Off at last the goodbye would have been too awful

More than 20,000 pages of World War One letters and diaries are now available online. Here’s a small selection I encountered during my work as an imaging technician in the Alexander Turnbull Library.

In a French brewery

It was Wednesday afternoon and I had just opened another manuscript. I wanted to get a feel for its condition so there wouldn’t be any surprises when I started digitising. The diary is one of the larger ones I’ve dealt with – between A5 and A4 – and has thick, lined pages and a plain black cover. The writing inside is neat and well-spaced in clear black ink. I’ve been digitising World War One letters and diaries since March last year and very few are in as tidy a condition as this one.

In part this is because it’s not a diary that’s been kept in bags or pockets with the entries scrawled down hurriedly in quiet moments. Instead, it’s a New Zealand Major General’s translation of a French diary found in a pile of rubbish in an evacuated house in Fontaine-au-Pire, Cambresis, France.

Detail of page 3 of Lindsay Merritt Inglis’s translation of Maurice Delmotte’s diary, MS-Papers-0421-69ADetail of page 3 of Lindsay Merritt Inglis’s translation of Maurice Delmotte’s diary, Ref: MS-Papers-0421-69A

The town fell into German hands when the British retreated in August 1914 and remained there until October 1918 when the New Zealand Division broke through the trench line and German troops began to retreat. On entering Fontaine-au-Pire the New Zealanders found the buildings largely undamaged and the very young and very old civilians who had not been evacuated still living in them. Bunking up in a large brick house with a brewery on the same property, the New Zealanders set about making a fire from a pile of papers and broken furniture.

It was here that Major General Lindsay Merritt Inglis found the diary of the brewer, Maurice Delmotte, who had recorded the last two years of German occupation in a ledger of beer accounts. Inglis details this discovery in a foreword to his translation of Delmotte’s diary which can now be viewed online.

The digitisation of this translated diary is part of a Turnbull Library project dedicated to digitising letters and diary entries from World War One, as part of the National Library’s contribution to the WW100 commemorations. The project will see more than 20,000 pages of WW1 manuscripts available online where researchers will be able to access them from all over the world.

Copying challenges

Before a manuscript makes its way to my desk for digitisation it is looked over by a conservator to have its condition reviewed and any necessary treatments made. While Inglis’s translation is in very good condition and would have needed little attention, many of the hundred year old manuscripts have become fragile in their long and eventful journeys to the safety of the library’s shelves.

Cover of Dudley James Frederick Jeune’s dis-bound diary.Cover of Dudley James Frederick Jeune’s dis-bound diary. Ref: MSX-0943

Dudley James Frederick Jeune’s 1917 diary was given to him by his parents in January of that year and accompanied him from New Zealand, via Australia and Sierra Leone, to Plymouth in England, and on to Boulogne, France. The diary, which advertises itself as having ‘365 detachable pages’, has become very fragile over the years and many of the margins had taken it upon themselves to detach from the pages they once held by serrated lines. In this case it was decided that the manuscript should be dis-bound to protect it from further deterioration and make digitisation possible.

Inside pocket of leather walletInside pocket of leather wallet. Ref: MSX-9134

With writing across margins and inside pockets, and diaries smaller than Eftpos cards, there are plenty of reminders that these diaries were not written with ease of reading in mind and certainly not ease of digitisation. Each manuscript presents its own copying challenges and the copy stand is strewn is a variety of cards, acrylic fingers (like the one holding open the pocket above), weights, and book stands all in varying sizes to support items while holding them flat to make a clear image.

Small pocket diary containing brief entries describing Townsend's experiences on active service in France during 1918Small pocket diary containing brief entries describing Townsend's experiences on active service in France during 1918. Ref: MSX-7143 Photo: Ish Doney.

Tools for copying. Photo: Ish DoneyTools for copying and digitisation. Photo: Ish Doney

Punch lines

It is not possible for me to read every page that I copy and the pages that catch my eye can vary drastically. Among Frank Simpson Copper’s papers is a list of ‘Office Rules’ typed in purple ink on thin paper. They read:

06 Ms Papers 1676 3 004Typescript of Frank Cooper's diary. Ref: MS-Papers-1676-3

OFFICE RULES:

1. GENTLEMEN upon entering will WILL LEAVE THE DOOR WIDE OPEN or apologise.

2. Those having NO BUSINESS should remain as long as possible take a chair and talk about the weather.

3. SMOKING IS INSISTED UPON, especially during OFFICE HOURS --- TOBACCO AND CIGARETTES WILL BE SUPPLIED.

4. TALK LOUD or WHISTLE especially when we are engaged, if this has not the desired effect SING.

5. If we are engaged in business conversation with anyone you are requested NOT TO WAIT until we have finished but JOIN IN as we are particularly fond of speaking to half a dozen people at the same time.

