Passchendaele centenary: ‘Meeting my 19-year-old grandfather through his handwritten pocketbook’
- Credit: Archant
A Letchworth woman whose grandfather was wounded at the Third Battle of Ypres 100 years ago has told of “truly meeting” her ancestor through his handwritten wartime pocketbook.
Hilary Kemp rediscovered the diary and pictures belonging to her paternal grandfather Lionel Kemp – a veteran of both the Somme and the Third Battle of Ypres, also called Passchendaele – at her parents’ home.
She and her family have been captivated by the handwritten notes, black-and-white photographs and colourful drawings in the small book, and yesterday she wrote an extensive blog post about the experience.
“I only have hazy recollections of my father’s father – and even these may just have been conjured up from a combination of black-and-white photographs, family anecdotes and an over-active imagination’s desire to have been there,” she said.
“That makes it all the more arresting that I feel I have only truly met my grandfather nearly 50 years after his death. And that the person I’ve encountered is not the grey-haired, portly (but cuddly) old man of my mind’s eye – he’s in his late teens and on active service in the First World War.”
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Lionel Kemp – also known as Bertie, or Tiger – came from a family of Norfolk farm labourers, and joined up as soon as he could at the start of the First World War in 1914, aged just 17.
After being sworn in as a member of the newly-formed Machine Gun Corps in May 1916, he served at the front until August 1917 – when he was invalided home after being injured at the Third Battle of Ypres on August 1, 1917.
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“Given the life expectancy of soldiers in the trenches – and the exceptionally short life expectancy of those serving as machine gunners – it’s a miracle that he and his pocketbook survived at all,” said Hilary.
“In theory, of course, I could have uncovered some of this information through diligent searches of military records and other World War historical documents. But lack of time and incentive meant that I had never tried to do that.
“However, the rediscovery of my grandfather’s pocketbook brought his story to life in a much more vivid way.
“The combination of his handwritten commentary on life between October 1914 and September 1918, and his pen and ink drawings make this amazing document intensely personal and alive.
“What makes this historical time capsule all the more special is the series of photographs found with the pocketbook. Suddenly the 19-year-old has a face – usually with a cigarette dangling from his mouth – and ‘mates’.”
The pocketbook is actually an autograph book, easy to carry and flip through. It includes generally brief diary entires from Lionel in the front half, and drawings towards the back.
In the trenches at the Somme on October 12, 1916, Lionel reported going into battle with the three-word diary entry “over the top” – followed by “relieved” on October 14, then “over top again” on October 18.
The climax of his war came at Passchendaele, which started 100 years ago today on July 31, 1917.
Hilary notes the simple description of that day in the diary, with Lionel writing simply: “Zero. Over the top. 3rd battle of Ypres”.
On August 1 he went over the top again and was wounded, prompting his return to England to recover during the rest of the war.
Hilary said: “He wasn’t too seriously injured – he went on to play football for Norwich City, while also helping establish the sugar beet industry in the east of England – an occupation that kept him tied to the land during the Second World War.
“He lived to marry my grandmother and have his only child, my father.
“I am so grateful that he survived, that he captured his experiences in the pocketbook and photographs, and that I have a means of sharing these with so many other people 100 years later.”
Hilary added that at some point she hopes to publish the full pocketbook – which has captured the imagination of her children to the extent that they send pictures of it to their friends over Snapchat.
She concluded: “It’s somehow both a very personal story, yet also a universal one given the number of teenage, first-time, front-line soldiers there were that got sucked into the First World War.
“It’s not about heroism, and it’s not about laying bare the horrors – although I’m sure he witnessed a lot.
“It’s about how ‘the boy next door’ tried to record his ordinary daily life at an extraordinary time.”
Hilary’s full post can be read here.