Sunday 13 November 2011

Great Uncle Joshua Kelsall's Diary

Remembrance Day rightly serves to remind us of family and others lost in the horror of war and this morning I found a comment on an earlier post about my Great-grandmother Catherine Kelsall from a distant(and hitherto unknown) cousin, Margaret. Margaret and I will catch up via the wonders of email but in the meantime I will post the  few pages we have of Joshua's diary....Joshua was Catherine's eldest son and my mother's uncle, named after his father.

This post will begin with an explanation of how it came into his hands by George Adamson, nephew of Joshua and cousin to my mother.

"Sgt Joshua’s stained, canvas covered diary if his experiences in war-torn France between 7th August 1914 and 3rd February 1915 lay undiscovered when it came to light in the miscellaneous effects of his son, Roland, who had recently died. Roland’s widow gave the diary to her sister-in-law, Mrs. Freda Howarth (my cousin), who, after a casual glance at the tattered cover and faded pencilled jottings, thought she had a last found her father’s legendary old recipe book of herbal remedies that she had heard about, but which had vanished years ago.

Closer examination of the more legible entries showed it to be something very different and rather puzzling until she realized it was a diary of her father’s experiences in the trenches of WW1 recorded long before she was born.

Knowing my interest in any Kelsall records and the Kelsall Family’s history Freda thoughtfully wrote to me with news of her discovery and kindly lent me the diary on my offer to transcribe it into a more readable form.

After some initial research into WW1 history, I became aware that the old diary was a doubly remarkable find. In the first place, according to war historians, well observed written accounts of World War One experiences by working class soldiers are relatively rare. Also, the diary did not appear to have been written in retrospect but day by day, and in some parts even hour by hour between lulls of bombardments or after being temporarily relieved from front line action.

Joshua was no raw recruit. My uncle had first enlisted in 1902 and saw service in Egypt between 1903 and 1905 after which he was a reservist. He was thus a trained, experienced infantryman (and a 31yr old family man) when recalled to the colours on 5th August 1914. A few days later he was in France.

His jottings reveal a measure of contempt rather than hatred for the enemy but, like most front line soldiers, he was glad of the respite provided by Christmas, 1914, which he vividly recorded.

It wasn’t a gunshot wound to the chest that permanently damaged his health but the long periods spent in flooded trenches during the bitter winter of 1914-1915. He contracted severe bronchitis(he called it a chill) for which he was first invalided to ‘Blighty’ and which dogged him for the rest of his life contributing to his death in 1936 at the age of  54.
George Adamson."

Now where you see several dots in a row mid-sentance this is where George could not decipher his uncle's writing. Here are Joshua's words;

"7th August: Arrived here on Wednesday had tremendous welcome from the inhabitants. After an hour’s rest we marched full pack to Harfleur Camp a base about 7 miles, the last mile up a long hill under a sweltering sun. Mighty glad the boys were of a halt.
Find the French pretty decent people. We wanted for nothing on the march-drinks, fruit and cigarettes. We are beginning to think…(writing illegible)…are ours by right.
On Tuesday went to the town of Harfleur sightseeing. Noticed particularly the really beautiful Catholic church, the portico in particular having some splendid carving. An old lady, an innkeeper, insisted on treating me as if I were her own son. House and contents were mine if I could have considered it and……laid in regular bra…..
……following day that the military stopped all …….stand by in readiness…at once to the front.  In consequence we were unable to….each…..towards us and moved to…forwards…evidently as we returned in the daylight.
All kinds of rumours about men returning from the front being the greatest….just….business. Some of them no doubt have been in something.
…others are….I have ever met. I don’t believe half their woeful tales. Anyway they should be ……..ed what…they are….tendency…and should be dead(?)
Arrived at Havre for embarkation to God knows where. We….French have arrived from Lille…Germans. They say it is part of the plan. Hope of….There also arrived three battalions of Belgian….bound for Antwerp…terrible time they had around Liege.
What impressed us most was their quiet confidence that they would win before many more weeks had run. They had a very poor opinion of the French soldiers. Talking to one of the Belgian artillery, a Glasgow man, I was given to understand that Namur was sold by a Belgian staff officer who was shot for his treachery.
It took the Germans ½ an hour to take Namur and not as the papers in England have been leading us to believe. Whether this is true time alone will tell. This exile was given the option when war broke out of returning to Scotland, but he took up arms for Belgium instead, a right stamp of British….
Keep coming across French reservists who have left good positions in England to defend this country and think a lot of the British Tommy.
I have not been much impressed with the military bearing of the French soldiers as I have seen that on the march. They seem to lack all the enthusiasm and pride in themselves. They seem to slouch along anyhow, not in balance of step or any bearing of trained men. Our three year system has turned out better and fitter reserves than the French ever possessed. They at least can march and shoot. Find that their pay ranges from 1/2d to 4d per day for Privates 1s/2d for a Sergeant with no tobacco ration as we had been led to believe. They were called up a month ago and have not as yet received any pay. Their rations are on a par with their pay. Probably accounts for their evident weakness upon the march.
I see very little of the “Camaraderie”  that is supposed to characterize the French conscripts. Find that the “monied” forge a clique by themselves and have whatever they can buy among themselves without a thought for their poorer chums.  I have seen this myself and have the opinions of a few of the “sans sou” d…… that this is so.
The battalions that arrived from Lille seemed ravenously hungry. They ate everything that we could possibly spare. They treat our “hard tack” biscuits as a luxury. I have one of theirs as a souvenir. It has all the appearance of standing a lot of knocking about.
Friday 4th Sept. Left Havre for God knows where. Two days sail and we find ourselves waiting along with other troopships our turn to go in dock at St. Nazaire. Boatloads of wounded bound for Nantes have just passed. They raised a faint cheer among them.
Monday 7th Sept. Still waiting for a suitable tide to enable us to land. Can see the shore lined with British troops about to bathe. They would require it if they had been voyagers on this filthy old tub SS Halanaan. (?) Another week of this and half of us will be down with fever. The deck on which we sleep(or pray for it) was covered two feet deep with horse manure, quite ripe, which we managed to remove after several vomits. The cavalry being heartily pr…ed for the while. Am afraid very few will receive their kits intact as one and all seem to have been sampled by the native dockers at Havre, or more likely by the men returning from the front. They seem to be pretty well rigged now mind. They came from the front looking like scarecrows."

It is a very haunting tale I'm sure you'll agree. His younger brother, George died in 1917 in France and my grandfather, Robert, served there too although he was only 18yrs old when the war ended. He developed varicose ulcers on his legs from wearing puttees which were probably wet most of the time.
Here are the very young George and my grandfather, Robert. 

my maternal grandfather, Robert Kelsall died 2 yrs before I was born

Kelsall Family Name


  1. oohhhh doesn't he look like James Cagney ???
    anyone else think the same

  2. Hi Sue,

    Fascinating post. I am related to you. My great Grandmother was Mary Jane Kelsall (later Lenehan) and all five of her brothers (Joshua, Joseph, Robert, Alfred and George) served in WW1.


  3. Oh Ken, this makes you my Mum's cousin doesn't it? I'd love to get in touch with you, would you email me at pls? I have recently come into contact with others from quite a few generations back but none as close as you!