A Soldier's Diary of the Great War
A SOLDIER’S DIARY OF THE GREAT WAR
Published anonymously, but by Douglas H. Bell
With an Introduction by Henry Williamson
First edition, Faber & Gwyer,
Faber & Gwyer, 1929, 7s 6d net
Douglas Bell’s inscription to HW is dated ‘Easter 1929’. Easter in 1929 was over the weekend 29 March – 1 April, and so publication would have been about then. HW’s ‘Introduction’ is dated ’28 December, 1928’.
In Ian Waveney Girvan’s A Bibliography and A Critical Study of the Works of Henry Williamson (Alcuin Press, 1931, Limited Edition, 420 copies), this book is described thus:
It was revised and annotated by Henry Williamson and his share in the collaboration was so considerable that it . . . should be considered as a Williamson item.
That was being somewhat unfair to Captain Douglas Bell, MC, whose story is told in the book via his own diary entries. HW certainly helped in preparing and editing Bell’s manuscript for publication, and sent it off to his friend Richard de la Mare of Faber & Gwyer with his personal recommendation, and indeed, wrote a substantial fourteen-page introduction for the book; but to claim it as an ‘HW item’ was perhaps a little perverse.
Douglas Bell had been a fellow pupil of Colfe’s Grammar School although somewhat senior to HW, having been born in 1890, and their paths would not have crossed there. After leaving school Bell went on to Christ’s College Cambridge, and was shortly employed in the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank. At the time the First World War broke out he was already enlisted in the London Rifle Brigade as a Territorial soldier (as was HW), and went out to France on 4 November 1914 on the troopship Chyebassa – as did HW. They parted company when HW was invalided back to England with severe gastroenteritis and trench feet in January 1915. Soon after Bell obtained a commission and transferred to the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders. He was wounded at Lone Tree (Hill 60) during the Battle of Loos, 1915. In August 1916 Bell transferred again, joining the RFC. Wounded again in April 1917, he returned to England in charge of Training Flight at Worthy Down. The book relates his experiences of the war.
In Colfe’s Grammar School and the Great War 1914-19, edited by Leland L. Duncan (Printed for the Governors, The Worshipful Company of Leathersellers, 1920), Bell’s entry in the Roll of Service reads:
BELL, Douglas Herbert (1900-3). Joined 2.4.08. Lance-Cpl., London Rifle Brigade; Lieut., 1st Battn. Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders. Temp. Captain, R.A.F. Served in France. Thrice wounded.
He was awarded the Military Cross ‘for distinguished service in the field.’ – London Gazette, 3.6.16
Bell resigned his commission in 1920, taking up an appointment in Mincing Lane (the London home of the wholesale trade in tea etc.) but developed sleeping sickness and became unfit for work; he then decided to turn his hand to writing.
HW and Bell met up again at a Chyebassa reunion dinner in November 1926 and later Bell asked for help with his book of his war service. (The London Rifle Brigade embarked on the SS Chyebassa, a ship formerly belonging to the British India Steam Navigation Company, on 4 November 1914, landing at Le Havre the next morning. Post-war London Rifle Brigade reunions were named after the ship that took it to war.)
HW’s ‘Introduction’ can perhaps seem a trifle condescending at times, though presumably Bell was happy with it. For instance he states:
To many these pages will appear entirely true; to almost as many they will be typical of the War . . . [but] . . .
However, for HW the diary was all too brief and prosaic: for him, Bell had not captured the essence of the war. HW gives his own (brief but powerful) description of what life in the trenches was really like – as opposed to Bell’s view that ‘it was a picnic’. He was of course awaiting publication of his own imminent first venture into that war writing zone (The Wet Flanders Plain). Bell’s book, although perhaps a little simple in its approach, is today considered one of those giving real detail of the war and well worth reading.
HW portrays Bell, first as a rifleman and then as lance-corporal and corporal, as ‘Douglas’, in How Dear is Life and A Fox Under My Cloak (vols 4 and 5 of the Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight series) and indeed dedicates that latter volume to him.
Bell subsequently wrote seven historical books chiefly on naval subjects; two of these, on Sir Francis Drake, are in HW’s archive.
Bell died on 17 September 1964. HW’s diary entry for 21 September 1964 records:
Attended funeral of Douglas Bell, Old Colfeian, . . .
There is only one review that has been found in the Literary Archive:
The Times, 11 April 1929:
The first notable volume describing personal adventures of the late War . . . since Mr. Blunden’s Undertones of War [but not so good]. It is however a fine and vivid narrative, bearing the signs of truth and the impress of a frank and gallant spirit. [There follows a résumé of the text.]
Mr. Henry Williamson lends the author his distinguished name to set upon his title-page; but though his introduction is in some respects a striking piece of writing, it cannot be said that it does him any other service. Evidently he feels that the stuff of the diary is not strong enough and does not sufficiently illustrate the horrors of war. In this spirit he proceeds to rewrite the Ploegsteert scene, making of its dirty peacefulness something so ghastly that it would almost serve for the Salient . . .
Mr. Williamson is entitled to his own opinions, but he seems to have chosen an unhappy occasion to voice them here, on the pages of a man who writes, after being twice wounded . . .
The dust wrapper of A Soldier's Diary of the Great War:
In HW’s archive there is this charming sketch by Douglas Bell, drawn in 1914, of Keston Ponds: