"It's just hell here now"

April 24th, 2013 By David Colquhoun

The war diaries project

Anzac day. It's a very good time to blog about a new project at the Alexander Turnbull Library. We're digitising a large selection from the Library’s diaries and letters from World War I. There are many hundreds of them to choose from.

The project has just begun. We hope to continue it on through next year, but the first stage is to scan 12,000 pages by June. That is well underway. You can see what has already been done by searching on "WW100 digitisation project". Each item that comes up has a link to the digitised copy if you click "see original record". More are being added every week.

A selection of war diaries and related material on the Manuscripts work bench, waiting to be digitised.
A selection of war diaries and related material on the Manuscripts work bench, waiting to be digitised. Photographer: Mark Beatty

Selecting, conserving, scanning, describing

There are a lot of tasks involved. Firstly we intend to select a sample that gives as wide a range of war experiences as possible. While most are written by soldiers and nurses we are also including some war-time diaries and letters of civilians back in New Zealand.

Once selected there is conservation to do to repair damaged pages, for example, or bindings that are damaged. Then there is the actual scanning. We are also improving the descriptions of each digitised item, to make sure researchers can find out what is there.

Assistant Manuscripts Curator Sean McMahon checking through a new batch of diaries selected for scanning
Assistant Manuscripts Curator Sean McMahon checking through a new batch of diaries selected for scanning. Photographer: Mark Beatty
: Ish Doney, Imaging Technician, at work. The item being worked on is a 1914 diary kept by Marjorie Connell, describing life back in New Zealand.
Ish Doney, Imaging Technician, at work. The item being worked on is a 1914 diary kept by Marjorie Connell, describing life back in New Zealand. Photographer: Mark Beatty

25 April 1915

Conveying the poignancy of these war letters and diaries is not easy in one short blog. I will concentrate on the diaries. The letters are fascinating too, but they do often skirt around the ugliness, so as not to cause alarm to friends, lovers and family. The diaries can be much more frank. Typically they are battered little notebooks, sometimes hard to read and often erratically kept, but they can give graphic insights into the shock of war.

Captain Alexander McColl’s diary entry for 25-26 April echoes the excitement seen in many war diaries, as the soldiers leave Lemnos and steam towards Gallipoli. This was the big adventure they had signed up for. But even before he landed his troopship was taking in the wounded because the hospital ships were already full.

Alexander Bastin McColl. Diary entry for 25-26 April 1915, MSX-8204, Alexander Turnbull Library
Alexander Bastin McColl. Diary entry for 25-26 April 1915,MSX-8204, Alexander Turnbull Library

At 6 am this morning a move was made. We pulled anchor and moved slowly out. The warships and fleet left a little before us & presented a great sight. We are following two big barges. Absolutely magnificent scenery. Everyone greatly excited. At the time of writing can see the warships bombarding & the Tommies landing under cover. A magnificent sight. We are landing further up. Half the Coy landed about 4pm and I with the other half did not get ashore until 11pm. About 7pm they commenced fetching wounded aboard our ship as all the hospital ships were full. The Australians who landed first performed brilliantly but lost heavily so also did our Auckland & Canterbury boys. We got about 100 wounded before leaving some of them being awfully bad. At midnight we got orders to line a ridge just above headquarters & we have here all day. Fighting has been continuous for 15 hours but we have been lucky enough to have only [scrapnel bursting over us & a few bullets.]

Unlike many other diarists McColl nearly always remains determinedly optimistic. Henry Kitson’s diary entries for the landing convey much more anxiety, as he waited for orders to disembark, trying to stay calm and positive, and not quite succeeding:

Henry Kitson. Diary entry 25-26 April 1915, MS-Papers-11292-6, Alexander Turnbull Library
Henry Kitson. Diary entry 25-26 April 1915, MS-Papers-11292-6, Alexander Turnbull Library

We are all ready to go ashore. Just waiting for the boats to come and take us off. Then we will be into it. The Australians have captured 3 Krupp guns & sent back word to say they are knocking hell out of the Turks. We are not allowed to take blankets or waterproof sheets. I’ll bet it will be cold. Thank goodness I have got my oil slik coat. It will be a great comfort I’m sure. I have got a good red beard to frighten the enemy. Well we are off in a minute. Bye Bye. Baynot Charge bye bye

That bayonet charge was called off, but there was no respite. The next page of his diary describes how he

dug in & waited in firing line. The Turks came good & hard …. Position looked very serious. Naval guns great help. No packs cold wind slept on wet clay. Turks attacked all night. Jolly glad when day came no sleep calls for bayonet charges all night. N Zealanders lost heavily. Sniped at all day. Very lucky

