SE­CRET WAR DIARIES RE­VEAL ALL

Herald on Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - Kurt Bayer re­ports.

Alick Traf­ford wanted his wartime diaries, writ­ten in the trenches of the Western Front, burned. But more than a cen­tury later, his fam­ily de­cided the re­mark­able first-per­son ac­count of the hor­rors of the in­dus­trial, mech­a­nised slaughter of World War I, in­clud­ing the Somme, Messines, ‘Pass­chen­daele, damned Pass­chen­daele’ and the lib­er­a­tion of Le Ques­noy were too im­por­tant to be de­stroyed and lost to his­tory.

As a boy, Ian Traf­ford won­dered why his Papa al­ways cried on April 25. His grand­fa­ther, Alick Traf­ford was a nice old fella, quiet, se­ri­ous, of­ten spied writ­ing in his of­fice, but some­one who never gave much away. Stoic. Con­ser­va­tive. A man of his times.

But ev­ery An­zac Day, in the small com­mu­nity near their Te Karaka farm, west of Gis­borne, the fam­ily would muster to town. And it was there that old Papa would shed a tear, which had young Ian won­der­ing what lay be­hind that other­wise stiff up­per lip.

The an­swer came one day, wrapped in an oil cloth. Ian’s fa­ther, Har­vey, ar­rived home cradling a pack­age. Papa’s war diaries.

Alick had told his son to re­trieve them from their hid­ing place and burn them.

Har­vey ig­nored his fa­ther’s wishes. The diaries were tucked away and Ian and his brothers — who en­joyed the Com­mando se­ries of comics — snuck glances at them when­ever they could.

“It re­ally tweaked our in­ter­est and def­i­nitely be­came part of the fam­ily psy­che,” says Ian, who has wo­ven the diaries into a grip­ping book, Into the Un­known, pub­lished this month.

The story opens with Alick leav­ing the fam­ily farm in 1916 to join lit­tle brother Ray in the war rag­ing on the other side of the world.

Af­ter the months’ long sea voy­age, and ne­go­ti­at­ing the ex­otic sights of Egypt, Traf­ford is quickly given a bap­tism of fire on the Western Front in France.

In his di­ary for April 25, 1916, He writes: “An air­ship qui­etly sails across early in the morn­ing and shakes us up with a taste of bombs. The neigh­bour’s roof is blown off.”

A few days later, in the town of Ar­men­tieres, he meets an old mate from home, Fred Keats. They’re walk­ing along the street when shell­fire starts rain­ing down. “A shell ex­plodes not fifty yards away,” he writes. “A woman and her lit­tle girl are bowled on to the street in front of us . . . I am well and truly amongst this war, and I know it will get worse.” He’s soon in the thick of it. On May 22, 1916, tasked with de­liv­er­ing food and am­mu­ni­tion to the trenches, he comes un­der heavy ma­chine­gun fire.

“Heads down, we bolt at pace along the sap with the ping-ping and spray of bul­lets on the para­pets and all about our heads. We no longer feel our heavy loads. A kind of great ex­cite­ment comes over me, but also a mar­vel­lous calm. For the most lively mo­ments, fear is com­pletely gone. A lot of the fel­lows think of it as a great sport.” But when day breaks, the grim re­al­i­ties of the fight­ing emerges. The trenches are dirty and muddy, sand­bags torn apart, and a “mass of flies swarm on scat­tered stains of blood and spots of minced-up meat stuck to bags”.

Af­ter work­ing in “inky, eerie” No Man’s Land rolling out coils of barbed wire, of­ten un­der heavy shelling and gun­fire, Traf­ford’s luck runs out on July 10, 1916. A ri­fle grenade flies over from the Ger­mans, blow­ing him off his feet, turn­ing his world silent. “I am in a haze and there is a burn­ing in my shoul­der. I run my hands over my­self and seem to be in­tact, with all my parts at­tached. In­side my shirt, I feel warm blood run­ning down my

In­side my shirt, I feel warm blood run­ning down my skin, and my tongue has gone dry. Alick Traf­ford

skin, and my tongue has gone dry.”

He’s shipped to Eng­land to re­cu­per­ate be­fore be­ing sent back to the Western Front — this time to the killing fields of Flan­ders.

A giant ar­tillery bat­tles rage on and in June 1917 he wit­nesses the spec­tac­u­lar Kiwi suc­cess at Messines, where un­der­ground min­ers had se­cretly bur­rowed for weeks deep be­neath Ger­man lines be­fore un­leash­ing 600 tonnes of ex­plo­sives.

“Early in the morn­ing, a mas­sive tremor wakes us,” he writes. “A tremen­dous rum­bling of ex­plo­sions goes up, like all hell has bro­ken loose. One can hardly hear his own voice. I have never heard any­thing like it be­fore in this war. We set to won­der­ing what new weapon has been un­leashed.”

