I’ve always had a passionate interest in the battles of the Great War. Like many people of my generation, I had many relatives who served in both World Wars – all of them telling me stories of how they fought the ‘Jerries’. But it was the Great War which has always fascinated me the most.
As a young child I read as much as I could on the various battles, and I recall reading a particular book on the Battle of the Somme. There was a sepia photograph of two small copses taken from an aircraft flying low over the battlefield. Snaking through the shattered tree stumps were a line of trenches; shell craters were everywhere. This horrifying image of destruction had a profound effect on my young mind, and it stayed locked in my memory for many years.
I eventually joined the regular Army myself. I did two tours of operational duty on the streets of Northern Ireland during the early 1970s. I found out what it was like to be on the receiving end of bullets – to know real fear and to know true comradeship. In civilian life you never make friend like the ones you have in the Army. But my own experiences never even came close to what those brave young men of 100 years ago had to live with day and night in the muddy, disease-ridden, rat-infested trenches of the Western Front.
Back in 2014, as a result of an appeal put out in my local newspaper, the Warrington Guardian, a set of Great War diaries were offered to Duncan Rogers to use as he saw fit in any future publications that he may have planned. I was asked to go along and evaluate the contents. For me, that was the start of my long journey of research to bring to life the wartime diaries of Pte Jack Smallshaw of the 11th East Lancashire (Service) Battalion, the Accrington Pals. Louise Baird, Jack’s granddaughter, gave me full access to all of Jack’s private papers and photographs. Louise had painstakingly transcribed the diaries from the originals over a period of several years.
As I held the original diaries I though back to that day as a young child when I looked at that stark image of Luke and John Copse in front of Serre. It was actually quite an emotional experience; this was something that in my wildest dreams I never expected to be doing – holding a diary which had actually been there with Jack as he served in the trenches. There followed over a year of research – going through the war diaries and narrative accounts of the brigades and battalions which served with the 31st Division throughout the Great War.
I grew to know Jack quite well during the course of writing the book. Throughout the course of the war, I could trace the deterioration of his health caused by long days and nights spent in appalling conditions while manning the frontline trenches. Through my research, I learned of the barbarity of some of the German soldiers at Serre who deliberately shot at the wounded, and also used the dead for target practice. This shattered my idea that somehow, the soldiers of the Great War were more chivalrous to each other during battle than they were in the Second World War.
I wrote the book in a style which is intended to appeal to the casual reader of the Great War, but I also went into considerable depth when covering some of the later engagements which the Accrington Pals were involved in. But the book is first and foremost about Jack. It is his story and how he survived four long years fighting for his country.
My first book which I wrote in 2013, Belfast Diaries, was based entirely on my own diaries, which I kept during my two tours of duty in the Province. This was followed in 2015 by A Tough Nut to Crack; Andersonstown. This told the story of the tour of operations carried out by 9(Plassey) Battery (my battery) between November 1971 and March 1972. I am proud of my achievements with both these books, but if I was pushed to reveal which one I am most proud of, it would have to be An Accrington Pal.
I still find it hard to believe that I have become an author. I never paid attention at school (apart from history lessons and technical drawing). My school reports make appalling reading; even now I flinch when I look through them. But even after leaving school at 15 with no qualifications whatsoever, I have been able to put into words the information I have gathered over the years.
Writing a history book takes time and a lot of research; there is no room for errors in the narrative. I would advise anyone undertaking such a project to check and re-check again all their research. During the course of writing the Smallshaw book, I found discrepancies between my own research and that of other authors. I checked time and time again to try to prove myself wrong in my research, but I couldn’t. My greatest fear is that someone else will!
I always said that I wanted a break from writing after this book; now I find myself bored. I am retired so my time is my own (or so I like to think!) But I dare say there is at least another book in me. Watch this space….
An Accrington Pal. The Diaries of Private Jack Smallshaw, September 1914-March 1919 is available for purchase here.