Meanwhile Richard Dowling was part of the Ambulance Corps, setting up a hospital on the beach. His diary entries a few days later were brief but telling, - “saw some awful wounds, many snipers about. Dead men’s kits strewn all over the beach. Beginning to realise what war is.” (Richard Dowling. Diary entry for 25-26 April 1915, MSX-8954, Alexander Turnbull Library)

“Its just hell here now”

One of those broken by the Gallipoli experience was farm worker Alfred Cameron. His early diary entries, too, were full of curiosity and excitement at the big adventure. Over several harrowing weeks of frontline fighting those entries become steadily more despairing. Here is his last entry, written in late May after several weeks of fighting in the Gallipoli trenches:

Alfred Cameron. Diary entry, May 1915, MSX-2853, Alexander Turnbull Library
Alfred Cameron. Diary entry, May 1915, MSX-2853, Alexander Turnbull Library

Any day. Its just hell here now no water or tucker only 7 out of 23 in no 1 troop on duty rest either dead or wound.
dam the place no good writing any more.

Cameron was invalided home soon afterwards. Many other war diaries end just as suddenly as his does, but that was more often because the writer had been killed. McColl’s diary, for example, ends abruptly in early 1916, just before he was machine gunned during a night raid on enemy trenches in France.

“Ours is not to reason why”

Not yet digitised, but soon to be, is the 1915 diary of George Bollinger. His story is well told in this video clip from the Te Ara online encyclopedia.

It is a well-written diary, full of observation, sometimes thoughtful, sometimes graphic. A few weeks after describing the aftermath of Chunuk Bair (“all up the gully was the frightful smell of dead”) there is this description of a rare day free of snipers and shelling:

Everything has been quiet today. Persistent rumour says we are soon to leave the Peninsula for a rest. This evening the Maoris conducted a Church Service. Everything seemed so quiet & peaceful & as those forty odd voices sang those songs we usually sing at the front (“Lead Kindly Light” “Abide with me” “Nearer my God to thee” etc) our thoughts were drawn from war & care towards home

George Bollinger. Diary entry for 5 September 1915, MS-Papers-1419, Alexander Turnbull Library

Bollinger’s resigned comments in December 1915, as the New Zealanders prepared to leave Gallipoli, would have been shared by many others. Almost 3000 had died for no military gain. Mimicking Tennyson’s famous lines about the doomed charge of the Light Brigade Bollinger wrote: “We will not be terribly proud of our Gallipoli ‘Bar’. Ours is not to reason why but just to do and die. But who has blundered?”

Remembering Anzac day

Back in New Zealand others were becoming disillusioned with the war effort. In early 1916, for example, the widely-read New Zealand Truth declared the Gallipoli campaign to be “one of the most deplorably disastrous adventures in the history of British arms.” The blundering by the British leadership, it went on, “was as Brobdingnagian as anything depicted in ... Gulliver’s Travels”.

By then Anzac Day was being planned as a national day of commemoration. It was a day for mourning and remembering the dead. But it was also an opportunity for the Government and the conservative press to rally against war weariness.

Anzac day, Petone, 25 April 1916. Photographer Albert Percy Godber
Anzac day, Petone, 25 April 1916. Photographer Albert Percy Godber. Ref: APG-0589-1/2-G

The photograph above shows the ceremony at Petone, outside the Railway Station. The crowd had just heard a patriotic speech from the Prime Minister. Now they were listening to a massed choir of over 1000 local children singing “Rule Britannia.”

Massey’s words at Petone were typical of the editorials and other speeches of that day. He eulogised Anzac bravery, extolled the Empire’s war effort, which, he said “stood for one people, one language, one destiny and one ideal [which was] the uplifting of humanity.”

Many New Zealanders shared his imperial sentiments. Soon afterwards conscription was introduced, and thousands more soldiers sailed off to the killing fields of Europe.

Browse the digitised war diaries and letters by going to our website and searching on "WW100 digitisation project" and navigating to the see original record link attached to each item. More are being added every month.

This post originally stated Alfred Cameron's diary entry was probably written in August 1915. Further research revealed it was more likely written in May.

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Audrey Pearce
2 September 2021 5:42am

I have a diary written in a Mazawatee Tea diary (3 ins x 4. 1/2ins) by my Grandfather in 1915, while in France on duty.
He speaks of conditions at the time, of watching air combats of meeting up with two of his sons. etc etc
Some close to me has interpreted his writing into a typed
transcript that we can now read, which is of course 106 years ago.
I am myself 93 yrs and wondered if this diary was of any value. or if you could suggest where I could go to get a valuation

Michael Smith
26 April 2019 10:10am

Great work. Their words are inspiring for anybody working on personal stories around the world wars. I am working on a book around three of my family's grandfathers - one Boer War and two World War One - without the help of diaries. So, this work will help to some extent in imagining the vocab of the times.

