Diary’s insight into the life of a prisoner of war

George Whittaker and, below, the diary he kept as a prisoner of war

George Whittaker and, below, the diary he kept as a prisoner of war

First published in News Oxford Mail: Photograph of the Author by , Reporter covering Headington and Marston. Call me on (01865) 425411

GEORGE Whittaker wrote in his diary almost every day after he fell captive to the Germans one afternoon in March 1918.

Like thousands of British troops caught in the storm of Germany’s spring offensive, the war was over for the private in the 15th Sherwood Foresters.

Now his great-grandson, Pete Stevenson, has visited the Imperial War Museum in London, where the diary, is held ahead of a charity walk on the Western Front.

In October, the RAF Brize Norton flight nurse will take part in the Front Line Walk, a 100km three-day walk in aid of ABF The Soldiers’ Charity.

The 41-year-old sergeant, from Northolt Road, Carterton, first read his great-grandfather’s diary at the museum in 1996 after it was donated by his maternal grandmother, Ellen Tomlinson.

But it was not until five years ago that he took a deeper interest in genealogy and started to build a family tree.

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In March this year, Sgt Stevenson attended Who Do You Think You Are Live in London where he signed up for the Front Line Walk.

The Soldiers’ Charity then arranged for the married father of two to read the diary again for his research.

Sgt Stevenson said: “When I first read it in 1996 I did not take notes or take in a great deal.

“I was young and at the time I was not doing my family history.

“But I wanted to reread the diary with the idea of gaining more information about him.”

Sgt Stevenson said his great grandfather’s scribbled notes told him a lot about his wartime exploits.

It records the Long Eaton, near Nottingham, resident enlisted on December 9, 1915, though he was not called up until August 26, 1916.

After four months training he set sail for the continent, arriving in France on December 29.

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  • FAMILY MATTERS: Sgt Pete Stevenson, with his great-grandfather’s PoW diary at the Imperial War Museum

The battalion was part of 35 Division which fought in the advance to the Hindenburg Line in March 1917.

In October, the regiment left the Somme area for the first time since arriving in France. Its destination was the foreboding Ypres Salient, where German positions overlooked the Allies on three sides and shelling had created a landscape of shell holes.

On October 22, his unit suffered 198 casualties, including 16 killed, attacking German positions during the Third Battle of Ypres.

George and the rest of the survivors were then withdrawn from the front line to rest – though their respite would be short lived.

On March 21, 1918 the Germans launched their Spring Offensive, an all-or-nothing bid to break the deadlock before American forces arrived on the Western Front in strength.

So ferocious was the German bombardment that the British front line collapsed, the deadlock had been broken for the first time in more than three years of war.

Three days later the 15th Sherwood Foresters were ordered to counter attack at Maricourt on the River Somme in an attempt to stem the German advance.

Sgt Stevenson said his great grandfather’s diary revealed he was captured at 2.30pm, possibly after advancing German troops outflanked the Foresters’ positions.

The diary has entries dating from March 23.

Sgt Stevenson said: “A lot of the diary has very basic routines, but it does give an idea of how he was treated on capture and how he overcame problems of captivity.

“It was obviously a very stressful time, there was little food and they were constantly moving. Once they got to Germany they had three meals a day, but these were very small portions of very basic food.”

After being captured, George and his comrades were stripped of their equipment and marched for four days through the night with little or nothing to eat.

The only sustenance they received was from Red Cross parcels handed out by their German captors.

An entry on April 2, 1918, says he was in Munster, in north west Germany while on April 18 he was in Hamborn, further south near the Rhine.

The diary also gives an insight into how George kept his mind active to stave off of the apathy of ‘barbed wire disease’. At the front are entries of novels he read, including Peter Simple and The Vicar of Wakefield.

Sgt Stevenson said: “In the First World War everybody did their bit for King and country whether they wanted to or not.

“To survive being captured, to keep his mind focused and sharp during that time shows great strength of character.”

He added: “To come back and be able to read the diary with a bit more of a mature vision and to get the information I wanted has been brilliant. It adds another story to my life that I can put into the family tree and pass on to future generations.”

 

THE FRONT LINE WALK

PETE Stevenson said that reading about his great-grandfather’s war experiences would make his trip to the Western Front especially poignant.
The Soldiers’ Charity wants to recruit one walker to represent each of the 220 regiments which existed at the war’s outbreak in 1914.
The route will take the walkers to Thiepval, Vimy, the German cemetery at Neuiville Saint Vaast, and Ypres.
Sgt Stevenson said: “It's going to be an honour to walk in his footsteps and experience some of the experiences he had.
“Obviously we will not be marching but we will get the sense of the terrain that he was fighting on. It’s going to be a great experience.
“Coming from a background in the services myself you have an idea of service life, you have a sense of brotherhood and kinship.”
To donate, visit justgiving.com/pete-stevenson73

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