In July 1917, Frank Whitehead, a married, tuba playing, Salvationist was conscripted as a Private into the Manchester Regiment of the British Army. He was 29 years old. This is his story.
After training at various camps around Filey on the east coast of England, where he turned out to be a first class shot and was sent for extra training on the Lewis gun, his Battalion was sent to Salonica. On Saturday, December 8th 1917, while in Marseilles waiting to be shipped out, he started a diary. He wrote in a Collins Ruby Diary for 1918, number 263. It is bound in red leather, roughly four inches high by three inches wide and each page covers two days. He wrote in it every day for the rest of the war.
When his daughter Brenda Travis (Joe’s Grandma and my Mum) died in April 2017, we found the diary amongst her papers.
Joe and I have transcribed the diary and, both keen on history, have researched around it. Some of the references Frank makes are fleeting but the incidents they point to are significant. Sometimes the opposite happens, for example, he fastidiously describes much of the food he ate. His daughter, who read it years ago, said that he always seemed to be hungry.
This blog will contain each of his diary entries and the additional information we uncovered. On Friday, December 8th 2017 his first entry will have been written exactly one hundred years ago. As such it will provide insight to an ordinary life a century ago and a window onto world events – not in the broad strokes of history but in the minutiae of its daily grind and sometimes trivial detail.
You will see this Lancashire man evolve and change. Before entering the war, Frank’s experiences would have been contained within a few miles of his birthplace and lived in peace. His family and friends, their beliefs and outlook would have been similar to his. Life would have been focused upon home, work and the local branch of the Salvation Army and its Brass Band in which he played. The war introduced Frank, as it did for many others, to new experiences (both good and bad), cultures, lands, technologies (like aircraft and submarines) and people of all walks of life and nationalities. From a station in life where he would have been used to taking orders, he becomes more cynical and questioning of both authority and the war itself.
We don’t think Frank expected to make it home. This is manifest in his diary, which is factual yet circumspect. For example he records every letter he receives from and sends home but never mentions that he misses loved ones or even call his wife by name. On both the front and back pages he asks that if the diary is found it is sent to his wife. Most poignantly, he writes, ‘If lost, this diary would be of no use to the finder but would be precious to my wife’.
We hope you enjoy this insight to an ordinary life, lived in extraordinary times, a hundred years ago.
Caroline & Joe