As part of the museums’ ongoing First World War Archives Project, we have been looking into the fascinating diary of Private Wilfred Holden. In our last post Holden described his time in the Rouen camp, and here he goes onto record his journey to the front line.

The train to the line carried 2 men and 8 horses to a compartment, with the men sleeping at the horses’ feet. A precarious place to be one would think, but not Private Holden.

“most people would think this very uncomfortable, but it was much better than riding in an ordinary French 3rd Class Compartment and the truck we had was a fairly large one and that journey was the best railway journey I have ever had”

Holden diary entry 3

The frequent stops made by the train allowed the men to jump out and stretch their legs from time to time. Though the hazard was that the train might move off again without you, as Private Holden found out:

 “ a few of us got some hot water from the engine behind, intending making some tea, but when on the way back to our own trucks, the engine whistled & started off, but we did not like the idea of leaving our tea (we had none since the Thurs morning), we ran along with the water in our mess tins, but the train began to move quicker, so we had to throw the water away, & run for all we were worth, just as we got on again, & settled down the train stopped.”

Album of Thomas Maugham
Soldiers making tea by a train – From the Album of Thomas Maugham © Green Howards Museum (Ref 2005.66.1)/ Royal Armouries FWWAP

Travelling through France and along the coast, the train journey is made to sound almost idyllic with the French people waving and cheering as the train passed along the line. Passing Bethune however, the mood changes as the sound of the shells and the vision of the damage caused by the Germans is seen for the first time.

Arriving at Aire the train was met by the 7th Dragoon Guards who had come for the horses but knew nothing about the men accompanying them.

“here was a fine how do you do, brought eighteen horses all the way from Rouen, & then no one to own us, so whilst waiting we had some breakfast, one of the chaps going after a loaf and another got some hot water and we cleaned ourselves up to try and look our best and make a good impression when we did reach the regiment”

Holden diary entry 3.5

Finally arriving at the squadrons base near Dellettes, Private Holden was issued with a horse, and put to work caring for the horses and carrying out guard duty before moving out for the trenches on 6th July.

“What part of the line we were going to we did not know, as was the case in all the moves we had, we never knew how long we should be or the name of the place until we got there”

A working party in the trenches_from the Photograph Album of the 1_5th Battalion
A working party in the trenches – from the Photograph Album of the 1/5th Battalion © Rotherham Heritage Services: York and Lancaster Archive (Collection 578-K/7/7/5/5)/ Royal Armouries FWWAP

Holden’s diary shows that his life at the front settled into a monotonous mixture of drills, horse care and digging parties, broken only by the odd mishap or annecdote. Coming back from a stint on the work gang one evening he was surprised to find that the regiment had moved billets in his absence and that his kit was nowhere to be found.

 “next morning we had to look round for our kits that we had to leave behind, but my friend’s and my own was missing & was never found. Among my things was my great coat, & I never had another one given me, & all the nights that I spent in the trenches, I was without great coat”

Arrangement of Kit for Inspection
Arrangement of Kit for Inspection © Rotherham Heritage Services: York and Lancaster Archive (Collection 578-K/1/1/4/4)/ Royal Armouries FWWAP