Diary of a teenage Tommy: an untold story from the Battle of the Somme

One hundred years after the First World War's bloodiest offensive, Private John Cartmell's diary recounts his five months on the Somme

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Private John Cartmell, a 19-year-old from Preston in Lancashire, enlisted with the Seaforth Highlanders in May 1915 and trained as a Lewis machine gunner. His diary, never before published and extracted here, is a treasured memento held by my wife’s family. Their grandfather’s story reminds us all of the suffering of this generation of men. This account of five months on the Somme is why we should remember them.

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THE EVE OF BATTLE

We continued our march to a place called Gapennes. Here we went into training in earnest. Our training ground covered about 30 square miles and, as we afterwards found out, was almost an exact replica of the position we were to attack. It was fearfully hard work doing an attack twice a day with a Lewis gun and 64 full magazines to carry.

When we left we marched on for several 
days to Bus-lès-Artois. The battalion was camped in a wood and the whole place was four or five inches deep in mud. We had to go to the support line every night and dig trenches six feet deep for telephone cables leading back to the batteries. It was now well known that we were to attack Beaumont-Hamel.

OVER THE TOP

We had the largest concentration of artillery
 of all calibres up to that date and it was at our backs. We felt confident of success! The artillery had been bombarding for over a week, and an hour before daylight all of the guns were to open fire and keep up an intense bombardment of the enemy’s front and support trenches until the infantry were to go over the top. The noise was terrific, and a man in No 6 platoon lost his senses and had to be taken away. Then the large mine at Beaumont-Hamel under the German third-line trench exploded with a terrifying noise and our trench rocked and swayed like a ship in a storm.

Promptly, we mounted the ladders and climbed into the open land. We had about 50 yards to go to the crest of a ridge before we could see the German front line. As soon as our heads appeared over this ridge we were greeted by a perfect inferno of machine- gun fire from the flanks. We had fully expected that the enemy front line and support trenches would only be garrisoned by dead men after the terrific bombardment, but we were met by
 a heavy fusillade of rifle fire and bombs.

This was not on account of our artillery 
not having done their work thoroughly, as there was abundant evidence everywhere of the destructiveness of their fire, but because of the fact that the Germans had taken refuge in the deep dugouts and only manned their parapets when the attack actually opened up. They now put down a fearfully destructive barrage of high-explosive shells. One of the dreaded 
5.9 inch shells dropped about ten yards in front of my team, and when the smoke cleared I found I was the only one left alive.

I picked up the Lewis gun and, carrying on with the rest of the fast-diminishing company, the 10th Brigade advanced in splendid order, but the flanks of the battalions got mixed up owing to the rate at which casualties were taking place. By the time we had crossed our own front-line trench and were advancing across no-man’s land, there was not a single Seaforth Highlander for 30 yards to my left.

Eventually we crossed the enemy front line, but German reinforcements who came up from the tunnels forced us back. By nightfall, the remnants of the battalion were only holding 
on to about 100 yards of the German front line. We received a message from the brigadier to withdraw at dark back to our own front line.

ANOTHER SHAMBLES

We detrained at Morlancourt and marched on to Méaulte. Here we rested for a few days and then another march to the misnamed “Happy Valley”. Another two days rest and off again through Montauban to Trones Wood, which rivalled Delville Wood as a shambles. I well remember searching for a decent dugout with two or three more chaps. When at last we found one that was not entirely wrecked, we started to remove some of the rubbish in it to make it fit to lie in. I came across an old pair of German jackboots and, on picking them up to examine them, found to my disgust that they still contained the legs up to the knees. We left this place the next day but not without some casualties. Unknowingly, our cooks had built a fire over a dud shell buried beneath ground. The heat caused it to explode, with disastrous consequences. About six men were killed and three times as many badly wounded.

BURIED ALIVE

All night we were subjected to very heavy gunfire with high-explosive shells, and did
 not get a wink of sleep. Towards morning the shelling abated a little and, after the worst
 had passed, the order to “stand down” came through. I lay down in the bottom of the trench to get a little sleep. I must have only been asleep for an hour or so when I awoke at the sound of a shell burst unusually near. I could not move and, by the tremendous weight on top of me, I knew that I was buried. The rest of the team had been blown off their feet by the explosion. Private Etherson, who had seen me lie down, shouted out that I was buried. He immediately got out his trenching tool and set to work to exhume me. I was quite conscious when he eventually got me free. Beyond feeling a bit bruised and sore, I was none the worse.

FROSTBITE AND TRENCH FOOT

My team went to a shell hole near Sailly-Saillisel. By the morning we had made a pit about five feet deep and big enough to hold the whole team. Here we stayed for four days under the most awful of conditions. We could not move through the day as Fritz was only 50 yards away, and as the cold was intense we were nearly frozen to death.

At night, if anyone got into the open he was nearly sure to be hit as the Bosch kept up a very heavy fire with his light field guns. On our right was the Household Battalion, who were doing the first turn in the line, and at the end of the third day they had 800 casualties, mostly men with frostbitten feet. About 30 per cent of our men were being carried back with frostbite.

Nearly all the men who were frostbitten had lost their boots in the mud, and after their 
first night their feet had swollen to about twice the normal size. A great many of them burst and quite a lot of chaps died as soon as they got into hospital. At the end of the fourth day we went into reserve. The reserve position
 was waist-deep in icy slush. By digging a step halfway up the side of the parapet we were able to keep most of our bodies out of the water.

I will never forget the night we were relieved from that position. Only half the battalion was left and our feet were in such a state with the water and frost that it was nearly impossible to walk. We were told to make the best of our way to Combles. I lost my boots in the mud trying to get to the road and had to crawl about a kilometre and a half to Combles. There were many others in the same plight. I met some of them in England six months later and found that a great many had had their feet amputated.

John Cartmell went on to fight in the Battle of Arras in 1917, where he was wounded. He survived the war and returned to civilian life in his native Lancashire , where he became a railway clerk and raised a family of six children. He died in 1967, aged 71. 

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Centenary of the Battle of the Somme is Thursday on BBC2.