Herald on Sunday
SECRET WAR DIARIES REVEAL ALL
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.