Rhys Taylor
13 October 2014 8:26am

David, Do you have any of of Bob Kerr's paintings in the collection, to accompany the Alfred Cameron diary referred to here?

Patrica Whitton
1 October 2013 5:09am

I have always known that my Grandfather died in the war,but did not realise where and how untill I did the family history a couple years go.
I sent to Alnwick Castle for his war records as he was in the Northumberland Fuseliers 8th Battallion,and what I read was Awfull???.
He was shot and died from wounds severel days later,he was only 31 years of age left wife family four chldren the youngest eleven months, I now have on my wall a photo and one of his medals that has come into my possesion nealy a hundred years later original through ebay and someone that does alot about the Newcastle Upone Tyne Army , also a inscription to say he died of wounds for his country and the crest I Think He died a young man and fought for his country and he gave his life he was a very brave man and i will never forget the hardship they had living in tents in the snow,.
I think at nearly seventy myself,what he has done for me and my Country I am like a lot more a very very proud person ,Hindsight is a very good thing if only we could turn back time and take all the wars and sorrows away,My Grandmother died two years later leaving all those children,but they all survived and we are here to pass it on

Ros Pugh
22 September 2013 2:38pm

Have attended a Gallipoli service at Dersingham, Norfolk, UK today. Very moving and pleased to see a Kiwi in Army uniform attending. What a waste of life this was but we will never forget

Scott Wajon
25 July 2013 2:39pm

Hi David,

I will be visiting Nat Lib NZ on 30thJuly- 4th August, mostly on NSLA Digital Collecting business but I would love to meet with you and talk about the WW1 diary digitisation project. We have our own project underway at SLNSW and there would be much to share.
Scott Wajon, Manager, Digitisation, State Library of NSW

J Mills
13 July 2013 11:41pm

My grandfather was on the paddlesteamer Barry (Barryfield).
He was mine sweeping supplying beaches and involved in the final evacuation.
Would be very interested if there is any mention of paddlesteamers in any of the diaries.

john lennan
30 June 2013 8:45am

interesting reading..my uncle Hal Vipond 1st W/War 6th re-inforcements Gallipoli ..Sniper,France trenches, at Armentiers for 2 yrs wounded the Battle of Somme.School hoildays at uncle Hals never talked about Gallipoli , talked about french trench fighting and loosing many mates and saving his Sergeants live with a timely warning during the barrage of somme fighting....passed away 90 yrs old feb 28th 1979...Always be my Hero [still miss him] R.I.P

john mellon
29 June 2013 7:39pm

no one will ever understand the hell these men weht through and strangely in the UK only officers ''bravery'' is mentioned at times but these ordinary men went to hell and never came back God rest their souls.

Barry White
28 June 2013 5:27pm

Extremely moving, keep up the good work!

max horsfall
28 June 2013 11:07am
R.J. Levy
26 June 2013 7:40am

I have the 'jottings' of my maternal Grandfather, several loose pages held together with a rusty safety pin. This starts from the day he enlisted in the Auckland Battalion on 11 Jan 15 until after the evacuation from Gallipoli to Moscar Camp in Egypt on 15 Jan 16. After Gallipoli he went on to serve in France, and didn't return to NZ until 1919. Also have copies of his pay book. One interesting fact is that he drew one Pound from his pay book on 6 Jun 15 and landed at ANZAC Cove at 3.00am on the 7 Jun.

S D Ness
24 June 2013 11:02pm

I feel it was Australia, New Zealand & other Commonwealth countries obligation to support England and European nations from the invading forces. My father and two of his brothers went to France in 1916 , one of them was killed in action in 1918. I am travelling to France in September to visit his grave. Good luck with the digitising of the diaries.

T. Down
19 June 2013 5:45pm

C E Hawley asks ' for what ' referring to the Gallipoli campaign ,Probably so we can still speak English ,and not German .Though WW1 should never have happened ,and the Commonwealth should never have been dragged in.
30-40% of ANZAC troops were British born ,so I'm sure that's why so many wanted to fight for King and Country. But yes what a waste of prime men ..and yes 'for what!?

27 April 2013 9:39am

Very interesting reading. I have visited Gallipoli 3 times and always wonder at the so called glorious defeat.. and why we ever got involved. It is a sad place. But it is ours, we held the highest hill,saw the narrows in the distance and later quietly walked away. leaving wasted men and broken bodies. For what !!