". It is impossible not to be moved by his obvious love for his wife. That said, he does not play down the horrific conditions of the Front Line, the industrial scale of the slaughter, the terrible injuries and the appalling conditions in which men lived and died.
William Webb's story is slightly different in that he worked at the Front with the regimental doctors and with his stretcher bearers recovering the wounded, dead and sick. Subject to constant fire, he and his team worked unstintingly to bring in his comrades from the battlefield, often from right under the noses of the Germans. Their devotion is so obvious in Webb's writing, as is their profound physical and mental exhaustion. Time and again they would return to their fallen comrades with scant regard for their own safety.
Finally, in November 1915, suffering from bronchitis and a poisoned hand, William was transferred to the Base Camp at Le Havre where, as he observed, "nothing startling happens". With this transfer we lose sight of Lance Sergeant Webb. From Army records all it is possible to glean is that in September, 1916 he was an Ordinerly Room Clerk and that on 1st April, 1919 he retired from the Army.
The majority of the book concerns the diary of William Webb, but in a short Part 2 the author follows the 7th Division through the remainder of the war. This is a fitting conclusion and a poignant reminder, one hundred years later, not just of one man's bravery but of the bravery and indomitable spirit of all those who fought in the First World War. The Epilogue contains a fine poem written in memory of William Webb.
William Webb passed away in March,1953 aged 72, followed by his wife Edith, aged 71, eight months later. In so many ways an ordinary man but in other ways such an extraordinary man.
4/5 Mr MRHs