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The Burgoyne Diaries

Gerald Achilles Burgoyne
The National Archives have a considerable number of diaries from the Great War, some of which have been digitised and put online but this book is somewhat different. First published in 1985, and reprinted in 2015, it consists of the diary, complete with sketches and maps, that Gerald Achilles Burgoyne sent at regular intervals to his wife between 1914 and 1915 and is mainly of his time in the trenches just south of Ypres.

He kept regular diaries which were sent to his wife as often as possible, and it was not until many years later they were found in a trunk of personal belongings by his daughter, Claudia Davison, when her mother died. Claudia then had them published on the advice of a friend.

Gerald Achilles Burgoyne was known as something of an artist and when he travelled to Australia with his father (a wine merchant) in 1893 he produced a series of sketches and paintings of the trip. Not too long after that he joined the 3rd Dragoon Guards and served as a captain during the Boer war, resigning his commission in 1910 and transferring to the reserve of the Royal Irish Rifles. Well off as a gentleman of leisure and keen huntsman he spent his time between homes, one in Ireland, one in the southwest of England and another in London. His story really begins in 1914 when, as a major, he was ordered to mobilise along with the rest of the 4th Battalion where he was involved in recruiting and training, being used as drafting battalions for officers and men. Before long he found himself accompanying a draft to France and describes the move via a temporary camp outside Rouen until such time as they arrived at Westouter (described as West Outre in his notes and map). Although he does not make too much of it, supplies of equipment, rations and armament start to cause problems before they even reach the forward lines, something he mentions as well later on.

While commanding a company of the 4th Battalion the diary then seems to indicate part of his personality. By the standards of today his attitude toward his men at times would seem completely out of order – deliberately punching one – hoping to achieve an execution following a court martial for another, and yet at another time he mentions ‘my poor boys’. It seems he obviously cared for his men but was determined to mould them into a successful unit. He obviously was not a hard man because of the way he sometimes describes his actions when coming upon casualties, both alive and dead, and here and there the black humour of the soldier is apparent. These diaries contain a considerable amount of information on the quality of the men, both allied and enemy, life in the trenches, the dreadful effect of the weather, and the waste which occurred. Although his company was involved in only one major attack, the attrition due to shelling, grenades, mortaring, and disease was considerable and men were constantly having to be replaced.

On May 7th 1915, his company was involved in an attack to retake hill 60 and he was wounded badly enough to be sent back to the UK where he was later given sick leave on May 10th, at which point the diary ends.

He did carry on serving and reached the rank of Major General, being killed in 1936 during an Italian bombing raid on a supply column he was leading in Ethiopia as part of a British Red Cross mission (an alternative source has him shot by a rebel at that time).

When reading this book it must be remembered it was not originally intended to be published and names are mentioned of whom his wife may have been aware, but at times there is no indication of who they are. It is also noticeable that some names in his sketches and maps do not conform to what can now be found on a map.

The whole thing is very interesting and well worth reading, giving another insight into what life was really like during that war. From a personal point of view it was a bonus to learn the meaning of a couple of phrases which were used in my own family by those who had served at that time.
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