The de­tails of Traf­ford’s ac­count graph­i­cally brings to life the mis­ery and ec­cen­tric­i­ties of a soldier’s life in the Great War. He de­tails fat rats feast­ing on corpses, the rain, mud, and cold, fall­ing asleep with tots of rum un­der heavy bar­rages, spon­ta­neous games of cricket, and binges of cham­pagne and rev­elry with French women be­hind the lines.

On July 20, 1917 he’s think­ing about his brother Ray and tried to meet up with him but was told he’d “missed him by min­utes”.

The next day, a mes­sage is de­liv­ered to say 23-year-old Ray was killed the pre­vi­ous night at the Cat­a­combs in Ploeg­steert. He finds Ray’s mates, who con­firm the per­cus­sion of a shell killed him while sit­ting at his dugout en­trance.

“I break down and have a good howl for my dear brother … The peo­ple at home will suf­fer. I don’t know how my fam­ily will ever take this news. My boy’s place can never be filled. He was too good for this world.”

And he’s right. His fam­ily is dev­as­tated. He later gets a let­ter from his “heart­bro­ken” sis­ter Eva.

“On the day Ray was killed, Mama sat down to break­fast in her kitchen, with grave con­cern. In the night, her boy ap­peared to her in a dream look­ing so ill and tired she beck­oned him to lie down on the couch. A few days later, the dreaded tele­gram ar­rived. My poor mother.”

In ex­am­in­ing his grand­fa­ther’s diaries, and re­search­ing other sol­dierly ac­counts, Ian Traf­ford was sur­prised by the de­tail and depth of feel­ings his grand­fa­ther cap­tured.

Grow­ing up, the fam­ily farm was called “Rays­burn” and to Ian, Ray ap­peared as a “myth­i­cal fig­ure who never re­ally ex­isted”.

“But read­ing through the diaries and see­ing how much [his death] af­fected the fam­ily, it sud­denly changed it from just be­ing a story to some­thing that was re­ally real, very emo­tional.”

The ca­su­al­ties pile up. Friends per­ish. Traf­ford sur­vives charges “over the top” at Pass­chen­daele in Oc­to­ber 1917, slith­er­ing on his belly as ma­chine­gun bul­lets fly about him. An ex­plod­ing shell nearly buries him alive and when he scrapes and digs him­self out.

His wounded shoul­der be­comes badly in­fected and he’s evac­u­ated again to re­cover in Eng­land, where he at­tends dances, cy­cling, trips to Scot­land, and en­joys the com­pany of fe­male friends, be­fore be­ing sent back again and takes part in the leg­endary New Zealand lib­er­a­tion of the town of Le Ques­noy.

Af­ter “glo­ri­ous peace”, he ends up en­ter­ing the Rhineland be­fore even­tu­ally mak­ing his way home and try­ing to re­join civil­ian so­ci­ety.

Ian Traf­ford has spent his life think­ing about his grand­fa­ther’s war. And he al­ways felt he would one day tell his story.

But soon af­ter start­ing the project, and con­tact­ing wider wha¯nau over miss­ing pieces of in­for­ma­tion, con­cerns arose about ex­pos­ing Papa’s per­sonal life; mainly his many wartime girl­friends.

There was con­cern over how it would af­fect his only sur­viv­ing daugh­ter, 91-year-old Minty Hen­der­son.

“I went to see her a few times and the last time she said, ‘Go and write the story’. She wanted it writ­ten,” Ian says.

“It re­ally got me think­ing about what I needed to cen­sor but in the end, man, I had to tell the whole story. It was ei­ther the whole story or noth­ing.”

Traf­ford’s bru­tal hon­esty about the war would have caused con­ster­na­tion with su­pe­rior of­fi­cers.

But he man­aged to keep it se­cret and smug­gle it back home. Ian be­lieves many ed­u­cated men felt a need to record first­hand what they were see­ing.

“He wasn’t in­ter­ested in cov­er­ing any­thing up,” Ian says.

Into the Un­known names many of Traf­ford’s friends and fel­low sol­diers and Ian be­lieves the book will strike a chord for many de­scen­dants of Kiwi veter­ans.

“One of my real wishes is that I can make some con­nec­tions with those fam­i­lies who have won­dered about their an­ces­tors, es­pe­cially when my grand­fa­ther ex­plains ex­actly how they died and where they buried them. There’s some very per­sonal stuff in there. I’m go­ing to be re­spon­si­ble for a very large amount of tis­sues be­ing sold.”

●Into the Un­known — The se­cret WWI di­ary of Kiwi Alick Traf­ford is pub­lished by Pen­guin NZ.

Pho­tos / Sup­plied

Clock­wise, from left, Alick Traf­ford, bush­man, on the fam­ily farm in the 1920s; the diaries he wanted burned; his pic­ture of the “sunken road” at Creue­coeur in France; on leave with a friend in Eng­land.

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