A WORLD WAR I DIARY
Two years ago, eVERITAS carried the story of my father, 1278 Kelso Roberts, as a prisoner of the Germans during the last eight months of World War I, based partly on a diary that he wrote while being imprisoned in the town of Lahr, Germany. The ‘diary’ was, in fact, made up of three small notebooks, the largest of which was 3.5 x 6 inches in size with all three together measuring 5/8ths of an inch thick. The small pages of the notebooks are crammed with very small writing with no lines or words erased or crossed out for correction.
The text must have been composed under difficult circumstances out of sight of the prison guards and then hidden to escape detection during daily roll calls and inspections. The last entry in the diary was on Sunday, 01 December 1918, the day he and his fellow prisoners were released and put on a train to Switzerland: “Have just with Biscoe’s help poked out this little book from its hiding place under the window sill in Tunnel 22” reads a large scribble on the last page of Volume I.
My father was quite reluctant to speak of his incarceration. This was undoubtedly due to not wanting to relive a kaleidoscope of bad memories such as: near death on the battlefield (“blown into a communication trench” during a barrage the day he was captured); being gassed several times (“I took my mask off for a second and got a bad quantity of gas which nearly choked me for a few minutes”); severe malnourishment (“a terrible and cruel hunger always present”); and the agony and frustration of escaping and being recaptured twice (“I feel much better having made at least an attempt to get back to my own country” with regard to the second escape two months before the end of the war).
It was only over 20 years later when I, as a teenager, began to pester him with questions that my father recuperated the three notebooks long stored in the attic of our home. He took them to his office where he and his long-serving secretary, who knew his handwriting well, ‘deciphered’ the almost illegible text and typed it up in readable form.
As stated above, the diary was written in Lahr. This, however, doesn’t convey the drama behind its production because it was the third attempt. The first one was easy in that it was written at leisure starting from his arrival in England in September 1917 (along with 33 of his RMC classmates), to 21 March 1918, the day he was captured during a last, desperate counterattack by the Germans. On that fateful day, however, “Owing to the fortunes of war, my diary, along with all the rest of my kit and personal belongings, was lost when I was taken prisoner.”
Then began a dreadful journey, first on foot for 45 kilometers (“rain – too tired to sleep in open – cold – feet swollen – delousing”) and then by train jammed into a cattle truck (“34 prisoners per truck – cold – no straw – very uncomfortable – one slit for air”). Eventually, after a second day in the cattle truck (“I dreaded another night in the train”), he and his fellow prisoners were dumped into an horrific “internment camp near Rastatt” in Germany, supposedly for a short time, but which actually lasted several weeks. Despite his first week at Rastatt being “one of bleak despair”, he began a second diary.
Unfortunately, this “was taken away from me by the authorities upon leaving Rastatt” when he was sent to Lahr, where he remained (except for the few days he escaped) until the end of the war. There he started a third version and, as he was able to successfully hide the notebooks, it survived, much of it rewritten from memory.
This remarkable diary, records the innermost thoughts and feelings of a 19-year old who had to grow up in a hurry. He had an unshakeable faith in his God (during the barrage on the day he was taken prisoner he “had no feeling of fear and felt the presence of my maker as I have never done before”) and a proactive nature best summed up by, “If you don’t succeed the first time, why try, try again.” Significantly, he also had an ingrained sense of knowing what was right in his leadership role as one of the few officers in the prison.
My mother, my siblings and I are, of course, most grateful that my father also survived that war during which so many were uselessly massacred. Diaries such as this one are a poignant reminder: ‘Lest we forget’.