Alfred Mills 

10th Battalion Royal Fusiliers
(City of London Regiment) the 'Stockbrokers'
 and The Royal Engineers

Great War Diary 1914-1918


 

Summary and Comment


At the outbreak of the War, Alfred was just out of boyhood and had settled into a secure job which he enjoyed. He had an honest skill at drawing and his talent was put to good use creating drawings and blueprints for jetties and railroads for a young dynamic company.

His early schooling and subsequent night schooling were only remarkable by his meeting and falling in love with a girl he would subsequently marry, Winifred. But, not before falling for her younger sister, Dorothy first.

Alfred's brothers, William and John, are absent from any diary entry and are not referred to at all. At the time of writing nothing is known of them and the author never heard Alfred discuss them in conversations he had with him when he was alive.

His sister, Amy Emily, or Emily as she was known, did fall in love with and get engaged to a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps, who was killed. Nothing is known of his full name or the circumstances of his death. Emily never recovered from his death and remained a spinster all her life, dying in 1954, aged 62. She retained a photograph of her beloved on her bedside table to the end.

Alfred doted on Emily and they were very close from toddlers to her demise.

The family was close knit with Alfred's mother, Mary, taking the role of matriarch seriously. She rightly surmised that even though Alfred was away from home, he had to be regarded as a family member as if he was still living at home. Consequently, letters from her to Alfred were frequent and usually daily, often containing only 'gossip and tittle-tattle'. This gave Alfred great comfort and a sense of belonging whilst enduring the hardships of trench life and undoubtedly kept Alfred focussed. He was never more than 160 miles from home (as the crow flies) apart from a brief sojourn in Normandy. This is closer than Liverpool is to London.

Alfred was bright and realised early on that life as an ordinary soldier had its advantages. Not that he was shy of hard work or facing the enemy. He practised a methodical view and accepted that he was fighting for 'King and Country' and doing his bit by being part of it.

The 'Stockbrokers' were, in some respects, quite fortunate not to be in the Front line at Loos, but were held in Reserve. Later actions saw them at the Somme, Messines and the 3rd Ypres, but did not incur such heavy casualties as their fellow New Army battalions. Despite this, they did see some fierce fighting and held important sectors. Very little has been written about its history and even less on areas such as Foncquevillers (pre Somme).

Alfred's sometimes dry and very often brief diary entries convey the impression that certain small events in the daily life of a common soldier gained importance, such as the post, which was remarkably efficient, and sometimes was even a next day delivery. But, this wasn't viewed with too much amazement where same day letter delivery occurred certainly in London within the same postal districts. Parcels of food and clothing were frequent and Alfred shared what he could amongst his comrades.

Duties fluctuated between routine fatigues, such as, carrying and digging to Front line action where even he grows immune to the initial horror and excitement and becomes very matter of fact in his description. Today, it could be called blase. It isn't. Then, there was no comparison, no previous experience; it was a job much of which was learned at the time.It is noticeable that his diary entries also fluctuated in tone and content, from sometimes conversational to the briefest of entries as if the very act of writing had become as wearisome as the never ending routine.

It is significant that Alfred does not transcribe the horrors he witnessed. The body parts, rotting flesh, soldiers screaming in agony, the constant lice infestation, bodies used as parapets and horrific wounds. He didn't need to be reminded what was already transfixed in his mind and in his words "Didn't want to be reminded of things he was striving to forget". Yet, Alfred did jot down his musings, poems, and short stories compiled during his time in the trenches. This distraction enabled Alfred to transport himself away from the horror and conditions of the trenches when under fire. One such poem is reproduced on the page 'The Voice'. 

Many of his peers and contemporaries wrote up their diaries and memoirs after the war had ended, and very often these do contain in graphic detail the horrors of the trenches. But, Alfred was of the time and actually thought it rather crass and somewhat sick to record such detail in a diary.

Later, he did write it down and recanted the below to the author. This relates to the time when he finally left the trenches.

"I suppose the Battle of the 3rd Ypres area was the worst place for weather and ground conditions that we had experienced. When I came out of the trenches and moved to the Royal Engineers, I had no regrets. Very few of the old 10th were left and having been a member of the Front line infantry since we went into the trenches in 1915 at Armentiers, I thought I could call it a day. The fact that I came out alive was I suppose Lady Luck.

I can recall so many cases where shells landed so near, yet the other fellows were killed. At Arras, when I was rejoining the battalion after the Lewis Gun course at Noyalle Vion in April, I had a number of new draft fellows straight out of England with me to hand over to the battalion. Jerry was shelling and some of those lads were killed in the communication trench. They never reached the Front line, yet I always did.

On another occasion in the Ypres area, we were on carrying party and going down a road to a dump, in front was a limber upon which a shell landed. The two mules, the outrider, and the two lads who were walking at the back of the limber, were all killed and as we passed them, the intestines of one of the lads was coming out. The description may sound callous, but we were like that. Death occurred every hour in the line and when you have slept resting on dead bodies, you lose the finer feelings.

I remember, four of us had to go up to the Front line to bring down the body of an MO, who had been killed during the day. It was on the Ypres-Passchendale front and Jerry was being very nasty with his shelling. The doctor was a big 6ft fellow. We got him on a stretcher and there was one of us to each corner on our shoulders. If we fell down once, we must have gone down fifty times. The ground was all pitted and shell-holed, and wire everywhere, and it was dark. So, if one of us stumbled, all of us ended in a heap on the ground. Every shell that burst too near also sent us flying. The times we slapped that poor old body on the stretcher and wondered how two or three of us would manage if someone got hit. On these occasions, I used to say a little prayer, Please God, I'm too young to die."

Shell-shock was an unknown phenomenon at the time, although the MOs certainly understood concussion and traumatic shock. It was only later in the war that the trauma of noise and blasts was appreciated and the effects they had on the mind. Certainly, Alfred suffered from shell-shock as well as being wounded more than once, but he still went back into the line. He also suffered permanent deafness in one ear and for a short period, total deafness. He suffered dysentery several times, and on one occasion, hospitalised for an unspecified illness.

There were times when he agonised over the fact that on the occasions when he was incapacitated or re-assigned , his comrades were fighting on without him and possibly appears somewhat disappointed that he missed some of the bloodiest action. He certainly felt guilt and this spurred him on even more to make up for it when he returned to his comrades. Alfred acknowledges that a certain amount of luck played its part in his war, and it is interesting that he also did various and somewhat disparate jobs. Moving from a front line regiment to the Royal Engineers proved a blessing in disguise but he was not entirely out of danger even then.

to be continued...

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The story of the 10th Royal Fusiliers is now told in a book (as below). Written by David Carter is uses the War Diary of the battalion and several war diaries and letters, including this diary to provide a definitive account of what was the first of the Pals battalions.