A chronicle of war
A BAYONET charge at a German trench and a life-saving water bottle are among the stories in First World War diaries kept by the Wiltshire Regiment.
The documents are to become part of a vast online database being compiled by the National Archives to mark 100 years since the start of hostilities.
The 2nd Btn caught the full brunt of the German onslaught after arriving at Ypres on October 14, 1914. In one battle alone troop strength was reduced from 1,100 men to just two officers and 54 other ranks who escaped being killed, captured or wounded.
But the Battalion distinguished itself as a stubborn unit prepared to fight to the last man.
In a daring attack on a German stronghold called Maltz Horn Farm in Trônes Wood, during the Battle of the Somme, the 2nd Btn took and held objectives, despite 240 casualties.
The unit received 23 decorations for gallantry. The logs, often hastily written in pencil, also describe how the 2nd Btn was surrounded during the German Kaiserschlacht offensive on March 21, 1918.
The Wiltshires lost 22 officers and 600 other ranks.
Another entry gives a bizarre demonstration of the thin line between life and death when a shell hit a British trench in the Rue De L’Epinette trenches on May 18, 1915.
It reads: “During the bombardment the old German trench near M3 was practically destroyed. But headquarters remained there till a shell burst though the parade and the fuse struck the CO’s water bottle, probably saving the life of the Adjutant Capt Ponsford who was immediately behind it.”
The diaries of the 1st Btn also detail acts of incredible bravery, including a bayonet charge to retake Royal Irish Regiment trenches captured by the Germans near the village of Neuve Chappelle in north west France.
Capt PS Rowan, who was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and mentioned in despatches three times, led his men forward on October 26, 1914.
The entry reads: “Capt Rowan led forward this party with gallantry, and, attacking the Germans with the bayonet, drove them back from RIR trenches, C Coy now occupied those trenches until the RIR came up. Rifles now put into these trenches and pushed up towards the left.”
The Wiltshire Regiment battalions were heavily drawn from men in Swindon, and several soldiers are buried at Radnor Street Cemetery in Old Town, which contains 104 Commonwealth War Graves.
Military historian and local author Mark Sutton said: “A lot of research is taking place with the centenary and the war diaries allow us to follow the Wiltshire Regiment through the war, which has included people going to France and retracing their footsteps.
“The Regiment served with distinction and at one point prevented Ypres from falling. Much of what they did went unrecognised so the dairies are a brilliant way of finding out about what they did during the war.”
The 1st Btn records are part of an online project by the National Archives to ‘tag’ 1.5million pages of war diaries, drawing out information such as names, places and dates.
Once the process is complete the information will be collated and published by the Archives. The 2nd Btn diaries will also be placed on the Operation War Diary website – where members of the public can add the notes – before the end of the year.
For more information visit www.operationwardiary.org Meanwhile, the Swindon in the Great War project will mark the town’s war effort with a series of events 100 years on from the start of hostilities. For more information visit: swindoninthegreatwar.wordpress.com/ or follow @swindongreatwar on Twitter.