Rare war diary revealed

Soldier’s diary provides rare window into conflict that shook the world, writes Andi Yu.

TREASURE: Castlemaine's Joan Scott shows off the published version (left) of the original diary (right). Picture: JULIE HOUGH

TREASURE: Castlemaine's Joan Scott shows off the published version (left) of the original diary (right). Picture: JULIE HOUGH

For 60 years, Castlemaine resident Joan Scott has quietly held on to a valuable piece of World War I history.

The diary of her late uncle, Edwin Henry Need, only saw the light of day when Mrs Scott used it as a teaching aid with her senior high school students.

It is a detailed record of all that a young soldier saw and did during three years away at the Great War between 1916 and 1919.

The public will finally have access to the rare account when it is launched on Sunday in Castlemaine.

Titled “The diary of Edwin Henry Need, A Soldier on the Somme” it is a window into the conflict that shook the world nearly a century ago.

Mrs Scott knew her uncle well but said he never spoke of his wartime experiences and most relatives didn't even know about his diary until recently.

“One of the hallmarks of soldiers who came back was that they did not like talking about the war, and he didn’t,” Mrs Scott said.

She said the diary was valuable because it was unusual.

"I think it's a very precious little account and it's quite rare because he was a private. Most things written about World War I were by officers or journalists," she said.

Mrs Scott said her uncle's descriptions were detailed and showed he was an "intelligent observer".

He wrote of dried meat and biscuits that were the food staples for soldiers in the trenches and of the devastating effects of war on the French countryside.

"There wasn't a leaf left on a tree, there were so many shells and ammunition in the air that the trees were all stripped of leaves," Mrs Scott said. "And huge holes in the ground from explosions as big as you could put a house in."

Her uncle spent much of his time in the trenches at the front line of battle.

“In the winter 1917 it was the coldest winter in Europe for 26 years and the water was over their knees in the trenches,” she said.

She said his descriptions of the mud were “unbelievable”.

RARE DIARY: Castlemaine's Joan Scott shows off the published version (left) of the original diary (right). Picture: JULIE HOUGH

RARE DIARY: Castlemaine's Joan Scott shows off the published version (left) of the original diary (right). Picture: JULIE HOUGH

“It was so bad, the horses that were pulling things around, instead of there being one or two horses they would have seven or eight."

She said horses were shot by the thousands.

“They (the horses) used to go down in the mud and they (the army) couldn’t get them out. They would shoot them because that was the kindest thing you could do.”

Mrs Scott said her uncle wrote that soldiers were only capable of staying on the front lines for a few days and then they would be rested for a few days in nearby camps. 

She said her uncle was "profoundly affected" by the horrors that he had witnessed.

"They used to call it shell-shock then."

 “When soldiers came back, they (the government) did not pay pensions for shell-shock at all.”

Her uncle died quite young, aged 54.

“There were seven in the family and they all lived to 80 and it must have been because of the war. He was the only one who went (to war) in his family.” 

She said one of the diary's most emotional passages was about camaraderie between soldiers.

"It was the greatest thing in their lives, they depended on each other," Mrs Scott said.

"It was very important and he missed that when he came back to live in the competitive, business world.

"It’s very moving, that part."

As a high school teacher, Mrs Scott used the diary as a teaching tool for senior students.

"I just read little excerpts out of it and they were always quite interested."

To see the original diary or purchase a copy, all are invited to the launch at 3pm on Sunday at Castlemaine Uniting Church. 

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