WW1 diaries and letters online publication

Lieutenant Arthur Nickson Callaghan (1893-1917). (Private collection)
Lieutenant Arthur Nickson Callaghan (1893-1917). (Private collection).

In 2014 President Micheal D Higgins suggested that the Irish commemoration of the First World War should include ‘the forgotten voices and the lost stories of the past’. He was alluding to the fact that the voices of the Irish soldiers in the British army have been subdued in Irish history. Some of their stories may be found among Trinity College Library’s collection of wartime diaries and letters and a major project has just been launched to make this fascinating and moving material freely available online.

‘Fit as fiddles and as hard as nails’  is the name given to the online project, which draws on the special collections in the Library of Trinity College, and which takes its inspiration from a growing interest in the history of Irish service in the British army during the Great War.

At the beginning of the centenary commemorations for the War, at the Theatre of Memory Symposium at the Abbey Theatre in 2014, President Higgins spoke of the commemorative activities in terms of myth-making and ethical remembering. He remarked that ‘for years the First World War has stood as a blank space in memory for many Irish people – an unspoken gap in the official narratives of this state’. He suggested that ‘literary memoirs written during or after the War can be enabling sources for ethical remembering’ and advocated using the commemorative period to create  ‘opportunities to recollect the excluded, to include in our narratives the forgotten voices and the lost stories of the past’. In the aftermath of the death in the last few years of all the veterans of the War, to find these stories and these voices we must go back to the archives and seek out the diaries, memoirs letters and photographs of those who served. The Library in Trinity has a fascinating collection, gifted and bequeathed over the decades, which for the first time is now available online.

The Library’s new online project allows free access not only to digitised images of over 1500 pages of WW1 letters and diaries from the Library’s special collections, but  transcriptions of the texts are also provided. There are nine war-time authors involved –  almost all officers –  and altogether they produced three sets of letters, four diaries (including a very brief home-front diary by the single female author among them) and three memoirs (two of which are prisoner-of-war accounts). The authors served on both Western and Eastern fronts, and ranged in age from twenty years of age to thirty-three. Two of them won Military Crosses, and one of them received the DSO having been mentioned in despatches seven times. This was Charles Howard-Bury – the oldest of our authors; he was born in Charleville Castle, Co. Offaly in 1881 and was a career military man who went with the British army to India in 1904. He was present at the Battle of the Somme and was eventually taken prisoner in 1918.

Major Richard Hingston's scientific notes from the eastern Front. (MS 10515 p. 96).
Major Richard Hingston’s scientific notes from the eastern Front. (MS 10515 p. 96).

The variety of experience in the War can be seen in two different kinds of record kept by Howard-Bury. In his diary he speaks of digging a trench through an orchard: ‘The stench was too awful; we kept digging up corpses. They were lying every where, ours and Boche dead; heads, arms, limbs, in the most advanced state of decay, crawling with maggots, were to be seen and smelt on all sides’. Life as a prisoner of war, on the other hand, was of a different kind. It involved much boredom as well as a temporarily successful escape attempt. Food was a key problem. Howard-Bury writes: ‘In the bread, besides rye and potatoes, there was sawdust and straw, a combination which was apt to cause troubles of the stomach’. Both he and another diarist, Richard Hingston from Cork, were Everest explorers after the War.

Captain Cyril Beresford Mundey's 'quarters' during the Mesopotamian campaign.
Captain Cyril Beresford Mundey’s ‘quarters’ during the Mesopotamian campaign.

One of the authors, an Englishman William Raws, is included in the project because the temporary hospital in which he recuperated having had his leg amputated, was in Mountjoy Square in Dublin and was run by Mary Stuart an early female graduate of TCD. The youngest author represented in the project was Charles Wynne, the son of the Wicklow family which founded the Avoca Handweavers. Charles wrote very jaunty letters to his mother and sisters from France. Clearly everyone in his family wanted to read all the letters he sent so that recipients copied out his letters, which were then passed around the family. Sometimes it is only these copies which have survived, and which have been included in this project. Charles Wynne died of wounds in 1917.

Some, but not all, of the writers were Trinity students or graduates. This includes Pat Hone (father of the author Leland Bardwell) and Henry Crookshank, father of Anne Crookshank who founded the Department of the History of Art in College.

Captain Beresford Mundey's sketch of his prison room. (from MS 3420).
Captain Beresford Mundey’s sketch of his prison room. (from MS 3420).

One diary has been included even though the original remains in the possession of the family. As this project neared completion the Library was approached by the family of Arthur Callaghan (1893-1917) who offered a transcription of their grand-uncles’ record. Since he and his two brothers, two of whom died in the war, were Trinity students it was with pleasure that this offer was accepted.

This project was the work of the Manuscripts & Archives Research Library, the Digital Resources and Imaging Service, and the Web Services Librarian. The support of the authors’ families is acknowledged as is financial support from the Trinity Association and Trust. Jane Burns Ltd provided consulting services at the outset.

Jane Maxwell