WW1: Pte Arthur Linfoot's diaries published in blog

By Kristie Kinghorn
BBC News Online

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Like thousands of young soldiers, Pte Arthur Linfoot saw the horrors of the Western Front first hand. Now his experiences of World War One are being published online - one day at a time.

"Piles of dead men fearfully mutilated in the trench. Had to step over them with the stretcher..."

This entry, from 3 July 1916, the third day of the Battle of the Somme, is one of hundreds made by Pte Linfoot in his five wartime diaries.

A quietly religious man, he had deliberately signed up for the Royal Army Medical Corps in 1915 so he could share the dangers of the war with his friends but not have to kill anyone.

image source, Arthur Linfoot
image captionArthur Linfoot volunteered for the Royal Army Medical Corps at the age of 25

Instead of fighting the enemy, he carried a stretcher, risking his life to rescue injured soldiers, offering first aid and ferrying them to the hospitals behind the frontline.

Now his wartime life is slowly being revealed in a blog - one entry each day. It aims to give people the experience of following the war at the same real-life pace as those involved.

From 1 January 1914 till 31 December 1918, he kept a diary - written in Pitman shorthand. The first 18 months mainly depict his life in Sunderland, describing days spent with friends and going to watch Sunderland v Liverpool at Roker Park. But after 1915, the subject matter dramatically changes.

"He would have had no reason in January 1914 to expect that WW1 was to begin later that year, and certainly no reason to foresee that he might find himself in the Army," his son, Denis, said.

"So the diaries record a transition from a totally pacific existence to active service in wartime France."

Pte Linfoot arrived in France shortly before the Battle of the Somme.

In his entry from the first day of that battle - 1 July - he describes being awoken by the "tremendous heavy fire and big shells flying overhead".

Later on he describes being told of "desperate fighting" and the 8th Division having lost "half its strength". In actual fact, the British had suffered some 60,000 casualties, of which 20,000 were dead.

Two days later, another entry describes him seeing the "piles of dead men" in the trench. And on 8 July, the diary records how he volunteered to go out and bring back more wounded men.

The entry reads: "Captain Johnson made a speech and thanked us for the manner in which we had done our work in the most difficult circumstances and then asked for volunteers to bring in a few more men.

"I volunteered. We set out and were shelled terribly. Had marvellous escapes and were struck by pieces of flying mud."

Although the diaries contain entries for most days, Pte Linfoot confessed they were often written up several days later.

His son added: "It is obvious from his account, for example of the first few days of the Somme, that no-one could conceivably have been writing up a diary each day, or at all, during that sort of 24-hour engagement in the trenches.

"There were of course many periods of comparative quiet during service on the Western Front, when writing the diary would no doubt be much easier.

"But to me, it is surprising just that he managed to save the diaries from being lost or destroyed during the worst periods - the solders can only have had their packs to keep things in, and no safe storage elsewhere."

image source, Arthur Linfoot
image captionThe five diaries are about 3.5in x 2.3in (9cm x 6cm) and some of the pages are badly faded or water-damaged

Pte Linfoot was born in Sunderland on 17 January 1890. He spent most of his working life at Hendon Paper Works where he had a job as a clerical worker.

However, aged 25, he decided to volunteer for the Army. His son said he later confided in him that he decided to sign up then - and choose which section he joined - rather than wait to be conscripted and have no choice.

His elder brother, Ernie, joined the Royal Garrison Artillery while his younger brother, Charlie, joined the Royal Engineers. He remained on active service until some time in the spring of 1919, after which he returned to north-east England and began working at the paper mill again.

In 1931 he became company secretary and in the early 1950s he was made a director, before his retirement in 1956.

Mr Linfoot said his father did not do anything with the diaries until 1976, the 60th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme.

He transcribed a small section from his diary from mid-June till late August 1916, covering the first few months of the battle. However, his health and eyesight deteriorated and he was unable to transcribe any more. He died in Sunderland on 20 February 1977, aged 87.

The five diaries are about 3.5in x 2.3in (9cm x 6cm) and some of the pages are badly faded or water-damaged. They were given to Mr Linfoot in 1985 when his mother Jessie died.

Having been taught Pitman by his father, in 2012 he decided to begin transcribing the diaries so that his family and their descendants could learn about his father's life.

"I think my main reasons for doing the transcription were because few, if any people, now learn shorthand. So if I didn't do it while I still could, the diaries would probably remain permanently inaccessible to my father's descendants.

"In the last 10-12 years, several members of the two generations following me have taken an interest in the diaries and of course we were conscious of the approaching WW1 centenary."

Mr Linfoot's nephew, Christopher, had the idea to publish the diary online each evening to tie in with the centenary of WW1.

Mr Linfoot said: "The diaries provide a more complete picture than I previously had, both of [my father's] movements in relation to the Western Front generally and into the growing realisation of what the war meant to ordinary people at that time.

"Personal memories and records are important in raising awareness of the brutality and destruction of war, even if nothing can fully convey the experience, and WW1 in particular caused destruction and suffering on a scale unprecedented at that time.

"The diaries are probably unusual, if not unique, in being a complete daily record of the entire war. The concept of a daily blog offers perhaps a unique experience in being able to follow the war at exactly the same real life pace as those involved."

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