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World War I Wednesday, 11 November, 1998, 13:16 GMT
My grandfather's war
Edwin Vaughan's diary covers seven months of his time on the Western Front
Edwin Vaughan's diary covers seven months on the Western Front
By Andrew Bell of BBC Radio 4's Today programme

At my parents' house there's a thick brown army ledger. It's the diary of my mother's father, covering seven months of his time on the Western Front in 1917.

It was published in the early 1980s under the title Some Desperate Glory, and this year as part of the anniversary of the end of the Great War, I set out to visit some of the places mentioned in the climactic passages of the book.

The last days of the diary are filled with depictions of almost unimaginable horror. Wounded men drown as the shell-holes into which they have crawled fill with water. A soldier stops dead in the middle of an assault and announces quietly "I'm blind, sir," then turns to reveal his eyes stripped away by shrapnel.

The diary ends abruptly at the end of August 1917, when my grandfather takes a roll call and discovers that of the 90 men who had been under his command, 75 are dead, wounded or missing.

Ypres Salient

I spent two days wandering the fields of the Ypres Salient in the company of a historian who had the kind of knowledge that can only come from years of obsession. Thanks to him and a trench map of the time, it was in fact surprisingly easy to locate many of the places recorded by my grandfather in those awful days of August.

"Buffs Road" , up which he marches to the offensive, today follows exactly the route, to every kink and turn, that it does on the trench map. It threads between perhaps half a dozen relatively small war cemeteries - 5,000 men lie in one - and on some of the headstones are names from my grand-father's regiment, the Royal Warwickshires.

German Block-houses

One of the worst passages in the diary is the assault on a big German block-house which the British had named Springfield. It's after this attack that my grand-father's company is reduced to15 men.

There was nothing left at the site indicated by the trench-map, but the 80-year-old farmer living nearby solved the puzzle. He remembered playing in the block-house which had measured about 10 metres by10, but it had been dynamited in the 1930's.

He showed us the spot where it had stood on a slight rise looking over boggy meadows. It was easy to pick out exactly the line that the attack had taken that day in 1917, when those meadows would have been an unbroken stretch of mud and shattered trees.

Vaughan's diary ends abruptly when he discovers 75 of his 90 men are dead, wounded or missing
Nearby the trench map marked another German blockhouse, but this one is still there. It's known as Cheddar Villa, and has survived because it was too close to a re-built farm to be dynamited safely.

Today the farmer uses it as a cattle-shed. It is a huge construction of iron and concrete with walls ten feet thick. After the carnage at Springfield , my grandfather records going into this block-house which had become the Brigade HQ after the British had captured it.

As the rain pattered into the mud outside, I stood in the entrance and could picture him coming in exhausted and shocked, reporting to his commanding officer in one of the inner rooms now full of hay bales, and then sitting down to be plied with whisky by his comrades. He then left Cheddar Villa and headed back down Buffs Road out of the line to temporary relief.

On the last page of the diary he sits "drinking whisky after whisky and gazing into a black and empty future." He was not yet 20.

Links to more World War I stories are at the foot of the page.


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