A close friend of mine loaned me a WWI diary she had in her possession – I believe she bought it at an auction, perhaps even on eBay. When I hold it in my hands, the look and feel imbues a strong sense of reality. This man was soldier in France. He fought, dug trenches, fired machine guns, watched friends die, suffered the noise and confusion – and wrote about it. Some days he writes in pen, other days in pencil. Almost 100 years later both are faded.
On the front cover he wrote: No 56132 (his regimental number), A.M. Mackenzie, 19th Battalion, Machine Gun Detachment, 2nd Can. Exp. Force, 1915.
Martin Devlin, one of the main characters in my third novel, Blind Regret, serves in the 19th Battalion, a choice I made with Alistair Munroe Mackenzie in mind. As a result I researched the whereabouts and experiences of the 19th Battalion and know that Alistair would have landed in Southampton in early June of 1915, gone to Le Havre in August, and fought near the Ypres salient all fall and winter. Like many soldiers, he wrote with great understatement of ‘difficult times’ and ‘unpleasant conditions’. I promised my friend that I would not replicate Alistair’s diary, however consider a few sentences:
Mond morning, Sept 20th We are now in Belgium about 3 miles from the firing line and are pretty sure to go into the trenches tonight.
Friday night Sept 24 Things have been very quiet on our lines but not so on the G’s.
Monday Oct 4th – 4:30 PM There has been nothing doing on our front except the occasional bombardment.
Sunday Oct 10th, 10:30 PM Our lines at this point sort of bulge into the G’s so that they are on 3 sides of us and the bullets come in from all directions pretty thick.
Sat. Dec 11/15 We hear all kinds of rumours about getting leave or being sent back as reserves but we are at the stage now where we don’t believe anything until after it has happened.
Friday, Jan 4/16 Have had so much rain that where there aren’t trench walks the mud is knee deep and we sure long for some cold weather that will harden things up … am going out on a patrol tonight and expect to have some excitement.
The day to day of serving your country in the trenches of WWI. At the end of Alistair’s notebook are a few blank pages which make me wonder what happened. Did he begin a new diary? Was he wounded? Was he killed sometime in January 1916? I hope for the best and fear the worst.