6. PUT YOUR FEET UPON THIS TABLE or lean against the DESK, it will be of great assistance to those who are writing; be sure also to overlook any correspondence we are engaged in you may be able to advise us what to say.

7. PERSONS having NO BUSINESS with this OFFICE will call OFTEN or send an excuse.

8. Should you need the loan of any money do not fail to ask for it as we do not require it for business purposes,

9. If you are a COMPETITOR be sure to ask particulars about our business, we like answering such questions, that’s what we are here for!!!

This list, along with James O’Grady’s World War One pun on a stranded German tank, sit on the lighter end of what one might expect to be a very dark spectrum.

Goodbyes

One manuscript I found particularly moving is a folder of papers relating to Leslie Heron Beauchamp which includes a number of telegrams and correspondence with his sister Katherine Mansfield. The tone of the letters suggests the two of them were very close and that Leslie, like many young men at the time, was exhilarated by the prospect of fighting for his country. What struck me were the telegrams. First, from the 25th September 1915:

Off at last the goodbye would have been too awful
au revoir
Leslie

Telegram from Leslie Beauchamp to his sister, Katherine Mansfield. Ref: MS-Papers-7224-05Telegram from Leslie Beauchamp to his sister, Katherine Mansfield. Ref: MS-Papers-7224-05

And then, less than month later, the news of his death:

Deeply regret inform you Leslie killed 7th come and see me
Kay

Telegram informing Mansfield of Beauchamp's death. Ref: MS-Papers-7224-05Telegram informing Mansfield of Beauchamp's death. Ref: MS-Papers-7224-05

In their words

In amongst the tragedies and the jokes is a sense of boredom with routine and attempts to relieve it. George Walter Horn outlines one such strategy against boredom in a letter home to his family, 6th January 1918.

Well to get away from the war, we have been having a bit of fun lately at night with rats which are as thick as flies here + a little wire haired dog we have here; ½ doz of us go out with electric torches + when we put a rat up we switch the torch on him + get the dog chasing him, it doesn’t sound so funny, but when you see ½ doz fellows hareing around the yard on a dark night trying to keep up with to a rat with a torch on it so that the dog came see it + you realise that the ground is frozen hard + as slippery as glass + everybody intent on keeping the old rat focused in the light without thinking of his mates + then to cap all a dog racing around amongst us, you can imagine the sport.

Correspondence from Horn to his family written while on active service. Ref: MS-Papers-8794-7Correspondence from Horn to his family written while on active service. Ref: MS-Papers-8794-7

The innovation, jokes, and suffering are all a testament to the resilience of the men and women who found themselves wrapped up in “the war to end war”. Reading the words of the soldiers, nurses, and civilians is the closest we can come to knowing what those years were like for the individuals who lived and died in them. We can only imagine how it was for the men around the fire in that brewer’s house in Fontaine-au-Pire listening to their Major General read from the last entry in Maurice Delmotte’s diary, ‘The hour is full of emotion; but I am content, for, though perhaps it is terrible, it is certainly the end.’

Getting Involved

Just some of the letters and diaries digitised in the last 12 months, composition by Ish DoneyJust some of the letters and diaries digitised in the last 12 months, composition by Ish Doney.

The Alexander Turnbull Library’s collections of World War One manuscripts are full of insights to life during the war from soldiers, nurses, and those back home. Manuscripts digitised as part of this project have been gathered together under the WW100 digitisation project heading – click that link or enter it in the main search bar. Items will continue to be added as we digitise more. Related blogs, including many by the manuscripts curator David Colquhoun, can be found under the diaries tag.

Have some diaries or letters from the period you’d like to share? The WW100 programme is posting daily snippets from a wide range of manuscripts, building up a fascinating picture of life at home and abroad 100 years ago. You can follow along with James Cox, George Leslie Aitken, and headlines ripped from the newspaper, or contribute your own source material.

By Ish Doney

Ish is an imaging technician working on the ATL WW100 project to digitise World War One manuscripts in time for the centenary.

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Ariana March 30th at 10:23AM

A really insightful blog post Ish. I loved the mix of stories from the diaries with the behind the scenes story of how both how you go about digitising them, as well as your personal reactions to doing this work. Ka rawe!

Ray August 4th at 8:01PM

An awesome thing to do that will allow generations of kiwis to understand the ordinary soldiers lives

Aaron McGrath April 17th at 7:44AM

Hi there! Fantastic work! Is anyone aware of a digitalised diary from any assigned to the 1st Brigade NZFA?

Mary McCallum May 9th at 9:04PM

Ish this is amazing work. I was stunned to see you were involved with images I've seen and admired in an exhibition at the National Library. Can you email me please? I have a proposal for you - not photos but poems.