This post was written by Christine Pleszak for the Tameside remembers veterans heritage project.
As a member of the Tameside Armed Services Community (TASC) I volunteered to take part in a project to produce Billboards commemorating the activities of the Manchester Regiment during the Great War. At the first briefing I attended we were presented with a varied selection of documents including; photographs, maps, postcards and more from the archives at Tameside Local Studies. These had been randomly selected for us to get an idea of what was available and to aid our research techniques.
One of the things I looked at was a diary of a private soldier, written in a small notebook, less than a dozen pages long but containing such detail and personal insight that it had a hugely emotional impact on me. I am still moved almost to tears when I think or tell people about this tiny account of a man’s experience of the best and worst of life as a soldier.
Happily, Henry Bridge though wounded, did survive. This is a taster of his story – a work in progress as I hope to find out more about his life before and after this relatively small part of the life he recounts in his diary. He spent just 2 years and 28 days in active service but during that time he experienced some horrific battles. This story isn’t going to give details of these – they are well documented elsewhere. Rather, it will give some insight into Henry’s own thoughts about his experiences and the contrast between the hopes and expectations beforehand and the reality of war.
There is no indication when Henry wrote this diary. It is not dated by page and it actually starts with him being wounded. He may have written it after he went home. It does detail and date all the places in France and Belgium he was involved in and gives quite graphic insights into what happened. He was shot through the left shoulder in a charge on Mametz wood on the Somme July 7th 1914 and discharged from the Army February 1917, ‘With a very good character’. He sailed for England on the Hospital Ship Martineau July 9th 1916.
This notebook came from a folder of items donated to the Manchester Regiment Archives. In the collection was a number of postcards, several of which were of the places he fought in. None of these were written on. I wonder did he keep these to show his family or were they just to aid his memory when he was writing his notes? There is another notebook; the pages loose and the writing less legible. This may have been written nearer the time of the events and perhaps used as a basis for his later diary. In it is a hand drawn map of battle sites.
Other postcards were to him from his family – his mother, brother and sisters. Touchingly celebrating everyday occasions, Whitsuntide, Christmas and birthdays. A reminder that despite the war, life at home carried on as normal to a degree and that Henry was always in their thoughts.
Unfortunately, there is no indication who donated these items or when. I would love to know if there are any of Henry’s relatives still living in the area. He was from Oldham, just a few miles away from the Tameside Local Studies and Archives in Ashton-Under-Lyne. With the help of a friend, (also a volunteer with Tameside Local Studies and Archives) I have begun to trace Henry’s family history. We know he married and had a family. His wife was named Rosetta Poole so perhaps someone reading this may remember the family. I do not know whether he recovered sufficiently from his wounds to be able to work. He was certainly recorded as unable to work on the 1939 census.
Although Henry wrote about the horrors of war, I found no condemnation of the enemy. He wrote about the “best of manhood the nations could give” and the dead – “German and ours”. Despite everything he went through, it is clear that he was very proud to have served. He underlines ‘of good character’ on his discharge and his description of the inspection by Lord Kitchener is so poignant when compared to what he experienced later.
Henry talks with great pride of the inspection of his batallion by Lord Kitchener at Whittingham Barracks, Lichfield June 1915.
“We marched passed him. He stood and looked me straight in the eyes and said to Colonel MacGregor Green, “Just the sort of men we want” . He was very pleased with us all and told the colonel we were a splendid lot of men.”
He also said, “I had a lovely Christmas at Whittingham Barracks Lichfield 1914. The officers were all real gentlemen.”
Later he recounts the speech given by General Pilcher to the Manchester Regiment before going into the Park at Poulanville;
He said, “My men the time has come for you to get your own back. You have always proved yourself more than a match for the enemy. But next week you will have the chance, all of you, of showing the Germans what you are made of. You have stood in the trenches long enough being slaughtered. I know you will do your Best. Do Good and Good Bless you all”.
Contrast this then with some of his accounts of what happened later. Henry listed dozens of battle sites -too numerous to mention here. He served in France and Belgium, finally being wounded on the Somme. He talks of days on the line without food, of the trenches and the gas – and about the horrendous numbers of dead on both sides.
“Was in Hoodge Crater trenches three days without food. Shelled out of Dedoute White Chateau – gas came over”.
“Heavily dug ourselves in ready to be blown up under heavy German Artilery. Went up the line to help West Riding who had 600 gassed. Was in the roll call at St Julian (Bluff) Feb 19th when we were blown to atoms. In three hours the place was strewn with the dead.”
And most poignantly:
“Never shall I forget the sight. We marched into battle at 1 o’clock in the morning. All the guns going and blowing bodies and the ground to atoms. When daylight came the sight and stench was awful. Men 1000s torn shattered and blown and shot lying all over the place – grey, blue and khaki. The ground was smothered with them, we were fighting and marching across dead bodies, the best manhood the nations could give, men in the full bloom of manhood blown, torn and limbs shattered finer than butchers meat. I gave myself up for charged into hell itself on the 7th July 1916.”
This then has been just a taster of Henry’s war and my reaction to his diaries. Just a few pages told me more about the war than numerous history books could have done. I hope to carry out more research about Henry and I look forward to the next census release in 1921 to see what he did next.
Private Henry Bridge’s notebook (MR3/17/139), Tameside Local Studies and Archives
Find my Past