Young John French was just 23 when he left the tin mines of Cornwall for an even deadlier job… digging tunnels deep under German positions on the Western Front.
And his immaculate pencilled log, charting the horrors of life in the trenches, has just come to light after 90 years.
The terrible underground battles between miners toiling to bury explosives beneath each others’ trenches is one of the lesserknown aspects of the First World War.
But the three volumes of Sapper French’s diaries – which came to light only after the recent death of his sister Emily at 99 – also tell of the fearsome surface war. Of mud and lice and bullets which screamed “like ten thousand devils on the loose”.
But there were also lighter moments, with the smell of bacon frying and the banter with enemy troops just yards away.
Here’s what Sapper John French wrote:
Jan 1 Arrived Rouen. Had several miles to march with full kit. Feeling pretty rough – effects of sea-sickness – had a bad dose.
Jan 18 Had to dip water out of pond to wash, water nice and green. Ducked when I heard first shot. Germans 75 yards away.
Jan 27 Our fellows pushed bundles of straw over parapet. Germans thought we were going to attack so they stood to their parapet. Our guns then opened rapid fire on them. Must have inflicted heavy losses.
Jan 29 Lovely morning but cold and frosty. One would not think there was a war on. From one dug-out comes the smell of bacon frying, in another someone is playing a tin whistle and a little further on there are some pipers playing.
Jan 30 Got paid yesterday: Ten francs for two weeks. Will have to go careful to make it last. Good dinner of beef steak and chips.
Feb 14 My birthday today, 24, coming on bit. Last year I was a good many thousands of miles away. Wonder where I will be this time next year?
Feb 23 Heavy snow and very hard frost. My leather coat was frozen as stiff as a board while I was wearing it. Everywhere you see fire buckets with a ring of soldiers in skin coats sitting round. Every spare bit of wood picked up for firewood.
Feb 27 Can hear church bells ringing on on one side and guns on the other. Graves everywhere behind trenches and in fields with farmers ploughing round them.
Feb 28 This war game is rather exciting. You never know what’s coming next.
Mar 5 Could hear Germans working in their sap (underground gallery). They appear to be below us which is unusual. We are starting a rabbit hole right away to try to get below them. Instructions to be very careful, pad feet, speak in whispers and not to drop anything heavy.
Mar 15 On one part of our mine there is a pretty smart German sniper and he has killed a number of our men.
Mar 19 Hot sniper got another victim. Kept hitting sand bags in one place trying to work through.
Mar 21 Sniper got two victims again today, two brothers they say.
Mar 29 I think crack sniper must be killed for there has been no sniping for days.
Apl 16 One of our chaps killed by sniper. Forgot himself and put head above parapet. Got bullet clean through his head. Worked in darkness all night but had good sing song. Everyone seems in good spirits.
Apl 23 Soaking wet working in sap. Germans blew another mine this morning.
Apl 24 In wet sap again working past the knees in water and water coming down your back like a shower bath. After about three hours air so bad that we had to come out – candles would not burn.
Apl 27 Germans sent over gas shells which burst 200 yards away. Sent out thick yellow smoke which rolled along like a fog bank, the wind driving it away. Went to doctor to see about a cut on the ankle. He said it was septic and sent me to hospital.
Apl 28 In hospital. Plenty of company, wounded coming in all the time.
May 22 One of the worst nights I’ve experienced. Regular nightmare.
May 23 Scores of men lying dead. You can see arms and legs sticking up everywhere. These grenades are murderous things.
June 1 Found a lot of water-cress growing in a stream – had some for tea. It went all right with the bread and cheese.
June 21 Had mouse in a cage with us in gallery so we would be warned if gas got very bad. We got enough gas to make us sick but mouse was still alive and kicking.
June 22 They got in our trenches but very few got back again. Enemy carried hand grenades and daggers beside rifle and bayonet. Party of our chaps got around and cut their retreat off. There was a German officer lying dead just over the back of our trench with a grenade still in his hand. Saw our chaps dressing wounds of a prisoner. Only a scratch but he was making a lot of fuss. Big chap too, over six feet.
Aug 10 Heard laughing and saw German leaning over parapet and shouting to our men who were also leaning over. One of our men shouted “Come on over Fritz.” Fritz shouted back in perfect English “No bloomin’ fear.” This went on for half an hour and then heads were down and war went on the same as usual. Instant death for first to put his head above the parapet.
Aug 13 Orders today that any German looking over parapet is to be shot and any man found talking to them to be arrested.
Oct 29 Lost one of our best officers. Capt Bayley struck in the head with a planter. Casualties in company today: One officer and two men killed and seven wounded. Won’t be many of us left soon at this rate.
Nov 5 Took stroll around foot of Abraham Heights. Scores of our chaps dead.
Nov 6 Another “push”. Barrage was like a great fireworks display.
Oct 24 Had a nasty day of it today. We were marching single file when a shell burst in. The scene that followed was awful. Five were killed outright and seven wounded. Wounded were shouting and screaming for help. So many you hardly knew who to help first. Some had legs an arms blown off. Altogether a nightmare day.
Oct 28 Saw a very gallant deed today. Fritz dropped a shell on the road seriously injuring a rider. All the rest of the men bolted with the exception of one man who got the wounded man on his shoulders.
Nov 2 Heavy bombarding from Fritz this morning. Artillery men call it “morning hate”. One man sitting eating his lunch on a pile of wood killed by a sniper. Bullet went straight through him.
Nov 17 Day off today. Good game of football and got licked 2-1. Weather better.
Frantic dig to save our buried pals
Jun 22, 1916 Five of our Company buried in one of our mine galleries. We can speak to them through the air pipe and they are all alive. Working all day pumping air into them and pumping water out to keep them from being drowned.
Jun 23 Five still entombed. Working night and day to get them out.
Jun 24 Got out three of the five. One of others had ribs broken and could not crawl through. Other fellow offered to stop in with him until they could make hole bigger. Passed food to them. No sooner done that than there was another fall and they are again entombed.
Jun 25 Two fellows still entombed. Had to start a new gallery. It is a heart-breaking job. We cannot get any answer from them now.
Jun 26 Still trying but it is painfully slow. We can’t get any answer.
Jun 27 Abandoned all hope of getting chaps out and stopped rescue work. Condition of shaft was so bad as to endanger the lives of the men working down there.
After the war
John survived the war – ending with the rank of Second Lieutenant in the 254th Tunnelling Company – and was was awarded the Military Cross. Tragically, he died of TB in 1929, aged 37.
Niece Wendy Dawe, from Redruth, Cornwall, who found the diaries, said: “The horrors of the war should not be forgotten.”
The diaries can be seen at Redruth Old Cornwall Society Museum